One of the great things about the Internet is that anyone can publish anything, and have it read by anyone in the world. One of the worst things about the Internet is that anyone can publish anything, and have it read by anyone in the world.
The current political climate and significant social issues are resulting in a flood of news and commentary pieces being shared on social media like Facebook and Twitter. In some ways this is a very good thing. People have an opportunity to be subjected a wide range of opinions and gain access to disparate ideologies, opinions and perspectives in order to form or adjust their own beliefs on many subjects.
Unfortunately, there are a few downsides to such an open publishing medium: First, too many of us practice selective exposure, limiting the range of disparate views we read, essentially living in a bubble (more on this in a future post). Second, the validity of a source of information is seldom taken into account, and the published material is taken as fact.
How many times have you read the Facebook comments on a post shared from a satirical website, and found people taking the information in the post as factual? This post from The Onion is a good example. I participated in a comment chain on Facebook that included comments from people who were surprised to learn that there is official choreography for the National Anthem.
So it has come to my attention that perhaps Netizens need a little bit of a primer on what constitutes a good source. I’ll start with some basic information, and provide a recent example from my Facebook feed.
I would love to spend time pointing out the finer points of spotting satire, but honestly, it’s mostly a matter of paying attention to what you’re reading. if the example I provided from The Onion fooled you, well, you probably just need to pay closer attention and use some critical thinking skills as you read. I’ll keep things simple by providing some general guidelines and an example.
On a basic level, there are some general rules to determining if a source is credible or not. The Online Writing Lab at Purdue University offers a succinct and easily followed guide to credibility of sources. Here are some highlights:
Who is the author? Credible sources are written by authors respected in their fields of study. Responsible, credible authors will cite their sources so that you can check the accuracy of and support for what they’ve written. (This is also a good way to find more sources for your own research.)
What is the author’s purpose? When deciding which sources to use, you should take the purpose or point of view of the author into consideration. Is the author presenting a neutral, objective view of a topic? Or is the author advocating one specific view of a topic? Who is funding the research or writing of this source? A source written from a particular point of view may be credible; however, you need to be careful that your sources don’t limit your coverage of a topic to one side of a debate.
Be especially careful when evaluating Internet sources! Never use Web sites where an author cannot be determined, unless the site is associated with a reputable institution such as a respected university, a credible media outlet, government program or department, or well-known non-governmental organizations. Beware of using sites like Wikipedia, which are collaboratively developed by users. Because anyone can add or change content, the validity of information on such sites may not meet the standards for academic research.
These are the basic steps for determining the validity or credibility of an Internet source. I would add to that list site design. If you are reading something on a page that contains more ‘click bait’ advertising than actual information, there’s a good chance it’s complete crap.
Now for our example. This is from a Facebook post that showed up in my feed recently. Although I am reticent to drive any traffic to this site, I think it’s sort of important to the discussion that you have a look at it, so please read it now. The basis of this post is to attempt to give validity to a slippery slope argument, but we won’t go into fallacies here. I’ll cover the dangers of fallacious arguments in a later post.
Comparing this ‘article’ to our list above we’ll have a look at some of the more glaring problems with this piece.
- Who is the author? There is no byline for this article, so nothing that is said can be attributed to an actual person. This is a great way to say something without being held accountable, much like when you hear a cable news pundit preface a statement with “some people believe”. You can say it, but don’t have to own it or back it up.
- What is the author’s purpose? This article is textbook single viewpoint avocation of a point of view, and hits every point on our list.
- Be especially careful when evaluating Internet sources! This article should be setting off every alarm bell from our list, with the possible exception of the caution against using sites like Wikipedia. It’s even an outstanding example of site design that should give you pause.
There are a few more things that I noticed when reading what little text was included on this page. The most glaring (and personally annoying) is the fact that there is abundant use of quotation marks (starting in the second paragraph) with absolutely no attribution to who is being quoted. This another way of saying something without having to own it.
Another obvious problem is the quotation from a source that is incompletely cited. “ …in 2012, Harvard Medical School published an article arguing that… ” is a great start, but without a proper citation, a reader cannot easily find that publication and see for themselves that what is claimed to be in the publication is actually there, and in proper context. I found the Harvard article that is being referenced. The quote was indeed pulled from that article, but in context the quote does not say what the author would like you to believe it says.
This story has been posted in one form or another on many blog sites. This example is one of the worst when it comes to credibility; some sites do a much better job. All of the posts I was able to find are excerpts from what looks like the original article in the Norther Colorado Gazette. This particular piece probably does the best job looking credible, but would still get a college freshman an ‘F’ on a paper if she used it as a cited source.
The purpose of this post is not to argue facts, an opinion on the social issue at hand, or the validity of anyone’s opinion on the subject. My aim is to point out that if you call something “research” and reference pathetic sources, you will not only look silly but you will most likely lose credibility yourself. Find credible sources that back up your claims or support your opinions, and cite them well enough to allow a reader to see the source material and judge it for themselves. I’m not suggesting that you include an MLA or APA citation list at the bottom of your Facebook posts, a proper description of the source or a web link can suffice.
Keep in mind that the burden of proof in a debate is on the person making a claim. Enforce that. Above all, follow some basic rules, use some common sense, and engage your critical thinking skills when you are deciding what is truth, and what may be complete partisan crap.