Who can you trust? Where can you get accurate information? There are a lot of misinformation and falsehoods online. Many people, however passionate, are just plain uneducated—these are the ones who post based on emotion and not on facts. Others have political, religious or other agendas that they want to promote with little or no regard for the truth. Another group can be considered the scam artists, who only have one purpose: to take your money. Another category is reserved for terrorists or hate groups, who want to impose their hateful ideologies. For them, truth has a very low priority. In addition, there are honest misunderstandings, in which people just don’t fact-check before they post.
Is lying online a crime?
Well, the answer is—surprisingly—dependent on where you live. About a year ago, the legislature in Rhode Island repealed a 1989 computer law that made it illegal to lie online. So, if you told the dating site that you’re 6-feet tall, but you’re really a foot shorter, you technically committed a crime. The question, of course, is how effective any laws could be in this respect. In this country alone, there are 100 million internet hours per day. How could anyone even begin to monitor the truth content in such a vast ocean of data?
Millions of people use Wikipedia every day. I think most people know now that just because something appears on Wikipedia, it does not mean that it is true. Wikipedia is a pretty good source for basic facts. Just be careful. Compare what you find with other sources—double-check!
Fortunately there are trustworthy fact-checking websites:
• Snopes (snopes.com) is considered the leading fact-finder online.
• Google can find the truth. However, it takes a critical eye to distinguish truth from fiction, especially when digging through hundreds of search-engine results. Nevertheless, a search engine is a good start.
• FactCheck.org. When checking facts, the political arena is hard to exclude. One of the online fact-checking authorities in this field is FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. FactCheck.org describes itself as “a nonpartisan, nonprofit consumer advocate for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception in U.S. politics.”
• WhoWhatWhen is a database that contains information about famous people and events. The data can be assembled in various ways to create graphic timelines of periods in history or to chronicle the lives of individuals.
• Merriam-Webster. Finally, a great place to quickly check basic facts, such as the meaning of words, medical information or overview articles. An encyclopedia is a good bet, and one of the best free sources is that of Merriam-Webster.
A new study finds that when stories on the Internet contain incorrect or misleading information, and are later updated with corrections, people rarely see the new information and go on believing the incorrect data they first read.
Golden rules of thumb
One golden rule of thumb is this: If you are happy with a purchase, service, organization, company, or anything you have experience with, you don’t voice that happiness online. It is the people who found something wrong--a defect in the product they bought, a rude reception when talking to a customer rep, a company that fired them—who voice their displeasure online. What this means is that if you buy a kitchen appliance that was sold in the millions and three people write online that they are unhappy with it, you don’t get the complete picture that the product is actually very good. If three people out of a million have a problem, it is safe to say the manufacturer has been very successful. In other words, just because you read a bad review online, you really don’t know the real frequency of the problem.
Another rule to keep in mind: Don’t just use one search engine! Yes, they are different and they will list your matches differently. The most common search engines (among the English-speaking) are Google, Yahoo, Bing and Ask.com. There are, of course, plenty of others in other languages, and there are specialized search engines for special-interest topics like jobs, food, fashion, news, people, real estate, maps, pricing, and much, much more.
The point is that there are enough competing search engines so that you can be reasonably sure that if you find the same answer to a question in three different search engines, that answer is most likely true or as close to the truth as possible.
Longtime editor, writer and publisher Richard Gavatin is owner of IMS, Inc. (ims-stlouis.com), a computer consulting company that specializes in the support and customization of accounting software. He can be reached at email@example.com.