Did you know that the commercial airliner that tragically crashed last summer off Long Island during TWA Flight 800 was actually accidentally shot down by a US Navy missile?
OK, this was just a rumor that was circulating on the Internet last year, but some people believed it, including such respected authorities as Pierre Salinger, former ABC News correspondent and one-time press secretary to John F. Kennedy. Salinger embarrassed himself by announcing to the world that he had “indisputable” proof, only to have his proof quickly debunked.
The fact is that the Internet is chock-full of rumors, gossip, hoaxes, exaggerations, falsehoods, ruses, and scams. Though the Net can reveal useful, factual information that you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere, it can also appear to be a gigantic electronic tabloid.
“Information on the Net has an aura of credibility that it may not warrant,” says Joyce Flory, Ph.D., a Chicago-based co-author of five books about the Internet.
Can you ever trust the Internet? Sure you can. You just need to apply critical thinking in evaluating the information and advice you come across.
Here’s a six-step approach to doing this:
Just as you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, don’t judge a Web site by its appearance. Sure, if a Web site looks professional rather than slopped together, chances are greater that the information within it will be accurate and reliable.
But looks can and do deceive, frequently. A flashy site can merely be a marketing front for quack health remedies or an illegal pyramid scheme.
Try to find out who’s behind the information. If you’re looking at a Web site, check if the author or creator is identified. See if there are links to a page listing professional credentials or affiliations. Be very skeptical if no authorship information is provided.
If you’re looking at a message in a Usenet newsgroup or Internet mailing list, see if the author has included a signature—a short, often biographical description that’s automatically appended to the end of messages. Many people include their credentials in their signature or point to their home page where they provide biographical information.
Try to determine the reason the information was posted. Among those who create Web sites are publishing companies, professional and trade organizations, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, for profit companies, educational institutions, individual researchers, political and advocacy groups, and hobbyists.
Each has its own agenda, sometimes explicit, sometimes hidden. Unearth the agenda, and keep it in mind when evaluating the information presented.
Similarly, look behind and between the words posted in Usenet and mailing list discussions. Is the author trying to promote his own ends or is he just being helpful? You can often do both, but not always. Someone posting inside information about a stock, for instance, probably has his own interests at heart, not yours.
Look for the date the information was created or modified. Unless you’re doing historical research, current information is usually more valid and useful than older material.
If the Web site doesn’t provide a “last updated” message or otherwise date its content, check out some of its links. If more than a couple are no longer working, the information at the site may no longer be up-to-date either.
Try to verify the same information elsewhere. This is particularly important if the information is at odds with your previous understanding or if you intend to use it for critical purposes such as an important health, family, or business decision.
Ideally, you should confirm the information with at least two other sources. Librarians and information scientists call this the “principle of triangulation of data.” Spending a bit of time validating the material, through the Internet or at a local library, can be well worth the investment.
Try to find out how others feel about the reliability and professionalism of the Web site you’re assessing. There are a number of review guides that offer evaluations of sites. Some of these guides review thousands of sites, however, with some reviews being more substantive than others.
Here are three excellent, relatively new review guides that you may not have heard of:
Readers Digest’s LookSmart
The bottom line is that with any information you come across on the Net, the watchword is Caveat lector—Let the reader beware.
If you’d like to delve further into the issue of information credibility on the Internet, there are Web sites out there that let you do just that. Here are four good ones:
Evaluating Internet Information
Evaluating Quality on the Net
Thinking Critically about World Wide Web Resources
Internet Source Validation Project
Reid Goldsborough is author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.voicenet.com/~reidgold/.
This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor July, 1997, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.