Ten Ways to Determine the Credibility of Information on the Internet.
Information abounds on the World Wide Web. Knowledge can be found in a matter of seconds just by typing in a few key terms from within a search engine. How does one know if information found is credible? Whether or not information is fact can scare users away from using data gathered from the Internet, and others will use whatever is found, believing it to be the be-all-end-all for truth.
The advent of the Internet brought about the ability for just about anyone to become an author. Credibility for posted information on the Web becomes an issue as the traditional methods for content review, including editorial review, filtering through some sort of professional process, or even something as simple as publishing information only from established authors, are no longer available (Metzger, 2007, Introduction, ¶ 2). Not all information may be thrown together in such a hasty manner, and many sites are a wealth of credible and factual information. However, “users must learn to discriminate between information resources of varying quality, to detect bias and conflict of interest, and to look beyond advertising and marketing strategies to identify useful content” (Hammett, 1999, Teaching Web Evaluation, ¶ 4). Analyzing information presented and determining its credibility can be done in one or more of the following 10 ways.
First, one can check to see who authored the information. Under what authority was the information posted? Is the author of the content clearly identified, or affiliated with an organization (Hammett, 1999, Appendix)? For example, information about air traffic control and safety, posted on the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s (AOPA) website, would appear much more credible if the author’s name was listed, and if the author was easily identifiable as being a member of the FAA, or perhaps a board member for AOPA.
A second way to determine credibility, and one the least amount of people perform, is to check the author’s credentials. Just because credentials are posted, does not mean they are true. In fact, “the most worrisome finding is that the strategy least practiced (i.e., verifying an author’s qualifications) is perhaps the most important for establishing credibility” (Metzger, 2007, Critical Evaluation Skills, ¶ 6).
Checking the purpose of the posted information is a third way of determining the credibility of information. This applies to more than just online content. Take an advertisement, for example. Is the purpose to give factual information, or try to sell a product? Does Red Bull® truly give one wings? Some questions one can ask when it comes to determining purpose are:
· “Is the primary purpose to provide information? to sell a product? to make a political point? to have fun? to parody a person or organization or idea” (Hammett, 1999, Appendix)?
Accuracy is a fourth way to verify the credibility of information found online. In other words, is the presented information free from errors? Are there obvious mistakes based on what the researcher already knows to be true about a topic (Hammett, 1999, Appendix)? One method, many online library databases use, is the ability to apply specific search criteria which will return only those materials which are peer, or scholarly, reviewed. This helps ensure the accuracy of the material provided.
Checking to see when the data was last updated on a website is a fifth way to help determine the credibility of information. This is known as the timeliness or currency of the information (Hammett, 1999, Appendix). Many websites have an automatic date and time script to show the current day’s date and time. However, this does not necessarily mean that applies to the information on the site. Make sure all authored information states the date the information was written, or conceived. If a site has medical information from the 1900’s, yet has no date associated with it, or the information has not been placed in context, an uneducated reader may think the data is current and valid for the 21st century. This could cause a propagation of unintended results depending on how many people read the information, especially if used to find methods for self-treatment, and the end-user believes the data is current.
A sixth way to help determine credibility of information found on the Internet is to take into consideration the coverage provided. “Coverage refers to the comprehensiveness or depth of the information provided on the site” (Metzger, 2007, Critical Evaluation Skills, ¶ 3). If a site is designed to speak of raccoons, for example, but only has one paragraph of information, how credible is the site, or the information, as compared to a site that goes into multiple pages of details about raccoons?
Seventh, one can take information found, and validate it. Checking to see if the same information is available from sources already proven to be credible is an excellent way to help determine the validity and credibility of knowledge found (Metzger, 1999, Table 1). One may be researching the number of electrons a carbon atom has. If an online search happens to bring one to a Wikipedia entry, one should feel free to see what the site has to say. Cross-referencing this information with an entry found from the online Encyclopedia Britannica will help to verify credibility.
The eighth way one can determine credibility, checking the integrity of information, sounds like common sense, but this is not always done. Hammett (1999, Appendix) suggests asking, “Is the source of any factual information clearly stated,” or “is it clear whether or not the information has been excerpted from a larger piece?” Make sure the scientific article being read, for example, shows easily identifiable citations.
Number nine is to check the objectivity, or bias, of the material. Make sure to take notice of the organization presenting the material (Hammett, 1999, Appendix). For example, if a website, such as http://www.democraticunderground.com/, has postings about Democrats and postings about Republicans, one would most likely conclude that the postings about members of the Democratic Party may be more favorable than postings about members of the Republican Party.
Last, but not least, a tenth way of helping to determine the credibility of information found on the Internet is comparison. Taking information found online and comparing it to materials found offline, is an excellent method of determining credibility (Metzger, 2007, Critical Evaluation Skills, ¶ 17). Most print materials have already gone through many levels of fact checking and are proven methods of finding trustworthy, believable information. A fan site may have biographical information about Stephen King, for example. Comparing posted information in regards to Stephen King’s parents to the information found in an authorized biography checked out from a public library, will help to verify if the information posted is correct.
Most people with a computer and access to the Internet find themselves using the Web for many different reasons. One major reason is research; from finding what movies are playing, what restaurants are nearby, to finding out how to fix a car or build a tree house. One needs to enter this binary world armed with knowledge, as misinformation can be more harmful than good to oneself and others.
Hammett, P. (1999). Teaching Tools for Evaluating World Wide Web Resources. Teaching Sociology, 27(1), 31-37. Retrieved November 15, 2008, from SocINDEX with Full Text database.
Metzger, M. J. (2007). Making Sense of Credibility on the Web: Models for Evaluating Online Information and Recommendations for Future Research. Journal of the American Society for Information Science & Technology 58(13), 2079-2091. Retrieved November 15, 2008, from MasterFILE Premier database.