a laptop set up for Internet-browsing

Above: A laptop set up for Internet-browsing. Credit: Caio Resende.

Reliable?

One of the questions many students ask is: "How do I evaluate if the information on a certain website is a credible and reliable source?" It is a good question; a great question! Maybe one of the most significant questions of our age--the age of fake news and misinformation. Here are a few very basic pointers.

Obviously, many websites on the World Wide Web (there are around 1 billion websites) are rampantly, ragingly unreliable as sources of information. If you intend to use a statement found on a website as a statement of fact--particularly a fact that you might be using as a key statement which progresses an argument you are making--then it is important to try to evaluate if the website under review is a reliable source before using information found there to support your claims.

Before scrutinizing any specific website, it is vital to realise that some facts have been established beyond all doubt, and are therefore not open to debate. And these it is not necessary to back-up, or furnish evidence of, in an essay. For example: the Earth is a sphere spinning on its axis and moving around the Sun. This is an empirically proven fact. Of course, it is valid to talk about the extent to which such facts are contested across the Internet and social media, and if you were doing that you would also provide examples, but that is very different to questioning such assertions in your own argument.

The State is supposed to deter false statements being made, especially about about living persons, through the provision of the law of libel. The law of libel is a law against making a false and defamatory statement in writing or other permanent form (or the act or offence of publishing such a statement). However, in the era of the Digital Revolution, libel law is largely dysfunctional due to the continuous rapid appearance and disappearance of grossly libellous comments and a scene rife with claim, counter-claim, and tepid apologies. This means that if you read a contentious statement about a person it is not reasonable to assume that "it must be a fact or else it would be libel." The reality is that there is so much libel around that the potential plaintiffs often just give up on the expensive process of taking anyone to court.

An opinion is not a fact. For example, if I were to state that "many climatologists say that we have less than fifty years before the Earth becomes uninhabitable by humans," then I would need a reliable source for that statement, evidencing a broad agreement among known experts--such as, say, an extract from a public open letter co-signed by many eminent scientists. However, even with evidence of this broad agreement, the belief itself is not a fact, but a prediction (a well-informed prediction). It would not be reasonable to write this up as, "if we do nothing then we only have fifty years to live." On the other hand, it would be reasonable to say, "many expert climatologists have predicted that if global warming continues to rise at current rates the Earth could become uninhabitable within fifty years."

Reviewing a website, in order ascertain if it is credible, is not an easy task. So for the neophyte it is often a good idea to stick to websites which place great store on their efforts to be factually accurate. Some news websites work very hard to publish only statements which have been "fact-checked" for accuracy and which the writers and editors are certain of. These super-credible websites are really quite basic to Internet research in the academic context. Examples of super-credible news information websites include: the BBC (the BBC is legally bound by a Royal Charter to report with "due impartiality" at all times), The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Guardian. These websites are particularly useful for quotes. The words of a quoted source quoted on one of these websites can be accepted as factual--any journalist working for one of these websites found to be inventing a quotation would be fired on the spot, and their career in journalism would be over.

In the UK, the USA and in other Western democracies, it is not generally acceptable for the State to publish false information on a website--if they did do it they would leave themselves wide-open to accusations of intentionally misleading the public. And for this reason many government websites can be accepted as reliable sources--these include in the UK, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), and the Ministry of Justice.

(18 July 2018)