This article was written by Lena Archer

Many of us read articles with the hope of gaining a deeper understanding of information and the people around us. Have you ever read an article, maybe even quoted that information to someone else, only to discover that the events were fabricated, the photos were unrelated, or other false information? You probably felt angry, maybe even embarrassed to have believed the information in the first place. Writers hold power, and in an age where many individuals have that power, we need to be vigorously analytical.

 Information literacy is the ability to distinguish between reliable and unreliable information. The article Causes and consequences of mainstream media dissemination of fake news: literature review and synthesis (2020) attributes the “rise of disinformation” (p. 158) to social media and the fake news genre. Both of which have the platform to reach large groups of people worldwide, making information literacy imperative. The article False Information on Web and Social Media: A Survey explains two types of false information: misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation “is created without the intent to mislead” (p. 2), while disinformation “is created with the intent of misleading and deceiving the reader” (p. 2). The article discusses how false information stories on social media are impactful, “they are liked, shared, and commented on more, generate[ing] deeper cascades of reshares than true information pieces” (p. 2). It comes as no shock that the fake posts are more impactful than the truth; the purpose of disinformation is to persuade the viewer. For an individual to genuinely learn and grow, they must be aware of deception. 

Assessing information accuracy would be significantly easier if there was a right answer in every situation. When researching information about politics, for example, there’s a significant amount of opinion-based media coverage. Sometimes, information is only the truth in the eye of the beholder. Confirmatory bias in health decisions: Evidence from the MMR-autism controversy explains how bias can affect an individual’s perception. The article explains that “when presented with ambiguous or mixed evidence, people tend to select and interpret information in a way that confirms their existing positions, a tendency termed confirmatory bias” (p. 1). So how do we become critically aware of unreliable information, the bias of the writers, and our own confirmatory biases when we search for information? We must be critical of everyone, including ourselves. 

Basic Search Engines 

Google is an excellent search engine to retrieve information fast, but if you’re searching on Google, remember that almost anyone can post anything. Improving your information literacy skills includes having a genuine desire to learn and dedicating time to your searches. In the article Computers & Education (2003), it is noted that web-based information “differs from information delivered through more traditional channels in that it is more prone to alteration, which can be difficult to detect” (p. 273). Therefore, it is essential to be highly critical and selective in your research when using a non-academic website. Before researching anything, the first step is to understand your own biases. If you have a perspective about what information you believe is correct and are looking to confirm your ideas, your search is no longer a learning opportunity. What words are you using in your search – are they inherently negative or positive? Your word choice will affect the information you receive. One way to allow yourself a learning opportunity is to be aware of your own bias and research the opposite side first. To challenge confirmation bias is to begin with a general search about an overarching topic without using words that insinuate support for one side before searching for more specific information. When reading, check if the information is directly followed up with a citation. It might not be accurate if a writer includes information such as statistics or current events without including where they retrieved that information. If they did include a citation, look into it. Did the writer skew any of the facts that they read to fit their own narrative? If you encounter a blanket statement, also known as an overgeneralization, without any evidence, the statement is a person’s opinion. So, how can you check if a person’s opinion has any credibility? Research the credibility of the website or the author of the article. What did they do to achieve that website? What are the author’s credentials? If you are searching the internet with a critical lens by analyzing how biases might affect the information you receive, how the content might be trying to persuade you without providing any concrete evidence, and the credibility of the creator(s), your information literacy is sharp. 

Academic Credibility 

Reading academic articles is an excellent way to retrieve information since the author must be a professional, and the articles are reviewed before they are published. Any website that ends in “.edu” should be a reliable source. You could also use Google Scholar as a search engine or a library website to find peer-reviewed academic articles. However, even scholarly articles can be biased and contain inaccurate information. Check the date that the article was published and ask yourself if the date is relevant to the topic discussed in the report. For example, if you read an article about stem cell technology from 2008, the information may be no longer relevant since new technologies might be available. In addition, understanding the context of the writer helps readers to differentiate between bias and accurate information. If the source could profit from having a particular point of view, the information might be generalized to leave out contradicting information. When researching a topic, it is also beneficial to read primary sources (sources that conduct research first hand) and secondary sources (sources that draw conclusions by compiling research from other sources). Even highly respected writers are not immune to bias in their writing.  

The internet is a powerful tool that can also be dangerous. Being highly critical of the information you receive will create better-educated individuals who seek to learn more about the world rather than confirm what they think they already know. The power of understanding is bestowed on those who genuinely desire to discover and are open to the possibility of being wrong.

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