A self fullfilling prophecy

… or “Why academics are unwittingly promoting racist propaganda.”

Part of my work involves a yearly stint teaching online information skills, usually to 6th formers or KS4. Part of the course is website evaluation – a vital task given that although most politicians and management appear to believe that there is no need for libraries because ‘everyone has the internet’, they casually ignore the simple fact that a significant majority are lacking in the ability to ‘weed out’ the bad from the good when it comes to information, something that librarians have been doing for a very long time.

An obligatory part of teaching these evaluatory processes involves demonstrating the power of the internet in distributing disinformation. A good example being the website martinlutherking.org (I shall not link to it for reasons that shall become apparent).

The site in question is managed by Stormfront – a white supremacist movement – and was intended to mimic a genuine MLK website, right down to links to classroom resources. I’ll leave you to visit the site, although you can probably guess what sort of material the site’s owners want kids to stick up around their school.

I’ve been using the site as an example for over a year now and I like to illustrate to students; 1. How genuine it appears on the surface and 2. How high it appears in the Google rankings after a basic search for Martin Luther King. Most school servers filter the content, but home access (or via bypassed security) is easy – but I’d hate to be a teacher who has this material quoted in a piece of homework.

But I’ve also noticed how it seems to be working its way slowly up the 1st page of results and I contacted web guru Phil Bradley to confirm a nasty suspicion.

Yes, it seems that as online information skills becomes more relevant, academic websites and net safety websites left right and centre are linking to martinlutherking.org and Google’s web crawlers are interpreting these link-backs as evidence that it’s a popular site that should feature highly in its rankings.

The moral of the story? Please keep hyperlinks to white supremacist propaganda to an absolute minimum, or use a URL shortening service.