Gauging the Accuracy of Information on the Internet
by Dr. Ken Klemow, Professor of Biology and GeoEnvironmental Sciences
Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, PA

Published in the Wilkes University Beacon, 25 October 2001
Copyright 2001. Kenneth M. Klemow

 

It was another rousing Saturday evening at the Klemow household. My wife and I were planted in front of our television, engrossed in a rented movie, and the phone rang. It was my mother-in-law, calling to pass along a very disturbing story she just heard.

She said that a close friend just called her from Florida, advising her to stay out of shopping malls on Halloween. According to my mother-in-law, the friend had recently spoken with an FBI agent who told her a long story involving a jilted lover and the events of September 11. My mother-in-law wanted to know if she could call our daughter who is away at college, and ask her to stay out of malls on Halloween. My wife gave her permission.

After we returned to the movie, I mulled over my mother-in-law's warning. I recalled a Halloween, several years back, when students at Wilkes were scared by a threat that something bad was going to happen at a Pennsylvania college that was situated next to a river. Of course, nothing happened here or elsewhere. The story proved to be a hoax intended to make Halloween a bit more frightful.

But this Halloween mall threat couldn't be a hoax, because it came directly from a reliable source. After all, if the information came from an FBI agent, it has to be true. Right?

After the movie ended, I decided to fire up our computer and go on-line to test a hunch. I went to www.google.com and did a search using the key words "Halloween terrorist mall hoax." The results page showed many links, all describing an email making the rounds suggesting that something bad was going to happen at shopping malls on Halloween. Clicking the link for the first site listed led me to a webpage that contained the exact story that my mother-in-law told my wife. My hunch, that the story was a hoax, proved true.

Two lessons are apparent here. First, in our information age, much of what we hear and read is nonsense. Second, the advent of the Internet provides us with some tools to evaluate that information.

As members of a university community, we are exposed to enormous amounts of information each day. As intelligent processors of information, we must critically evaluate what we hear and read. We must strike the right balance between accepting all information as the truth, and rejecting all information as untrue.

No medium carries more potential to spread misinformation than the Internet. Webpages are posted to the web by people having their own world-views and agendas. Much of the information posted to the web passes to us without benefit of peer review or a publisher to act as a filter. It's strictly "reader beware."

Because of the lack of review, many people don't trust any information posted to the web. I find that mindset to be shortsighted. Certainly, organizations ranging from the federal government, to academic research labs, to hundreds of news organizations all post highly accurate information that is of enormous potential value to readers. Thousands of people now organize their careers around obtaining and analyzing data available on-line.

So how can we separate the worthless webpages from the worthy? Unreliable webpages can be recognized by these features:

Of course, much of the information that we get from the Internet is in the form of email. Common features of email hoaxes include:

Several Internet sites successfully track new hoaxes, and archive old ones. Two of my favorites include www.stiller.com/hoaxes.htm, and www.urbanlegends.about.com. In addition to discussing specific hoaxes, those sites provide general information about evaluating the reliability of information posted to the Internet.

Philosophers of democracy like Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, and John Dewey all recognized that a self-governing society requires a well informed citizenry. Today's headlines clearly point to the dangers that democracies face. The need is clear for all participants in this information-rich society to be critical consumers of information. We must assume the responsibility of actively evaluating that which we read and hear. Above all, we must not serve as conduits for hoaxes and other forms of misinformation.

Pass it on.


This page posted and maintained by Kenneth M. Klemow, Ph.D., Biology Department, Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, PA 18766. (570) 408-4758, kklemow@wilkes.edu.