When it comes to internet safety, the most oft-cited advice is this:
Use common sense.
The most common response is this:
Great. Just what exactly does that mean?
When it comes to technology and safety, “common sense” is incredibly important, poorly defined, and quite uncommon.
Let’s see if we can define it with some already-familiar rules.
Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!
Common sense can be summed up in several familiar adages:
- If it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably not true.
- If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
- Free is never free.
- Read what’s in front of you.
- Don’t believe everything you read.
- Be skeptical; question everything.
- Do your research.
If it sounds too good to be true…
Many malicious incursions mask themselves in promises of the seemingly irresistible.
Practical examples of offers that really are too good to be true include:
- Many “free download” advertisements.
- Software promising to speed up your computer.
- Ads including the phrase “one stupid trick …” or variants.
- Click-bait headlines including the phrase “you won’t believe” or similar.
Common to most, beyond the fact that the promises seem extreme, is that you weren’t looking for them when you found them.
Look at any website and you’ll see advertisements. Many are legit and well positioned, but many others are little more than over-the-top attempts to get you to click or download whatever they have to offer.
Particularly when you’re not looking specifically for something, don’t fall for extreme or outlandish claims. The same can be said of most shared or forwarded hoaxes and urban legends, as well as many news stories.
Common sense tells us that if it promises too much, if it seems too extreme, if it seems too astonishing … then it’s probably completely false.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
Often following over-inflated promises such as those I just mentioned, or out of desperation, I often see people trying to do things to their computers that, quite simply, have nothing to do with a problem they’re experiencing.
- They’re trying to solve speed problems they don’t have.
- They’re trying to remove malware that is not present.
- They’re trying to update software they don’t run.
- They’re trying to fix problems that have nothing to do with their computer.
The list goes on.
Now, I get that each of those assumes a certain amount of knowledge. How do you know you don’t have a specific problem? How do you know that malware’s not present? How do you know that the problem you’re experiencing is with the website you visit and has nothing to do with your computer?
That’s a fair concern. But if you don’t know that you have a problem, then why are you trying to fix it?
Turn the thinking around.
Common sense means not doing something because you might have a problem, but taking action because you know you have a problem, and not before.
Research the problem first. Confirm you actually have a problem that needs fixing before you try to fix it.
I’ll talk about research shortly.
Free is never free
The old economist’s acronym is TANSTAAFL: “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” That’s exceptionally true online.
Every “free” service has a cost. It may be the advertising you need to look at, it may be the mailing list you need to sign up for, it may be the personal information you’re sharing, or it may be something else entirely, but there is no such thing as “free” on the internet.
Most commonly, people fall into the “free” trap through advertisements of this variety: “FREE Scan! Scan your computer for malware for FREE!”
Some of these ads are 100% accurate. The scan is completely free. The not-so-free part? If you want to do anything about what the scan finds, you’ll need to pay. It’s a common sales tactic.
Less reputable programs actually lie to you. They warn you of malware and other scary things you don’t have or aren’t issues–all making it appear that giving them your money is the only way to avoid certain doom.
This brings us to another important point.
Read what’s in front of you
This is a point that frustrates me. It works like this:
- A program fails or something goes wrong.
- The user reacts, gets frustrated, or gets lost.
- The user completely misses the fact that the solution was included in the error message or descriptive text.
Another similar scenario:
- Someone gets an email and reads the first line, which is so outrageous that their reactions kick in right there and they stop reading.
- As a result, they miss the text following that, which removes all outrageousness by putting the statement in a clearer context or providing additional information.
When it comes to your computer, when something goes wrong, take the time to read what’s on the screen in front of you. I get so many questions that could be avoided or quickly dealt with had the questioner just slowed down and read the instructions in front of them.
I get that those instructions are not always comprehensible. Honestly, I do. But sometimes they are so clear and obvious that just taking the time to slow down and carefully read what’s on your screen will get you a long, long way.
Which brings us to the flip side of the coin.
Don’t believe everything you read
I’m a firm believer that people are basically good1.
But that doesn’t mean everyone is good, or everyone has your best interests in mind.
Particularly when it comes to the internet.
It’s simply too easy, particularly in today’s connected and information-rich world, to spread misinformation as fact. We see it all the time.
Misleading ads are only one blatant example. The reality is that misleading ads pre-date the internet by decades, if not hundreds of years. It’s just that today’s technology often makes it difficult to distinguish snake oil from valuable and effective medication unless we’re careful.
In reality, the internet can also provide us with a wealth of information to help us separate over-inflated claims from reality.
It can also provide us with even more misinformation.
“It’s on the internet so it must be true” is one of those statements everyone laughs at because it’s so blatantly wrong, it’s laughable. Common sense tells us just because something is on the internet has absolutely no bearing on its accuracy. Yet we see people act as if it’s completely accurate, believing random and misleading statements from vague sources with a less-than-altruistic agenda.
With information coming at you from so many random directions, from sources both reliable and unreliable, it’s critical that we not believe everything we read just because it’s been formatted pretty2 on a site that looks authoritative.
And that brings us to the most important point of all.
Above all, be skeptical
Want something that’s very common sense?
Never accept information at face value, particularly on the internet, and particularly from sites or individuals you’ve never heard of before.
Be skeptical. Ask questions. Consider the source, and what that source’s agenda3 might be in spreading its message. Are they being truthful?
Over time, develop a set of resources that you trust. Naturally, I hope Ask Leo! will be one of them, but honestly, what matters more is that you reach out and find your own trustworthy sites, sources, services, and individuals.
Then use those resources to help you evaluate the constant stream of information and misinformation heading your way.
Yes, that’s a little bit of work. But it’s critical.
Do your research!
Search for yourself
Learn the basics of how to not only use a good search engine (Google, Bing, or others), but also how best to interpret the results. Understand the difference between the advertisements presented on the search results page and the actual results.
Look for well-known reputable sites in those results, not just sites that happen to rank highly. As much as search engines work to make it not so, ranking highly in a search result is not an indication the site is legitimate or trustworthy.
If you choose to look at information presented by a site you’ve never heard of before, remember, you’ve never heard of it before! Without more research, there’s simply no way to know whether or not the information is valid, biased, or completely bogus.
If you’re uncertain how to go about researching a particular topic, there’s nothing wrong in asking for help. You may have more experienced friends or family members who can help you find what you’re looking for. Many librarians have become valuable resources when trying to understand how best to determine the validity of information you run across online.
Regardless of who’s helping you, it’s still important to be skeptical. When they suggest a site as a trustworthy resource, don’t be afraid to ask them why they trust it.
Look carefully for confirmation
There are two types of “confirmation”:
- Source “B” repeating what source “A” has said
- Source “B” independently presenting similar information or coming to the same conclusion source “A” did
The first isn’t confirmation at all, it’s repetition. The problem is, when enough sites and so-called sources all repeat what only one of them has said, it may feel like many sources have all come to the same conclusion. In reality, it’s nothing more than a single opinion repeated over and over. This is known as the “echo chamber”.
Remember: repetition isn’t confirmation. You want to find multiple sources that are confirming (or denying) the issue, and are all doing so having arrived at their conclusions independently, using their own research and work.
Use debunking sites
I’m a huge believer in using sites like snopes.com4, factcheck.org, mediabiasfactcheck.com, politifact.com, truthorfiction.com, or any of several others before reacting to the latest over-the-top, can’t-possibly-be-true news story, tech tip, or emailed rumor.
Many are very timely and do the kind of research you want to see before getting all excited or worked up about what just landed in your inbox.
Use resource sites
For just about any topic, there are resource sites. Develop a set of sites that you trust. For example, when it comes to technology, I would hope Ask Leo! is on your list. Visit the sites with which you already have that level of trust and see what they say about the issue at hand. As always, I’m not saying that you need to trust them completely, but use them as part of your research to develop your own well-thought-out opinions.
The bottom line is this: if something you run across is worth the effort of your taking any action at all — even if it’s just to forward an email — then it’s also worth your time to research it first. At worst, it may save you some embarrassment. At best, it could protect your computer, your identity, and even your possessions.
Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.
I'll see you there!
Footnotes & References
2: Also not new. I’m fairly certain that my good grade on a paper I turned in while in college was due to the fact I’d figured out how to use a word processor to make it look much better than it was.
4: No, Snopes isn’t left-wing biased. Generally people claiming so are simply unhappy with the truth Snopes has uncovered. Nonetheless, if you’re not happy with Snopes, look at any of the multiple debunking sites that are available these days.