A recent event highlighted the importance of checking the credibility of information published on the internet. An anonymous blog reported Ebola cases in Kenya and Ethiopia, causing concern among many people in Ethiopia, including ICS community members.
A quick check of the site found it not to be a credible source of information. It was the only site reporting the case in Ethiopia, and it has a strong anti-government bias. The Ethiopian government denied that the report was true. That denial was then backed up by various other organizations including the US Center for Disease Control and the US Embassy. The Kenyan incident was reported in other media outlets, but the case was confirmed to not be Ebola.
This event highlights some of the important critical thinking skills that are needed when getting information on the internet:
Be sceptical about anything that sounds strange
Anybody can publish anything online. For example, did you know that the US Government has kept a Federal Vampire and Zombie Agency to protect US citizens from attacks by the undead? It’s true! You can read all about it online. (Spoiler alert: it’s not true – this is a humorous site.)
Similarly, email messages or Facebook posts that tell you that the moon will be ten times larger than normal, or that Bill Gates will send you $1,000 if you forward a message or that if you open a particular email message your computer will explode or… these simply aren’t true. People send out all kinds of wacky information and there are no Internet Police stopping them. This kind of gossip, rumor-mongering, and spreading of false information has always happened. It’s just with the internet, it’s easy to spread it faster and further.
Chances are, if something sounds wrong …it probably is.
Check the credibility of the source
When you read something online, you need to know who is publishing this information. Are they trying to promote a particular viewpoint? There is a website about the American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. which describes all kinds of unpleasant aspects of his personal life. Read through the site, and you’ll wonder why people admire him …until you find out that the website is maintained by a racist white supremacy organization. (I won’t link to the website because I don’t want to increase their traffic, but you can find it easily on the web if you want to read it.)
Check whether a website has a bias. If they are trying to convince you to believe a particular thing, then they won’t give you balanced information. They also may skew the facts or even blatantly misrepresent information in order to further their cause.
Verify the information somewhere else
If one site publishes some information, is it published on another site? If something is only found on one place on the web, then it may not be correct.
Even if you do find the information elsewhere, you need to make sure that it’s not just repeating the first site. A while back, there was a report that the Ethiopian government was banning Skype and other internet calling applications. This report spread out and was reported on several news sites …but they were all simply copying the initial report (which was by an activist group that had an agenda). In the end, the report turned out to be false.
There are a few websites that are devoted to trying to stop the spread of misinformation. Snopes is probably the best source to use …I always use it to check email messages I receive that make strange claims. Others include Hoax-Slayer and Truth or Fiction. The Straight Dope is also an excellent site that tries to fight ignorance and misinformation.
There is a wealth of information on the web, and it’s great to have access to it all. Use it. Enjoy it. But think critically about the information you find. Just because it’s published on a website, just because Google offers it to you when you search for information, doesn’t mean that is reliable. Use the web. But check your facts.
I've been teaching and traveling the world for decades. I teach technology skills and programming in international schools, and love developing skills in my students. Teaching internationally gives me a broader perspective and I thoroughly enjoy the thrill of new sights and experiences.