A safer internet: four steps to check reliability

I wrote this post for Safer Internet Day 2021, but the advice applies at any time. The theme was ‘An internet we trust: exploring reliability in an online world’. You can find out more, and download resources for different age groups, on the Safer Internet Centre website.

At a time when both teachers and children are working remotely over the internet, it is more crucial than ever that we can rely on the information, and sources of that information, that we encounter online.

In my role within the Education Team at the Bodleian Libraries, I deliver sessions on academic study skills, including evaluating online sources. You can find resources for this (and other course topics) on the OxLibris website. The guidance is aimed at students researching for the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) and other coursework, but it applies to any online research.

1. What is the purpose of this site?

Ask yourself why the information has been put online. What is the intention of those who created the site, or posted the information? Is it to inform or educate? To entertain? Perhaps it’s to persuade or promote a particular opinion or point of view? Maybe the aim is marketing: to sell a product.

While information about the site can be useful in deciding this, it is also useful to look at any adverts on the site. While many sites will carry adverts that are unconnected with the information, ask yourself if the advertisers could be influencing the site content. This could be directly by paying for the content, or indirectly because the site avoids publishing anything that they think advertisers will not like.

2. Who has provided this information?

There are several ways we can find out who is behind a website and the information it contains. A well-run website should make it easy for users to find this out.

  • An ‘About’, ‘About Us’ or ‘Who We Are’ tab in the menu or navigation bar is a good place to start. This should provide information about who is behind the site and their reasons for creating it.
  • Contact details can often be found on a ‘Contact Us’ page or link. Ideally, this should provide as much contact information as possible, not just a web form or email address. Look for a registered telephone number and a postal address.
  • Organisational information. If the site is a business or charity this should be obvious. In the UK, companies, including non-profit companies, should be registered. Their company number will allow you to look up details of the company and its directors. Charities should be registered with the Charities Commission. Their registration number should be present and can be checked to verify their charitable status.
  • If the website collects information about you, perhaps through a sign-up form for news updates, it should include a Privacy Notice saying how they will use any personal information they collect, the legal basis for processing your information, how you can opt out, and who you can contact if you have any questions about this.
This homepage has an ‘About us’ tab, contact details, charity and company registrations, and a link to a privacy notice. Image credit: fullfact.org

If you can’t find this information, ask why this might be. While it may just be poor web design, it could be because the creators want to remain obscure.

3. Are there references for primary sources?

A primary source of information is written by the person who first produced the data, information, idea or opinion. Websites often summarise this information. This may be to disseminate it more widely, or to make it more accessible for non-specialists. It may also be to support the author’s own ideas, or to place a particular slant on the original information. In extreme cases, it can be used to create ‘fake news’ by surrounding a kernel of fact with misinformation.

You should be able to trace the original source of information by looking for references. These should detail where to find the source, which could be a book, published article, news item, or online publication. Wherever possible a link to the source should be included.

It’s important to check sources, especially for controversial topics. This enables us to verify not only whether the information is accurate but also whether it has been interpreted in an accurate and unbiased way. It’s particularly important to check sources for claims made on social media.

4. Has the information been fact checked?

Following up references enables us to check facts, but this isn’t always possible, particularly for fast-developing news stories, or information communicated over social media platforms. Fortunately, information may already have been fact-checked. A number of organisations have arisen in recent years to meet the need for objective fact-checking of claims that are made online and in the news.

When using such sites, we need to be as careful as we would with any site over who is running it and why, because some sites which claim to be objective in fact promote a particular viewpoint. Two sites which are both independent and reliable are fullfact.org and fact-check.org.

Full Fact is a UK-based charity and non-profit company that provides a fact-checking service for topical news items.

Fact Check is based in the United States and focuses on US politics, although there is some coverage of international topics.

A particular favourite of mine is politifact.com. While its scope is largely restricted to US politics, I do enjoy the six-point ‘truth-o-meter’ ratings it gives to statements, which range from ‘True’ for verified facts, to ‘Pants on Fire’ to outright fabrications!

When attempting to navigate the myriad of information available online, taking a little time to go through these four steps will go a long way to ensuring that the sources of information you use are reliable.

If you are interested in online safety, you might like my post on Lessons from a Ransomeware Attack.

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