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“Brandeis

Evaluating Online Information

A guide to thinking critically about the information you find online.

Introduction

(Fake) Tweet by Betty White: "Brandeis Library is the best!"

This page is about all the "miscellaneous" stuff you find online - a page on an organization's website, a Facebook post of a screenshot of a Tumblr post of a screenshot of a tweet, a Wikipedia article on your research topic, and pretty much everything else. That's really broad! We've tried to break it down here with specific tips for certain categories of resources. And remember the CRAAP test - Currency, Reliability, Accuracy, Authority, and Purpose (go to the first page of this guide for a refresher). That can be applied to any resource, including these ones. 

Websites

Try investigating a couple of these questions in your everyday web use - it's pretty easy, it's a useful habit to build, and you may be surprised by what you find!

  • Who's the site's publisher? Is it a university, a non-profit organization, a passionate individual, a business? This could tell you about the site's purpose and any bias the publisher or author has. A mining company's website and an environmental non-profit's site will probably describe the same mine very differently; if you anticipate that bias, you'll be able to filter for good information. Remember also that a site's main purpose might be ad revenue, in which case the publisher probably isn't too worried about providing accurate information to researchers like us.
    • Read the "About" page carefully, and/or research the publisher elsewhere! The organizations linked below might look pretty similar if you don't look too closely. But on a closer reading, you can see that the ACLU is a progressive organization while the ACRU is a conservative organization.
  • How current is the site? Sometimes there'll be a "last updated" date on the page, but often you have to find other clues. Dead links, broken images, and dated design could indicate that the site hasn't been updated in a while.
  • What's the domain name? Anyone can buy a .com, .net, or .org website; .gov, .mil, and .edu are restricted to government, military, and educational institutions. .org sites are usually non-profits, but don't have to be. The domain name can give you some information about the site, but you'll still have to use other tools to evaluate it.

 

Social Media

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Flickr, and Wordpress logos

You probably couldn't/shouldn't check every factual claim you see on social media. ("My cat is licking his butt!") But there's a lot (A LOT) of nonsense out there; everyone should have some strategies for identifying it and avoiding spreading it. Some tips for getting started:

  • Be cautious of screenshots. Betty White has (probably) never tweeted about the Brandeis Library - but it's pretty easy to fake. Sometimes the fake is intended to deceive, or sometimes it's a joke that really fools some people. Note: there are valid reasons to screenshot instead of linking to the actual post or article - maybe the poster is avoiding attention from harassers, or thinks the original post might get deleted. How can you tell? Check the original source!
  • Check who the original poster is before believing what they've written. Accounts that are "verified" (blue checkmark by the name on Facebook or Twitter) aren't necessarily more trustworthy - the checkmark just means that they are who they say they are. The poster's bio and post history will give you better clues. And watch out for accounts that claim to be a public figure but aren't verified.
  • Click through to the article - headlines are frequently misleading. See also the "News" section of this guide!
  • Don't share it if you're not sure it's true! (Even if you really want it to be true.)

Wikipedia

Wikipedia: often accurate, rarely reliable. Some areas are edited thoroughly while false information in others goes untouched. It can be great for getting a quick summary of a topic or settling a debate among friends, but definitely not as a cited reference in an academic paper. What to do if you've found some useful information on Wikipedia, then?                                 

                                                                               Wikipedia logo

Checking for accuracy. If there's a citation on the page, check and assess the source cited. Depending on the kind of source, you can use the strategies elsewhere in this guide to evaluate it. If there's no citation, be skeptical and try to verify the information using other sources. 

Mining for sources. If there's information on a Wikipedia page that you really want to use in your research, check the citations and the references at the bottom of the page! They could point you to sources that are acceptable to cite in your scholarly work. Plus, those sources might go into more detail on the topic. But be sure to evaluate those sources too - many Wikipedia citations point to sites that aren't that reliable themselves.