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 of 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.
I 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.
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.
Vani Hari, aka “The Food Babe,” has been a recent repeated target of criticism both from skeptics and the mainstream media. She has not taken this criticism well, lashing out at her critics.
She has also been caught deleting content from her social media pages and her own website after it became the target of derision. This is not new to skeptics; it happens all the time. That’s why I’ve recommended on this blog that all skeptics be very familiar with the use of web archiving tools. You never know when the content you criticize might be “disappeared” by its embarrassed author, so it is always good to have a copy safely archived.
But Ms. Hari (or her technical staff or SEO consultant) have noticed this, and have started taking measures to thwart skeptics. In November 2014 they made a change on her web server that prevents skeptic use of the most popular archiving tool, the Internet Wayback Machine, for her site.
And just this week they have attempted to prevent skeptics from using another tool that entered our arsenal right from the pages of this blog – Do Not Link. This is a URL shortener I recommend for linking to pages you wish to criticize without giving them a “Google boost.” Last week the Food Babe made a change that would cause any Do Not Link URL to the site to fail to arrive – denying her own site readers while annoying skeptics.
But this latest technical measure has completely failed. Read on as I explain what they did, how you can work around it, and why measures like this will always fail.
There’s much to learn when you are interested in skepticism. There’s the human psychology, the history of various scams and hoaxes, the science (and pseudoscience) of alternative medicine, and much more. As a result there’s plenty of material to read – books, magazines, newsletters, blogs and so on.
But sometimes you find a neat fact that you’d love to call to everyone’s attention, but you don’t have the appropriate place to put it. Social media is often too ephemeral, and blogging is not everyone’s cup of tea.
Let’s assume you don’t have a popular website of your own (most people don’t) and don’t want to start one. Some topics just aren’t appropriate for their own Wikipedia (or even RationalWiki) article. Either there just isn’t enough meat there, or other editors might question the “notability”.
Wouldn’t be nice if there was another place to publicly bookmark little items like this, set up so the general public could easily find them? There is such a place and let me explain why it’s ideal for this.
Because skeptics constantly criticize the claims of others, we often provoke angry reactions. Ideally this provokes some educational debate, but sometimes it goes sour. That can take the form of trolling, harassment or even escalate to legal action. In the United States the legal option tends not to be too successful, thanks to our First Amendment rights. But that doesn’t apply outside the US.
Some opponents of skeptics seek out more creative ways to shut down our commentary. A few years ago a German named Claus Fritsche was paid by homeopathy manufacturers to create spam websites that would poison the search engine results for Edzard Ernst’s name, in an effort to discredit his critiques of alternative medicine. Numerous skeptics have been targets of spurious DMCA claims on YouTube over the years.
Recently the European courts have created a brand new way for the people we criticize to tamper with (at least in Europe) our ability to reach an audience. It is called the “right to be forgotten” and skeptic webmasters need to stay on top of their tools in order not to get blindsided by this.
A video on my YouTube channel recently passed half a million views, in just over a year since I put it up. By viral video standards, that’s not going to make any top ten lists, but it is impressive for a few reasons.
The first reason is the video in question is unoriginal. In fact, it’s a copy of a widely available video that was shown on the news hundreds of times back in 2002 and 2003. Because it was a news event, there are many, many copies of this video all over YouTube, and copies of it exist on just about every other major video site.
The second reason is my YouTube channel (of which I bet many of you weren’t aware) has very few subscribers and only a few thousand views of other videos. So it had no built-in audience to create those views.
The third reason it’s interesting (and no doubt the source of many of the views) is my copy of this video is the now the number one hit on Google for many relevant searches. In just a year I managed to usurp all those other copies in several search engines.
B VItamin Supplement by Sage Ross distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.
My recent pieces on the Wikipedia shenanigans around Rupert Sheldrake‘s and Deepak Chopra’s biographies have got me attuned to pseudoscientists and paranormalists not playing by the rules online. Suddenly I’m noticing examples of this left and right. (I guess that’s confirmation bias for you). And so here’s another in what will no doubt become a series of pieces on the bad guys skirting the rules online. We will get back to Sheldrake et.al. soon enough, as I have promised an update. But for now lets take a break from the topic of Wikipedia for a bit and look elsewhere.
My subject this time is Don Colbert, M.D. who practices “anti aging and integrative medicine” at his Divine Health Wellness Center in Orlando, Florida. If there weren’t enough red flags in that sentence for the skeptics reading this, know that he “has been featured on Dr. Oz” and on “many prominent Christian TV programs.” In typical fashion one of his websites tries to sell you a wide variety of supplements that make fairly vague claims about weight loss and immune support. His separate clinic website mentions chiropractic, something called “Multi-Dimensional Brainwave Therapy” and “Emotox – Allergy Testing” which apparently uses a “cold laser” to treat allergies. And to top it all off, Orac reports that he’s anti-vaccine to boot. This guy is not a friend of science.
The rule violation in this case may involve the dirty practice of buying links online. It was all uncovered by former CNN medical correspondent Andrew Holtz of Holtz Report, who ran a bit of an online sting. He caught someone trying to promote Dr. Colbert’s online store via means that certainly violate journalistic ethics and may lead bloggers to violate FTC guidelines. But does it violate Google’s rules too? Let’s find out…
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.
If 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!
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.
Morning Toolbox is a daily digest of interesting tools and techniques that skeptics can use online.
I’ve pointed out before that journalists seem to be building more tools than skeptics – there are many interesting skeptic-relevant projects coming out of journalism circles. So many, that Knight-Mozilla OpenNews has introduced Source, a hub for all that activity. Developers can share their work, collaborate and so on. I think skeptic developers would be wise to keep an eye on this.
Read on for more news of interest to skeptics working online…