Don’t use the internet for research.
I heard those words throughout my college years, at a time when the World Wide Web was far from ubiquitous. “The information out there can’t be trusted,” my professors warned me. Although that mindset had somewhat shifted by the time I entered graduate school, we were still cautioned to carefully evaluate our sources.
Today, the pejorative “fake news” dominates Twitter feeds and headlines as we are compelled to try and separate online fact from fiction.
As a Research Associate for The Alexander Group, online sources are one element of my research process. Although many resources are credible, there are more than 1.5 billion websites hawking a mind-numbing array of information and disinformation: Companies sell products, special interest groups promote causes, bloggers publish opinions. Anyone, anywhere with an idea and internet access can create a website and populate it with any content they choose.
That’s why it is important to critically evaluate internet sources. Earlier in my career, I was a librarian in both university and public libraries. Here are the criteria I regularly used, then and now, to assess web content:
Who authored the website? It’s not always easy to decipher. Are authors cited and is their contact information listed? Is there a link to their professional or personal website? Google them, find their LinkedIn profiles, confirm their connections to the website publisher.
Check out the author’s credentials. Is the author affiliated with a known, respectable institution? What is his or her educational background and current position? Do those credentials qualify the author to write authoritatively about the subject?
Guest bloggers regularly contribute to online news sites, such as Forbes and Fast Company, but are not subject to the same rigorous editorial process and may not have the credentials to write about their topic. For example, in 2012, Fast Company, published a blog about “power posing” based on a scientific study by a Harvard social psychologist. As a self-professed marketing expert, the author was not qualified to evaluate the quality of the study or its findings. The study was later debunked as “bad science” but not until after its false conclusions had gone viral.
If no author is listed, look at the site’s web address: The domain suffix can offer clues. Watch out for websites that end in “.com.co” as they are often fake versions of real news sources (such as www.abcnews.com.co). On the flip side, the Department of Commerce restricts the use of the .edu domain to accredited post-secondary education institutions, so these can largely be trusted.
Sites ending in .gov (a federal government site) or .org (reserved for non-profit organizations) are also generally credible. There are, however, some not-for-profit organizations—often backed by commercial or political interest groups—that strongly advocate specific points of view. Libertyvideos.org (a distributor of far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ “documentaries”), avn.org.au (run by a well-know, Australian anti-vaccine activist) and witscience.org (a liberal satire site where you can read about scientists’ “attempt to clone Jesus”) are blatant examples.
Surprisingly, Wikipedia is a good source to verify the veracity of a news site. MIT researchers developing artificial intelligence as a way to evaluate websites for factual content use Wikipedia as a resource. “The Wikipedia page for The Onion, for example, labels it as satirical right up top,” says Ramy Baly, a postdoctoral researcher at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab. “The Drudge Report's Wikipedia page labels it as conservative.”
“Not having the Wikipedia page is associated with a website not being very reliable,” he adds.
Next, ask yourself: Does the page state the purpose of the content? If not, surf through other parts of the site and look for language that might reveal the publisher’s motives. Is the site trying to inform, entertain, persuade, sell you something? Is the information geared to a specific audience (students, scholars, general reader)?
Word choice and tone can offer clues. Are there words and phrases designed to heighten emotion? Does the content plug a product or service? Is there a call to action? Are there spelling errors or typos? Beware of all caps and multiple exclamation points; these are glaring red flags.
Are multiple ads embedded on the page? “Lies equal clicks and clicks equal cash, in the form of advertising revenues,” reports the British online newspaper the Independent, highlighting the financial motives of websites to promote lurid, but untrue stories. Services like AdBrite or ValueClick typically pay website owners from 10 cents to $10 per 1,000 views, prompting some sites to create content merely to attract visitors. Social media users will recognize the “clickbait” headlines some sites use to attract readers: “15 Things You Are Doing Wrong in Job Interviews”, “3 Simple Steps to Shed Belly Fat”, “17 Facts You Won’t Believe Are True”, etc. A contributor to The Atlantic Monthly compared “clickbait” to carnival barkers:
Come see the three-legged man!
Once you’ve concluded that the online source’s primary purpose is to inform and not influence, next gauge its credibility. Does the author back up assertions with sources? Can you independently verify those assertions? Is the content supported by an organization? Have you heard of that organization and can you find relevant information about it?
Even reputable websites get duped by bad sources: In 2013, The Washington Post erroneously reported that Sarah Palin was joining the pan-Arab news network Al Jazeera. The author of the piece, Suzi Parker, cited The Daily Currant, an openly satirical website, as her source and quoted directly from that site’s content. A quick check of Ms. Parker’s sources would’ve quickly de-bunked this story. Instead, the Washington Post was forced to issue a correction, prompting Ms. Palin to take a jab at the reporter via Twitter:
Hey @washingtonpost, I'm having coffee with Elvis this week. He works at the Mocha Moose in Wasilla. #suziparkerscoopers #idiotmedia
Timeliness is as important as, and often dovetails with, credibility. Does the page include a date and time stamp? (Be careful about relying solely on the date stamp, though, because a minor change could be the reason for the update.) Are the sources and statistics current? Another clue about timeliness and reliability is the page design. Is it contemporary? Does it use current best practices? Or does it look like it was created on GeoCities in 1997? If so, it may be out of date.
One final thing to consider is the inclusion of quality links on the page. Did the author include relevant, external links? Do they link to quality, editorial content? Are the links working, or do they lead to a 404 error? Be sure to evaluate each linked site carefully to gain clues as to whether the content was methodically researched or hastily thrown together.
Ask for Help
If you still aren’t sure if an internet source is reliable, enlist the help of a colleague who knows about the subject or whose job requires him or her to critically evaluate information. Your local librarian is a wonderful resource. They are trained experts at helping people find reliable and accurate information—both online and in those funny old-fashioned things called books. They can help you evaluate your sources, lead you to more information, and discern fact from fiction.
Websites provide a wealth of information. But you rely on that information at your peril. It is essential that you both critically evaluate the website, and dig behind the information into its sources. Research can begin with a website, but should not end there.