Skeptical Activism Online
I am tremendously proud to be an Australian Skeptic, because if you ask anyone you will most likely be told that as Australians we like to get things done. And we have had some successes, especially regarding the anti-vaccination and chiropractic crowds. However, I also believe that we can do more. This was the topic of my talk at the Australian Skeptics National Convention in November 2013.
I felt privileged to present to people that I respect and admire—especially about a topic that I am very passionate about: Guerilla Skepticism and how we can all be activists. My mission was simple: to promote skeptical activism and inspire others to get involved. We are a wonderful community, but we tend to stay within the Skeptics in the Pub, the skeptical conferences, and our own Internet forums. There is nothing wrong with this, but we have a tremendous opportunity to use our skills, knowledge, and contacts to make a difference nationally and globally.
And we are not doing enough. We need to become more of a movement so we can connect internationally and truly kick up some skeptical dust. We also need to provide information to decision makers, connect with government departments, and start campaigns through government channels, the legal system, and the public. The “woo” crowd—the psychics, the charlatans, the “healers” and others—are out there in the public; they are writing the books, setting up conferences, and getting themselves extensive media coverage. We need to match their exposure with our own and be there to give the counterpoints.
As part of being a Guerilla Skeptic, as organized by Susan Gerbic, we can organize a campaign to create change. Some campaigns may be short and have a specific time frame while others are more long term—for example the ongoing campaign to stop anti-vaccination groups from spreading misinformation. Every campaign should have a goal, objectives, target audience, and tactics.
The anti-vaccination groups are an excellent example of this. Australian Skeptics as well as the Stop the Anti-Vaccination Network had the goal of educating the public on one fact: as the slogan says, “Vaccination Saves Lives.” The campaign was not to personally malign any individual but to counter the harmful propaganda that anti-vaccination groups throw out into the community.
Organized skeptical activism becomes more effective with the involvement of many people with diverse skills and contacts in the community. There is a broad range of tactics available, and it is vital to ensure the most appropriate tactic is implemented for the issue being addressed. This can be by attracting media attention but also through good old fashioned email/letter writing campaigns or using the Internet.
Using the Media
The media are an extremely powerful tool in the skeptical toolbox. By developing relationships with various media outlets, it becomes easier to get your message out to the community. A few tips for expanding your reach:
• Make it personal; media isn’t just about the information you’re trying to convey, it is a way to attract attention. It is important to inform as well as engage so your story can resonate; bringing up a specific case study can make it personal and form an emotional connection to the audience.
• Make it a real story—a good story has a simple, straightforward narrative that conveys your message and key points. You need to make sure your message is clear and easy to remember.
The focus of my presentation was the skeptic’s tools that can be utilized from your own home in order to be a skeptical activist. My inspirations were the awesome Tim Farley, Susan Gerbic, and Mark Edward, and now I want to keep the word out there. The skeptic action group was founded by the lovely Susan Gerbic, who you can follow on Twitter, Google+, and Facebook. Once you join, a task will be posted each day with a request to go to the link provided and rate, comment, and review as you deem appropriate. The tools used are mainly WOT (Web of Trust), Rbutr, and Fishbarrel (some discussed below). We are strong, but we need more, and we need people from all over the world to join. It is important to reiterate the following:
• You do not have to vote if you are not comfortable
• Please take the time to read the website you are presented
• You are not obligated to vote in every category
• We do not tell you how to vote
Do Not Link!
Skeptics need to be mindful about linking to the bad information that we want to act on. Links are used by search engines to measure the importance of content, so by linking to the site, you inadvertently will be making the site more visible. If you are going to link to websites on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media platforms, it is almost a necessity to get into the habit of utilizing this tool. Donotlink.com uses three different ways to block search engines from crawling a link, so you are able to post it on forums, message boards, reddit, and other public places without giving the websites any undeserved credibility.
Web of Trust
Web of Trust (WOT) is one of the most important tools for skeptical activism. It is simple to use, and once you sign up and obtain a username, you will have the ability to rate any website that you visit. Nearly 100 million people have downloaded it. The person this is aimed for is the person who isn’t knowledgeable about what the skeptical community is knowledgeable about, those who Google and look up subjects on search engines without understanding how truthful or trustworthy webpages can be. The WOT provides a color-code system: green means it is a trustworthy site, and red means it isn’t. So when a layperson looks up these sites, they will see the ratings and the comments that are left. When the red dots come up, a warning will show.
Rbutr is an excellent tool embraced by the skeptic activism community. Once you download the plug-in on Chrome or Firefox, you will have it on your browser and it will automatically show the counterpoint to any websites you look up. Rbutr is an excellent tool to post the rebuttals to websites. We use facts and links for podcasts to give facts along with the crap that we see. When you select the Rbutr link, a popup will appear showing the pages that counter the website. And it will show you pages that counterpoint this page. These pages are worth reading and have a tremendous value to those who would not normally see this information. Some of the pages that are excellent to use include the Wikipedia page or some of the skeptical podcasts out there. Once you sign up to Rbutr pages can be added within minutes. Fishbarrel is a plug in that can be used for a website that is making medical claims. It will create a screen shot of the page and send it to the FDA who is supposed to act on it and help get the claims off the Internet.
Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia
Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) is the brainchild of Susan Gerbic and was started as a mission to improve the skeptical content on Wikipedia by improving the pages of noteworthy skeptics, providing correct citations and removing unsourced claims from paranormal and pseudoscientific pages. Contrary to the current controversies, this is not about vandalism or furthering a “skeptic” agenda.
Wikipedia has increasingly become the “go to” source of information for the general public, and it is often at the top of the search engine results. It is for this reason that it has become more important than ever to ensure the content is correct, fair, and balanced. The GSoW team is dedicated to following the rules of Wikipedia and to correcting the content and sources to feature science in places of unproven woo. They can find notable skeptics that have published in secondary sources about the subject of the page to provide expert opinion that can be used to improve the Wikipedia page. They also take well-written pages in one language and try to get them translated into other languages.
One might be a “skeptic” for the value it adds to the community, the opportunity for self-improvement, or as a source of academic interest. However, we can also be a movement. We can use our skills, knowledge base, and contacts to not only expose those who commit scams, fraud, or misinformation—but to help people. This is your call to action. We need to be active and participate, and we need to work together because once we do, we can make a difference.