I recently had an email conversation with Tony Birch PhD. about the ethics of using infographics as Linkbait, which inspired his post on the Teaching Business Ethics blog. His perspecitive was teaching business ethics to students, but the conversation will be of interest to many people. With his permission, I am re-printing the article here.
For teachingbe.blogspot.com by Anthony Birch
This topic arises from an email exchange I had with Randy Krum, president of InfoNewt.com and author of CoolInfographics.com. His thoughtful response taught me a new word, "Linkbait," and opened up new possibilities for undergraduate and graduate topics in Business Ethics. I want to spell out the concerns I have and help students get a foothold on this important issue.
We might frame the Business Ethics question this way: Is it morally justifiable for commercial interests to hide their direct or indirect responsibility for "persuasive information" that they want reproduced or used by others?
To capture the moral sense of the question, consider the following example. Suppose a friend tells you that the best auto loans in town are always at XYZ Bank. You have reason to believe your friend and you repeat the information to others. As it stands, the situation raises few moral concerns. But now assume that your friend failed to tell you he had been hired by XYZ Bank specifically to help promote its business. Furthermore, XYZ Bank always uses high-pressure sales tactics to get customers to buy financial products other than auto loans. Clearly, the moral situation is different now.
My concern with this area of digital media ethics arose from repeated requests from people who did not identify themselves as having any commercial associations whatsoever to post infographics like the one shown on the left. These infographics can be huge. To see the original, click here. Apparently, some people who identify themselves as infographic creators feel empowered to ask quite a bit of free webspace.
There are number of problems with this infographic. First, it offers not just neutral information, but an argument in Business Ethics – and a very poor one at that, since it skirts the issue of the government’s own responsibility in creating a tax code that encourages the behavior of Apple and other companies. Second, it links back to a site that is only loosely connected with the subject matter of the infographic. Third, the site itself is, in my opinion, suspect because it has no clear authorship. The infographic falls into the category what I would call – using my newfound word – “linkbait” because it is primarily an attempt to drive up hits on a target site only loosely connected with the material in the infographic.
There can be, however, legitimate uses of infographics. Differentiating legitimate from questionable uses is great topic for Business Ethics. It turns out that the industry is sensitive to the potential misuses of infographics and has even proposed a code of ethics relating to their use – still more reasons that this would be a good topic for undergraduate or graduate research papers.
Below I have reproduced Randy Krum’s reply to me when I expressed concerns about the use of infographics.
I usually approach this question with clients from the standpoint of SEO. Companies tend to listen more closely when it's about business success and not ethics.
From the SEO perspective, companies use infographics as an online content marketing tool. Well designed infographics with good information are shared heavily. They drive up the backlinks to the host site, which in turn drives up their pagerank and placement in search engine results. For this to be effective, the infographic needs to include the sponsor company and ideally the URL back to the original infographic on the host site. People need to be able to find the original to create the links the host company is looking for.
Infographics about a topic that has nothing to do with the business of the host site are "Linkbait." They may be fantastic designs, with valuable content, but if the topic of the infographic is unrelated to the hosting site, that’s when the problems begin.
Google is concerned about infographics as Linkbait in a big way. Matt Cutts (Head of Webspam at Google) made some initial comments about infographics in this interview by Eric Enge (http://www.stonetemple.com/matt-cutts-and-eric-talk-about-what-makes-a-quality-site/), and I recently did my own follow-up interview with Eric about this topic in particular (http://infonewt.com/blog/2013/1/14/interview-with-eric-enge-about-infographics-in-an-seo-strate.html). The challenge is that Google wants to provide relevant results to the users, but many infographics are created and hosted by sites that have nothing to do with the topic of the infographic. In simple terms, when Google ranks sites based on the number of visitors and links to that site, and the infographics are unrelated to the site, Google ends up delivering bad results to their users. It’s way more complicated than that, but you get the general idea.
As an example, this James Bond infographic is a good design on a popular topic, but it’s published and hosted by H&R Block, a tax preparation company. This is “Linkbait”. A link to the infographic from someone that likes James Bond movies, probably should not be interpreted by the search engines as an endorsement of H&R Block or their services. However, today every link to the infographic increases the pagerank of the H&R Block site.
Data transparency is also very important in infographic design for the sake of credibility. The best designs provide a URL linking directly to the source data so that anyone can look at and even evaluate the data on their own. This design of the BBC budget has a source URL to the data summarized in a Google Docs spreadsheet that anyone can easily access: http://www.coolinfographics.com/blog/2010/3/9/bbc-budget-treemap-infographic.html
- Sources not listed
- Data is misunderstood
- Data is misrepresented and taken out of context
- The data visualization doesn't actually match the data
- The data source is clearly identified, but it's not a credible source
- The data shown is not quantifiably, statistically valid
Check out this proposed Code of Ethics for infographic designers: http://www.niemanwatchdog.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=showcase.view&showcaseid=152
And many more errors. Most often these are honest mistakes made by people who just don't understand statistics or data visualization well. Only a small number of them are actually maliciously misrepresenting the data to support their own message.
Note in particular that the proposed code identifies infographics “visual journalism.” Please send me a note or respond to this post if you decide to do a paper on this topic.