Preventing Cranks from Benefiting from Your Skeptical Activism

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The typical crank or quack website does not just contain pseudoscientific claims in plaintext. Instead, it is filled with dozens of advertisements, scripts that create and store cookies, analytics, beacons, and other kinds of trackers of all kinds. They collect information about you, your browser and Internet activities. Some of these provide the crank website with money from ad impressions and the information gathered by trackers. It can also violate your privacy and disrupt your Internet experience. Even worse, they can plant malware on your computer, steal credit card information or forcibly encrypt all of your personal files such as documents and photos and blackmail you for large sums of money in order to get them back.

There are methods that scientific skeptics can use to fight back. There are many useful tools that block advertisements and trackers, protect you from various malicious code injections or redirects, prevent cranks from profiting financially from your visits, stops them from gaining a better search engine ranking, and even help you protect your privacy and identity from cranks (both from visits and communication). This article examines some of the most commonly used tools to achieve these goals.

Blocking ads and trackers

To get a general idea of this problem, visiting the front page of the quack website Natural News with all these tools enabled shows that 10 trackers are blocked by Ghostery and 18 elements by uBlock Origin. Visiting a couple of randomly selected article on the website blocks 10-13 trackers and 24-62 elements. Not all of these are malicious or privacy-invading, but it gives a glimpse into how prevalent these trackers, advertisements etc. are around the Internet.

Adblock Plus: (Firefox | Chrome) This is one of the most commonly used ad blockers in the world. At the time of this writing, it is used by 22.4M Firefox users and over 10M Google Chrome users. Although Adblock Plus shows some “non-intrusive” advertisements, this can easily be turned off by going ABP icon -> Filter Preferences -> Filter Subscriptions -> Allow some non-intrusive advertisements, and uncheck the box, then click “Close”. If it does not block an ad, you can right-click on it and block the image, video or

uBlock Origin: (Firefox | Chrome) This is another popular blocker (about 2.7M Chrome users and close to 1M Firefox users) with similar functionality as Adblock Plus. It differs by being more light-weight, faster, open-source and the ability to block a lot more types of content. This is also effective at blocking messages that are otherwise shown to people who have e. g. Adblock Plus installed that tries to convince you to turn off ad blocking.

Ghostery: (Firefox | Chrome) Ghostery is a browser add-on that blocks trackers and is used by close to 4M users across platforms. They are divided into five categories: advertisements, analytics, beacons, privacy and widgets. Not all of them are malicious, but it offers great ability for customization by the user, including blocking comment sections in case you find them to be more of a toxic swamp than illuminating discussion. At the time of this writing, it allows the blocking of close to 2100 distinct trackers.

Mobile platforms, such as Safari for iOS, recently allowed users to add content blockers to Safari browser. This means that your mobile devices are now also protected and pages load much faster.

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Browser safety

Although ad and tracker blockers help to improve some aspects of browser security, there are many issues that they do not cover. Some crank websites may contain malicious scripts that attack your computer, steals information and encrypts your data. In order to protect yourself, there are a couple of other browser add-ons and extensions that can improve browser safety.

NoScript: (Firefox | Chrome) This add-on allows you to selectively block scripts or go into a special safe-mode that blocks all scripts globally. This latter mode is good to use for crank websites that you do not trust. In addition, it has additional protections against cross-side scripting (injection of malicious code into websites that is then viewed by other users) and clickjacking (tricking the user to click on things that they are not intending to click). There is no Chrome version, but a couple of different alternatives for that browser.

HTTPS Everywhere: (Firefox | Chrome) This add-on has one purpose: using HTTPS encryption whenever and wherever it is supported. A little over 1M users to date.

The main benefit from these two extensions is that they can just work in the background even if you do not want to play around with any settings.

Preventing cranks from hiding their tracks

After you have published your criticism of pseudoscientific nonsense, the cranks in question might feel embarrassed and try to hide their content, delete tweets, status updates, blog posts and so on. Yet there are tools that can help you preserve what they have written so that it will not matter if they delete it.

Webcite: webcite is a caching service that allows you to capture websites for long-term storage. No longer works for tweets and occasionally break website design. But it saves the content so that they cannot delete their errors of the Internet. This is especially good if it has not been enough time for search engine caches to be taken.

Archive.is: archive.is works in similar ways to webcite, but also allows the caching of tweets. It is often a good idea to use multiple cache services to ensure maximum retention over longer time periods.

FreezePage: an alternative to webcite.

Storify: an alternative to webcite that works for tweets.

Search engine caches: search engines such as Google and Yahoo caches websites they crawl. If you are lucky, they have a saved cache of the information before it got removed. These are often temporary, so it is good to use some other service to make this more permanent.

The Internet Archive: saves caches of many websites at different dates, thus providing a snapshot over time. This is usually slow, but you might get lucky for content that has been up for a while on more popular websites. This also works for tweets. Beware that website owners can exclude their website from this service easily, so always use a second archival service in addition to this one.

This is also great for providing evidence that someone wrote something at a specific time. In general, use more than one archiving service for maximum robustness.

Preventing cranks from getting search engine boosts from being linked

Every time you link to a crank website on social media (like Facebook, Twitter or blogs), it gets a boost in its search engine score. If you are not careful, they will benefit from your refutations.

DoNotLink.it: this service blocks robots from crawling links using a variety of different ways. It also removes the referrer to hide the identity of where the link was posted. It is a new version to the older DoNotLink.com service that is now defunct, but written by a person that is unrelated to the previous creator.

Always use at least one archival service in addition to anti-SE technologies to increase robustness and redundancy.

Anonymity

Sometimes, you do not want the crank websites to know who you are or were you are from. To accomplish this, you can use a wide variety of tools, from special messaging services, virtual private networks and Tor network. You can never trust cranks and quacks with your personal information. They might dox you and attempt to publicly shame you when you have done nothing wrong.

Messaging services: the Electronic Frontier Foundation has a scorecard list of different messaging services and their security. Although some of them may not be safe against law enforcement or large-scale criminal gangs with access to botnets, they are more than sufficient to protect against cranks. Some of these can be used for registering accounts, posting comments or sending emails to cranks.

Virtual private networks: VPNs allows you to connect to a network operated by another organization, so it looks like you are surfing from this organization instead of your own network.

Tor network: the Tor network is an anonymizing service that encrypts your information in several layers and the end result is that what you are doing on the Internet cannot be tracked (provided you know what you are doing). Accessing the Tor network is done by using the Tor browser.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

7 thoughts on “Preventing Cranks from Benefiting from Your Skeptical Activism

  • February 26, 2016 at 03:57
    Permalink

    Emil Karlsson,

    You don’t know of an alternative “Search engine bot preventers,” to DoNotLink that you by chance just forgot to mention? I’m writing a piece on the ancient aliens / ancient astronauts nonsense. I need to link to a crank site in order to refute some their claims. I’ve used it before, but right now DoNotLink doesn’t seem to be working at the moment.

    • February 26, 2016 at 10:12
      Permalink

      No, I’m afraid I do not. Best bet is to use a cache service. A new one besides webcite that is worth trying is Archive.is. This likely has some search engine benefit reduction, but probably not as big as DoNotLink.

    • February 26, 2016 at 18:30
      Permalink

      Emil Karlsson,

      Thank you. I’ll make sure I try that.

    • February 26, 2016 at 18:38
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      Emil Karlsson,

      Good news, I just tried Archive.is and it appears to work perfectly and I’m not running into any problems getting the links to work so far like I sometimes have when trying to post links in an LGF blog post for one reason or another.

    • February 26, 2016 at 22:09
      Permalink

      Yeah, I sometimes run into problems with links, but I find that the long-term solution is to use multiple services. Redundancy provides robustness. But a bit annoying at times and I only do it in extremely important cases.

  • January 19, 2017 at 23:54
    Permalink

    Good news! There is now a new version of DoNotLink available at http://donotlink.it. It works in a similar fashion, but is being run by someone else. Use it as often as you can and even together with archival services if you want to.

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