As the now-famous New Yorker (July 5, 1993) cartoon goes, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog" . (Source)
The Internet, as everyone knows, is notoriously unreliable. Yet, millions of users, young and old, depend upon information from the Internet for their daily needs. How do we separate the grain from the chaff, the true from the untrue? How do we know that a piece of information we come across on the Internet is credible or believable?
We are The Credibles, and we'll help you tell whether information on the Internet is worth believing. Let us split this up into two parts:
- Do we trust the person or organization that provides us this information ?
- Do we agree with the conclusions the writer draws from presumably correct information?
Why should I believe you? Credibility of information sources
How do we know that a person or organization providing information on the Internet is trustworthy? Is it someone we know as trustworthy in another context, like BBC, CNN, or your bank? What if someone pretends to be one of these "trusted" parties, can you tell them from the real McCoy? Things get especially nasty when someone who isn't your bank pretends to be your bank. You give them your account number and password, and the next thing you know is that all your money's gone. Sending fake e-mails, pretending they come from your trusted institutions, and asking you to provide your personal secrets (like passwords, and bank PIN numbers) - all this to be able to impersonate you later (to withdraw your money, post on your MySpace account, whatever) - is called "phishing".
Confused? Don't worry, we have a lot of resources on phishing - how to spot it, avoid it, and recover from it (if you fell for it).
There are also people who pretend to be celebrities, like a deposed African prince. They say they are in temporary financial trouble, and if you send them some money, you'll get back a lot more afterwards. If we fall for e-mail (or faxes or even letters in the mail) from such make-believe "celebrities", and let our greed get the better of our judgment, we are said to have fallen for the Nigerian 419 scam.
Sometimes, even people and organizations we believe violate our trust. News sources, paper or electronic, might provide misinformation, either because their own journalists have fooled them, or because they deliberately want to spice up the news to sell more copies or page-views. The New York Times did not know that their reporter Jayson Blair was reporting fake news , while Brian Walski of the Los Angeles Times touched up war photographs to make them more dramatic . Walski was not alone, there are many "touched-up" images doing the rounds, mostly on the Internet.
Some newspapers, such as supermarket tabloids, or celebrity-oriented websites knowingly exaggerate the affairs of the people they cover to attract greater readership. Such sources are particularly rich in supernatural events, alien abductions, and other unusual information.
Some sources of information fall between the trusted and the visibly fake. These include sellers who play up the capabilities of their products and services to drum up consumer interest , or people who hold opinions that are far from mainstream, such as conspiracy theorists, or founders of new religions. When we look at the information put out by such fringe groups, it might look quite reasonably presented. It is only when we take into account how few people agree with these opinions that we realize we must take them with a large grain of salt.
Sometimes what is not said tells us more than what is. Some information sources impose censorship on what they report, deliberately suppressing information that contradicts the "party line" - the position that the source chooses to preach. The Internet is a favorite target of those who practise censorship, and they will block access to large sections of the Net that might speak critically about them. Of course, human ingenuity finds ways out of even the strictest censorship controls.