Taking to Google with your questions about the fast-breaking situation in Japan can lead down some pretty strange paths—paths to articles that are sometimes misinformed, sometimes misleading, and sometimes downright nonsensical.
If you Google “Japan” and click “News,” as of 1:30 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, the first hit is The Huffington Post contributor column “A Glimpse Into Our Own Future: Japan’s Nuclear Disaster and the Looming Global Energy Crisis.” Not really “news,” but okay. Google “Japan Tsunami” News and you’ll get the Dow Jones wire brief “Eqecat Sees Up To $25 Bln Insured Loss From Japan Quake, Tsunami.” Feels kind of arbitrary, doesn’t it?
Depending on what you type in the search bar, you may eventually be led to links of a similar quality as the tasteless stock-photo slide show from CBSnews.com that CJR’s Liz Cox Barrett pointed out on Tuesday, “Radiation sickness - 8 terrifying symptoms.” Sometimes the auto-complete function already brings some surprises:
If you choose “tsunami” here, you’ll be directed to WikiHow.com, one of the higher-quality content farms, in my humble opinion, which posted this piece just days ago. Edited by someone named “Horses4ever,” among others, it’s actually not terrible; if you lived in a tsunami-prone area, but did not know what a tsunami was, but knew how to use a computer, this might help you to be prepared, seek high ground, and pack one poncho per person when evacuating. The Google ad placement mid-text is a bit confusing, though:
WikiHow also provides a spin-off, “How to Survive a Tsunami (for Kids),” which includes tips for the little ones, like “You pronounce tsunami - “soo-nahm-ee”. It is a Japanese word that means ‘harbour wave’” and “Aware the people near you.” Great!
Type in “tsunami” at another similar site, eHow.com, and you’ll get all the answers you’ll never need, in such entries as: “How to Predict a Tsunami” (Step 1: “Run a computer simulation of the effects of earthquakes in various areas of the globe.”), “How to Escape a Tsunami” (“Surprisingly, there are several steps to use when faced with this kind of natural disaster.”), “How to Survive a Tsunami,” and last but not least, “How to Survive a Tsunami Like Petra Nemcova.”
But wait! There’s more. Like this gem from Helium.com, “How to survive nuclear fallout from Japans reactor meltdown,” written just this past Sunday. The lede:
With six reactors failing in Japan and at least two undergoing partial meltdown, concern has been raised about a massive radioactive cloud escaping and sweeping over the West Coast of the U.S.
As the crisis continues and the Japan Islands are being rocked by hundreds of strong aftershocks, the probability of a Chernobyl-like disaster escalates.
If such an event does occur what can you do to protect yourself and your family?
Among the answers to that question: Eat whole grains, avoid processed or fatty foods, stay indoors, take showers, use Potassium Iodide, and stay tuned to the radio. At least the author cited his source for this stuff: a book about Nagasaki from 1981, and a book called Diet For the Atomic Age.
At the end of the piece, there’s also a link for more “helpful tips,” if you need them; the link is to an online pamphlet entitled “WHAT TO DO IF A NUCLEAR DISASTER IS IMMINENT!” and includes 1950s-era illustrations of Dads building fallout shelters for their families:
The author of the Helium piece also reprinted it on the Pacific Northwest news site Salem-News.com, with a Chicago dateline and the helpful subhead “Highly radioactive dust-like particles will be carried on the prevailing winds for hundreds or thousands of miles.” (Just in case readers in Oregon weren’t sure why they should be scared yet.)
And because good news travels fast, the same piece was re-written and posted three days later—with a little more detail about those whole grains “available in most health food stores”—on Quantum-Self.com, with the title “Foods to Protect Against Nuclear Radiation Sickness - Prevent Radiation Sickness.”
Of all the click-baiting sites on the entire Internet, my favorite has to be Answers.com, for its trademark brevity. Here’s a sampling of questions and answers related to tsunamis:
When tragedy strikes somewhere in the world, especially when the news is breaking and the situation is confusing, readers increasingly head to the web first, seeking information and answers. Snagging those readers with search-clogging, click-baiting, hastily-written crap doesn’t give them the clarity they need. Rather, it increases fear and confusion, and proliferates misinformation. It’s irresponsible.
Kudos to Google for adjusting its algorithm to reduce stuff like this from drifting to the top of search lists, and for keeping its Crisis Response page up high with neutral, informative updates and message boards. But content farms, if they have to keep doing what they do, should really stick to what they’re good at: which is creating harmless and transparently useless posts like “How to draw a circle,” or “How to Open a Patio Umbrella,” which, I’m told, “can be a tricky task unless you know what you are doing.”