For our course about the impacts of the internet, we developed an exercise to get our students thinking critically about the credibility of things they find on the web. As a number of colleagues have expressed in interest in this, I thought I would post it here. Feel free to use it and adapt it!
Near the beginning of the course, we set the students to read the chapter “Crap Detection 101: How to Find What You Need to Know, and How to Decide If It’s True” from Rheingold & Weeks’ book NetSmart. During the tutorial, we get them working in small groups, and give them several, carefully selected web pages to test their skills on. We pick webpages that we think are not too easy nor too hard, and use a mix of credible and misleading ones. It’s a real eye-opener exercise for our students.
To guide them in the activity, we give them the following list of tips (originally distilled from the book by our TA, Matt King, who wrote the first draft of the worksheet).
Tactics for Detecting Crap on the Internet
Here’s a checklist of tactics to use to help you judge the credibility of web pages. Different tactics will be useful for different web pages – use your judgment to decide which tactics to try first. If you find some of these don’t apply, or don’t seem to give you useful information, think about why that is. Make notes about the credibility of each webpage you explored, and which tactics you used to determine its credibility.
- Is the author of a given page named? Who is s/he?
- What do others say about the author?
- Sources cited
- Does the article include links (or at least references) to sources?
- What do these sources tell us about credibility and/or bias?
- Ownership of the website
- How much traffic does this site get? (e.g. use www.alexa.com for stats/demographics)
- Do the demographics tell you anything about the website’s audience? (see alexa.com again)
- Do other websites link to this page? (e.g. google with the search term “link: http://*paste URL here*”)? If so, who are the linkers?
- Is the page ranked highly when searched for from at least two search engines?
- Design & Interactivity
- Does the website’s design and other structural features (such as grammar) tell us anything about its credibility?
- Does the page have an active comment section? If so, does the author respond to comments?
- Can you verify the content of a page by “triangulating” its claims with at least two or three other reliable sources?
- Do fact-checking sites have anything useful on this topic? (e.g. try www.factcheck.org)
- Are there topic-specific sites that do factchecking? (e.g. www.snopes.com for urban legends, www.skepticalscience.com for climate science). Note: How can you tell whether these sites are credible?
- Check your own biases
- Overall, what’s your personal stake in the credibility of this page’s content?
- How much time do you think you should allocate to verifying its reliability?
(Download the full worksheet)