Be careful about sending that link. You have no idea what lies beneath.

April 29, 2013 § 2 Comments

Be forewarned. Teachers, parents, and anyone inclined to send out links: What you send may not be what the reader sees.

A friend of mine recently placed a link on Facebook to a blog post by David Frum. Frum is a well known conservative and holds a prestigious fellowship at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. From everything I know, he is a swell guy. Frum’s blog is hosted by the Daily Beast, a site which, according to its own self-description, “is dedicated to breaking news and sharp commentary.”

That’s misleading. From what I can tell, the Daily Beast is dedicated to everything. It has sections for politics, entertainment, art, books, business and more. The Daily Beast is also the home of Newsweek magazine, now available only in digital format. The Web site has, I think it’s fair to say, a veneer of respectability. At first glance, it would seem like a reasonable place to read about culture or news.

Frum’s post, the one I clicked to read, was on the Boston bombing. It was titled, “Tamer Tsarnaev’s Mosque Won’t Give Him an Islamic Funeral.”

I read the story and, as I scanned down the page, noticed that right below Frum’s biography was a section titled, “You Might Also Like.” One of the “You Might Also Like” stories was titled “Angelina on the Block” and included a picture of Angelina Jolie overborne by a horse burying its head into her barely concealed breasts. Briefly I was puzzled, and also disturbed by the freakish horse-Jolie affair; then I realized what was going on.

This section didn’t feature other posts by David Frum. It provided links, with thumbnail images, to other content on the Daily Beast and around the Web. In this section, the links and images change each time the page is refreshed. For example, when I refreshed the page again, I saw the same Jolie image along with a story titled, “Nipple Tattoos Increase in Popularity in U.K.” — I can’t tell: is that “breaking news” or “sharp commentary”? — which included a close-up of a woman’s chest with an arm and hand barely covering the most private areas.

The content doesn’t depend upon the reader’s browsing history or where the reader discovered the link to the original story. Even if you don’t care to read about the weirdness of Angelina Jolie, you cannot stop the links from materializing. You don’t even know they will surface because it’s arbitrary (or it is to the browser; I have no doubt that what appears designless is covertly governed by the hidden formulas of plutology).

I debated whether to show here what I saw at the Daily Beast, but I thought doing so would better enforce my point and awaken readers to a worrisome feature of surfing the web. It’s also an example of exactly what I wrote about on this blog, in a post that warned about virtual kidnapping.

***

This is what I saw upon arrival, after my first reading. You will see the “You Might Also Like” section below the post.

What I first saw after reading Frum's column.

 

 

I refreshed the page a few times to see what might pop up. Sometimes, as you see below, nothing objectionable materializes and it looks harmless:

 

daily beast appropriate scrnshot

 

 

But quite often, what showed up was a lurid story with a suggestive image or something related to the porn industry (see the screenshots), material that has no place at a respectable Web site and certainly not a site that purports to be about “breaking news” and “sharp commentary,” and which hosts authors like the well known conservative David Frum. Here is what I mean:

 

More sophisticated content from the Daily Beast: A story about the porn industry.

 

daily beast screenshot 5

 

There were other images of similar prurience.

Some will say it’s no big deal. “It’s not porn,” someone told me. I don’t know about technical definitions, but that question is beside the point because there is plenty to object to. Web sites are using third-party companies to fill “You Might Also Like” sections, and these companies ambush the reader with content ranging from the merely annoying to the suggestive to the vile. It is the surprise factor that most unsettles: even if the story and the link appear appropriate, even if the link appears on the Web site of a (historically) respectable news provider, the randomly generated nature of the “You Might Also Like” content means that the sender of the link has no idea what might intervene on the other end.

I know there will be eye-rolling and, from some, a shrug of the shoulders, as if I’m overreacting. But let me be clear: I realize that graphic imagery is nothing new; I realize that people can find material that is far worse than what the Daily Beast or like-minded sites purvey. My point is not that I’m shocked, shocked that raunchy material floats online. My point is to alert fellow educators, and parents, to what lurks.

Education, like everything else, exists increasingly online. Students go to Google, not the library. And teachers want to keep stride with the times. We want to keep students up to date and informed about major news stories and international affairs — such as what happened in Boston. So what can teachers do? Here are a few ideas that I and a few of my colleagues suggest:

  • Scrutinize the Web page to be certain it’s a reputable Web page. Try to ensure it comes from a historically trustworthy source. But know that even if that’s the case, you’re not necessarily in the clear. Even if you get that far, it’s also good to refresh the same page a few times to see if there is anything that emerges randomly, like in the “You Might Also Like” sections.
  • If you cannot be assured the Web page is appropriate, consider printing out the article you want to send and then scanning it to yourself. That way you have a PDF copy of only the article, and you can email it or post it to another  database without worrying about inappropriate links or advertising.
  • Copy and paste the article into the body of an email (if you want to avoid extra images and other material that sits on a page, try hitting the “Print” button that most sites have next to their stories. This print button usually brings up a window that provides a clean, text-only copy of the story or article). That way you have the text without any troublesome add-ons.
  • Ask yourself: do you really need to send a student to a Web site? Can you convey the same information in another manner? Remember that even if to you everything looks okay, the strange and predatory nature of advertising and marketing may transform the page without you intending it.
  • Communicate with parents. If you teach a subject that requires lots of outside reading (of magazines, newspapers, or journals, stuff that’s most easily accessed online), inform parents of the add-ons that Web sites now have. Enlist an extra set of eyes so that other responsible adults are watching what students read.
  • Email authors and editors of Web sites and urge them to uphold good taste and to monitor the links they allow next to otherwise decent stories. Let them know of the false security their sites convey. Good ol’ fashion activism might not move mountains, but it might persuade one good soul or two to join you in the pursuit to ennoble culture. I have already emailed David Frum letting him know my concerns.
  • Engage students in a discussion about ethical online behavior, about parameters for respectable media. In the best of the Ignatian tradition, call students to honor the dignity of the human person, invite them to resist temptation and seek “what is above, not of what is on earth.”

These steps of caution, I realize, cannot and will not prevent curious students from locating what they will, nor will they deter profit-seeking conglomerates from pushing sleaze. But they are at least a few small measures that educators and parents can take to avoid unintentionally involving young people with crude and corrupting material. While it imposes extra responsibility on teachers, Ignatian educators (all Catholic educators, for that matter) should embrace these duties wholeheartedly. We expect our students to be intentional, and so must we be. Moreover, we have taken it upon ourselves to offer an education rooted in cura personalis. It is our sacred mission to join with parents in safeguarding a student’s mind and soul, endeavoring to keep them, and us, more dignified than tawdry publications like the aptly named “Daily Beast.”

Posted by Matt Emerson.

Tagged: , , , , , , ,

§ 2 Responses to Be careful about sending that link. You have no idea what lies beneath.

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