Validating Sources

The Internet is a great resource for learning and research, but you need to careful who you get your information from.

It must be true; I saw it on the Internet.

Many people have become so dependent on the Internet in their everyday lives that they have trouble recognizing when the information they happen to access there is inaccurate. E-mail has become such a vital link in the communication chain that even the junk mail or spam received is often thought to have some significance. Web design techniques are so sophisticated that no clear line is visible between the Web site of a legitimate business and that of a suspect source. Because of the lack of clarity, almost every Internet user has fallen prey to some sort of Internet scam or has forwarded, or at least quoted, some misinformation that was circulated by e-mail.

So how can we gage the reliability of the information we are viewing online? As with any other source, we need to use good judgment regarding who to trust. Just as most people would be reluctant to buy a Rolex from a stranger on the street, we must think twice about what we get from unknown sources on the Web as well, whether it’s products or information. The advantage the Web offers, though, is the added capability to validate the reliability of the source.

However, inaccurate information can even come from otherwise trustworthy sources such as close friends. With the rapid circulation of e-mail and the vast resources of the Internet, the quantity of information provided by friends or associates often outweighs the quality. Examples of this flood of misinformation can be seen regularly in e-mail rumors. Did you know that a well known charitable organization will receive a certain size donation for each time you forward a 7-year-old girl’s poem to a friend? Of course that’s not true, but millions of people have received this story or something similar in their inbox.

Many sites have been developed to help visitors confirm the accuracy of information or the credibility of potential product vendors. If you’re interested in purchasing something online, but you are not familiar with the seller, check the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org). This site can give you a quick overview of a company and identify major customer service issues it has encountered.

To check the truthfulness of astonishing stories you come across, visit www.snopes.com. This site provides a thorough index of urban legends (many of which have been circulated on the Internet), explains their origins and provides ratings of “true,” “partially true,” “false” or “undetermined.”

Another interesting location for uncovering the truth can be found at www.tsa.gov/approach/mythbusters. Sponsored by the U.S. government’s Transportation Security Administration, these pages examine recent rumors regarding flight safety and other travel concerns.

“Believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see,” Benjamin Franklin once said, wisely. Or did this proverb come from Edgar Allan Poe, Alfred the Great or Dinah Mulock Craik? Apparently, each one of them said it. I saw it on the Internet!