Seems Legit: Online Sources and How to Verify Them

Last updated on June 3rd, 2023 at 08:38 am

“When the uninformed argue with the misinformed, there is no need to choose a side.”
Carmine Savastano

All social developments, from science and history to law and medicine, hang on the ability to communicate and compile verifiable information. Keyword: verifiable. And online… that can be a long, hard search:

Social Climate

As information technology has progressed, it’s become easier and easier for the average person to make their messages accessible to the public. This is possible because of web browsers like Google and Bing, social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube, and site-building services like WordPress and Squarespace. While it’s hugely beneficial in terms of communication, business, and self-expression, the outcome for research is more hazardous because it provides a hyper-expressway for the spread of false information.

Although some false claims are due to misinformation rather than deliberate lies, they can come in the form of fake news or what a certain political personality calls “alternative facts,” which serve the agenda of the source at the expense of truth. Trusting false claims in any professional field can have enormous consequences, no less in everyday life. So how do you determine if your source can be trusted? Through content-awareness and through self-awareness. Let’s talk about that.

Content-Awareness

Being content-aware means looking at messages through a critical lens, it means reading between the lines, and it means investigating the source. In other words, don’t trust an article, blog, tweet, video, or any other post until you know it’s worthy of your trust. Dig deeper by checking your source’s sources. As Time correspondent, Katy Steinmetz puts it, “A list of citations means one thing when it appears in a book that has been vetted by a publisher, a fact-checker and a librarian. It means quite another on the Internet, where everyone has access to a personal printing press” (Steinmetz, 2018).

Hyperbole

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines hyperbole as “extravagant exaggeration.” Many messages go viral because of the way they’re framed, and people have known this for a long time and have used it to their advantage. The headline, “Critic Attacks Local Chef” will sell better than “Critic Writes Bad Restaurant Review.”

Advice: Be on the lookout for exaggeration. Ask yourself if the claim is even realistic. If you think carefully, you’d be surprised how often you’ll find that it’s not.

Language and Spelling

Good syntax is not an indication of truth. However, a source that is careful with their spelling, grammar, and punctuation is a better bet than one that is not.

In the same way, eloquence is hardly a credential. There is cunning and forethought behind many a lie, and of course, beautiful speech may stir up revolution where patience is needed. But the language used can tell you if the source can be trusted. Does the writer sound like a researcher? Does the speaker sound like an expert? Or do they sound like an encyclopedia page?

Advice: Turn on your internal editor. If you were editor-in-chief, in charge of this content and its message, would you approve it for publishing? If you wouldn’t put it out under your name, it’s not a good enough source.

Source-Content Proximity

Any historian will tell you that primary sources are the ultimate resource in research methodology. A primary source is a source who records information firsthand, having seen the event, participated in the research, or observed the phenomenon in question personally.

A secondary source takes the information presented by the primary source and records it again from an outside perspective. The problem here is that any foreknowledge, sights, sounds, smells, or other contextual properties that inform the primary source are lost.

The problem only compounds as we move from secondary to tertiary and so on. If you’ve ever played a game of Telephone, you know how easily information can be distorted passing from one person to the next.

Advice: Your priority is the primary. Don’t be satisfied with a blog post about a new scientific breakthrough when you can read the paper submitted by the original researchers.

Credentials

Credentials are proofs that a source is trustworthy based on the merit of their achievements or their level of education. Check webpages for information about the content creator. Most websites have an “About Us” page of some sort, and failing that, a quick Google search will usually pull up a person’s relevant credential information.

Common higher education titles are:

  • A.A. (Associate of Arts: 2 years)
  • A.S. (Associate of Science: 2 years)
  • B.A. (Bachelor of Arts: 4 years)
  • B.S. (Bachelor of Science: 4 years)
  • M.A. (Master of Arts: 1–2 years)
  • M.S. (Master of Science: 1–2 years)
  • Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy/Doctoral Degree: 5–7 years)
  • M.D. (Medical Doctor: 4 years plus residency)
  • D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine: 4 years plus residency)

Advice: Your source’s title, if any, should match the level of education likely needed to be well-versed in the field. But even that’s not enough. You have to verify that their title came from a reputable institution. After all, it’s entirely possible to buy a Ph.D for as little as $250 without taking so much as a pop quiz. These purchased degrees are largely worthless because they come without any accompanying knowledge or experience, but unfortunately, they fool people.

Top-Level Domain (TLD)

Top-Level Domains are the last portion of a domain name, the letters after the dot. Here are the meanings behind the four most common TLDs:

  • .com=Commercial (usually attached to a business that sells a product, so there’s potential bias here.)
  • .org=Organization (often used by nonprofits and similar entities, so information is likely geared to support their cause.)
  • .edu=Educational (usually reserved for educational institutions, but some schools allow students to use .edu for their websites, so be careful.)
  • .gov=Government (generally trustworthy, but still a good idea to double-check information with multiple sources.)

Advice: Take advantage of the information that’s given to you. A website’s TLD can tell a lot about its content and its agenda.

Purpose

The purpose can affect the message, for instance, an article on video games and related health carries different weight if it’s released by a video game company versus a medical school research team. A curiosity piece should not be taken as a scholarly one. A persuasive paper should be read with its agenda in mind and the facts weighed against it. So what’s the purpose?

  • to inform or teach?
  • to explain or enlighten?
  • to persuade?
  • to sell a product?

Advice: Consider the agenda of the source, not just their reputation.

Intended Audience

Of similar importance to considering a source’s purpose is a source’s intended audience. Was the work created primarily with scholars or experts in mind? General audiences? Consumers? Children? Students? The content creator will alter their message depending on who it’s meant for.

Advice: Generally speaking, works created for scholars will have the most detailed information gathered with the most credible methods. Unfortunately, these sources can be difficult to read, so read them several times. Dissect them word for word. Or, if it’s not important for your purpose, find a source somewhere in the middle of the audience spectrum.

Timeliness

This one’s simple. How recently was the information published? Was it published long after the research or event it concerns? The less delay between the claim or discovery and the source, the more likely the message is to be accurate, and vice versa.

Advice: Always look for the latest research on a subject.

Note: For subjects like history, anthropology, sociology, and other studies that require looking into the past, it’s good to have a broad range of secondary sources. Keep in mind that sources don’t have to agree to be credible. As long as the disparity is addressed, differing accounts can provide vital perspective.

Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is arguably the harder part of vetting sources. Time correspondent Katy Steinmetz writes, “The problem is not just malicious bots or chaos-loving trolls or Macedonian teenagers pushing phony stories for profit. The problem is also us, the susceptible readers” (Steinmetz, 2018).

Did You Read the Whole Thing?

I am continually disappointed in people (sometimes including myself) for accepting or rejecting a claim without even finishing the source media. Consider yourself warned: It comes back to bite you.

I once got into an argument on Twitter, and my opponent sent me an article whose headline seemed to fit their argument. But reading through it, I discovered that the conclusion supported my argument instead. I admit I felt smug.

Advice: Don’t assume the content creator has put all of the pertinent information at the beginning or the end of the piece. Read, watch, and listen thoroughly.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias describes our tendency to trust messages that affirm what we already believe. As Philip Ewing said in a podcast with NPR,

“…so much of what makes misinformation pernicious is confirmation bias. A lot of the reasons that people get into stories they find on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter is because it confirms something they already think or they believe about the way the world works. And the way social media works is by rewarding you for interacting with things that it can show that you like. So the more time you spend on a story, the more links that you click on of a certain kind, the more Facebook, for example, is going to show you things like that.” (Ewing, 2019).

Confirmation bias is closely tied with emotion and familiarity. The brain works by matching new information with things it already knows. The more matches it finds on a subject, the more an idea becomes rooted in our heads, creating familiarity. Familiarity, in turn, breeds emotion in connection with what we’ve learned.

Advice: Pay attention to when your emotions are triggered by a story. Many stories are written with the intention of getting your goat.

Rhetoric

As you probably know, the pillars of human communication rest on rhetoric, which is broken down into the Aristotelian concepts of ethos, logos, and pathos.

  • Ethos: the credibility of the speaker or source.
  • Logos: the soundness of logic used to convey the message.
  • Pathos: the emotional appeal of the message.

All communicators use rhetoric. It is the primary method of persuasion and in most cases, is used intentionally by content creators.

Advice: Be aware that you are being manipulated, not necessarily maliciously, but constantly. Analyze the body language, inflection, tone, word choice, and any other qualities of your source and see if they match the message and its context.

Skepticism

When vetting sources, it’s good to err on the side of skepticism. Author and professor of education at Stanford University, Sam Wineburg, recommends click restraint and lateral reading. What, you ask?

Click restraint is having the patience to refrain from clicking the first few links in a Google search. Professional fact-checkers scroll through at least two pages of search results before clicking on any link, advisable because “[s]tudies have shown that people assume that the higher something appears in Google search results, the more reliable it is. But Google’s algorithms are surfacing content based on keywords, not truth” (Steinmetz, 2018). Sites may exploit this by spamming their articles with keywords to assure more readership, burying more reputable sources in the crowd.

Lateral reading is the act of checking a website’s credibility using sources other than the site itself. Instead of looking for credentials and signs of merit on the source page, fact-checkers open new tabs and see what other sites have to say about the source in question. Instead of reading vertically (reading an article from top to bottom), they read horizontally (reading about the writer).

Advice: Don’t be too hasty when you find what you think you’re looking for. Don’t gravitate toward the sites that show up first in a search (they do that on purpose) and double-check every source.

Note: domaintools.com displays domain information for websites. It can find hosting history, IP addresses, registration, and much more about a website. If a site has changed providers or names sixteen times in three months, it may not be credible. Tools like this can help you stay informed.

Wrapping Up

If you made it to the end of this article, I commend your commitment to truth. The fact is that many people just don’t think about where their information comes from, and that can have disastrous consequences for all of us — and often does.

As a writer and media producer, myself, I strive to spread only well-sourced information. Make a habit of investigating what you’re told, and I guarantee you’ll walk away better informed.

Thank you for your time. If you’re interested more of my content, you can read my last article here:The Way “Eye” See It: From Cuttlefish to Honey BeesUnder the Sun | Article 0003medium.com

If you’re a fan of learning, but not of eyes, you can browse all my articles on my Medium profile:Liam O’Riley – MediumRead writing from Liam O’Riley on Medium. @studiooriley | [email protected] | Creative Contractor: Video * Graphic…medium.com

This is Liam O’Riley signing off. I’ll see you next time, under the sun.

References

Anderson, J., & Rainie, L. (2019, December 31). The Future of Truth and Misinformation Online. Retrieved January 8, 2020, from https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2017/10/19/the-future-of-truth-and-misinformation-online/.

Childs, D. (2019, March 6). What Makes Valid Research? How to Verify if a Source is Credible on the Internet. Retrieved January 8, 2020, from https://www.democracyandme.org/what-makes-valid-research-how-to-verify-if-a-source-is-credible-on-the-internet/.

Conners, J. (2019, October 24). What is a Credible Source? How to Evaluate Web Resources. Retrieved January 8, 2020, from https://www.whoishostingthis.com/resources/credible-sources/.

Davis, S., Parks, M., & Ewing, P. (2019, November 27). How To Spot Misinformation. Retrieved January 8, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/2019/11/27/783293679/how-to-spot-misinformation.

Evaluating Internet Resources. (n.d.). Retrieved January 9, 2020, from https://www.library.georgetown.edu/tutorials/research-guides/evaluating-internet-content.

Our Process. (2019, November 26). Retrieved January 8, 2020, from https://www.factcheck.org/our-process/.

Steinmetz, K. (2018, August 9). How Your Brain Tricks You Into Believing Fake News. Retrieved January 8, 2020, from https://time.com/5362183/the-real-fake-news-crisis/.

Stevenson, R. W. (2019, July 30). How We Fact-Check in an Age of Misinformation. Retrieved January 8, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/30/reader-center/fact-checking-politics-presidential-election.html.

Wedge, M. (2017, January 23). The Historical Origin of “Alternative Facts”. Retrieved January 8, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/suffer-the-children/201701/the-historical-origin-alternative-facts.

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