Category Archives: Social Media

Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, Google Plus and so on are becoming an increasingly large part of what people do with their time on the Internet. They all have social interactions at their core.

Targeted ads for outreach on skeptic topics

HBO premiered the Alex Gibney Scientology documentary “Going Clear” last night. It airs many more times on various HBO channels through April and on their on-demand service – I encourage you to check it out. It is based on the 2013 book oGoing Clear by Lawrence Wrightf the same name by Lawrence Wright, which detailed many abuses that have gone on in the church. Both the book and the documentary feature damning testimony by many ex-members of the church, some of whom had very high ranking positions.

The church itself, needless to say, is not amused. In typical fashion it has waged a PR war against the film, starting with an expensive full-page ad in the New York Times on January 16. It has continued its assault with a series of articles printed in their own “Freedom Magazine”. (The material there largely consists of a series of ad hominem attacks on the former Scientologists interviewed in the film).

But how is the church expecting any of this additional material to be seen by the general public? Freedom Magazine is not well known outside church circles, and the New York Times ad has not repeated.  Who is going to bother to go to this obscure website to read these attacks?

The answer is in online advertising. How the church is using online ads may have some interesting lessons for skeptics.

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Deepak Chopra’s Twitter Trolling Continues

Deepak Chopra is still trolling people on Twitter, it seems. On February 10th Professor Brian Cox appeared on Conan and related a familiar story about Chopra’s behavior. Watch the short clip:

As you may recall, last May I documented Deepak Chopra’s habit of trolling well-known skeptics and atheists on Twitter. He repeatedly taunts them, tweets links at them and makes snide or insulting remarks.

Among the things that make the behavior so blatant is Chopra includes Daniel Dennett and Jerry Coyne in his taunts. Dennett very rarely converses with anyone on Twitter, and never with Chopra.  Coyne has specifically stated on his blog that he never converses on Twitter at all – he just uses it to as an alternate blog feed. Chopra must know this. One can only conclude his one-sided conversations are an elaborate show for his own followers.

But some people do respond to Chopra, including Brian Cox as seen in the clip. (Their previous Twitter exchanges have been documented by Jerry Coyne on more than one occasion).

Incidentally, the angry tweet Cox mentions in the clip appears to have been deleted by Chopra. He does that a bit too, in my earlier post I document one tweet to me that he deleted. Tracking Chopra’s deleted tweets might be an interesting skeptic project.

After the program aired, this bizarre exchange occurred:

Herbal industry attempts to astro-turf New York’s A.G.

photo of supplements by Sage Ross distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

photo of supplements by Sage Ross distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

On February 3, the Attorney General of the state of New York, Eric Schneiderman, announced his office had taken action against several major retailers regarding some herbal remedies sold in their stores. The state’s investigators found that about 80% of the products contained none of the active ingredients on the label! Further, some products contained allergens or other substances not listed on the label. The testing was done using a DNA barcoding technique. A “cease and desist” order was issued, requiring these products to be removed from shelves in the state of New York.

Skeptics were generally supportive of this action, of course – we’ve long argued that many herbal supplements have poor evidence of efficacy and are poorly regulated. The supplement industry, needless to say, is not happy. They have attempted to rally opposition to this move, and to get supporters of herbal supplements to call, write and Tweet the Attorney General about this issue.

Only the Attorney General’s office knows how many letters or phone calls were generated. But Twitter posts are, by default, public. This means we can peek at their efforts to lobby on this issue.  Let’s do that and see how it is going.

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There are times you should not use DoNotLink

DoNotLink Nonsense IconI think it is a good time to remind everyone of the proper context for using different tools to avoid algorithmically boosting bad content. This is important for all skeptics, because the very act of linking to something you are debunking can make it more visible on platforms like Facebook and Google.

One of several tools for this purpose is DoNotLink. There was a minor kerfuffle last week in which the Food Babe website unsuccessfully attempted to block incoming links using DoNotLink. That raised the potential that skeptic reliance on that service might have disadvantages.

I’ve also noticed that in addition to many people on social media who’ve adopted DoNotLink, some bloggers are also using it for links within their posts. Frankly, this is overkill and I don’t recommend it. There’s already a standard HTML feature for handling this on web pages – it is called NOFOLLOW. In this post I’ll compare the two and offer advice on when to use each.

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More twists and turns in the saga of David Mabus

Dennis Markuze at the provincial courthouse in Montreal, Friday Nov. 21, 2014. Photo by Phil Carpenter for Montreal Gazette

Dennis Markuze at the provincial courthouse in Montreal, Nov. 21, 2014. Photo by Phil Carpenter for Montreal Gazette. (Note the Depeche Mode shirt)

The long story of Dennis Markuze (aka “David Mabus”) did not end today, as expected. We had expected him to be sentenced in his second guilty plea.  This was the plea to threatening both myself and a Montreal Police officer, and violating his previous plea agreement to refrain from posting on social media and Internet forums.

Instead, his sentencing hearing was called off at the last minute – and in an unusual twist I got the word of this literally while I was talking about the case live on an online webcast!

The hearing today was presaged yesterday by a very interesting article in the Montreal Gazette by Paul Cherry, who has been following the case for some time. (I am quoted in the article).

The article points out that Markuze has nodded in agreement and admitted to his crimes while in front of the judge on multiple occasions. That includes the threat made at the time of his second arrest, quote: “You bitch. The same thing will happen to you like what happened to the (World Trade Center) twin towers in 9/11.” Markuze has never disputed any of this in court.

But does Markuze truly believe his own plea? Cherry gives reason to doubt.

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Facebook adds feature to reduce spread of viral fake news

Facebook IconLike it or not, Facebook is now central to the propagation of news and other media online. Links to online articles from Facebook posts often constitute the lion’s share of traffic to that post. So savvy publishers do anything they can to increase the likelihood that you will post or repost their content. At the same time, many legitimate journalists are a little freaked out that a private company like Facebook has so much power over what we all see.

This has led to the rise of click bait – posts with headlines and/or graphics that all but dare you not to read them, sometimes with salacious or silly content that will encourage sharing. One annoying variety of click bait that became prominent starting in 2013 are “fake news” sites. They post content ostensibly similar in intent to the comedy site The Onion, without any of the clever or hilarious writing. Some of them deliberately design their sites to encourage confusion with well known media properties. One of them (National Report) even basically admitted in an interview that what they are doing is trolling extreme conservatives for clicks.

I’ve recently written about these sites, and how Facebook’s engagement numbers sometimes exaggerate their true reach. But exaggeration or not, Facebook still sends millions of readers every day to these sites and myriad other sources of misinformation. That’s a problem central to what skeptics are all about.

But last week Facebook made a change that might help solve this problem in a general way – and which also might be useful to skeptic activists. Read on.

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Do Not Link has added new features

DoNotLink Nonsense is an excellent tool for all skeptics to have in their toolkit. I’ve written about it before. I noticed recently that it has added some new features over the last few months. I thought it would be worth calling them to your attention.

The problem this tool solves is sort of an online skeptic variation of the Streisand Effect. When you critique a bad idea that has been posted on the web, you often start by linking to it. The link allows your readers to understand what you are debunking. In addition to allowing your readers to see the source, the link itself will become input to various algorithms such as Google PageRank, Facebook’s news feed algorithm and Twitter trends. But these algorithms share a crucial limitation – they all treat any reference to content as positive. (It is illustrative that there is a “Like” button on Facebook, but no “Dislike” button.) To these algorithms, there’s nowhere to go but up.

And so skeptical links literally send mixed signals out on the web. While you are telling all the humans, “This content is bad!” your hyperlink is telling all the robots “This content is good!” solves that problem for social media, by providing a way to link to something while disabling the algorithms’ ability to measure it.  The link still works, the site still can get visitors and can still count a hit and show visitors some ads and so on. The site is in no way damaged by this way of linking! But the algorithms can no longer add that hyperlink to the site’s popularity score.

That makes it very valuable to skeptics.  So lets look at the new features, which make it even better.

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