What spreads faster than wildfire? Misinformation.
In our digitally driven world, information is more than merely available—it’s almost too available. Anyone can create a website, write an article, or share something online without the qualifications or experience to do so.
While there’s some level of beauty in such heightened accessibility and opportunity, these benefits aren’t without some downsides. When anyone can post anything at any time on any platform, it can be challenging to know which information you can trust.
Let’s explore the ways you can tell a website is credible—for the next time you’re stumped on a source.
Check Out the Domain
Take a look at the address bar at the top of your internet browser. After the domain name—the name of the website—you’ll see a period followed by a few letters. Typically, those few letters will look like:
- .com (commercial)
- .org (nonprofit)
- .edu (educational)
- .gov (government)
These four top-level domains—the very last part of a domain name—can generally be classified as “safe” as far as scams and security are concerned. However, just because a website is deemed “safe” doesn’t mean it’s a credible source of information.
Review the Details
Before citing a source in a school paper or sharing an article on social media, there are a couple of key details to consider:
Find out when the source was published. Publication dates can be found in many places on a website. Most articles—especially news articles and blog posts—feature the date and time of publication at the top of the web page, near the title. If you don’t see it there, scroll to the bottom of the web page for an indication of when it was last updated.
Specifically in fields that depend on new and developing information, such as science and technology, it’s crucial to determine whether a source is current. Outdated sources can present information that is no longer correct or relevant.
The number of revisions or updates
Particularly in news articles, it’s not uncommon for a source to be revised or updated once new information is made available. In these instances, the author will typically include a note at the beginning or end of the article with the revision or update along with an explanation.
In other sources, take note of any revisions or updates you find—especially if they haven’t been indicated by the author. Too many revisions or updates may mean the author is changing or omitting information to suit the reader or gain clicks.
Like the publication date, the author of an online source can usually be found at the top of the web page, near the title. Otherwise, you’ll need to scroll to the bottom to find the author’s name.
Along with the author’s name is often a short biography. Give it a glance. Does the author mention any credentials that qualify them to write about the source’s subject matter? What education or experience do they have? What is their current career? What about their background?
Do a little digging to uncover any other articles they may have written. Are they linked in any way? Pop the author’s name into a LinkedIn or Google search to learn more about their qualifications—and their intentions.
Evaluate the website your source is published on. What purpose does the website serve? Has it earned a reputation of leaning a certain way, or for providing false or sensational information?
Just like you did with the author, take the next step by investigating the website further. Who owns the website? What agenda or bias might the owner have? Unraveling the thread of ownership can help you establish credibility.
Identify Any Bias
Bias can be difficult to identify because oftentimes, it’s not obvious. Whether it’s political ideology, religious affiliation, or financially motivated, bias can be present in sources of any kind.
Unfortunately, even sources of news reporting can be heavily slanted—or completely fabricated. When simple facts get chopped, diced, and mixed up with bias, how do you know when a source is reliable?
Use the following questions to unveil any bias in the next article you read:
- Who owns or publishes the source?
- Are there any advertisements in the source? What is being advertised?
- Is there a political slant in the source?
- Does the author of the source introduce multiple sides to an argument? Are these differences presented fairly?
- Is there factual evidence with citations and links in the source?
- What type of language is used throughout the source? Is there strong language, politically charged language, hyperbole, or logical fallacies?
If any of these questions leave you second-guessing the credibility of a source, bring your analysis home by measuring your source up against these red flags of bias:
- The source is heavily opinionated or blatantly one-sided.
- The source attempts to persuade you a certain way based on opinion alone.
- The source stands on unsupported claims.
- The source presents carefully selected “facts” that lead to one conclusion.
- The source uses extreme and highly emotional language to evoke a reaction.
- The source’s author is unidentifiable or lacks expertise.
- The source is trying to sell you something.
Check the Facts
In the era of “fake news” and social media platforms fact-checking on our behalf, performing your own fact-checking process is more important now than ever.
The problem? Sometimes “fake news” is nicely buried under a pretty website design, well-educated words, and quick circulation. In a sea of “fake news” and false information, how do you spot the good stuff?
When you’re left wondering if what you just read is real, here are some dead giveaways:
- The information can’t be verified.
There are no sources cited and no links. And if there are links, the links take you to websites that cannot be trusted or do not exist.
- The information is extreme.
From ridiculous claims to emotional language, if anything about the article is extreme, reconsider its reliability. Extremism of any kind gets clicks!
- The information is isolated.
If the claims cannot be found anywhere else online, they’re unlikely to be credible.
- The information is for entertainment value.
Keep an eye out for satirical websites that poke fun at current events, like The Babylon Bee or The Onion. While they can be funny, they’re not reliable sources.
If you’re still stumped on the credibility of a source, try using a fact-checking website to get to the bottom of it. FactCheck.org, PolitiFact, and Snopes are all great places to start—especially when verifying the stories you see on social media.
Keep an Open Mind
Through it all, don’t forget to keep an open mind. Remember, you should be seeking credible sources from which to form an educated opinion—not seeking sources to validate an opinion you already have.
Be willing to have your mind changed when presented new information. It’s what all good scientists do!