As we encounter information online, one of the key challenges is our ability to critically evaluate and judge the credibility and relevance of the information we find. Credibility can be simplified as whether or not the information is “truthful” in presentation and content. Relevance can be a judgment about whether or not the information presented is “useful” to the reader, or whether or not the information is what we’re looking for.
This review and evaluation of online information is quickly conducted through a review of markers of information presented on the webpage. This means that we review the text, images, links, videos, and design of the page to determine whether or not it is credible and relevant. Research suggests that this review usually occurs within 2 to 3 seconds as we first load a webpage. In essence, when a webpage loads, we make decisions in the blink of an eye about whether we believe the source, and we want to spend more time reading the page.
These split second decisions about credibility, relevance, and veracity of the information presented carry on as we read, search, and synthesize information online. Readers generally click and look, skim and scan through multiple pages. We dig in deeper when we’re interested, and gloss over if there is too much text or the terminology or content becomes arcane.
These quick judgements about the content we’re reviewing inform whether we believe or trust what we’re reading. We use the information gleaned from the page to make decisions about our personal, health, or academic problems we may have. Generally, we believe content that we read, online or offline, because we want to believe and trust in the person presenting it to us. However, we need to come to terms with the real truth that some information presented online is less truthy than others. The decisions and actions we make based on the information we learn from the content may have serious detrimental effects on our lives. Put simply, we cannot believe everything we read online just because we found it online. We need to consider the sincerity of the source and whether or not they’re subtle or nuanced about their reason for sharing content.
Sincerity of online information
As we read any text, especially online information, the sincerity of information sources should always be questioned. In online spaces, sincerity of an information source can been defined as the truthful presentation of identity, intent, and information to determine an honest social relationship. This is an activity that includes a consideration of the bias, perspective, and purpose of information presented. We also need to be considerate of the information not presented, or alternate points of view. Good online readers typically will open a new browser tab and search for the author or the author’s name and the topic to see what else the author has written, or what other people share about the topic.
This evaluation of the sincerity of online information can be tricky as it usually is a subconscious response as we either quickly believe or trust the author, source, and what they’re telling us. This is a sometimes involuntary reaction that is made during the same split second period of time in which we evaluate the credibility and relevance of the information. We also make these “decisions” with a general desire to trust or believe the author and source. Instead of acting as healthy skeptics, most readers just want to believe what they’re reading.
Once again, these involuntary decisions about the sincerity and honesty of the source are made based on the information they present. We trust the page if the page has the appropriate amount of text, images, and links. We trust the page if it looks like other webpages and sources we generally read. We trust the page if someone else that we trust sent us or shared the information on social media. We trust the page if we deep down really want to believe the information to be true. In online reading, we’re typically looking to answer problems and look for solutions. Many times we’re also looking to support our own bias or perspectives and support our worldviews.
Truth in labeling
Quality of an online informational source is sometimes defined as “a user criterion, which has to do with excellence or in some cases truthfulness in labeling.” As we read online, we need to be aware that some content creators may be subtle, nuanced, or overtly lie or mislead in the presentation of their information. Sometimes the elements and information involved in this labeling is unseen or unavailable. Taylor (1986) identified five of these values as:
- accuracy, or the degree to which information is viewed to be “true;”
- comprehensiveness, or the completeness of coverage of information presented at a source;
- currency, or the timeliness or how recent information is presented in a source;
- reliability, or the trustworthiness or sincerity of the information presented in a source; and
- validity, or how useful and relevant to a task is the information presented at a source.
As we consider the sincerity of trustworthiness of online information, we need to consider the honesty or truth in labeling of information. Websites generally do not share markers to indicate the quality of the information they’re presenting, it’s generally assumed or wrapped up in their brand. Indicators and disclaimers about the quality and sincerity of the information presented are either difficult to find or nonexistent. Websites and individual webpages generally do not share information about their accuracy, authority, comprehensiveness, coverage, currency, objectivity, reliability, and validity. Websites often do not share information about who wrote the content, their level of expertise, and how they vetted the information presented. Websites usually don’t share information or a trail of revisions, audits, and disclaimers about the content of their website.
Many websites do not update or correct their content if it has been proven to be biased, incorrect, or false. Content creators may be actively trying to spread information that is not factually correct, or contains subtle elements that are untrue. There are many possible reasons for these decisions create and/or share this information. Negligence may not be the sole reason for creating and sharing false or misleading content on websites. Some creators of online content may specifically be looking to misinform, spread disinformation, or troll users. Once again, we cannot make the assumption that you can trust what you read online, or the authors of that information.
How to address these challenges
There are multiple habits to use as you read and write online. I think one of the ways to begin is to make sure you’re developing a disposition as a healthy skeptic as in online (and offline) spaces. Perhaps you might also consider developing your own criteria for how you would define credible and relevant information.
As a reader, actually search and synthesize as you read online. There are multiple habits, but you can get started by doing the following:
- In your search engine results page, open multiple new tabs for each link you want to examine. You can then delete pages after you’ve read them.
- Find the home page for the webpage that you’re reading. What other types of pages and information are on the website? What other content is on their site? Does this all fit together and make sense?
- As you are searching and sifting, Google the author, question, and/or website to see what others say about that content. Think of this as a “search about a search.” If there is something questionable, chances are others are also asking questions about it.
As a writer, or creator of content, you can start with the following habits and practices:
- As you create and share content, think about the identity that you’re building, and try to make this as cohesive as possible. Really build up your digital identity and make it easier for readers to find you and connect your content.
- Develop your own personal cyberinfrastructure. This sounds a bit confusing, but it’s actually relatively simple. Connect your different versions of digital identities online. If you want to, make sure your Twitter account connects to your blog and this all connects to your other spaces online. Develop a trail of digital breadcrumbs to make it easy for others to follow.
- Keep an audit trail, or list on revisions of content on your website or blog. This does mean that that you should delete content from your website. Instead, develop a system and follow the system…and let readers know the system. One possible action is to rewrite blog posts that become stale or incorrect. Link back to the older posts to keep a trail documenting your thinking. Another option is to leave a strikethrough on text that is changed in your blog posts…and add in the corrections in a manner that makes it easier for readers to understand.
As we read information online, our regular perspective should be that of healthy skepticism. We should not simply believe everything we encounter. This involves considerations of credibility and relevance. It also involves a great deal of questioning about the sincerity and truth in labeling of the information we encounter.
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Also published on Medium.