Monday, October 09, 2006

Problems with linking to sites in order to teach information literacy

Although today is December 6, I am finishing a post I started in October when my colleague and TYCA co-presenter Michael Faris posted about unintended consequences when trying to teach students about evaluating web sites for credibility.

Many libraries use a fake Martin Luther King website (actually hosted by a white supremacist group) to demonstrate ways to check for credibility. Because so many libraries link to that site, the site comes up high on a Google search, thus leading to the illusion of popularity and credibility. Michael refers readers to jill/txt's blog where Jill posted about how Google works, such that the number of librarians who link to the fake site as an example of disinformation has the result of making the white supremacist site #1 on google for “Martin Luther King”] Says Michael:
I read about this at Nicholas Carr’s site: The top hit for “Martin Luther King” on Google is to a white supremacist site,, that is billed as “the truth about Martin Luther King.” It’s cleverly designed to look - at first glance - like a bona fide informational site, and recommends itself to teachers and students, but a closer look shows it’s anything but neutral - it’s a racist rewriting of history. AOL gets their search results from Google and requested Google remove the site from the results shown to AOL customers, as AOL didn’t want to support a racist site. Google refused, reiterating their strange litany about the sanctity of their algorithm, and how their results must remain untampered with by human hands.

I’ve written about Google’s strange idea of objectivity before. I realise that once you start messing with some results you might get into trouble - but the idea that an algorithm (programmed by humans…) is objective is ludicrous.

Checking who linked to the site I see that large numbers of the links are from libraries and educational sites explaining how to evaluate the validity of information online. And yes, is a textbook example. However, all those links from sites that clearly do not condone the site have been interpreted by Google as recommendations. Hooray.

I’m taking the time, today, to write to as many of the non-racist sites that link to as I can and ask them to please remove the links. If more people are aware that linking means condoning - according to Google’s infallible algorithm - perhaps the misinformation site will drop in rankings to where it belongs.

(Related: David Weinberger pointed out a similar issue that comes up if you search for “jew” on Google - the top results used to be anti-semittic sites. Google put up a “sponsored link” (thus top of the hits) explaining that they’re disturbed about this too and explaining their position and how to find correct information.)


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