Appraising online information

Print vs. web

Unlike traditional print resources such as books, newspapers and magazines, information available on the internet is not regulated for content — anyone can publish anything!

It can be hard to know who the author is, if they are portraying themselves accurately, what their purpose is, if they are giving opinions or facts, or if they are even a real person. It is your responsibility to verify.

Print Resources

Online Information

  • Quality standards are controlled through systems of checks and balances.
  • In most printed materials, an author has been verified to be who they claim to be.
  • Linear format for logical and effective organization.
  • Print materials are stable: once printed, they are fixed and unchanging .
  • Anyone can post anything without quality control.
  • There is no consistent monitoring of publishing. Biases, hidden agendas, distorted perspectives, etc. are not monitored.
  • There's no standard format.
  • It is unstable — anything can be changed and removed easily, and therefore, gone forever.
  • Hyperlinks are used to organize content. They are not linear and are a part of "the web of information ."

Criteria for evaluating online information

If you are unfamiliar about a piece of information, if the information gives you a bad gut feeling, or if it stirs intense emotion in you, it's a good idea to fact check it.

Start your fact-checking with examining the website. Start with the page you are on; then go to the "About" page, "Home" page, "Contact" page. This may be enough to verify the content of a page. If not, you will need to perform a lateral search. Before learning the steps of the fact-checking process, let's take a look at the evaluation criteria:

1. Authority

Who is the author/creator of the piece? Who is responsible for the intellectual content?

What to look for:

  • Name credentials or affiliations
  • Contact information
  • Link to homepage or organization
  • Domain of URL

2. Purpose

Can you identify the author's motive for creating/publishing this information?

What to look for:

  • Who is the intended audience?
    • For experts or scholarly purposes
    • For the general public or novices
  • What is the purpose?
    • Inform or teach
    • Explain or enlighten
    • Persuade
    • Sell a product or service

3. Objectivity

Can you detect any bias in the writing? How subjective is the author in their opinion?

What to look for:

  • Is the information fact, opinion, or propaganda?
  • Is the point of view objective and impartial?
  • Do they use emotion-rousing language?
  • Do you see any affiliations that could influence bias?
  • Is there any official approval/sponsorship?

4. Accuracy

How factual and truthful is the information?

 What to look for:

  • Are sources for information clearly listed and easy to verify?
  • Is it clear who is responsible for the accuracy of the content?
  • Can you find independent sources that would verify the information?
  • Do you already have knowledge that confirms the topic? (Be careful not to create a filter bubble for yourself by only using this.)
  • Has the information been reviewed or referenced?
  • Does the content have any spelling, grammatical or typographic errors?

5. Reliability and credibility

Why should you believe this information or the creator of it?

 What to look for:

  • Does the content appear to be valid, well researched and supported by evidence?
    • What, where and how?
  • Are quotes and assertions backed by sources?
    • How many?
    • Can they be found and verified?
  • Does any institution/organization support this information?
    • What institution?
    • Have you heard of them before?
    • Can you find out about their reputation?
    • Are they qualified to have an opinion on this topic?
  • Is there a non-online version of this content that you can check?

6. Timeliness

Some information becomes less relevant and accurate as time passes. This is true primarily in science and technology, but also in social sciences. It is important to check when the information was discovered and published in order to verify that it is still relevant.

What to look for:

  • Is there a publication date?
  • Has content been kept up-to-date?
  • Are editing dates posted?
  • Is there an indication of when the site was last updated, or how frequently it is updated?

7. Links

Links are generally the sources we are looking for when evaluating content.

 What to look for:

  • Are links related to the content useful for the purpose of the site?
  • Are links current, or have they become dead?
  • What kinds of sources are linked?
  • Are the links evaluated or annotated?
  • Web page links will vary in quality as much as original content — you must evaluate each website independently.

The gut check

Trust your gut feeling when looking at information online. If something seems odd about a website or its content, that's the time to fact check.

A strong emotional response (either positive or negative) is also a good indication that something might not be right with the content. If you find you are having an elevated emotional response to content , you should definitely fact check it, especially before sharing. If it seems too good or too bad to be true, it probably is.

When in doubt about medical information, turn to your public health authority.

Living in a filter bubble

A filter bubble is when you create an isolated online world with a specific world view that does not allow content or information that counters or contradicts anything already established in that world. This happens because:

  • Algorithms learn from your online behavior
  • Algorithms will try to keep you online or on a site as long as possible by giving you more content similar to what you have already viewed
  • Algorithms can then stop giving you content or information outside of your likes, interests, or personal biases to keep you online longer

If you believe you are creating a bubble and want to pop it, look at other sites, like and comment on different types of content.

Lateral searching

Lateral searching is like following a string in a web to find where it starts and what is connected to it. It's like checking references or a bibliography, or looking up reviews.

  • Open a new tab
  • Perform a search:
  • Look up the author, organization's name or statement.
  • You can add "review" or "fake" or "bot" to see if anything is reviewing, claiming it's fake, or, if anyone has identified it as being written by a bot — an algorithm that produces content without human oversight.
  • Typically, the first link will take you back to where you started (depending on your search query), so generally you scroll past the first link. Scroll down until you find reviews or appraisals .
  • Sometimes a definition window will appear on the right side of the screen, if your search query is for something that is well known .
  • Try to find as many corroborators as you can. Check with trusted authorities on the topic, or a trusted fact -checking site.
  • Repeat until satisfied

Digital citizenship and netiquette

Digital citizenship refers to the process of a person using digital information to engage with society and community. It defines appropriate and responsible behaviour. The guiding principles for being a good digital citizen are:

  • Respect includes the elements of etiquette, access and law.
  • Educate includes the elements of literacy, communication and commerce to teach about the appropriate use of the digital world.
  • Protect is about remaining safe in the digital and non-digital world by using the elements of rights and responsibilities, security, and health and wellness.
  • Think about who you want to be online and how to project that. What kind of content do you want to consume, curate and share? How does this content relate to your persona? With whom do you want to connect and with whom you don't want to engage? Always practise the Golden Rule online. And never feed the trolls!

    Here are a few pointers for online communication etiquette, or netiquette:

    • Think before you share — spreading false information can be deadly at worst
    • Report spam, fake news and improperly labeled advertisements
    • Be concise
    • Typing in capital letters is like SHOUTING! Use bold or underline instead
    • Never share when you're angry or upset
    • Remember if something seems too good to be true, it probably is
    • Be wary of things that evoke extreme emotional responses
    • Proofread
    • Delete spam, jokes and chain letters
    • Report inappropriate content
    • Be kind if others make mistakes

    Learn more

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