Almost anyone can post anything online. That’s one of the greatest benefits of the internet, but it’s also one of its biggest problems. Ideally, the internet is a resource that allows one to express themselves, share their perspectives, and connect with likeminded people. Yet as we’ve seen over the past decade, the internet is also home to misinformation, half-truths, and lies.
All of this can make it hard to know for sure if a source is trustworthy. Whether you’re a teenager writing a report or an adult looking to better understand current events, it is important to know if the sources you’re looking at are credible or not. After all, you can’t form a strong argument based on falsehoods. So here are some helpful tips for evaluating online sources and figuring out if they are credible.
What To Look For
There are a few major factors that come into play when determining if an online source is credible. These include:
- Author: Be wary of any resource that doesn’t list an author. If someone is willing to put their name to the information provided, it means that they stand by it. Knowing the author also allows you do some research and determine if they are some who can be trusted.
- Date: Most online resources will include the date that the content was uploaded, or at least the last time that it was updated. While some information remains valuable long after its written, the rule of thumb is that the more recently something was written, the better. This is especially true in fields like science where things are constantly changing and being updated.
- Domain: Web domains like “.com,” “.net,” and “.org” can be purchased and used by anybody. However, the domain .edu is reserved for colleges and universities, while “.gov” denotes a government website. These are usually trustworthy sources, though sometimes a university with granted a “.edu” address to its students for personal use.
- Sources Cited: With an academic article, authors are expected to cite specific sources that were used in the creation of their work. It isn’t always necessary to do the same in non-academic settings, but listing your sources goes a long way towards establishing credibility, as it shows that research was done.
- Website Design: This is highly subjective, but a well-designed website can potentially be an indicator that the information featured is more trustworthy. If the website looks hastily slapped together, it suggests that the author is an amateur rather than a professional.
At the very least, before you cite something in a report or post about it online, you should check to see who the author is, what website they are posted on, and when the source was written or updated. Also, always read beyond the title: internet articles often use misleading or inflammatory titles in order to get people to click on them, so make sure that the source says what you think to say before sharing it.
What To Avoid
There are certain types of websites that you should avoid when looking up a topic online.
- Wikipedia: Though incredibly convenient, Wikipedia is not allowed as an academic source and should never be treated as a primary source. It can be a useful way to start doing research on something, but it should never be the endpoint. Most good Wikipedia articles do have links to sources cited however, so consider investigating them if you want something more substantial.
- Blogs: Unless you’re studying a specific topic and the author is relevant to the field, you should avoid using blogs as definitive sources. Blogs are generally the domain of opinions, not facts.
- The Onion & Other Parody Sites: The Onion is a popular parody website that mainly posts fictional and often comedic news stories. However, it has often been accidentally cited by journalists and other professionals who didn’t realize it wasn’t a legitimate news source.
- Question & Answer Sites: Websites like Quora, Answers.com, and Fluther allow users to submit questions or answer those left by others. These websites rarely list authors and have no way to confirm that the answers given are credible. These sites can be useful for simple, practical purposes, but not for understanding more complex topics.
What You Should Keep In Mind
Keep in mind that even if a source is credible, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s without bias. While there are few truly objective sources, some are more biased than others. Things like the author’s organizational affiliation, political alignments, family life, and more are all potential sources of bias and should be considered when looking at something. Additionally, double-check any information you find against what other sites are saying, especially with recent news.
Most importantly though, use your common sense. Does the content of what someone is saying sound reasonable? Does it seem like it’s coming from a place of good faith? So long as you’re aware of the misinformation that’s out there and takes the proper steps to avoid it, you can better ensure that you’re properly informed about what’s going on in the world today.