Info on the Internet
Anyone can publish anything on the Internet.
If you're not careful, you can be partly responsible for sharing misinformation or disinformation.
This video from Factcheck.org will give you some strategies to help identify news that is not true.
This 5-minute video will show you some examples of dramatic headlines that are incorrect; see whether you can spot the problems.
(Ignore the ads, of course.)
What do we need to know about the author? When the author is someone unknown to you, ask the following questions:
- Is the document signed?
- Can I get more information on the author by linking from this page to other documents?
- Was there information about the author on the page from which I linked to this one?
If you can answer "Yes" to the second or third question, it's possible that you will have enough information for evaluative purposes, or at least enough information to help you find the author's telephone number or e-mail address so that you may contact him or her with questions.
If you can answer "Yes" to the first question only, you may need to find further information on the author. There are a number of ways in which you might do this:
- Go to the home page of the web site where the document lives and search for the author's name using any available internal search engine or directory (works best for academic web sites). This may help establish affiliation.
- Try searching the author's name, enclosed in quotation marks, on a search engine. This may lead to other information on or pages by the same author.
- Search for the author's name in databases about the subject, to see if there are any other publications.
Evaluating information usually consists of weighing a number of criteria together, so you will need to assess how important authorship is on a case-by-case basis.
If no information on the author can be found, or there is no signature or attribution on the page itself, go directly to "Publishing Body" (next tab).
Look at the web page you are trying to evaluate. Does it include any of the following?
1. A header or footer that shows its affiliation as part of a larger web site.
2. A watermark or wallpaper that fulfills the same function.
3. A link at the bottom or top of the page that allows you to go to the home page of the web site where the document lives.
4. A link that allows you to send a message to the site's Webmaster.
These features help you judge the "official character" of a web page. They act as an assurance that the page you are evaluating functions within some type of institutional setting. Judging the official nature of a web page is extremely important if the page is not signed. Some web sites do not include attributions to individual authors, so you will have to do your best to evaluate the institution, or domain, where the page lives.
If your page gives no clues as to its identity, you will need to focus on the URL, or address.
- Can you find the web site's home page by deleting all the information in the URL after the server name?
- Can you tell if the page is actually part of someone's personal account, as opposed to being part of an official site?
- If all else fails, can you find information on the server or domain?
Once you find the name of the organization that owns the server, you may have enough information to judge its reputation as an information source. Remember, this is only of value for official pages from a web site. If the page you are evaluating comes from someone's personal account, you really have no idea what their place is within the organization, or if they are in a position to represent the organization.
If you cannot ascertain either the author or publisher of the page you are trying to evaluate, you are looking at information that is as anonymous as a page torn out of a book. You cannot evaluate what you cannot verify. It is unwise to use information of this nature. Look for another source.
Even when you can find information on the author and/or publisher of a web page, you should do your best to find its date. This is especially critical if the document discusses time-sensitive information, such as census information or other statistics. Look for internal confirmation of the information:
- Does it use a caption such as "Based on 1990 US Census data"?
- Does it include information within the document such as "Closing stock prices, September 30, 1996"?
- Is the statistical source listed in a bibliography to the page?
It is also valuable to know when a page was last updated.
- Look at the bottom of the page. Does it have a "last updated" or "revised" date?
- In Firefox, use Tools --> Page Info. If the date is today's date, ignore it (it's probably generated automatially). But if the date is not today's, it's probably correct.
- Change the URL by backing up to the last slash (/) in the address. This may allow you to see the details of the directory or subdirectory of the server including your page. Usually the last modification date is included.
It's valuable to know the age and updatedness of your page because you may be looking at an orphaned or superseded document that has been replaced by other information.
Always remember that the best counterfeit looks the most like the real thing. How genuine and trustworthy is your information?