Tag Archives: crowdsourcing

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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Crowdsourced climate feedback via the newly launched Hypothes.is

hypothes.is logoBack in the fall of 2011 I wrote about a new web annotation tool called hypothes.is. At that time it was just a Kickstarter project that I recommended everyone support.

But since then it was successfully funded to the tune of $100,000, it has received additional funding and support from major foundations, and the software has been successfully completed. The tool launched this past October 27! It can now be used in most desktop browsers – it has plugins for Chrome and Firefox and a bookmarklet for Internet Explorer, Safari and Opera.  I highly recommend it to all skeptics.

So what is web annotation?  It’s very simple – it’s a way of attaching comments, criticism and so on directly to original content on the web. Unlike conventional comment threads, which are often a distant scroll away from the text to which they refer, annotations appear right next to the original. And since annotations reside in hypothes.is, they are not subject to the censorious whims of the owner of the original content.

As you can imagine, this could be a boon for skepticism, as it allows skeptics to directly respond to claims exactly where they are made.  Anyone who has the hypothes.is plugin installed would be able to see the original content and the skeptical commentary too. That solves the crucial problem (also solved by other tools such as RBUTR) of how to lead readers from the misinformation to the correction.

But of course, there’s the additional problem of deploying skeptics to create good annotations on content that needs it. There’s an opportunity here for curation projects along the lines of the Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia.  GSoW has set its sights on improving content on Wikipedia, and targeted particular articles for improvement. Similar groups of skeptics could take on the task of creating web annotations pointing out misinformation online. To be effective, such groups should definitely plan to target their efforts, perhaps by topic area.

Well, for one specific topic – climate change – someone’s already formed such a group.

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#TAM2013 Crowdsourcing Workshop & other videos posted

Additional videos from The Amaz!ng Meeting 2013 have been posted in recent weeks by the James Randi Educational Foundation. Just in the last few days the two workshops I was involved in at #TAM2013, on the topics of skeptic history and crowdsourcing, have been added!


The crowdsourcing workshop featured Shane Greenup of RBUTR, Susan Gerbic of the Guerrilla Skepticism project and myself, discussing how the new technique of crowdsourcing can be applied to skeptical projects. If you follow this blog you know some of the tools and topics we discussed.

The new video from this workshop has a few issues, and thus only includes the parts of the workshop presented by Shane and myself. But Susan had previously posted audience-shot video of her portions of the workshop and the Q&A, so I have compiled all four of these videos into a playlist you can watch right here.  The audio isn’t fantastic but it covers most of the workshop.

I previously captured the live reaction to the workshop on Storify here. There is more information about this workshop including coverage (including an interview with Susan) at the Lanyrd page for the session here.

Skeptic History

I participated in two other pieces of programming at TAM2013, both concerning the history of skepticism. The first was a workshop called Preserving Skeptic History organized by Daniel Loxton. Along with the video he posted some of his thoughts on the workshop and a great excerpt of the comments made by Ray Hyman.

The other programming was the 2013 In Memoriam presentation, which was previously posted on this website.

As of this writing JREF has posted over 50 videos from TAM 2013, they can be accessed via a YouTube playlist here or via the conference directory Lanyrd here.  I recommend the latter link because it can be filtered by topic using the blue buttons on the right hand side. It also includes videos (such as interviews, podcasts and so on) posted by others, for a total of 106 videos!

Caption your videos for accessibility – and you may reap a viral reward

Handicapped Accessible signSkeptics should be doing our part to improve accessibility – for our events, our online content and in general. If the message of rationalism and science is truly of value, then it should be accessible to everyone, regardless of their abilities.

One way to do this is to ensure that online audio and video content is provided with transcripts and/or closed captions. This allows deaf and hearing-impaired people to access the content.  That’s 5% of the world’s population, or 360 million people worldwide according to the World Health Organization.

Aside from feeling good about doing our civic duty, it can benefit outreach as well. Captions can be used as the basis to translate the content into other languages, allowing your content to reach other countries. And as I explained in my YouTube meta-data post back in January, the additional text of the captions helps make your content more attractive to search engines like Google.

There are some skeptics who are leading the way with this, whose efforts I’d like to highlight in this post. But I’m also going to update you on my own efforts, which recently helped one video become a viral hit.

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Mixing curation and crowdsourcing in skeptic event planning

Neil Degrasse Tyson at TAM9

Neil deGrasse Tyson at TAM9 by Jamie Bernstein, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

As the annual schedule of skeptic and freethought events continues to expand, there’s more variation and experimentation going on. Specifically, some skeptic conferences are mixing old and new techniques in creating their schedule of events. They’re combining old-school curation with newer crowdsourcing techniques.

Traditional skeptic conferences – those run by CFI, JREF and so on – have been heavily curated affairs. The sponsoring organization and planning committee have complete control over all content presented, which is sometimes planned up to a year in advance. One slight exception are the Sunday Papers at The Amazing Meeting, which has an open submission process with an approval committee.

In 2007 my friend Reed Esau broke the mold by bringing the “unconference” model (from the world of high-tech) to skeptic events, and Skepticamp was born. These events solicit all their presentations from attendees, and only lightly curate the content (if at all). This idea was borrowed from the high tech world where the constant need for new knowledge and skills transfer did not fit well with the curated model. (The high-tech prototype for Skepticamp was called Barcamp). Reed’s idea has been very successful – there have been 84 events held since the first one in 2007, and they’ve been held all over the world.

Now in 2014, several skeptic/secular events are starting to experiment in other ways. Find how after the jump.

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RBUTR supports more browsers, adds a universal linking toolbar

RBUTR logo

Some exciting new additions to RBUTR have been announced in the last few weeks. The folks on the team behind this skeptic favorite have been busy!

RBUTR is an excellent skeptic tool that I’ve written about here before. It is a service that links web pages to other articles which rebut them (hence the name). Skeptics could do well to both evangelize the tool to the general public, and to populate it with links to good skeptical content.

RBUTR works via a browser add-in: a small piece of software that adds new functionality to your web browser. When you navigate to a new web page, the add-in looks up whether there are any rebuttals to that article or content and gives a visual indication at the top of the browser window.

One limitation of browser plugins is each one is usually only compatible with one browser. Since its launch, RBUTR has only been available for Google’s Chrome browser, which limited the product’s reach. Statistics on browser usage vary widely, but Chrome’s market penetration varies somewhere between 15% and 40% depending on whose numbers you believe. But whichever set of numbers are correct, the majority of Internet users are using other browsers.

Now the RBUTR team have made several new additions that significantly widen its reach – two additional browsers and more.

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Why do people volunteer to edit Wikipedia?

Wikipedia IconSome economists have long been a bit puzzled at the astounding success of Wikipedia. Standard economic theory wouldn’t predict that such a project would thrive without some form of remuneration for the participants.

There are other projects based on peer production that seem to fit economic theory better. For instance, contributors to open source software who are seeking jobs in the computer industry can list their contributions on their resume. But what, if anything, do people get back when they contribute time to Wikipedia?

Since I regularly encourage skeptics to contribute to Wikipedia, either on their own or through organized projects like Guerrilla Skepticism, the answer to this has interested me. Understanding motivations that work would help us understand how to motivate others.

Recently some researchers at Sciences Po, Harvard Law School, and University of Strasbourg created a series of experiments to get to the heart of this problem. What they found is pretty interesting.

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