Be media smart! Assessing online information in 5 steps

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Most of us rely on the information we get on the internet. We ask the internet about everything! It has become second nature to us to Google something when we need answers. We check online for the weather, traffic situation, and current events, or look for products, job posts, or services. Nowadays, we also get information from social media and share them with our friends and family.

With online information touching almost every aspect of our lives, it’s crucial that what we get is factual, accurate and reliable.

How do you know if the online information you’re getting is reliable or accurate?

5 steps to getting accurate and reliable information:

  1. Stick to sites from established institutions

    Go to sites are run by government agencies, academic institutions, non-profit organizations and established businesses. For example, if you need statistics about Canada’s population, immigration, or any other aspect of Canadian life, your best source would be Statistics Canada. Do you need news and current events? Go to legitimate news sites like CBC or CTV. These sites usually have an About Us page that will tell you who owns or runs the site, the principles they follow, and the people who gather and write content. They have this information to show readers that they are accountable for whatever they put on their webpages. For more examples of reliable sources go to 10 websites every Manitoban newcomer should bookmark.

  2. Check if it’s a legitimate website

    Not everything we need can be found on the sites mentioned in #1. When we search for information, we usually click on the top five websites Google suggests. To check if a website is reliable:

    • See if the site looks professional – Is it layouted well? Does it use high-quality graphics? Are the sections, menu and text clear and easy to read and navigate? But don’t rely solely on appearance. Many free website templates look professional, plus scammers are now getting more sophisticated.
    • Also check the URL – Aside from its appearance, look at the website address. If you need to share personal information on the website, look for “https” at the start of the URL. These sites would also have a link to their Privacy Policy on the front page. If the site is supposed to be an academic site, look for “.edu”, or if it’s a government site, “.gov”. A lot of the sites you will go to in Canada will have “.ca” at the end. The extension “.com” is usually for a commercial site.
    • Errors – Read the content. If there are numerous typographical, grammatical and spelling errors, stay away from the site.

  3. Identifying Misinformation, UofL Research Assistance and Instruction

  4. Be a discerning reader

    More than the look or design, take time to evaluate the content. Don’t believe everything you read online. Use your critical thinking skills to evaluate online information. Ask these questions:

    • Is it advertising or selling something? If it is, this means that there will be bias. The data presented may be embellished (or false) to convince you to buy the solution – their product or service.
    • Is the author an authority or expert? Check the article by-line to know if the source is an authority. Click on the name of the writer if it is hyperlinked. This will lead you to the writer’s credentials and other works.
    • Is this fact or opinion? Some articles are labeled as commentary or editorial. These types of pieces take sides –the information presented are based on the writer’s personal beliefs, feelings or opinions. They may not be based on facts.
    • Are the facts supported? If it’s not an editorial, check if the article cites established sources. You can also highlight the text you want to verify and right click. It will bring up a search engine that will search for webpages where the information may be found. If you are still not sure, use fact checking sites like Facts Can or Canada Archives-
    • When was it written? Recency is important especially for news. Some information may be outdated and may not be applicable in the present time anymore.
    • Is it satire? Satire is a comedic technique where people’s faults or vices are ridiculed. It is done in a mock-serious manner which can be misleading for someone who is not familiar with this type of writing. These articles are not meant to be taken seriously and are mainly for entertainment. For examples of satirical news go to The Beaverton or The Onion.
    • Use your common sense – Does it seem ridiculous or too good to be true? Then it might not be real. Use your gut instincts. Many times when the headline is overly sensational, it is usually click-bait.
  5. Don’t rely on Wikipedia

    Wikipedia is great, especially if you just want a general idea about a certain topic. However, Wikipedia entries are “editable” meaning anybody can change them. Some Wikipedia pages may be a mixed bag of real and imagined (or unverified) information. If you want to be taken seriously, it would be a good policy to refrain from citing Wikipedia in scholarly work, researches, or reports.

  6. Don’t share if not sure

    People think that when an article is shared or liked on social media often enough, it must be true. This is why it’s so easy for fake news to spread on social media. Don’t be one of those people who share or retweet fake news. You will not be helping your community. Spreading wrong information can also damage your credibility. Be a good example! Read thoughtfully and practice critical thinking.

Article updated April 27, 2022.
Sources: Media literacy and fake news, Kerry Gallagher, J.D. and Larry Magid, Ed. D., Connect Safely; How and why to avoid sharing fake news, Connect Safely; How to find a reliable online source, Canadian Encyclopedia; and How to spot real and fake news, Mind Tools. Retrieved February 7, 2019.

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