Link carefully in case people don’t read carefully

by Eszter Hargittai on January 15, 2007

(Despite the pathetically boring title of this post, I hope you will consider reading on, the plot concerns Web search, racism and teaching.)

Today’s Google doodle is in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the U.S.. These doodles always link to something relevant regarding the focus of the drawing. I was especially curious to see what the target link would be in this case, given some peculiarities of the results to a search on martin luther king jr. Not surprisingly (to me at least), the doodle links to the search results of a somewhat different query: martin luther king jr. day, which yields a sufficiently different set of links.

Why was I not surprised and why do I take such interest in this particular case? It dates back to exactly two years ago when I was teaching my Internet and Society class to undergraduate students. At that time, Northwestern didn’t excuse students from classes for the entire day (it does now), but my class conflicted with several campus events so I decided to cancel class. However, I did want student to do some course-related work so I had them blog about something related to the holiday that they found online. It was a very open assignment, but focused enough to get some of the spirit of the holiday on their minds.

One of the students wrote an entry pointing to the Web site and discussed how she had found the site’s critical approach to the holiday and the man behind it intriguing. She cited the sources featured on the site, prominent media outlets such as Newsweek and The New York Times. I found her discussion interesting, but was a bit skeptical and so I went to look at the site. I quickly realized that it was hosted by an organization called Stormfront, which prominently describes itself as White Pride World Wide on its logo.

At this point, I was confronted with the following dilemma: Did the student choose this site while realizing its origins or did she overlook that information? If she did choose it in full knowledge about that detail, was I in any position to challenge her choice of topic for that blog post?

I decided that it was up to her to blog about that site if she wanted (so no, I would not ask her to remove the entry), but it was up to me to make sure she was fully aware of what she had done. I crafted a careful email explaining that I was not challenging her choice for the assignment, rather, I just wanted to make sure she was fully aware of the details. She wrote back and said that she had not realized the host of the site and was embarrassed about the situation. She noted that after careful consideration, she decided to leave up that entry and follow it up with another post about the interesting learning experience that this case had offered.

We ended up discussing all this in class. Note that the student remained anonymous to the rest of the class since my students blog pseudonymously so only I know their identities. They are, however, required to read each other’s posts so I knew there would be other students exposed to what she had written.

Two years ago, the Web site was the first or second result when you did a search for martin luther king jr on Google (I don’t remember its position on the other search sites). Today, it’s #7 on Google, #1 on MSN (among the organic, non-sponsored results), and not in any prominent position (not in the top 20) on either Yahoo! or Ask. The site’s position on Google’s result list is still sufficiently prominent that it would explain Google’s choice to use martin luther king jr day as the query showcased with its holiday logo. I have no idea if this was a conscious decision on anyone’s part, I am just suggesting that it might’ve been.



Seth Finkelstein 01.15.07 at 4:54 pm

The drop in rank is the result of Tom Hoffman’s campaign, to get sites which make mistaken links to remove them, and others to add good links.

Glad he’s succeeded.


Lazygal 01.15.07 at 5:04 pm

Chris Harris was one of those responsible for the librarians getting involved.


Richard 01.15.07 at 5:25 pm

I was confronted with the following dilemma: Did the student choose this site while realizing its origins… was I in any position to challenge her choice of topic for that blog post?

I decided that it was up to her to blog about that site if she wanted… She wrote back and said that she had not realized the host of the site and was embarrassed about the situation.

I’m interested that you considered the possibility of censoring her report (and heartened that you chose not to). There’s something really interesting going on here, which I’ve seen several times in academe, where the boundary of the speakable is probed. If the information on the site was carefully researched, thoughtful and interesting (or simply contrarian, confrontational and/or offensive), why should it not be included in the discussion?


Peter Melia 01.15.07 at 5:40 pm

Didn’t someone say “I disagree with what he’s saying, but I’ll fight to the death to defend his right to say it”?
Wouldn’t it be healthier to produce a better site, opposing the “martinlutherking….”site?
What is good about actively conspiring to suppress the freedom of a site to exist, however horrible to the beholder?
What if the habit spreads, and individuals conspire to suppress the freedom of this site to exist?


Roger Bigod 01.15.07 at 6:09 pm

For an even more egregious example, try Google on “abortion breast cancer”. Without the quotes, of course.


Observer 01.15.07 at 6:09 pm

So Peter, please tell us *exactly* how refusing to link to a site will affects the “freedom of a site to exist”.

Can you list the steps in detail whereby when one removes a link to a third-party site that site then somehow stops existing?

Please tell.


Eszter 01.15.07 at 6:38 pm

I figured people would take note of the fact that I even considered the possibility of asking her to remove any of the material. I think it’s an interesting topic for discussion and I welcome the chance to talk about it. I am curious to hear others’ opinions.

Please do keep in mind the context as that is very relevant. This is a teaching situation. That is, one has to consider how the post might affect other students. Richard, I think you’re right that if the post is carefully written and researched then that does add to the overall discussion so that’s fine. But where does one draw the line in terms of what is sufficiently carefully researched and argued and what is sufficiently disturbing and offensive that it might cause too much concern with others?

This was certainly not a super difficult case, but I can imagine scenarios that would be harder to handle.

Peter, there are lots and lots of sites much better than this one, the issue here is not lack of better material. The issue is that a site with such material comes up prominently as a result on some search engines to an obvious query on this topic and lots of users take the presented content for granted. And as Observer noted, none of the above concerned getting rid of the site.


Eszter 01.15.07 at 6:40 pm

Roger, that’s an interesting example. Sounds like a situation in need of a Google bomb.


portage 01.15.07 at 7:58 pm

Can anyone point to a site that debunks that site? I had read about the plagiarism accusations in a respected newspaper last year (I think?), and I’m having trouble telling to what extent the other accusations are true/false/unsubstantiated.


rea 01.15.07 at 10:33 pm

“Can you list the steps in detail whereby when one removes a link to a third-party site that site then somehow stops existing?”

A question for Bishop Berkeley . . .


Lazygal 01.16.07 at 5:54 am

My argument for blogging the other links was that Larry Page’s Ranking algorithm is based on the number of times a site is links to, not on the quality or content of that site. It doesn’t make the site “disappear” if it’s no longer linked to as much, or if other sites attract more links, it simply changes the Page Rank. Teachers and librarians can tell you, students believe that clicking on the first link they see will give them the best answer – they don’t have time, nor do they want, to analyze the site for relevance, bias or any other criteria (I suspect that’s what happened in this case).

As long as there is Google, and as long as others can create whatever content they want on pages, there will be a need for this sort of discussion and action.


harry b 01.16.07 at 9:11 am

On the issue of censoring the assignment: I don’t think we know enough about what the assignment was to comment on whether it would have been ok to censor. It sounds very open-ended, in which case I think you did exactly the right thing. If you’d been asking for some sort of “critical internet use” then I think you should have graded her down, since she evidently didn’t do much link-following (the first link I clicked got to David Duke’s very generous explanation of how Jews were in fact great heroes of the civil rights movement, not as important as Blacks, but certainly way ahead of Whites when it really mattered… well, you know, I’m paraphrasing). If it was on the substance of MLK’s life and work then I think the provenance of the site is irrelevant; whether what she found out was true or not, and whether she could find reliable sources, and how she treated them, matters. I don’t really think the potential for offense would be an issue in any of those cases, by the way; if the assingment was well executed, the fact that such exectution might have disturbed or offended others seems beside the point to me.


Eszter 01.16.07 at 9:11 am

For the record, this was not a lazy student so it’s even a bit more complicated than Lazygal suggests. That is, it’s not so much that this student couldn’t have cared less about the assignment or the topic. She read through the site in detail. However, she did not think to look at who’s responsible for the material and that was a problem. So yes, Lazygal’s right that many people take the rankings for granted. I just wanted to add that it’s not necessarily a reflection of laziness.


Paul 01.16.07 at 6:00 pm


Snopes deals with an email making what I assume are similar accusations in some detail here:


entlord 01.17.07 at 4:40 pm

Little bit late to post but this came to mind with today’s story on the Virginia state legislator’s comments today that after 140 years, Blacks should just get over slavery. He then followed it up with the comment that for Whites to experience remorse is akin to expecting Jews to apologize for killing Jesus.
When a Jewish legislator protested, this paragon of race equality told him that he was being too thin skinned.
Your student has to be aware that recognizing unreconstructed Dixiecrats is easy; sites like she found are the insiduous ones because they masquerade as being reasonable.


aaron 01.17.07 at 5:04 pm

I’ve experienced many instances like this on this blog. (see John Quiggin on Brig. General Ed Butler. Reading the article, it’s apparent that the general’s quotes contradic John’s claim. A deeper look shows that my interperatation of the general’s statement is likely correct. Also Chris Betram, dismissal of the fact that recent GW is driven by unusually high solar radiation. The linked report also states that historical analysis shows “a clear limit” to the effect of doubling CO2 concentrations of 1.5C.)


aaron 01.17.07 at 5:14 pm

[instances where reading the source pays off]


Martha Bridegam 01.18.07 at 2:06 am

For similar reasons, it’s troubling that Google continues to give high rankings to a weirdly bigoted Web site on George Orwell called “Orwell Today.” There is also a Holocaust-denying Orwell page. This is troubling especially because so many students are assigned to write about George Orwell before they’ve developed Internet sh– detectors.

Many honest Orwell sites are available as alternatives. (Disclosure: “Charles’ George Orwell Links,” is run by a friend and includes some of my own work.)


Chris Miller 01.18.07 at 8:49 pm

My son, currently in 8th grade, was doing a current events report last year on Katrina, in which he decided the locals did nothing and the feds responded very well indeed. One of the things he cited – he had to get *two* online sources – was the 2000 school buses Nagin failed to use. I can’t recall his source that showed how well the Feds did, but he finally decided that “those people” who suffered didn’t get out in time and it was their *choice*.

This was very difficult for me; I felt that showing him alternatives and digging into the sources wasn’t him learning, but more of an exercise of parental authority. He’s a teenager and it was his research – lazy, yes. Plus it put me in the position of challenging his teacher and – worst of all – making more work for him.

The 2000 school buses was easy enough, but the whole “choice” argument that he sucked in – that was toxic in a way for which he was unprepared conceptually.

The way you worked this out, I’m finding myself very unsympathetic to my son’s teacher who was assigning projects like this to all her students every week over the course of the school year.

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