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Aug. 16, 2019, 10:43 a.m.
Audience & Social

Don’t click this: When should news organizations use “nofollow” links?

Plus, a new free course for online fact-checking taught via workspace app Notion.

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

Should news organizations use “nofollow” links? In June, The New York Times wrote about a fake Joe Biden site that had become the most popular website about the Democratic presidential candidate. It was actually the creation of two Republican political consultants, not Biden’s campaign. “Links from established media websites are weighted heavily by search engines. The New York Times is not linking to [the] websites to avoid further boosting them in search rankings,” Times reporter Matthew Rosenberg explained in the story.

Still, writes First Draft News standards editor Victoria Kwan, Times readers apparently went out and found the parody sites on their own: “On June 30, the day after the Times story was published, Google search interest for the URL of the Biden parody hit its all-time high.” At a recent First Draft session, reporters, editors, and academics came together to discuss what newsrooms should do in situations like this, “given that coverage of these websites can improve their search engine rankings and increase their visibility to the public.”

Rosenberg chose to include screenshots of the site in the article, “for people who thought ‘I don’t want to go there and give this any kind of boost.’”

The Times also wrote out the URL in the second paragraph of his story, hoping that readers curious to see the site would just copy and paste the URL into the address bar rather than going to Google to search for it.

In a way, this tactic worked. According to web traffic reports from Alexa over June and July, the Times ranked third on the list of websites most frequently visited immediately before the parody. Newsweek, which ran two articles about the parody site in that period, was fourth.

Some session participants and Twitter observers suggested that the Times use “nofollow” links — a web standard introduced back in 2005 that tells search engines “that the link is not endorsed by the original author or publisher of the page.” In other words, it shouldn’t get the credibility boost in search rankings that a link from a credible or popular site would normally give.

Rosenberg said he and his editor did consider using no-follow links in the Times article, but ultimately decided against it because they believed the process was complicated to describe, taking up precious space and perhaps distracting the reader from the point of the story.

“The quickest and easiest way to explain this all was: don’t link. Put in a sentence [about the decision].” Rosenberg said.

Standards Sessions participants in all three cities were enthusiastic about no-follow links as a clean and relatively simple solution to the problem of amplification, although some pointed out that not all newsrooms’s content management systems allow for reporters and editors to go into the HTML and carry out the change.

Participants also noted that it would be helpful to have empirical data on the effectiveness of no-follow links — versus not linking at all — in stopping or slowing amplification. Rosenberg agrees: “There are no real hard numbers. We’re guessing a little bit here. They’re educated and informed guesses, but they’re not backed up by any hard data.”

Nevertheless, Rosenberg told First Draft he was open to considering the use of no-follow links for future stories.

“At some point, [the media is] going to have to start educating and getting readers comfortable with what the no-follow link is, and how to use it, and what we’re doing with it, and then explain it in a story that we’re using a no-follow link. But I also think we all need a better understanding of whether no-follow links are working or not.”

Another question that came up: Whether news organizations need to report on parody sites like the Biden one at all.

Check, Please: “How to fact and source-check in five easy lessons.” The Digital Polarization Initiative released “Check, Please,” an online course that is “suitable homework for the first week of a college-level module on disinformation or online information literacy.” It consists of five lessons that take about 30 minutes each.

The course was released on Notion (an app we use here at Nieman Lab to keep track of stories in progress), which allows teachers to adapt their own versions of it and make other edits (here’s how to do that).

“The plan is to write other remixable modules that touch on different disciplines that build on that,” Mike Caulfield, who runs the Digital Polarization Initiative, told Inside Higher Ed. “And a third piece, funded by an award from RTI’s Misinformation Solutions Forum, is that we’re giving both students and teachers the ability to make their own little fact-checking screencasts that they can share. So the shift is from curriculum to a curricular community.”

Illustration from L.M. Glackens’ The Yellow PressA (1910) via The Public Domain Review.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     Aug. 16, 2019, 10:43 a.m.
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