Checking Your Facts on the Internet

With more and more writers using the internet as a source of information and facts, it has become imperative to ensure that what you read, use or cite is actually accurate. Few things can be more embarrassing for a writer than being told that the information you’ve based your writing upon is flawed.

The internet can be a risky place to look for information these days. Despite there being many excellent, authoritative and reliable sites that writers can use with confidence, there is an even larger number of sites with little or no credentials whatsoever.

These need to be treated with a degree of scepticism. Blogging has seen a significant rise in the number of sites and accessible pages purporting to be giving us the truth, the bare facts or that elusive scoop story. In truth, the writers of these blogs, in the majority of cases, will have no more authoritative sources or knowledge on the subject than you or I might have. Many blog pages have been created for the vanity of the blogger himself or simply as a platform for advertising revenue, making the quality and accuracy of the content less important to the website owner.

Looking further afield, sites like Wikipedia, while being excellent sources of detail and background information should also, and possibly suprisingly, be treated with a note of caution. While Wikipedia appears to be a very authoritative source and is fast becoming the definitive look-up encyclopedia of the web, we need to remember how it is produced and maintained. Anyone can edit a page on Wikipedia. You must therefore look to verify anything you read wherever possible. You will see though, that Wikipedia can sometimes show pages as being in need of proof of claims or or requiring verification. The site is somewhat self-regulated, but anyone can still provide content.

In recent times, it has been common practice to look for corroboration of facts in more than one source. While this still good practice, it should also be approached with caution. The proliferation of blogs and the seeming authority of sites like Wikipedia mean that many web page writers could be in danger of proliferating inaccuracies, causing the same error or myth to appear on multiple websites, giving a level of corroboration that may lead a researcher to believe it is true or accurate.

The internet is a vast source of information and should never be ignored or seen as completely unreliable. Conversely, though, it should never be seen as completely reliable. When researching, restrict yourself to sites that you know are reliable, or are managed and controlled by reliable institutions, such as news media organisations (BBC, CNN, etc), government or academic sites. Of course other sites can also be reliable but where it’s imperative that you get your facts right, try getting an offline source to back up your find.

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