Searching for Truth Online: A Guide to Questioning and Filtering Data

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Paul Provost
President
6P Marketing

Searching OnlineWhen I think back to university, memories flood in. I remember hauling piles of textbooks home from the university bookstore on the first day of school. I recall mornings, afternoons and nights spent searching for books in Dafoe library.

Wow how things have changed!

Wikipedia, Google and countless websites and blogs didn't even exist then and are now only clicks away. With this shift, a whole new set of skills is essential for students and for business people's success: the ability to sift through the Internet and find accurate, trustworthy information.

The Internet has already changed the way we find information and inspiration (this article was created completely using online research) and we often hear stories about fraudulent news stories succumbing to this shift.

In education and in business, finding and using trustworthy, citable sources is paramount to writing papers and forming theories and/or business strategies. As we continue our shift to online everything, will our willingness and/or ability to find truthful information evolve at the same rate?

What Do People Trust and Not Trust Online?

A recent study shows that government websites tend to be the most reliable, while blogs are found to be the least reliable. For students, it is especially important to understand the difference between the reliability of information from academic sources versus information found on blogs, personal websites, social media sites, Google and Wikipedia. The Internet is a treasure trove of information, but care is needed when using it. For business people, the Internet provides a mountain of information on any topic you need, but the key is to screen this mountain with speed and accuracy. You accomplish this with speed and accuracy in your search keywords and your ability to quickly assess the reliability of the information on the website.

A Great Resource or an Experiment in Anarchy?

Eric Schmidt is the executive chairman of Google, a company that is no doubt used by every student passing through university doors. His following quote perfectly sums up the challenge of using the Internet:

"The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn't understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had."

His use of the word “anarchy” is incredibly apt as, for better or worse, it is what the Internet is. Anyone and everyone can post their opinions, thoughts or “facts” for the world to find. This is incredibly powerful, yet incredibly scary as well… especially when the media, researchers, students, business professionals and even doctors rely on the validity of info found online.

Searching for Truth Online

As I reflect on my own online experiences, I have compiled a quick guide to help sort through the maze that is the World Wide Web. I have broken the following guide down into four core sources of information that need to be viewed and treated uniquely: blogs, Wikipedia, Google and social media.

Blogs: Question Motives, but Embrace the Lack of Objectivity

Blogs are deemed by the masses to be less trustworthy than traditional websites. Blogs by nature are opinion pieces created to express the views and opinions of the writer. They are a powerful form of media and, when used correctly, great research tools.

While traditional journalists (columnists excluded) are expected to distance themselves personally and emotionally from their content, bloggers are expected to put their heart and soul into their work. If you want to know how many people have arthritis, visit a government health website and you’ll find a wealth of accurate information. If you want to know what it truly feels like to have arthritis, visit a blog. The website and blog provide very different types of information, but each is just as valuable as the other as long as you understand the difference and use them appropriately.

Wikipedia: A Fantastic Resource, but Beware of False Info

Wikipedia is so prone to hoaxes that there is even a Wikipedia page that lists all of them… it’s a long page. Although the Wikipedia community does a great job policing hoaxers (keep in mind there are currently 4,045,978 entries on Wikipedia), the human element of the equation leads to both intentionally misleading information and accidental inconsistencies in content. As with any medium, the key is to always get a second and third source to compare to and always question what you read.

Keep in mind that Wikipedia is generally not accepted as a citable source. It is, however, a great tool to find great sources. Most entries list a host of sources and, when verifying the data you find on Wikipedia, you can also stumble across some amazing, more reputable sources in the process. Another option is to skip Wikipedia and go straight to academic databases to conduct your research.

Google: An Indispensable Tool When Used with Care

Carefully choose search terms and let Google do the work. Let Google find the larger sites for you that often contain more trustworthy information. And remember, .ORG websites are government organizations and .EDU websites are educational; these are generally considered to be more trustworthy.

When approaching website content, whether it is for academic, personal or business purposes, always use common sense to assess legitimacy. Who is writing the content? What purpose does the website serve to those who run it (advertising, a personal agenda, to educate etc)? Is the website endorsed by any reputable organizations? All of these questions can help you assess the trustworthiness of the site before you even read the content.

Social Media: The First Source Isn't Always the Best

Social media has a knack for being the first out of the gate with big news stories. First is not always best, however, and often false information can spread like wildfire, even fooling big-time news outlets. Whether it’s celebrity death announcements or any other exciting, need-to-know news, use caution when spreading the word. Twitter’s official rules state the following:

“We respect the ownership of the content that users share and each user is responsible for the content he or she provides. Because of these principles, we do not actively monitor user’s content and will not censor user content, except in limited circumstances...”

And they mean it! Social media is run by the masses, fed by the masses and, generally, policed by the masses. As with anything in life, ask questions and think critically when using social networks. In this new age of digital publishing, what you as a student, professional or regular "Joe" post online should be thought through and verified. Before you re-tweet or re-quote, make sure you do some additional research to verify the info, perhaps from a book or an encyclopedia (yes those still exist!).

In closing, although the Internet may be an experiment in anarchy, it is a powerful tool that has changed the way we live, do business and certainly learn. In 2008, Google reported that it was indexing over one trillion URLs, so there’s no doubt that data, wisdom and truth are out there. The key is training yourself to critically sift through everything you read to find information you can trust and draw from with confidence.

 

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