Building digital wisdom: how to spot unreliable websites

Sarah Maguire
25 June 2018
Faculty of Human Sciences


As the internet becomes more sophisticated and deceptive, how do we work out what are ‘good’ websites?

If you’re looking for shortcuts to work out how dodgy a website might be, you won’t find any, say two Macquarie University education academics.

Fake vs fact: learning to think critically is key to determining the reliability of websites and social media content.

In an era awash with information, when search-engine algorithms determine what users see and anyone can build a glossy, convincing website, the one option we have for working out the credibility of online information is to think critically and develop our “digital wisdom”.

“We’ve got so much information that we’re drowning in it and it’s making us lazy,” says Garry Falloon, Professor of Digital Learning in the Department of Educational Studies.

“In the past, what was considered to be valid and verified information was more easily defined – the sort of information you might access in school or from books, but now anybody can put anything they like on a website or social media and have it out there as supposedly being accurate and truthful, and it’s a scary thought.

“It used to be you could look at the URL and determine what the interests and affiliation of the authors were, but those lines are being blurred now as well – just because a site has registered a .edu or .ac domain does not automatically mean it has a direct and immediate link to a credible education provider.”

Students bamboozled

Falloon and Macquarie lecturer in secondary history education Dr Kim Wilson, suggest three strategies for figuring out a website’s credibility, after a Stanford University survey found students were being too easily hoodwinked.

In the survey, only 9 per cent of high school students and 6 per cent of university students were able to identify that the website was a front for a right-wing think tank.

The inability to distinguish accurate information from inaccurate, based on such assessments as where the information comes from, what its purpose and aims are, whether it’s fact or opinion and how balanced the views are, has been described as more dangerous than fake news. And the implications for a society accepting dodgy information as gospel are dangerous. We’re likely to end up with politicians who don’t have our best interests at heart. Wilson says,

“I want my students to have the capacity to engage critically in the world outside of school. When students click on a news link I want them to start questioning,

  • Where are the facts in this piece?
  • There’s a lot of opinion here (and it’s not necessarily related to those facts)
  • I wonder who the author is?
  • What’s the author’s political alignment, social agenda and who or what are the author’s connections?

“Ultimately I want my students, and the adults they grow into, to think: ‘I need more information, more details, and more stats to make an accurate assessment of the validity of this author’s opinion’. Critical insight will assist students to navigate the often overwhelming online world.”

Information tsunami: we all need strategies to assess whether what we read on wesites is reliale or not.

Try these strategies

The No. 1 strategy, Wilson and Falloon say, is to get off a website and cross-check its information elsewhere.  “If I’m really not sure of something, I use a different web browser, for instance,” says Falloon. “Everybody Googles, but I might go to Firefox or Safari and enter the same things and quite often I don’t get the same results because the algorithms work differently; I might get quite a different perspective or more information about the same perspective or opposing views, or whatever.”

No. 2 is to use a site’s reference list – and if there isn’t one, it’s a good sign that you should dig deeper.

No. 3 is to look at adjectives and assess how these are positioning readers to understand the site’s content. Falloon, for instance, stays away from sites full of hype and hyperbole because emotive language is unlikely to be giving a balanced perspective: “It’s something about them obviously having an axe to grind or a barrow to push,” he says.

More broadly, it’s about how you read a website in its entirety, something “you absolutely have to work at,” says Wilson. “There has to be some level of critical thought when you’re reading through a site, because you’re not only reading the site for the information it provides, but for the way in which it presents and builds that information, and that is hard, that’s a higher order thinking skill, so I guess we’re trying to teach people to assess information on two planes.”

Digital wisdom is for winners

People who accrue digital wisdom will have clear advantages over those who do not, Falloon says.

“The digital divide is not what it used to be … devices are relatively ubiquitous through every element of our existence. The divide now is in the capabilities and willingness of individuals to be prepared to use the information devices productively and ethicallyhe says.

There are massive opportunities available for networking and using the web for all sorts of positive outcomes -– personal, social, environmental, political, economic – and those who can do that are going to be the real winners.”


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