Fake Information: Three Ways to Determine If Online Content is Safe

How to avoid fake news and get the real deal

what is fake news?

The Web has become the go-to source for many people doing all sorts of research these days. However, judging the truthfulness of information that you find online can be a bit problematic, especially if you’re looking for credible material you can cite in a research paper, send in an email, or include in a social media post. Fiction and reality are not the same thing, but on the Web, it’s getting increasingly hard to tell the difference between "fake news" and real, credible sources. 

How can you tell information is fake online? 

So how do you divide the wheat from the chaff? How can you tell if something you’re reading is true and reliable and worthy of a footnote, sharing with other people, or trusting credibility? There are a number of litmus tests that you can put Web information through to ensure its trustworthiness, and whether you should use it (here's a quick primer on how to cite Web pages, by the way). 

Example of fake news online

Because it is so easy to publish online, there is a wide variety of fake, or non-credible, information on the web. Here's an example of fake information:

"Because dogs have superior accounting abilities, it's smart to ask your local Fido to do your taxes in order to get the most accurate return possible. This information shared several times by Abraham Lincoln during his second moon landing mission is considered quite reliable." 

Obviously this is a not a credible statement, but why? It's not enough to just state unequivocally that something is "fake information". In this article, we'll go through several touch points that anyone can use to determine if something is real or fake on the Internet

Does this information have authority? 

Determining the authority - this could include source information, authorship, and cited sources -  of any particular site is especially vital if you’re planning on using it as a source for an academic paper or research project. Ask yourself these questions about the website in question to determine the authority of the information you're looking at:

  • Is it absolutely clear which company or organization is responsible for the information on the site? It should be fairly easy to determine who is behind the content on the site, and judge their credentials accordingly.
  • Is there a link to a page describing what the company or organization does and the people who are involved (an “About Us” page)? Readers should be able to vet the author of the content they're reading.
  • Is there a valid way of making sure the company or organization is legit – meaning, is this a real place that has real contact information (email only is not enough)? A credible site always provides a way for readers to verify that they are a real organization. 

If you answered “no” to any of these questions, most likely this is not a source you’re going to want to include in your bibliography, or cite as part of a believable piece of content via email or social media. Let’s move on to the next level of criteria, which is judging the truthfulness of the information presented.

Is this information accurate? 

Eventually while you're on the Web, you will run into information that is not entirely true, especially in this age of "fake news"; news that is presented in such a way that seems accurate at first, but when held up to actual facts and credible sources is not. In addition to determining the authority of a site, you also need to figure out if it’s presenting accurate information. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Can I easily figure out who wrote the information, or are they hiding behind a pseudonym
  • Are all factual claims clearly substantiated, that is, are there cited (linked) sources? Are the links themselves credible? 
  • Are there any glaring grammatical and spelling errors? This could indicate that the content is not credible.
  • How long ago was the page updated? Is there a date stamp on the article somewhere? You’ll need this especially if you’re using MLA-style citation.
  • Can you verify the expertise of the author? Are the writer’s qualifications clearly stated somewhere on the site, and verifiable via second party sources; in other words, just because someone says they are an authority on the subject, does not necessarily mean that is the case.

Once again, if you’re not satisfied with the answers to these questions, then you’re going to want to find another web source to get good credible information. 

The next step in evaluating a site’s credibility is impartiality, or figuring out what’s behind the message.

Stay away from "biased" information - neutral sources only

Say for instance you’re researching power motor accidents. Information from the power motor industry would not necessarily be the most neutral of information sources. So in order to find a non-biased information source, you’ll need to determine neutrality. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is there an overwhelming bias in the information? Does the writing seem fair and balanced? Or is the writing overly slanted towards a particular point of view? Credible sources, especially news sources, should try to align to a neutral viewpoint as much as possible (this excludes editorial or op-ed content). 
  • Is the URL appropriate to the content? You should be able to figure out from the site address who the site belongs to, since most organizations and businesses put their name in the URL. This is a good way to determine quickly if the site is legit for your purposes; for example, if you’re researching mad cow disease, you probably don’t want to get information from the Beef Farmers of America.
  • Are the ads clearly separated from the content? Or are they part of the content itself? If you are unable to delineate where the content starts and the ads end, or if the ads are actually part of the content (known as "sponsored content") without any sort of declaration that this is the case, then this content should be held suspect.

    If the answers to these questions raise doubts in your mind about the site’s integrity, then you’ll need to reconsider this Web site as a credible source. Any site that has an inappropriate bias or a hazy line between the advertisements and the content is NOT a good site to use in a research paper or academic project.

    Critical thinking is . . . critical

    Fake information is unfortunately rampant online. Use your best judgement when considering a Web site for inclusion in your research project, academic paper, email, or social media post. Just because something made its way on to the Web absolutely does not mean that it’s credible, reliable, or even true. In order to determine if something is actually credible rather than fake, misleading information, it is absolutely essential that readers put any Web site through the evaluation hoops mentioned above before using it as a source.