Category Archives: Best Practice

These articles highlight what I consider to be best practices for skeptics who are active on the Internet. These are proven techniques that achieve results, and should be emulated whenever possible.

Two cases of “truther” nonsense undone by photo/video tech expertise

Photographer by Nicolás García, licensed CC-BY-SA-2.5

Photographer by Nicolás García, licensed CC-BY-SA-2.5

I noticed an interesting parallel between two cases involving different flavors of “truthers” in the last two weeks. Both involved observers applying some knowledge of digital photography technology to undo the nonsense being perpetrated by conspiracy theorists.  One involved a classic debunk of a claim involving video footage, the other involved some good old fashioned detective work set in motion by a clue in a digital photo file.

Both cases remind us that skeptics need to be aware of the ins and outs of technologies used (and misused) by those who would feed the misinformation to the general public. Awareness of these technologies can quickly lead to skeptical wins.

Read on for more…

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See how to debunk viral photos in seconds using image search

Google Image SearchBack in August I wrote about how Google Image Search and other reverse image search engines are a valuable tool to debunk viral hoaxes. Last week yet another example popped up that shows just how easy these types of debunks can be.

The new example involves social media posts about animal rights and animal testing. Photos of suffering animals are always compelling, and often go viral. While most people sympathize with the animals pictured, there is a secondary lesson here – don’t forget to apply skepticism to viral content even when the message confirms your own beliefs and pet causes.

I’m an animal fan myself – we have both a dog and a cat in our household. The purpose of this post is not to criticize animal rights activists, but show how to verify photos. So lets see how it’s done.

Warning: If you are particularly sensitive to pictures of animals in medical situations, you might not want to see the photo in this post. Try reading my previous post on this topic instead.

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Follow me on TwitFaceTumblTubeGram! Why? Here’s why.

Social Media IEver wonder why big brands and major websites often have an array of icons somewhere on their homepage, leading to popular sites like YouTube and Twitter? Follow us on Twitter! Like us on Facebook! It all seems so needy and desperate, as if the business or site has a self-esteem problem.

And why try to lure you off to another site? They’ve got you there on their site looking at their stuff, which is usually a big part of the battle in promoting anything on the Internet. Wouldn’t getting people to go elsewhere be entirely counter-productive? Well, maybe. But there is a method to their madness.

You may be inclined to say, “Well social media is the thing these days, that’s all it is.” But there’s more to it than that.

If you are trying to promote anything – be it a charity, or a good idea, or a product – a key technique on the modern web is to maintain a presence on as many popular sites as you can manage. In this post, I will attempt to explain the rationale behind that, and how you can take advantage of it in your own efforts.

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Tools for monitoring skeptic-relevant legislation in the US

U.S. Capitol in daylight by Kevin McCoy, CC BY-SA 2.0

U.S. Capitol in daylight by Kevin McCoy, distributed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Government regulation (of quacks and so on) has always been a key part of the skeptic puzzle. A major avenue for skeptic activism in recent years has been simply lobbying agencies to enforce existing regulations by calling their attention to cases. Groups such as Nightingale Collaboration in England and Friends of Science in Medicine in Australia have created major skeptic wins by doing just that. Rank and file skeptics can pitch in by helping with these campaigns, sometimes using tools like Fishbarrel.

So it only makes sense that skeptics should pay close attention to impending legislation as well. We can certainly support rules changes that would work in our favor when possible.

In my TAM2012 plenary talk, I told the story of a major failure of skeptics to do this in the spring of 2010. A serious effort to amend the flawed DSHEA regulation had been put forward in Congress, and had the backing of nearly every major organization in US sports. It went virtually unnoticed in the skeptic community. But alternative medicine supporters deluged Congress with negative feedback about the bill, and it died very quickly.

Since documenting this, I’ve been investigating tools that skeptics can use to avoid a recurrence of this sad story. Some really excellent new ones have been released just in the last year. As Congress is coming back into session after their summer break right now, I thought it would be a good time to review these tools. Every skeptic should have a few of these in your personal toolbox.

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Reverse image search as a skeptic tool – with a twist

The Beast of Trowbridge - in duplicate

The Beast of Trowbridge?

I must confess I’ve been remiss in not blogging about this particular topic earlier.  Investigating anomalous photos has always been a skeptic mainstay – for over a century and a half in fact. Ghost photos of one type or another have existed practically since the invention of photography. Those have been subsequently joined by photos of cryptids, UFOs and other alleged anomalous phenomena.

Now that practically everyone has a camera in their pocket all the time (in the form of a mobile phone) photos of this type pop up constantly – along with opportunities to investigate them. And so we need as many skeptics as possible to have some skills in investigating the latest local ghost or UFO photo.  There are just too many of them to send them all to Joe Nickell or Richard Wiseman.

Because photos are ubiquitous, and doctoring photos using software is so incredibly easy, tools for detecting photo manipulation (like FourMatch and Tungstene) are becoming more common.  But software like that can be quite expensive – out of the range of the average skeptic.

But today I’m writing about something far, far simpler.  In fact, it’s an incredibly easy way to detect obvious hoaxes based on stolen or misrepresented photos.  It should be in every skeptic’s toolkit, along with a trick for using it that I’ve never seen suggested before.

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Do Not Link allows you to ethically criticize bad content

Be sure to check the update at the very end of the article.

I’ve written many times about how skeptics need to take care when linking to bad information that we intend to rebut. Because links are used by search engines to measure the importance of content, linking to a piece of pseudoscience or misinformation (in the process of rebutting or debunking it) might actually have the effect of making it more visible to others. That’s not desirable. I would even say it is unethical to increase the visibility of such content, insofar as it has the potential to cause harm.

Do Not Link: link without improving "their" search engine positionIf you doubt my thesis, read this New York Times article. It tells the story of how negative reviews of a particular business actually had the effect of catapulting that business to the top of the relevant search result, thereby bringing it more customers. Talk about a skeptic backfire!

In blog posts and other web content, I’ve long recommended a best practice for skeptics to use the HTML NOFOLLOW attribute to prevent this from happening. It’s straightforward, it’s an industry standard and there’s no good reason not to do it. Australian skeptic Joel Birch even built a WordPress plugin to make it easy for bloggers on that platform.

In another post, I’ve documented how a similar problem is now happening in social media settings. Although social media websites usually NOFOLLOW user supplied links, the importance of Twitter & Facebook has led many search engines and analytics packages to ignore that use of NOFOLLOW. Not only that, but it is now known that linking to content in Facebook (even in private messages) actually adds to the “like” count on that content!

All of this activity serves to boost the visibility of nonsense and makes it look more popular than it is. It matters not how brilliantly snarky you were in your Tweet, the measuring algorithms only care about the fact that you included a link to the Daily Mail. This encourages publishing entities like newspapers to create more of the same crap. I think we can all agree this is not a good thing.

Thus I’ve long recommended avoiding this by linking in your social media posts to a critical blog post or via the corresponding Doubtful News item instead. But with breaking stories and the like, there isn’t always such a good alternative. Courtesy of Eric Weiss at Skepticsonthe.net, I’ve become aware of another solution to this problem.

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