The web is huge. And the barriers to entry to enter the online publishing market continue to erode. Which means that just about anyone with an internet connection can publish “stuff” online. And so, it’s no surprise that there is a lot of unreliable information on the web.
And the only thing worse than bad information is bad information that is widely disseminated and relied upon.
But who can you trust? How can you sniff-out the dogs?
A Healthy Skepticism
From false celebrity death reports, to rigged online reviews, to bad quote attribution, the web can be a morass of misinformation. And the best defense against this choir of lies is healthy skepticism.
Too often, we are too eager to click tweet, like or share. In many instances, the spread of bad information can be easily curtailed by the use of some basic diligence and common sense.
Lawyers should be particularly adept at determining the credibility of an author and the reliability of information. Then again, maybe not.
So before you click publish, tweet, like or share, spend some time vetting the information and its source.
Identifying Reliable Sources
One of the best ways to begin identifying reliable online sources is to look to reliable offline sources. When you’re researching a topic which experts come to mind? Are there organizations or institutions that you have come to trust? Do they have a presence online?
If you come across a web page and are wondering whether it’s reliable or not, ask yourself the following (from UC Berkeley’s Evaluating Web Pages: Techniques to Apply & Questions to Ask):
- What can the URL tell you?
- Who wrote the page?
- Is the page dated? Is it current enough?
- What are the author’s credentials on this subject?
- Are sources documented with footnotes or links?
- If reproduced information (from another source), is it complete, not altered, not fake or forged?
- Are there links to other resources on the topic?
- What do others say?
- Who links to the page?
- Is the page listed in one or more reputable directories or pages?
- What do others say about the author or responsible authoring body?
- Why was the page put on the web?
- Might it be ironic? Satire or parody?
- Is this as credible and useful as the resources (books, journal articles, etc.) available in print or online through the library?
Whether it’s a comment, tweet, blog post or article, if it’s difficult to tell who the author is, your skepticism level should be on high alert. But just because the author is named doesn’t make the information reliable. Who is this author? What is their background? Why did they publish the page? What is their agenda? What do other reliable people say about this author?
If you can’t answer these questions, perhaps you should refrain from spreading their message.
Beyond exercising skepticism, there are some advanced search techniques that you can use to help you filter more reliable information. One of my favorites is the site-specific search.
For example, in researching advanced search resources for this post, I performed the following search:
advanced search site:google.com
This returned results on the subject of advanced search published at google.com (a source that has proven to be reliable on the subject of search). You can also use -site: to exclude particular domains that you have come to find unreliable.
Here are a couple more resources for performing better online searches:
- Basic Search Help
- Advanced Search
- Site-Specific Searches
- Advanced Search Operators
- More Search Operators
Obviously, advanced search techniques are no substitute for good judgment. But they can be helpful in wading through the internet tapioca.
Do you think about whether or not what you read online is reliable? What techniques do you use to determine the reliability of the “stuff” you find online? What sites/sources do you find particularly trustworthy online? Which are particularly untrustworthy?