Is that so? – Assessing the reliability of online information

If you are interested in learning a bit more about “Assessing the reliability of online information”,  join Kristen Mastel and Stephen Judd for a free eXtension webinar on Tuesday August 21, 2012, at 2 PM EDT. The webinar will also be conducted on the DoD/DCO Adobe network on Wednesday August 22, 2012, at 2PM EDT to facilitate participation by military family service professionals.

When the information we sought was contained in books and journals that had authors, editors, proofreaders, and fact-checkers, we had a sense of comfort that the material was reliable. (I admit that this is an arguable point.) However, with online publishing, we are left wondering who the author is, where the information came from, and if it’s true.

Assessing the reliability of online information is a critical skill for each of us to develop and hone. Using or citing inaccurate online information can be embarrassing, expensive, and perhaps dangerous. Consider someone trying to fix an appliance, based on information they got from a random webpage – if the instructions aren’t right, the result could be further damage to the appliance, injury, etc.


The Meriam Library at California State University, Chico, developed the C.R.A.A.P. test to give users a set of questions to ask when assessing information sources and their accuracy. CRAAP is an acronym that stands for currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose. By applying the questions in these categories to the source in question, a user can decide for themselves whether a source is reliable or not.

Some example questions are:

  • Is the information current?
  • Who is the author or publisher? What are their qualifications?
  • Is the information supported by evidence?
  • Can you verify the information from another source?
  • What is the purpose of the information? to inform? teach? sell? entertain? persuade?

In his excellent book, Net Smart: How to thrive online (2012, MIT Press), Howard Rheingold uses the term crap detection to discuss how to decide if online information you find is true. Rheingold says, “Don’t refuse to believe, refuse to start out believing. Continue to pursue your investigation after you find an answer. Chase the story rather than just accepting the first evidence you encounter.” In other words, be skeptical.

Rheingold links to a blog post (In the context of web context: How to check out any Web page) by Scott Rosenberg, co-founder of, that offers some practical tips for beginning to assess web pages. Understanding who operates a site, how long it’s existed, whether the content is unique or not, and who links to it are all important components of figuring out how reliable the site is.

How confident?

You may not need to ask these questions every time you visit a new website. Instead, how much time and effort you choose to spend digging into the reliability of the information will be dependent on your purpose.

What you plan to do with the information should guide how rigorously you need to verify its accuracy. If you’re just curious about something and won’t be making decisions based on the information you find, then you might be more casual about verifying its accuracy. However, if you plan to stake time, money, reputation, health, etc. on the information, then you should take the time to assess the information’s validity.

Role for online networks

Given the vast amount of information accessible to us, having a filter or guide can be valuable. Online networks can serve this purpose, if we intentionally cultivate our networks to include people who are knowledgeable in areas that we aren’t, that share diverse interests, and whose judgement we trust. Curation is a term now applied to the intentional act of collecting and sharing information and links in an online environment. Using our online networks to connect with curators, is one way to apply an initial test to information. Taking Howard Rheingold as an example; if you are interested in this subject, you might use Rheingold’s curated links on crap detection which he maintains on as a jumping off point. I trust that he has done, at least, an initial vetting of these sources, so I’m more comfortable with their reliability.

Search engines, such as Google and Bing, sometimes include information in search results that indicate if others in your networks have “liked” or “+1’ed” a page. This implicit endorsement by your connections may influence how reliable you believe a site is. Of course, you need to take into account the person, their expertise, and the ambiguity of what it means to “like” or “+1” a page.

Ultimately, it’s up to you

It’s your reputation, time, money, health, or well-being that’s at stake when you make decisions or publish based on information you discover online. How carefully you vet that information and its source is up to you.

Author: Stephen Judd (@sjudd)


This article was originally published Monday August 20,2012 on the Military Families Learning Network blog.


Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.


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