Sunday, March 3, 2013

Five ways to spot BS on the internet

Hmm,... I write a blog. Should I really be linking to this article on how to spot bullshit on the internet? :)

Seriously, yes. I'm a skeptic, after all. And this is a very good article:
The Internet, while awesome, is also a mind-boggling marvel of bullshit production and dissemination. A misleading or outright fake news story can get forwarded on Facebook a million times before can even write up their rebuttal (no, oral sex does not prevent breast cancer). Since the rise of social media, we get more and more of our news from each other, and far, far too many of us aren't asking ourselves the important question:

"Is the amazing news I'm about to share even fucking true?"

In fact, it's so good I have a hard time deciding what I should excerpt as an example. And it's equally valuable wherever you lie on the political spectrum, too - left, right, or anywhere in between. (We should all take to heart his point about polls!)

But how about this:
In the case of that vaccination story above, it came from And, to be fair, it kind of sounds like a legit site. (Isn't there a prestigious scientific journal called Nature? It's probably related to those guys!) It's only when you read down to the bottom that you see that their anti-vaccine study was based on an online poll conducted at a website called That is, an anti-vaccine blog got their readers to click buttons on a page agreeing that vaccines are terrible (obviously every study ever done disagrees). But how many parents just skimmed and forwarded it along with an accompanying post like "Scary stuff!!!"

I understand it's not always obvious by just glancing at the URL -- purveyors of bullshit news have figured out how to sneak their product onto domains that also host legit news. For instance, a while back I mentioned a shocking story that ran on Reuters about how fluoride harms brain function, but a closer examination showed that it was just a press release by anti-fluoride wackjobs hosted on a separate part of Reuters' website (with no oversight or fact checking -- you could write one right now and they'd post it).

Oh, and do you still recognize Forbes as the highbrow magazine for investor types? Because guess what: Their website now hosts hundreds of unedited blogs from random, often unpaid writers off the street. Seriously, you can write for them if you want. So now any time you see a story and the URL has "sites/(some dude's name here)" in the middle, you're not reading a news story from professional Forbes reporters/editors, you're reading a blog post from some random person. That's why you can see a "Forbes" article claiming that a majority of scientists doubt global warming -- in reality, it's a press release written by a shill for the Heartland Institute, an oil-industry-funded group that ran billboards comparing environmentalists to serial killers.

Remember, there's a lot of money to be made from bullshit -- that traffic pays the same as any, and they're getting very good at tricking us into doing their promotional work for them.

Some of those five ways to spot bullshit are obvious - most of them, probably. Or you might think that they're obvious until he gets to the examples. Either way, he'll make you think. Even if you're already a skeptic.

Check it out. It's worth a read.


Jeff said...

Alex Jones, the right-wing conspiracy theorist, runs a lot of NaturalNews articles on his websites. So that raises red-flags for me right there.

Here's another way of detecting bullshit on the internet: Any comment by Jody P in the LJS. :)

WCG said...

Speaking of the LJS, did you see that article about ghost-hunters at the Air & Space Museum? I was really fed-up with it (fed-up enough to waste one of my scarce free slots to read it).

It's a complete puff piece, without the slightest hint of skepticism. In fact, it's more of a promotional article than anything. Yeah, call Ghostbusters, huh? (At least they would have charged them for a paid advertisement.)

I mean, as long as we're already talking about bullshit on the internet...