The Web is a great place to find information. However, there's a flip side to the benefit of all this online data: the question of whether what you find is accurate!
Unfortunately, the Internet offers just as much misinformation as information. One classic example is an article that appeared in The Boston Globe in July 2000, touching on the grim fates of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence. This article was based on an e-mail that has been making the rounds since about 1995 -- an e-mail that was also passed along as "fact" by Ann Landers. As American Journalism Review columnist Carl Cannon pointed out, this e-mail (and the resulting Globe article) was, in fact, almost entirely false.
According to the oft-quoted account, five signers of the Declaration were captured by the British and tortured to death as traitors, while nine fought and died in the Revolutionary War. In reality, no signers of the Declaration were tortured by the British, while two were merely injured in the War (none died). One signer who supposedly "died in poverty" actually became governor of Pennsylvania.
The Internet is also a hotbed of urban legends, hoaxes, and scares. You've probably gotten an inbox-full of "virus threats" -- characterized by the tell-tale phrase, "Please pass this on to everyone you know." You've probably heard that the government is about to start charging everyone for using e-mail, to help subsidize the Post Office (it isn't). Even accurate information (such as the news that certain cold medicines were to be withdrawn from the market) gets circulated long after its "time," until it becomes misinformation simply because it is out of date.
How can you determine whether the information you find is accurate? It's impossible to be 100% sure -- but by asking the following questions about everything you read, you'll improve your chances of getting "the right stuff."
1) Does the author, site, or information appear to exist primarily to support a particular point of view? Why is this information online in the first place? Does the material contain an obvious bias toward a particular point of view, agenda, or belief? If so, chances are that the material will at least be slanted toward that bias -- even if it is, itself, factual -- and there's also a very good chance that information that does not support the author's views will be omitted.
2) Does the site seem "overly emotional"? It's often easy to spot "emotional" sites -- they're full of bold-face phrases and LOTS OF CAPS. They often look as if the author is "shouting" at you. If a site uses phrases like "Don't believe what those Commie bastards in government are trying to pull off!!!", I'm inclined to believe that the author has an axe to grind -- and that accuracy may not be his highest priority.
3) Is the author trying to sell something? I'm always wary of sites that purport to offer "valuable medical information" that "doctors won't tell you" -- but just happens to be available in the author's book, or that supports a line of products such as supplements or exercise equipment. That doesn't mean that an author who is trying to sell a book is necessarily providing misinformation -- but if the information seems primarily offered as a sales pitch, beware!
4) Who is the author? Does the author have any credentials? The Internet is a place where absolutely anyone can post anything. Keep in mind, however, that a lack of credentials does not necessarily mean that the information will be inaccurate; the Internet is also a place where thousands of ordinary folks post highly accurate information, based on their personal research. If the author doesn't have credentials, look for references (e.g., a bibliography) that can help confirm the information provided.
5) Is the site up to date? You can check on how recently a site has been updated by going to the "View Page Info" command on your browser. This will bring up a window that gives some basic information on the site -- including the date of the last update. Another way to determine if a site is current is to test a few of its links. If you find that most of the links are "dead," you can assume that the author has not updated the information recently.
6) Does the information agree with other sites on the same topic? When I see ten sites that list Shackleton's death on January 5, and only one that lists it on January 4, I'm inclined to believe in the voice of the majority. By reviewing several sites on a topic, you'll get an idea for what the "accepted facts" are -- and be able to spot a site that seems to be "out of line" with those facts.
Here are some other ways to protect yourself -- and your writing -- from inaccuracies:
1) Never assume that information in an unsolicited e-mail is factual unless you have checked it thoroughly or are familiar with the original source. An "unsolicited e-mail" includes messages that are passed on to you by a friend, or through a discussion list -- i.e., information that you did not specifically request. E-mail has been the most prolific source of legends, myths (like the "signers of the Declaration" story), virus hoaxes, urban legends, and outdated information. E-mail gets forwarded forever -- and it seems to appeal to the gullible, who pass on stories like "I passed out in a hotel room and woke up without a kidney". Hoaxes also include warm-fuzzy stories, such as tales of sick children needing prayers or greeting cards. I'll make a simple recommendation here: Never cite information that comes from an unsolicited e-mail.
2) Check the "Urban Legends Reference Pages" for stories that are too good (or too bad) to be true. (For example, Osama bin Laden did not own Snapple!) Similarly, check the Vmyths.com for information on possible virus hoaxes.
3) Don't rely on a domain suffix to "validate" information. Don't assume, for example, that a ".com" suffix indicates a "commercial" site; anyone can use this suffix, and some of the best information on the Web is available through .com addresses. Conversely, don't assume that a ".edu" site must be accurate because it's from a "university" -- this does not necessarily indicate that the site is sponsored by the university, only that it is hosted on a university server.
4) Use common sense! Often, your own instincts will be the best guide. If something looks fishy, don't trust it just because it's "online" -- or even because it seems to be backed by some impressive credentials.
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Copyright © 2003 Moira Allen
This article was originally published in The Writer.