There is more information available at your finger tips now than ever before. According to one estimate, there are over 1 billion websites alone (let alone number of web pages!). Whilst there are many positives in terms of the increased accessibility of information, it does present difficulties. Given that the tools available online enable anyone with an internet connection to create content and publish to the world, there is clearly a lot of information out there that is unreliable. It is for this reason that it is vital to take a very critical approach to any information you find online. Don’t simply accept what you find as fact, you need to look at it critically, analysing it to determine its accuracy.
There are four basic questions you should ask yourself when you find information online:
Who wrote it? Can you identify who has actually written the article? Does it name an author or is it written anonymously/using a pseudonym? Is the author a well-known and respected figure within the community? Are they a respected figure in the field? If the author isn’t identifiable, has it been hosted on a website that is respected and well-established in the field? Does it provide clear, reasonable reasons for the anonymity?
Can you verify what they have written? Do they refer to other sources within the article? Do they mention any research that has been conducted? If so, do they provide links or citations so you can access and read this research?
Can you identify when it was written? Is the article clearly dated? Can you identify how often the website is updated? Are links in the article still active or are they effectively “dead links” (ie when you click on the link you are directed to a web page that no longer exists)?
Do they have an agenda? Does the author or website hold an identifiable political perspective? Is the article or website itself funded by groups or individuals that pursue a particular political agenda? Is the author affiliated with any think-tanks or lobbying groups?
These questions are a good starting point for assessing any information you find online. The important thing is to always read any information you find critically. Don’t merely accept what is written as fact without considering the questions above. Journal articles and books have the significant advantage of making these questions easier to answer (authors are named, citations are clear and traceable etc). Information available online can certainly be useful, but you must treat it with care!