Fact or fiction? – How to avoid misinformation on the web

separating fact from fiction

It’s nothing new. We’ve been relying on the web and social media for the information we need for a long time. In the age of self-isolation, uncertainty, and new threats, though, we’re doing it more than ever. These days, it seems that the web has become our primary source of news and other critical information.

But finding involves more than searching and gathering. It also requires some critical thinking and making sure you’re using the most reliable, accurate, and high-quality information available. Now, more than ever, it’s imperative that you don’t fall for scams, hoaxes, and misinformation, because our lives and livelihoods are at stake.

So, when you locate the information you need on the web, how do you know whether it’s accurate and credible? Here are some suggestions to help you avoid the mishaps of misinformation:

View all sources with skepticism. Even “trusted” sources make mistakes, so don’t take any information you find at face value. Question, question, and question some more.

That said, try to go with more credible sources. Don’t rely on someone’s Facebook posts or questionable opinion pieces. Academics, government agencies, and other subject experts are good places to start, and you can always ask a librarian for direction.

Verify what you find. Never, ever, make one source your only source. Check several articles on the topic, compare what you find, and look for discrepancies or any omissions.

Whenever possible, go to the source. The further you get from the original source, the more likely the information contains errors or has been distorted. Scan what you’re reading for clues about where the author is getting their information, and be very skeptical if they don’t provide a source.

Use a checklist. It can simplify the process of evaluating online information and help make it a habit. Here’s the one I use, which involves looking at five criteria and asking lots of questions:

1. Accuracy
Where do they get their information?
How does it compare with what you already know?
Do they provide contact information so you can ask questions?

2. Authority
What are the author’s qualifications?
Does this come from a reputable publisher?
Who links to this site, and what do they say about it?

3. Objectivity
Does this site reflect a particular bias?
Who sponsors the site?
What is the purpose of this site? To inform? To persuade? To advertise?

4. Dates
Is this information current?
When was the last update?
Scan news articles, statistics, and other documents for publication dates.

5. Coverage
Is this relevant to your topic?
Does it provide any new information?
Who is the intended audience and what level of knowledge is needed for its use?

Evaluating your sources and the information they provide requires time and critical thinking, but it’s worth it. Now, more than ever, information quality is a huge issue, because chances are there’s a lot on the line – and we can’t afford to make costly mistakes.

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