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Lesson 4: Judging Online Information

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How to judge online information

If you're looking for information, the Internet has a lot of it. The problem is, you can't trust every website you find. You'll need to evaluate each website to decide whether it's reliable. Let's look at some of the questions you should ask yourself whenever you view a website.

Watch the video below to learn some tips for judging online information.

Is the information relevant?

No matter how good a website is, you should always ask yourself whether it contains the information you're looking for. Remember, just because the site comes up in a Google search doesn't mean it's relevant. For example, if you're searching for information about the history of skateboards, a site that sells skateboards may not have what you're looking for.

What is the site's purpose?

There are many types of sites on the Internet. Encyclopedias, online stores, blogs, and humor sites all have different purposes. Determining the site's purpose can help you decide how reliable it is.

  • Check the About page to see what the site's purpose is. Keep in mind, if a site wants to conceal its true purpose, the About page may be misleading.
  • What is the site's audience? You may be able to tell based on the tone and the topics it focuses on.
  • Is the site trying to persuade you to buy or do something?
  • Sometimes a site's purpose may not be obvious at first glance. For example, The Onion may appear to be a news site, but it's actually a humor site.

Is the site biased?

In order to get the most reliable information, it's best to stick to unbiased sources. News organizations, encyclopedias, and other sources have traditionally tried to stay unbiased. This helps them build a reputation as a trusted source.

Most websites don't try to stay unbiased like a newspaper would. And that's OK for casual web browsing. However, if you're trying to find reliable information, it can be a real problem. For example, if a news blog is biased, it may distort the story or leave out important information.

  • How much opinion does the site have? Is it enough to raise a red flag?
  • Many sites have ads. Although ads usually don't mean the site is biased, on some sites the majority of ads may have a political or ideological bias. This can be a clue that the site itself is biased.
  • Look at some of the other pages on the site. Does there seem to be a bias to the site as a whole?
  • If you're not sure whether the information is correct, try searching for it on Google. This can often reveal whether it is a hoax, scam, or common misconception.

What is the site's top-level domain?

Every web address has a top-level domain. Some common examples are .com, .org, .gov, and .edu, although there are many more.

  • .gov is a government site. These are usually reliable.
  • .edu can be a school, college, or university. However, some webpages could be student projects, and these are not always reliable. Try to determine whether the page was written by a student, teacher, or the school administration.
  • .org is an organization. Depending on the organization's mission, it could be biased or unbiased. Try to find more information about the organization and its purpose.
  • .com is typically used by commercial sites. However, it's also used by many other types of sites, so it doesn't really tell you whether a site is reliable.

Is the author reliable?

Online articles don't always say who the author is. This doesn't mean these sites are less reliable. However, if there is an author listed, it's a good idea to find out more information about the author.

  • Does the author have credentials that make them more reliable?
  • Has the author written other articles or books? Are they biased or unbiased?
  • Keep in mind, even if the author isn't an expert, they can still be reliable as long as they do careful research. For example, a librarian might write an excellent article about biology, even if she doesn't have a science background.

Is the information current?

Many websites will include a date at the top or bottom of an article. This can tell you how current the information is. For some subjects (such as biographies of historical figures), this may not matter as much. However, for technology, news, politics, and other subjects, it may be important to have the most current information available.

In the example below, the article is talking about an older version of the iPad, so it may not be relevant if you're thinking of buying a new one.

an older article with outdated information

Does the site have a good reputation?

You can't always rely on the site itself because many sites try hard to disguise their purpose. You may need to get a second opinion—in other words, see what other people are saying about the website.

  • Try searching Google for the name of the site or organization. Keep in mind, you may not find any second opinions about the site, and that's OK.
  • What do other sites say about the site (if anything)?
  • Is the site generally seen as a biased or unreliable source?

Practice evaluating websites

Evaluating websites takes practice. We've already looked at some basic techniques you can use, but these techniques may not work on every website you find. You'll often need to use your critical thinking skills to make a good judgment.

Click the arrows in the slideshow below to see an example of how you can judge a website.

Verifying information with Snopes

Let's say your friend sends you an email containing an amazing "fact" or story. Even if you trust your friend, it doesn't mean the email is true. Chain emails can quickly spread around the world, and they often contain misinformation, hoaxes, political propaganda, and worse. Instead of simply forwarding the email to your other friends, take a moment to verify that the information is true.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to go to snopes.com and search for the story. Snopes is a well-known and trusted source for verifying Internet rumors. A typical Snopes entry will tell you whether the information is true or false, and it will also tell you where the story originated.

Go to DHMO.org to help determine whether the information is reliable.

  • What is the purpose of the site?
  • Is dihydrogen monoxide a real substance? Do you think it should be banned?
  • Can you find other websites that support the claims made by DHMO.org?

Is Wikipedia reliable?

Depending on who you ask, you may get very different answers about whether Wikipedia is reliable:

  • Yes! It's a better source of information than most websites, and it's a good starting point for research.
  • No! Anyone can add or change information, even if they don't know what they're talking about.

The truth is, it depends on how you use Wikipedia. It can be a great starting point for your research, but you shouldn't assume all of the information is true. Instead, use the references at the bottom of an article to find the original sources. Then you'll need to evaluate these sources to see whether they are reliable.

Keep in mind that some Wikipedia articles are better than others. For example, try comparing the following two articles:

  • The Bicycle article is well-organized and contains numerous references at the bottom. This is because many different people have worked on the article, and it has gone through many revisions.
  • The Andean new age music article does not contain any references, so it's difficult to know whether it's reliable.

Using multiple sources

No matter what type of research you're doing, it's important to look at multiple sources. Even a reliable website may not include all of the relevant information. Using multiple sources allows you to see all sides of a story, which gives you a better perspective than if you had only looked at one source.

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