Obviously, the same tests of evidence discussed earlier must be applied to information you find on a website. You need to determine the reputation or authority of the information producer, the accuracy of what you find online, the recency of the information, the completeness of the data, and so forth.
There are many more clues and tips for helping assure you are thoroughly assessing the information you find on a specific site. One of the main considerations when determining how or if information on a website can be used is to understand the reason the online information producer is making the information available. The website’s main goal might be:
- Advocacy: attempting to persuade or influence opinion toward a particular position or point of view
- Marketing: using the site to promote a particular product or service by providing information to consumers or to other businesses
- News: publishing news and information by media companies is an alternative to their traditional delivery methods.
- Personal expression: creating personal sites, blogs, or social networking pages allows individuals to express their interests and unique perspectives.
The bottom line here is it’s like the old computer adage: garbage in / garbage out. So, if you want to ensure that you are not producing garbage, make sure you don’t use it.
If you ask, and answer, the following three questions when you go to any website, you should be able to avoid misusing or misunderstanding the information you find:
- Who is sharing this information?
- Why are they sharing it?
- How do they know what they claim to know?
Let’s look at Wikipedia as an example of evaluation. Categorizing Wikipedia is difficult because its contributors may be scholarly experts in their fields, they may be private citizens with some professional or personal knowledge about a topic, but they may also be individuals with misguided information or pranksters whose goal is to deface of this popular site. It also contains obscure information from popular culture or other realms that you may want to learn something about and its contributions are sometimes highly informative and accurate. Because the sources of the information cannot be easily verified or the motivation for providing the information determined, Wikipedia entries can only be used with skepticism and require “second-sourcing” from more authoritative information contributors.
Reading the “About Us” information on any website will give you valuable information about the site creators’ agenda, backers, and mission. But be sure to critically evaluate the self-description and remember the importance of understanding “ambiguous” terms as discussed earlier in this lesson.
Remember also the contributors to the information search that the information strategy model identifies. Private-sector institutional sources are likely to host sites that advance their business, point of view or support for a particular policy or program. Journalistic organizations host websites to disseminate their news content and gather information from their readers. Scholarly websites produced by universities, research centers or individual scholars are generally designed to highlight the academic work of that institution or individual researcher. Informal sources may host family websites, hobby websites, sites to spread a personal philosophy and for many other purposes. It is your responsibility to identify the type of contributor who created that site when you are deciding whether or not to use any information you find there.
Here is a link to a little cartoon with a good explanation of how to evaluate a website: www.youtube.com/watch?v=aem3JahbXfk