Evaluating Information Online

By David R. Morrow

 

When my son was four years old, he decided that my phone “knows everything.” He was impressed by the fact that whenever he asked a question I couldn’t answer, I could push a button, speak the question into my phone, and have a list of answers within seconds. There are some questions that the phone can’t answer, but for many questions, the problem isn’t finding an answer, but deciding which of the many answers to believe. That problem doesn’t just confront four-year-olds; it confronts us all. The Internet has put a wealth of information at our fingertips, but it is up to you to sift through that information and decide what’s reliable and what’s not.

The Internet also offers countless web pages dedicated to explaining how to evaluate information online. Ironically, I think much of what the available resources say is a bit outdated. This page contains my own advice about evaluating information online.

Evaluating the accuracy and reliability of content you find online involves asking yourself six questions about it:

  • 1. How did you find the content?
  • 2. Where is the content published?
  • 3. Does the content’s author know what he or she is talking about?
  • 4. Are the author(s) and the publisher unbiased?
  • 5. Are you looking at outdated content?
  • 6. Can you verify the information elsewhere?

Let’s consider these questions one by one.

1. How did you find the content?

In general, content that you find through an unbiased expert or a trustworthy source, such as a library database, is likely to be more reliable than content that you find through social media or search engines like Google. Most of us recognize that social media services make no attempt to filter out unreliable or inaccurate information, but some people are surprised to learn that search engines don’t do that either. The fact that a website turns up in the first page of Google results, for instance, is not a good indication of its reliability.

2. Where is the content published?

If the content is published on a website, be sure that you can identify the website and its publisher. If you can’t tell who published the content, be skeptical! Assuming you can tell, ask yourself whether the publisher is a reputable organization. If you’re not sure, try to find information about the organization or the website. You can start with the website itself, looking for something like an “About Us” page, but be sure to seek out information elsewhere, too. For instance, try asking a librarian or Googling the name of the organization to see what comes up. If you can’t be sure that the content is published by a reputable organization, approach it with caution.

Also, even if you’re looking at a reliable website, be sure that the content is actually published by the site itself, rather than by an advertiser. Some websites publish advertisements, often under a label like “sponsored content,” that are intentionally designed to look like content published by the site itself. For instance, a news site might have a post that looks and reads like a news article but is actually an advertisement.

Finally, be sure that you’re not looking at satirical content.

If the content is published on social media, skip ahead to the next question, since social media sites make no effort to filter out inaccurate or misleading information. You’ll have to rely on the author’s credibility.

3. Does the content’s author know what he or she is talking about?

First, you’ll need to ask yourself, Who is the author? Is it a specific person or persons? If so, who are they? Do you know and trust them? What are their credentials? Can you tell? Or is the author an organization? If so, what is the organization’s mission? Do you know enough about it to determine whether it’s trustworthy? You’ll need to answer these sorts of questions to answer the next two parts.

Second, you’ll need to ask yourself, Are the authors likely to be well informed about this topic? Do their credentials suggest that they’re experts on this specific topic? Does the organization produce trusted reporting or research on this topic? In any case, do you know where they’re getting their information? If so, how reliable is that source?

You may have to do some research outside of the original website to answer these questions. Obviously, the better informed the authors are, the more likely it is that the information is reliable.

4. Are the author(s) and the publisher unbiased?

Obviously, you’re better off with an unbiased source. Note, though, that even biased sources can sometimes produce useful information and analysis, as long as you keep their biases in mind as you read and take what they say with a grain of salt.

Here are some red flags for bias: If the publisher is an advocacy group or the authors are members of an advocacy group, be skeptical. You should also be skeptical if the site sells products or services related to the information it provides. In both cases, you should, at the very least, look at other sources to try to verify any information these authors provide.

If the publisher or author has a strong political or ideological slant, you should be skeptical. This is not just because people with a strong ideological slant might distort information. It’s also because, over the last few years, various sites have popped up to attract clicks from politically partisan readers. These sites tend to publish extremely misleading or even false information, often with sensational headlines.

As before, you may need to research the publisher and authors outside of the original website or social media service in order to determine whether they are biased.

5. Are you looking at outdated content?

Some information goes out of date quickly, such as statistics about the economy. Other information may be disproven or called into question by future research, such as the results of recent medical studies. In those sorts of cases, you’ll want to pay attention to when the content was published. If it was published a while ago, look for more recent content to see if anything has changed. Other information is not likely to go out of date, so you don’t really need to be concerned if you’re looking at older content.

Note that articles and photographs sometimes go viral months or years after they’re first published. People often mistake this old content for a description of current events. Be sure to check the dateline on news articles and photographs!

6. Can you verify the information elsewhere?

When in doubt or when it’s important to get the answer right, see if you can verify information elsewhere, such as on other websites or in a book or database. Keep track of the various sources you use. Try going through a library website to find the most reliable sources you can to confirm what you’ve read online. In general, if other sources can’t confirm what you’ve read—and especially if they contradict it—you should think hard about what to believe.

David R. Morrow is Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University. He previously taught at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Hunter College. He is the author of Giving Reasons: An Extremely Short Introduction to Critical Thinking and the co-author, with Anthony Weston, of A Workbook for Arguments: A Complete Course in Critical Thinking (2nd edition), both available from Hackett.