The Internet is one of the final frontiers. Untamed and unregulated, it offers huge opportunity for individual freedom in exploration and communication. With a smartphone, you have access to anything you want to know at all times. However, the price of this great freedom is increased personal responsibility.
In the past, our information was curated for us. Now with open access, this has all changed. You can no longer depend on other sources to filter the quality or accuracy of the information you find.
Have you ever read something that alarmed you and immediately forwarded it to several other people or posted it on Facebook? Did you find out later that what you shared was not accurate? It’s all too common. People jump onto a statement without verifying its accuracy and it flies around the Internet.
Even accurate information gets slanted in its reporting. For example, a bomb is exploded in Israel and kills a family. How that event is reported and interpreted will depend on where your sympathies lie in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
It’s a natural human reaction to fall prey to confirmation bias – “the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of your existing beliefs or theories, and to give less consideration to alternative possibilities.” When you read something on a topic you are already concerned about, unless you use your critical thinking skills, the information will simply further confirm your beliefs.
Three Questions to Help Determine Accuracy on the Internet
1. Is the information true?
– Look at the source of the article. Is it a well-known source? Does the source have a bias?
– Do a Google search using a key phrase. Check out several of the articles that show up, not just one.
– If they quote research, check to see if it is quality, valid research.
– Check with Snopes or FactCheck.
– If it’s a quote, check attribution with Wikiquotes or Quote Investigator.
2. What is the real information?
Often information is packaged in interpretation and opinions. Ask what is the information itself, not the interpretation of the information? Look for data and make your own decision on the interpretation. Even Wikipedia articles need to be evaluated. Here’s a good resource on how to evaluate Wikipedia articles.
3. How would someone who holds a different view interpret the article?
Put yourself in the shoes of someone who does not hold your views. This can be one of the most effective ways to help you be objective and find where there are holes in the article.
Three Skills to Develop
It’s a pain in the neck to have to do this extra work, but it’s the price we must pay for having direct access to information. The alternative is to give up the freedom to draw your own conclusions and think for yourself.
Put the effort into developing and using these skills:
1. Evaluating research to identify quality, valid studies.
2. Separating data from opinion.
3. Critical thinking: stepping out of emotionality and using objective analysis.
For tips to easily determine the credibility of polls and studies, see my post: How to Evaluate the Quality of Research.