Critical Surfing
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When surfing the net, we need to be critical thinkers. A thing is not true or factual simply because someone has posted it on a site. There are no limitations on internet information. By contrast, radio and TV must be careful not to air inaccurate information because they are market-driven businesses. Too much bad information and they'll loose their advertisers and/or listeners. That's not the case with information posted on the Internet.

There are also no legal limitations on what someone can put on their site. I've seen several sites that claim that the earth is flat or that man has never actually been in space. People are allowed to say whatever they wish on the net!

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Freedom of speech – even stupid speech – is the cornerstone of a democracy. And outrageous speech often makes us think. Stupid speech is dangerous only if you are not a critical thinker … if you believe everything you read. Regulating speech is not the solution. Teaching people to be critical thinkers and critical surfers is. I'm sharing my favorite tool with you here. Keep in mind that not every idea given below will apply to every site. However, this is an excellent way to analyze sites while you're surfing.

 

[If the outline below is collapsed, click on each item for more details.]

 

Compare the site to sites on the same or similar subjects.

bullet Of the sites you have looked at on this subject, is the best place to get information?
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Is the material on this site useful, unique or accurate, or is it derivative, repetitious or suspicious?

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Does the site contain original information or only links?

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Is there a conflict between the information found on this site and information found on similar sites? If so, can you determine why?

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Was this site linked off of another site? If so, how would you judge the previous site?

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Who is linking to the site? Search for Link:URL.

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Look at the URL extension. Government (.gov) and education (.edu) sites may be more reliable than some organization (.org) or communication (.com) sites. Anyone can get a .org or .com extension. That’s not true of .gov and .edu extensions. On the other hand, a tilde (~) often indicates that the site in question is a personal home page, not an official university publication.

Rate the visuals, ease of navigation, organization of the site and freshness of the material.

bullet Be careful when judging visuals. Simply because a site has lots of bells and whistles doesn’t mean that its material is valid.
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Do the graphics and art serve a function or are they merely decorative?

bullet In fact, when rating the visuals ask yourself if the amount of ‘stuff’ is hiding a lack of information.
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Does the text follow basic rules of grammar, spelling and literary composition?

bullet Is there an element of creativity, and does it add to or detract from the information?
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Many sites are very difficult to navigate. There may be lots of information there … if you can only find it! Sites should be rated for this. A well-organized site will be easy to understand and navigate.

bullet Is there a copyright date given?
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Finally, look for a ‘this site last updated on MM/DD/YY’ label. Not all sites have this but if a site has a last-updated label it will most likely be at the bottom of the page. For an example, look at the bottom of this page for this site's update label. A site that was last updated three years ago may well contain out-of-date and wrong information. Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover … how well maintained a site is can be very telling.

Initial impressions are important.

bullet When you first arrive at the site did you get the impression that the language or tone were biased? Be careful! If the bias is in a direction with which you agree you may not notice it. Bias is bias, however.
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A biased web site may not be inaccurate but it is more likely to be so than one that takes a neutral/objective stance.

bullet What is the purpose of the site? Is it clearly stated?
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Is the purpose of the site to teach something or to sell something? Sites that are selling an idea are more likely to present inaccurate or unbalanced information.

bullet To what extent is the information trying to sway the opinion of the audience?
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What is the intended target audience of the site? If you can determine at whom the site seems to be aimed, you can often make assumptions about its stance on things.

bullet Never assume that extremist points of view are easy to detect. Many extremist sites are designed to look educational.

Turn the roles around.

bullet Now that you have looked critically at the site, what things would you have included or deleted if you were building the same site?
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Why would you have left certain things out?

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Why would you have put other things in?

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What you would have done may give you insight into why the author did certain things.

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When reading information, constantly question the material. Are there questions that should obviously have been answered and aren’t? If so, why not?

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Test informal hypotheses against the information given. Use as many competing hypotheses as you can.

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Talk things out either with yourself or a friend. Sometimes challenging information verbally can bring fresh perspective.

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Be argumentative … be a skeptic!

Investigate the source or sources given on the site.

bullet Does the site include a bibliographic or 'for further reading' list?
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Were any citations given for statistics, quotes or other information?

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How many sources were given?

bullet Can sources and citations be verified?
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Were examples given and documented?

bullet How accurate and objective are the sources themselves? One site that supports the lifting of all gun control attributes all of its quotes, facts and statistics to one book … the author of which is unknown. It then offers to sell you the book for a hefty price. The premises of the site may all be true but the material must be considered invalid because you have absolutely no way of knowing whether it is accurate.
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If the information is controversial, does the author acknowledge that? Even the best sources can be wrong!

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If you feel inundated with information, take a time out. Come back to the site later with a new perspective.

Contrast the information on the site to real life experiences and general knowledge.

bullet The best way to be a good evaluator is to arm yourself with information on the subject you are researching. The more you learn, the better you’ll learn. Become an expert.
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Talk to experts and get their input on information you have discovered … especially information with which you are unfamiliar.

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I'm not saying that ‘everyone knows’ is proof of the accuracy of any piece of information. However, if the information flies in the face of what most thinking people believe to be true, you need to question its plausibility.

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Anecdotes and investigations that focus on a single factor and ignore conflicting factors are of little or no use.

Authors of web sites should always be identified if possible.

bullet Does the author have credentials/qualifications?
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Is the author connected to an institution or organization that is recognizable/reputable? Even if he is, be careful. A professor with a major university has a site that explains away the 'legend' of the Holocaust. Although it's true that the essay was written by an academic, the professor has a degree in engineering, not history ... and there is a tilde (~) in the URL, indicating that this is his personal site even though it's linked to his university.

bullet If the page is copyrighted, the holder of the copyright may tell you who is responsible for the page.
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Is there contact information for the author or the sponsoring organization?

bullet The author/owner of many pages on the Internet can be found at a wonderful site called Whois. The site moves from time to time but can currently be found at www.networksolutions.com/cgi-bin/whois/whois.
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Search for the author’s name in quotation marks.

bullet If you cannot find the author, the page is not necessarily untrustworthy. Sometimes authorship can get lost in the way pages are linked or found. Sometimes it can be found in strange places.
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If you can’t find an author, ask the Webmaster (if one is given) for the source of the information. The Webmaster’s email address is usually near the bottom of the home page of the site.

Links to other sites can be revealing.

bullet Are there links to other sites?
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How complete and accurate are the links provided?

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Are the links relevant and appropriate?

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Do the links provide a variety of information or are they biased toward one point of view?

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Are the links evaluated in any way?

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I recently visited a site that appeared to be an objective critique of a presidential candidate. It offered as ‘its sad duty’ some negative information about that candidate along with some positive (and already well-known) information. The author had done an excellent job of hiding bias until the links to other web sites were visited. All of them were very negative sites about the candidate. The information on the original site was suspect.

 

Always use a checklist when conducting research online. Use mine … use someone else’s … develop your own. Researching online can provide you with seemingly unlimited amounts of information on any subject. It's easy to get caught up in the quantity and lose sight of the quality. Using a checklist reminds you that you are looking for knowledge … not information!

©Dr Amy S Glenn, 1997

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Copyright © 1996 Amy S Glenn    
Last updated:   03/01/2017   0130

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