In today's online environment, it can be difficult to decide what information to trust, what sources are appropriate to use in your assignments, and who is behind all this content!
On this page, you'll find a few simple strategies for evaluating the credibility of online sources, the importance of avoiding clickbait, and a technique used by professional fact-checkers, known as lateral reading. Relying on superficial factors such as domains or URLs, or the appearance of professionalism and objectivity, doesn't usually go far enough in helping you make an accurate decision about a source's trustworthiness.
This page borrows from the important work of the Stanford History Education Group, whose project Civic Online Reasoning involved many years of research into how people locate and evaluate online information. You'll find evidence-based resources and videos there.
Also helpful is the excellent work done by librarians at Rowan University: Evaluating Online Sources: A Toolkit.
Resist the urge to click!
By now most of us are aware that our search results are directly influenced by such things as platform algorithms and search engine optimization, as well as our own browsing histories. In most of our searches, top results are often advertisements having little to do with our topic, or worse, misleading and inaccurate sources that offer biased or unreliable coverage of a topic.
Expert searchers and professional fact-checkers resist clicking the top link in a search and instead conduct an initial survey of the first page of results in order to get a sense of the kind of coverage available on a topic. Pretty quickly, they can arrive at a general sense of what people are saying on a given subject. Experienced searchers may even go to a second page of results before finding what they would consider a trusted source.
In particular, they pay attention to:
The following brief video from Stanford History Education Group demonstrates the importance of click restraint in deciding which sources of information are worth considering.
Lateral reading: get off the page!
Professional fact-checkers and journalists are adept at determining the credibility of an unfamiliar source by using a process called lateral reading. Finding out what other, trusted sites have to say about a source is as important, if not more, than just reading a site's own pages. The point here is that, if a site is not trustworthy, then it is likely that its "about" page or mission statement will also be misleading; getting off the page and doing some checking on other sites will give you a sense of how to evaluate your source.
This could be as simple as opening another tab and doing a quick Google search of your source. In many cases, Wikipedia may be among the top results, and will provide an unbiased overview of the source's credibililty.
Or try using the search command [website URL] -site:website URL to find other sites that discuss the site you are evaluating.
For example, to find out what other sources have to say about the online local news site The Tyee, you could run the following search:
Click the screenshot above to see the results. Notice that none of them are from The Tyee itself, but other sites that have something to say about The Tyee.
Remember too that opening up another tab and doing a quick search about an author, or the organization behind a source, is an important strategy in lateral reading as well.
For a full discussion of lateral reading, please see the Read Laterally chapters in Mike Caulfield's Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers.
Developed by web literacy advocate Mike Caulfield, this method outlines a 4 part strategy for verification of online sources, starting with the first move, which is to simply stop when considering a source.
Ask yourself whether you know the site that is reporting the information. Is it trustworthy? What do you know of its reputation and its authors? If you're not sure, then proceed with the other 3 moves.
Stop also reminds you of the purpose of your information seeking. What was it you were trying to find out?
This is the first in a 4 part series of short videos on Online Verification Skills from Mike Caulfield and CTRL+F.
Investigating the source, the second move in this method, involves taking a minute to consider what you know about the source of information, who created it and what their purpose might be.
If you are unfamiliar with a source, finding out what others have to say about it is an important first step in your information gathering. Consider a Google search of the site itself or locate a Wikipedia article about the organization behind the site.
Get off the page, open a new tab, and do some investigating.
This is the second in a 4 part series of short videos on Online Verification Skills from Mike Caulfield and CTRL+F.
Assess the claim made by a particular source by looking for similar claims across a number of sources. Is there a consensus, or agreement, on a claim? Look for the best coverage of a claim on a site you know to be reputable.
This is the third in a 4 part series of short videos on Online Verification Skills from Mike Caulfield and CTRL+F.
Much of what we find on the internet has been stripped of its context. Trace any claim, conclusion, or reference back to the original reporting. This is especially important when you are reading a second or third-hand account of research, the findings of which can get skewed or misrepresented.
Usually, a few keywords describing the subject of the research, and the author's last name, the insitution they are affiliated with or a publication name, will be enough to bring back the original, published research.
This is the last in a series of short videos on Online Verification Skills from Mike Caulfield and CTRL+F.