Assessing Internet Information
The internet is an amazing source of information—quite possibly all the information you would ever need. However, not all the information that it contains is accurate. Both people and websites also share information with each other, which means that mistakes or inaccuracies quickly become amplified. Sadly, this is especially true for information that confirms people’s prejudices.
This page describes how you can start to assess the quality of information that you find on the internet. This will enable you to judge whether it is likely to be accurate. That, in turn, will enable you to decide whether you should rely on the information, or share it any further.
A Wild, Wild West
The World Wide Web, or internet, may be a fantastic source of information. However, it is also a bit of a Wild West in regulatory terms.
In other words, there is very little control over what is published, or by whom.
Almost anyone can buy a domain name and start to publish information on their own website. Those who cannot be bothered or are unable to go through that process can set up accounts on social media such as YouTube, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Medium, and share short- and long-form content in both written and video form.
Nobody is checking the accuracy of this information.
In other words, what you read on the internet is NOT the same as something in a book or peer-reviewed scientific journal—and you cannot rely on it in the same way.
This means that you have to make your own assessment of the accuracy of the information. This is fine if you know something about the subject, but is much harder if you know nothing, and are searching for basic information.
Assessing the source
The first step in assessing internet information is to consider the website and publisher. This will help you to assess the likely quality of the content, even before you read anything, and will therefore help you to assess a potentially good source.
There is a broad hierarchy of reliability of information.
1. Official sources
In most parts of the world, you can pretty much guarantee that ‘official’ sources—government agencies and bodies, for example—will publish accurate information. The content there should be a balanced account, showing both sides of any argument. This is not always true, and in practice, what you see may not be the whole story. In other words, inconvenient facts may sometimes be excluded. However, what is actually there will be accurate and generally reliable.
2. Respected institutions
The ‘second level’ of the hierarchy is what we might call the websites of ‘respected institutions’. These include bodies like universities, major healthcare providers (for example, the Mayo Clinic, or big NHS Trusts), and big charities. These organisations generally cannot afford the reputational damage of putting out inaccurate information. They are therefore careful about what they publish.
However, you need to be aware that they may show bias in what they choose to include.
For example, a study of healthcare providers’ websites found that they tended to emphasise the advantages of having particular procedures and downplay the risks.
3. News organisations
Official news organisations are also generally fairly reliable—although again, there is a hierarchy. Some sources have more reputation for reliability than others. It is also important to remember that their business is to sell newspapers (or advertising), so some of them may publish first and apologise later. If you see something interesting on a news site, it is best to check whether other news sites are also carrying the story before you decide to share it.
There is more about this in our page on Critical Thinking and Fake News.
This category also includes peer-reviewed scientific journals. These are not always correct—witness the publication of the study about the MMR vaccine in The Lancet—and there is also a hierarchy of quality among journals. However, any published information has been checked by two or more reviewers, so there is more chance of it being accurate or at least scientifically plausible.
The hierarchy is not rigid!
There is, of course, some overlap between these categories. For example, the BBC in the UK is both a news organisation and a respected organisation, and many healthcare providers are government-backed.
There are several other types of websites worth considering.
These are websites that are developed collaboratively by a community of users, where any user can add and edit content. The most well-known is probably Wikipedia, but there are others. The community nature of these sites is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Anyone can add content, and the additions may not always be accurate. However, the community also checks the content, and people will flag up inaccuracies or potential errors over time.
Overall, therefore, you can broadly rely on these sites—but if there are inconsistencies with other sources, then you probably need to do some further checking.
Case study: The Ducks and the Daffodils
Lia was helping her son Steven with his homework. He had to find some facts about mallard ducks, so they started with Wikipedia.
As Lia and Steven read down the page, they were surprised to find a statement that the main food source of mallard ducks was daffodils. They both knew that this was not true. After all, as Stephen said, if it was, what would they eat the rest of the year?
The next day, the mention of daffodils was gone. A brief interlude only—but an important lesson for Stephen about the potential inaccuracies of internet-based information.
Websites of smaller organisations and companies
The websites of smaller organisations and companies are a mixed bag. Some are very good, but others are much sketchier. However, these organisations are also subject to reputational damage if they get things wrong, so they are likely to exercise some control over the information they provide.
The point here is that the quality of the information may also be mixed, and you need to be a bit sceptical when reading.
You also need to be aware that some of these so-called ‘organisations’ may, in fact, be individuals. Anyone can set up an organisation and give themselves an official-sounding name—but that doesn’t mean anything. See what is included on the website’s ‘About’ page to gauge the potential accuracy.
Top tip! Set a thief to catch a thief
One way to check these small organisations or companies is to Google them.
It may sound odd to use the internet to check a website—but as we said earlier, most information is on the internet somewhere. Scan the search results for any descriptions of the organisation, for example, on Wikipedia, or the information from Companies House (in the UK). This will allow you to check the size and potentially the quality.
Remember, though, small does not always mean bad. After all, SkillsYouNeed does not have a big team behind it!
You should also be aware that search engines like Google draw information from company and organisational websites to respond to common search queries. For example, when you search for the opening hours of a shop, the search engine will check the company website to find the information.
This means that if the company website is not accurate, the search results will also be inaccurate.
Fortunately, this doesn’t usually matter all that much. However, if it does, it is worth checking against other sources.
Social media and publishing platforms
By ‘social media and publishing platforms’, we mean platforms where people can publish their own content, including blogs and articles, as well as sharing content from others. They include Medium, LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.
These truly are the Wild West of the internet. As we said before, anyone can publish anything, so you really do have to be very alert and aware that it may not be accurate.
Remember that most of what is self-published reflects the authors’ views and opinions.
Pre-publication fact-checking is entirely optional—which means that post-publication scepticism and fact-checking is essential.
Assessing the authors and the content
One of the most crucial aspects of assessing any information—and not just internet sources—is thinking critically about it.
This does not mean ‘critical’ in the sense of ‘picking it to pieces’. Instead, it means engaging fully with what you are reading, by asking yourself questions about it and the intentions of the author or publisher.
Questions to ask include:
What does the author want me to think about this?
How does the author want me to feel about this?
Why might they want me to think and feel this? For example, does this author have an agenda about this subject for any reason?
You can assess this by looking at other articles or content by the same author, or Google them to find out if they are campaigning on a particular issue.
Am I biased towards accepting/rejecting this because it confirms/contradicts my previous views?
This requires a certain level of self-awareness, but is an important element of your critical assessment.
Does this fit with what else I know about this subject?
Does this fit with other information that I can find about this subject?
Again, Google is a useful source of further information.
It is important to assess the information that you find by considering it against other sources. If only one source is publishing that particular information, that does not mean that the information is wrong. It simply means that it is unverified—and therefore should not be considered accurate until it has been verified in some way.
Remember, too, that several sources may share the same incorrect information. It is important to check whether all your sources are using the same original source—and whether this might be wrong.
There is more about this in our pages on Critical Thinking and Critical Reading. If you are considering news stories, you may also find it helpful to read our page on Critical Thinking and Fake News.
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A Final Word
This advice can all be summed up in one phrase: don’t believe everything you read on the internet.
More helpfully, it is wise to take the time to consider information carefully, looking at both the source and the author. This will enable you to make a critical assessment of the likely accuracy of the information, and therefore its reliability.