Saturday, September 17, 2011

Becoming a discerning internet user

Anyone who has spent any time on the internet knows that there are an abundance of fraudulent claims, hoaxes, and conspiracies. Cartersville, Ga. was the centerpiece of a 2008 hoax about rigged gas pumps and countless Georgians have received variations of the Nigerian email scam. The proliferation of such lies means that internet users need to learn how to separate fact from fantasy.

There are steps that that internet users can take to become more discerning about the information available on the internet. The first and most obvious step is to distinguish between trustworthy and unreliable websites. When looking for factual information, be leery of blogs and other websites that do not meet journalistic standards.

Wikipedia is a popular online encyclopedia site, but its articles can be edited by users. There have been several cases of false or unreliable information on Wikipedia. Wikipedia can be useful for an overview of a topic, but information found there should be verified elsewhere. Fortunately, Wikipedia entries are often footnoted with links to the source information.

Other websites have no such saving graces. World Net Daily is a news website that is less than credible. It is associated with a wide range of conspiracy theories including questioning Barack Obama’s birth certificate. The websites of Alex Jones, Infowars and Prison Planet, are notorious for propagating outlandish conspiracies on topics from 9/11 to UFOs. Documentaries posted on Youtube or other internet sites should also be treated with skepticism unless the creator of the piece can be determined to be credible. Articles by mainstream political groups and politicians may be so slanted that the truth is barely recognizable.

As a general rule, information should not be believed unless it can be independently verified by more than one source. In many cases, this can take a little searching. Sometimes this can be accomplished by following links in the article to the source. In other cases, it will involve using an online search engine such as Google or Bing.

Internet users should hone their innate BS detectors. If something sounds either too good or too outlandish to be true, it probably is. Atlanta consumer talk show host Clark Howard offers a list of resources for use in cases of suspected financial fraud. For internet rumors and conspiracies, there are several resources as well. The most famous of these is, but the Urban Legends page on and are recommended as well. Politifact and Factcheck are good resources for political claims, but both of these sites sometimes lean left.

Even on reliable sites, it is important to distinguish between commentary and factual reporting. For example, the Atlanta Journal is usually considered to be a fairly reliable source, but its columnists and bloggers merely state their opinions. Therefore, news items from can generally be trusted. On the contrary, statements by its famously left wing editorial writer Cynthia Tucker (who recently left to teach journalism at UGA) should be taken with a grain of salt.

Another clue that a website is unreliable is a fixation on how one group is conspiring for nefarious purposes. This could include racial groups, religious believers, corporations, or the government. Jews, Catholics, and Freemasons are favorite targets of conpiricists. The Illuminati, the Bilderbergers, UFOs, the United Nations, and a shadow U.S. and world government are also frequent topics on conspiracy sites.

In one recent example, the Atlanta Conservative Examiner was sent a link that purported to show recently unclassified National Security Agency documents detailing how extraterrestrial messages were decoded by government cryptologists. These documents immediately set off the BS detector because of the incredible claim that aliens had contacted Earth and that the government had decoded their message, published it on the internet, and all this had somehow been missed by the major news outlets. Googling the author of the report and the report’s title yielded only links that referred back to the original source document as proof of alien contact. Snopes and the debunker sites had no information.

Finally, an article on Open Minds (admittedly not a first tier site when it comes to credibility) was found several pages into the search results. It detailed how the messages were part of an NSA cryptology exercise from the 1960’s. As Sherlock Holmes said, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Don’t believe everything you read. Use common sense and look for verification from objective, reliable sources.


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