Take precautions when linking to outdated or incorrect information

The web is a wonderful tool for learning everything there is to know about anything and nothing. It’s also full of articles based on factual misunderstandings and misrepresentations, outright lies and misinformation, and there’s tons of outdated information.

Links are how much of that information gets around on the web. They’re one-click pointers from one source of information to another. They’re also tiny up-votes/amplifiers in search-ranking algorithms that organize and disseminate information on a global scale.

As an author, you can help your readers establish confidence in your writing by linking to authoritative source materials that back up your information and arguments. This gives your readers convenient ways to fact-check your information for themselves.

However, sometimes you need to include links to information that’s outdated, untrue, or is otherwise untrustworthy. E.g. when you’re writing an external fact-check of a claim made by another author or a pathological lying politician.

“When seeking to counter misinformation, the best approach is to focus on the facts you wish to communicate.”

Debunking Handbook, , John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky

In , online news sites in Norway marked articles on the COVID-19 pandemic as outdated two days after publication. Some blogs and news sites automatically mark articles as outdated some years after their initial publication. However, most websites don’t provide any warnings about the information freshness of their articles.

So do you include a link to outdated or otherwise inaccurate information or not? It will amplify its reach among your readers and potentially boost its reach more widely as search engines see the link and assume it means “people are talking about this page — it must be important and high quality”.

I frequently run into this with purely technical issues where there is a binary and objective right or wrong answer. E.g. programming documentation that doesn’t match the implementation, a software configuration example/setup recipe in a blog somewhere that doesn’t achieve the expected outcome, or incorrect claims that a problem is caused by a program that has nothing to do with the problem.

In general, I often find it more honest to include a link to a source — even if its wrong or misleading — when its content and the surrounding context is important to the issue being discussed. Given human nature and the malleability of our memories, there’s always the risk that the reader will read a linked resource and form false memories based on it even when it’s read in the context of it being false or inaccurate.

It’s important that authors annotate links to information they consider to be incorrect. You shouldn’t rely on context alone as readers won’t necessarily read the entire text. Links stand out in text and readers can start reading from a link onwards. Information about a link’s factuality must either be part of the link text itself or included immediately after it.

On a technical note, web authors can indicate to search engines that a link is untrustworthy by setting the rel=nofollow link annotation as shown below:

<a rel="nofollow" href="https://example.com">
  local media used the quote out of context
</a>

I did a quick survey of the linking-practices among six external fact-checking websites. None of them used the nofollow link annotation. In general, they seemed to mostly focused on linking to good sources of information and not link to the bad sources they were trying to debunk. Snopes.com only linked to third-party archived versions of websites rather than linking to the source.

There are other factors at play as well. Should you point out the factual mistakes of an individual blogger or even a journalist in a public forum? I want to avoid publicly shaming someone or even pointing fingers saying “You’re wrong!”

The facts should be the primary focus and not the people around them (unless they’re the main focus). It’s unethical to publicly criticize a person or organization without allowing them the opportunity to respond.

Individual webpages and whole websites have been taken offline in response to stories I’ve published on Ctrl blog. This hasn’t been my goal and I’d prefer it if they were kept online and published updates and corrections instead. Many links disappear over time due to link rot and I update them to point to archived versions instead when the originals disappear without correction.

I’ve often emailed fellow bloggers and websites to ask them to update information or for comment before publishing anything that could be seen to affect their work negatively. However, I’ve rarely received a response. The bigger the publisher, the less likely they are to respond.

In summary: include links to information as you normally would but label them clearly for human- and machine readers. If criticism is the main focus of your writing, allow the other party an opportunity to comment on it and to correct their writing before publishing.