Consider the source. Always.
I originally addressed this question in an Answercast back in 2012.
It was an important question then, but oh, my, it’s amazing to consider how much more relevant this question has become since then. Of course, it’s not just about technical information, but also about information relating to just about anything you can imagine.
You know – like the news.
I’ll look at the quality of information available on the internet and offer a few suggestions to help sort out what is good and what is questionable.
Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!
- Consider the source.
- Use multiple sources.
- Be skeptical.
- Take the time to do the work.
- Build a network of trusted sources.
Consider the source
This question opens a very important can of worms because we get so much of our information from internet sources.
But we run into difficulty at the start. It’s no longer “the internet” we should be wary of — it’s the specific sources to which we choose to pay attention. In this context, the internet is nothing more than an information delivery mechanism. Almost every source of information we might previously have found offline is now present online, along with thousands of others.
Therein lies the fundamental problem: the internet has made it so easy to publish information, it seems everyone is doing so, whether or not they’re a trustworthy source of information.
So the first and best recommendation I can make is simply this: take everything, absolutely everything, with a grain of salt1.
Don’t trust any single source on its own — at least not until you’ve developed your own sense for just how accurate, reputable, or authoritative it happens to be. Even after that, it’s smart to remain skeptical.
Use multiple sources
The most important first step is to confirm the information you find using multiple sources.
This is trickier than it sounds.
What it really means is not just finding the same information in two or more places, but confirming that those sources actually arrived at the information independently. That means tracing back citations and references, when present, or making sure the information presented is the result of actual individual work.
The problem is this: information from a single source is often republished, copied, re-posted, re-worded, and otherwise re-presented in multiple websites and sources. Republishing a mistake in a hundred different places doesn’t make it correct. Finding that mistaken information in a hundred different places isn’t a sign that it’s correct.
All of your friends re-posting a mistake on social media doesn’t make it correct.
You must confirm for yourself by tracing back to the source. If a hundred different places all trace back to a single source, then it’s really only a data point of one. If those hundred different places track back to a couple of separate original sources that independently confirmed or arrived at the same conclusion, that’s a fantastic data point — of two. Depending on the situation and the sources, it might be enough.
But it’s so much work!
Confirming the validity of information can be a lot of work.
Indeed, folks who spread misinformation count on that. They rely on the fact that you and I are overwhelmed, time constrained — even lazy — and are more likely to believe the same thing reported in multiple places than we are to do the legwork to find out if it’s all from a single source.2
But in an age of widespread misinformation, half truths and outright lies, what can we reasonably be expected to do?
Four steps to the truth
First: understand the problem. What I’ve outlined here is a good start. You now know what to look for, and though it might be a bit of work, you know what you need to do before accepting something as accurate.
Second: be skeptical. Always. Perhaps even more importantly: don’t believe something just because you happen to agree with it. This is really, really hard. Keeping an open mind on all issues, even to the point of accepting that you might be wrong, is critical to knowing what you can and cannot trust or believe.
Third: do the work. When faced with a piece of information you’re not certain of, if it’s at all important, do the legwork to confirm or invalidate it. Trace the sources back. Is it a single source repeated everywhere, or have different sources arrived at the same conclusion? (And if it’s not worth the time to confirm it, don’t spread it as fact. In fact, don’t spread it at all.) This is a skill, and one well worth developing.
Fourth: build a network of more-trusted sources. Note I’m not saying “trusted” in an absolute sense, I’m saying more trusted. A critical component of being skeptical is, as I said, being skeptical of sources with which you already have some level of trust. This will actually happen naturally as you vet information in the prior step. You’ll see the same sources come up as more trustworthy than others, and those can rise to the top of your list.
Specific example sites
Wikipedia is both problematic and useful, for a variety of reasons.
There is no single author or reference point for any given Wikipedia entry, and the quality of entries varies dramatically.
It tends to be a relatively good resource, particularly in areas such as tech, where a lot of people jump in and correct errors fairly quickly. Unfortunately, in more obscure or controversial areas, it’s often not as accurate as we might want, and it’s difficult to tell just how accurate it is.
Wikipedia entries include references, and these can be a gold mine for further research of your own, as well as providing evidence that the entry itself may be legitimate, and that the authors put in some effort to make it so.
One thing to watch for specifically is Wikipedia content published on other sites. Wikipedia has been known to be the single “source” behind numerous republications of its information.
Snopes and other fact-checking sites
Snopes.com is my go-to site for rumor and misinformation debunking or confirmation in popular and current culture. The problem is that every time I mention Snopes, detractors chime in that it supposedly has a left-wing political bias. (Which is itself a rumor debunked by others. It typically reflects someone’s disagreement with Snopes’ evaluation of some issue.)
No matter. There are plenty of sites that can be used for this purpose. Whether it be Snopes or another, you can and should use multiple independent sources to confirm or deny any given issue. Give preference to those that cite their sources (like Snopes) and check out those citations. Over time, you’ll determine which of the sites are most reliable, and reduce the amount of legwork you may need to do in the future.
(FYI: MakeUseOf has a good list as well: The 8 Best Fact-Checking Sites for Finding Unbiased Truth)
The truth is out there
While the truth is almost certainly “out there”, it’s in the firehose of information that the internet delivers to our computer screens every moment. It’s critical to never accept anything without question, but develop a skeptical eye and our own objective confirmation techniques and resources to sort fact from fiction.
Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.
I'll see you there!
Download (right-click, Save-As) (Duration: 9:03 — 9.3MB)
Footnotes & References
1: Including me. I’m just another random person publishing on the internet.
2: The book Trust Me, I’m Lying is an eye-opening look into the world of media manipulation that relies on this.
34 comments on “How Much Can I Trust Information on the Internet?”
So, how much should I trust *this* article? :-)
Actually, I’ve been following you for a while, and you are quite correct — don’t rely on *any* single source for your information. And don’t forget that even the most reliable sources sometimes get things wrong.
Believe it or not, even textbooks can get things wrong! Again, the phrase ‘multiple sources’ should be the mantra for any kind of information gathering, online OR offline.
This reminds me of some social experiment I heard about some time ago. A bunch of college students set up websites about a tree-dwelling octopus (or some other such nonsense), then asked a group of children to find out about them. After they had discovered the information, a lot of the kids refused to believe the whole thing was made up, simply because they had found it on the internet.
Don’t believe everything you read! Or hear!
At best, it is someone’s opinion that may or may not be verifiable. At worst, it is complete hogwash. Sites like Uncyclopaedia come to mind – funny, but ultimately wrong lol.
Health information is a special case. Trust only information from an unimpeachable source, such as the Mayo Clinic. Nearly 100% of the rest is quackery or outright fraud.
I agree with KRS! I’m a doctor and sometimes have to spend a lot of time undoing misinformation people have picked up on the internet. Of course there are differences of opinion on many issues, especially where the research is sparse or lacking. But many of the blogs or personal sites base things on theory, not on what has been tested. Along with sites like the Mayo Clinic, professional association websites, e.g., American Academy of Family Physicians, present balanced information.
I’ve long thought that the medical profession (among others I’m sure) must view the internet with decidedly mixed feelings. It’s a smorgasbord for people to self diagnose – for better or worse.
Yes, all the great teaching hospitals in Canada and the US are excellent for health information. Now if you want specific information on the great menace which is locking down the globe, one only has to Google “Trumps Corona-virus Calendar”.
You said: “Wikipedia is very problematic; simply because there is no single author.”. How is this a problem? What’s your logic? You obviously haven’t taken the time to read up what the concept of Wikipedia is. If you have an OPINION, state that. Otherwise provide references to your FACTS.
Then you go on to say: “but in many areas, it’s not quite as accurate as we might want”.
You can’t just say that without PROOF, otherwise it is just YOUR opinion!
I would like to see (in Wikipedia) a link to exactly who wrote what. In that way, one could contact the writer directly if you differed with their facts or opinions.
Apart from the fact that posting unnecessarily abrasive – not to say insulting – comments is not good for the soul of the community (and, incidentally, doesn’t reflect well on you), your understanding seems to be somewhat wanting. “Wikipedia is very problematic; simply because there is no single author” – what’s the problem with this? As I see it, the problematic bit is that with multiple authors, each of whom can edit what previous authors have written, it can be very difficult to nail down who is responsible for which true or false information! Wikipedia can be very useful but it’s not the unfailing fount of all knowledge.
Then again, “but in many areas, it’s not quite as accurate as we might want” – absolutely! And of course Leo can say that, just as I can. I have certain specialised knowledge, as a geologist and analytical chemist; Leo has specialised knowledge as an IT specialist; and both of us, and presumably you too, have reasonable knowledge picked up through life in various other fields which enable us to – justifiably – criticise inaccuracies in Wikipedia (and elsewhere).
One good rule to follow is … believe only half of what you see and nothing of what you hear. As for what you read … CHECK IT OUT !
Unfortunately, the problem is in determining which half to believe ;-)
Here’s a small start. Facebook is tagging disputed news. We’ll see if it helps.
As far as Snopes goes, I trust it about as far as I can throw the writers for the site, and as for Wikipedia, it has this nasty problem of being an open knowledge database that can be edited by anyone and worded in anyway they want it to be. Wikipedia should never be trusted, and only be used as a jumping off point for certain things.
“Perhaps even more importantly: don’t believe something just because you happen to agree with it. ” That, to me, is the most important point of all.I have a lot of friends who, for the most part, I agree with politically. Often they post a link to an article which is so full of holes that I have to point out the errors. I usually, tactfully, tell them in a personal message, to take down the post.
As for fake news, it’s been around since news has existed. When I was young, it was easier. We only had the National Enquirer and a few similar tabloids and it was obvious. You could almost tell by the shape of the newspaper :-) .
I find the the Guardian is pretty reliable, as apparently do many Americans. It, too, could be said to have a left-leaning tendency, but it isn’t prepared to ignore uncomfortable facts. CP Scott, an editor of the paper from the 19th century had it right: “Opinion is free, facts are sacred”. It’s a go-to site as ONE of the sources for checking on whether to believe something from the internet or elsewhere. It also has the virtue of employing journalists who can really write, including some who are very funny.
Please note that other than as a reader, I have no connection with the Guardian. As Leo says, he wants this site to be valuable for everyone and I write with this in mind. Give it a try. Watch out for the English English!
The Guardian has a centre-leaning tendency (assuming something could lean to the centre!) rather than a left-leaning one, and that bias is expressed in some of its reporting and a lot of its opinion and editorial material. Although it does have a few leftish contributors they are massively outnumbered by those of the perceived centre and some of the right-of-centre; the Guardian’s politics of choice have always been those of the Liberal Party (now ‘Liberal Democrats’). You only have to look at its record on reporting the UK Labour Party, especially over the past few years, bearing in mind the fact that the party’s politics are actually broadly aligned with mainstream democratic socialist parties throughout Europe. Don’t get me wrong, I go along (albeit with a critical eye!) with most of the Guardian’s non-political reporting, and link to a lot of it here on the web, but when it comes to even-handedness politically – no way! It has a special flair for ‘damning with faint praise’ and coming out with back-handed semi-compliments. As a matter of interest, I think the Daily Telegraph – an avowed right-wing publication – used to be singularly trustworthy and unbiased when it came to factual reporting; as far as editorials go, well – you knew where it was coming from and could make allowances! It also ran an excellent daily cryptic crossword. Nowadays it’s a virulent hard-right totally biased rag, comparable to the Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express. There are no left-leaning newspapers in the UK nowadays.(Apologies for the length of this comment, Leo!)
I find The Media Bias Page to be very useful, though sadly I didn’t see the Guardian on it.
Probably because The Guardian isn’t from the US. From my experience, I find them to be reliable and moderately left of center. (Just my personal bias :-) )
I taught the research paper for years to high school seniors. Were I still teaching, this article would be required reading. There was no easy access to information then—secondary sources were usually printed and had to be sought after and read, always with some degree of skepticism. But the critical thinking skills discussed here are timeless and especially important to acquire and use in our age. The truth is out there, but it’s much harder to find because the Internet exists.
So how can I trust a site like this one that sells ads to a MAGA company that is showing a little ad about making Chuck Schumer resign. Do you really want your politics disturbing people, Mr. Leo???
Bear in mind that advertising on here and most websites is not controlled by the owner of the site.
Exactly, an ad is not a recommendation. Ads on Ask Leo are placed by an ad network which serves ads based on what they think will be relevant to each reader and Leo has little to no control over the content.
Not my politics. The ads are chosen by the ad network, and I believe generally reflect what they think your interests are, not mine.
If you object to the content of an ad, you can let the site that contains it, the company that provides it and the company that bought it as well know your opinion, Some sites allow you to do this by checking on a link to report it. There are also links and email addresses to make a full report for some sites. I am on a couple sites where a forum is devoted to technical issues, including offensive or problematic advertisements. These are often served by outside companies and sometimes site emails (opt out) and several have been removed or excluded after complaints by members. Nobody wants to be unpopular like that, especially if the site relies of ads or memberships but mostly ads.
So yes, your inputs do help. Sites need to know what interests or bugs you or they fail ultimately.
I just couldn’t finish the article–my stomach turned after seeing that ad.
This article is particularly relevant RIGHT NOW. Recently, here in AZ, a couple in their 50s or 60s decided to inject themselves with ( I believe ) a homemade solution of chloroqiun. One died, the other is in critical condition.
As far as political news, we have the example of CNN recently editing a recorded phone conversation between the President and several governors with the aim of making the President look bad. IIRC, they were called out by one of the governors who was part of the phone conversation.
Even the great Walter Cronkite admitted to selective reporting in the Viet Man war, to turn the public against the war effort.
The only sources one can completely trust are the ones we KNOW to be reliable. Using the criteria here, they also become unreliable.
In the ads on this and other sites, once the finalized “copy” or work is released to online publishing, the author or publisher has little control over the ads that are presented along with the work. Many of the ads are just clickbait that are pretty much unpoliced. It’s next to impossible to do so.
Yes, not only the internet but any information medium. The couple who died from chloroquine poisoning got their information from an executive press briefing.
Fear is our worst enemy. Be careful and as said over and over, research it before you deal with things you don’t know. Remember as well that that medicine is in short supply now for critical illnesses that it WAS approved for. A doctor is the best advisor, regardless.
As an example, it is a fact the the predecessor of the FCC was created in the late 1920s to curb radio advertising of quack medical treatments as well as prevent rampant interference and what you would expect.
Common sense is not so common, as they like to say.
I actually agree with with tracing back through citations and references, but I stopped a while ago.
Let me tell you my story. Once, while I was researching for my religion presentation, I searched online for my sources (yes, I should be using informations from recognized authors instead, but I didn’t have the time), however, when I’m trying to trace back a Wikipedia page source, I ended up in sketchy website, I don’t even know if it is downloading any worm or such (it was supposed to be about religion, but I don’t know why I ended up in what appears to be a bank website full of ads. And if you are curious, yeah, my laptop’s working as normal, maybe).
I’m not trying to discourage anyone from practicing this, but that was my experience that discouraged me. If anyone willing to make time replying, I would like to know how to mitigate any possible damage while tracing back on my source. Thank you for reading this.
You can report dead and dangerous link to Wikipedia. Search for the contact information and do so. Wikipedia counts on it’s users to help cite abuses and limit or terminate editing permissions to those parties.
Again, you the user have the power to keep your internet safer.
All over the world accurate information is being totally screwed up. You have social media which amplifies misinformation. Then you have state players from Putin, Orban, Kaczyński and Modi through to Netanyahu and others who thrive on distorted information to push their distorted agendas. Then you have a president down their who will utter anything that pops into his craw to make himself look good to his band of adoring followers and a party out to sell their souls in Faustian manner to win election. I’m not enthralled with our politicians here in Canada but the scene playing out south of our border bears a depressing resemblance to that on another continent when I was born in the mid thirties.
At 87 I am not into twitter or facebook but have always thought the internet the best thing since sliced up BBC commentators – after all, you can find out just about anything about anything, can’t you? Can you?
All I wanted was to find out what the spacex rocket was doing following its launch. Trust me that I put the correct question(s) in. After looking at a hundred sites where each immediately jiggled about and also sprouted useless ads, I found nothing about the rocket after its sensational launch. Did it vaporise and they aren’t telling us? I did catch something about release of little satellites but, where is the rocket? What are its orbits? When will it pass over my garden chair? No! I’ve given up on the rocket – and the wonderful ‘know all’ internet.
I didn’t (and wouldn’t) bother with a search for that one. spacex.com is the canonical source of information and video on the mission. (They’re in great shape, by the way. So far the mission is a great success.)
Searching isn’t always the answer.
Leo, thanks so much for this article and for mentioning it on a TEH podcast. I have shared it on FB tagging friend that really need to take it to heart. I also made the post public so they can share it. It is my hope that it is widely read and used.