There's a lot of bad information out there online. This guide can help you avoid the crap and become a savvier citizen of our digital age.
Editor's note: The following essay has been adapted from Howard Rheingold's new book Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, which offers Rheingold's insights on how to find quality information on the web, and then how to piece that information together "intelligently, humanely, and above all mindfully." The book was published in April by MIT Press.
Use the following methods and tools to protect yourself from toxic bad info. Use them and then pass them along to others. Promote the notion that more info literacy is a practical answer to the growing info pollution. Be the change you want to see.
Although the Web undermines authority (by enabling anybody to publish), authority is still useful as one clue to credibility in a detective hunt that accounts for many other clues. Claims to authority, however, need to be questioned. I might add credibility to my assessment if a source is a verified professor at a known institution of higher learning, an authentic MD or PhD, but I would not subtract it from people without credentials whose expertise seems authentic. If you are going to grant credibility to people whose expertise is based on being a professor of something, make sure that assertion is accurate. Don't stop at simply verifying that the claim to be a professor is valid if you are looking for scientific credibility. The next step is to use the Faculty Scholarly Productivity Index that derives a score from the scholar's publications, citations by other scholars, grants, honors, and awards. If you want to get even more serious, download a free copy of Publish or Perish software, which analyzes scientific citations from Google Scholar according to multiple criteria. Or use the h-index to calculate how many times other scientists have cited a particular source. Again, don't trust just one source; triangulate.
Think of tools such as search engines, the productivity index, and hoax debunking sites as forensic instruments like Sherlock Holmes's magnifying glass or the crime scene investigator's fingerprint kit. For people who bet their health on online medical information, their economic well-being on online financial gossip, or their political liberty on the rumored news they get from Twitter, blogs, or YouTube, the stakes in this detective game are high. For example, you could triangulate by googling the author's name, entering the author's name in the Faculty Scholarly Productivity Index, and using the literacy resources at FactCheckED.org to triangulate a source. FactCheckED.org's sister site, FactCheck.org, researches claims by all political factions. How much stronger would democracies be if citizens checked the political section of the New York Times Company's "About Urban Legends" site or the U.S. Department of State's "Conspiracy Theories and Misinformation" site before passing along a link or an email about, respectively, a political figure or conspiracy theory?
Crap-detection skills and the lack of them are a life-and-death matter for more people every day.
Crap-detection skills and the lack of them are a life-and-death matter for more people every day. The good news about the pace of medical research is also the bad news: few medical specialists can keep up with the rate of new discoveries. That means that it's possible for the collective intelligence of a committed community -- and there is no one as committed as people who are suffering from a disease -- to stay ahead of all but the most dedicated individual specialists. Nevertheless, along with the latest word on cutting-edge drug trials are unsubstantiated claims, rumors, and outright quackery. Well-intentioned yet dangerously misinformed people, quacks who sincerely believe that their ineffective cures will save the world, and straight-out charlatans who unblushingly fleece the ailing abound online. It's not just that uninformed consumers of bad medical information can harm themselves; people who link and forward without checking closely are part of the problem. When it comes to medical information, just as when it comes to information that affects political liberty, believing or forwarding bad info can be unhealthy or fatal.
How much work is it to check three links before believing or passing along online health information? Simply googling the name of the person who tried to sell do-it-yourself eye surgery kits, for example, immediately raises questions for those who are considering aiming lasers at their own retinas. Patients who want to learn more about their disease and treatment are not totally at the mercy of the oceans of rubbish. Tools for navigating research reports and treatment options exist. For scientific articles, ScienceDirect has guest access. The Health on the Net Foundation has been a steady source of finding reliable, credible health information online. It even has a browser plug-in that enables you to check health information on any Web site against its database. An astute medical student wrote a quality-check guide to medical information online. The Medical Library Association published "A User's Guide to Finding and Evaluating Health Information on the Web." Start with these gateways if you are new to seeking online medical information.
What person doesn't search online about their disease after they are diagnosed? According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, "[Sixty-six percent] of Internet users look online for information about a specific disease or medical problem." In a Time magazine article, Zachary F. Meisel, an emergency physician and clinical scholar, describes the situation:
To debate whether patients should or should not Google their symptoms (which a surprising number of doctors seem to enjoy engaging in) is an absurd exercise. Patients already are doing it, it is now a fact of normal patient behavior, and it will only increase as Internet technology becomes ever more ubiquitous. The average Joe has more health information at his fingertips--both credible and charlatan--than all the medical libraries ever built put together. So the real question is, What can professionals do to translate this phenomenon into better health for their patients and the public?
Meisel suggests that health care professionals encourage their patients to educate themselves about their diseases, and "guide their patients to Internet sites that exclusively present current, peer-reviewed and evidence-based health information." I'm cheered that in an international newsmagazine, a medical professional has publicly advised doctors to teach their patients the kind of crap detection that licensed practitioners learn to do early in their medical careers. Meisel, for instance, points to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality website that provides specific guidebooks for different diseases, directing patients with particular diseases to officially vetted research reports that compare different healthcare interventions.
The website Search Engine Watch, an industry source I consider knowledgeable, published a good article by Dean Stephens titled "Turning to Social Media and Search Engines for Smart Health Answers." In regard to getting answers, Stephens recommends MedHelp.org and JustAnswer.com for "detailed information specific to your question from health professionals," and favorably mentions Sharecare.com and Healthline.com. The Pew Internet and American Life Project claims that while medical professionals and Web searches are sources of some types of information for cancer patients, "when it comes to practical advice for coping with day-to-day health situations, people are as likely to turn to peers as they are to professionals."
Today, large professional operations such as PatientsLikeMe.com and CureTogether.com host peer communities for patients as well as their families and caregivers. PatientsLikeMe makes its money by selling anonymized data about patients to pharmaceutical companies--and it is abundantly open about it. In 2011, PatientsLikeMe used its data to crowdsource and publish its own clinical trial questioning the effectiveness of using lithium carbonate to slow the progress of the disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. By comparing patients who took lithium with similar patients who did not, the online social network presented evidence strong enough to stimulate more rigorous studies. Although not a gold standard double-blind trial, this patient-initiated research is an early indicator. CureTogether encourages "patient-driven research," and relies on funding by its founders and angel investors. OrganizedWisdom.com curates and organizes information from thousands of health and wellness experts.TalkAboutHealth.com matches patients with peers and experts--a kind of matchmaker for support groups.
With the resources provided here and a willingness to regard medical web searching as a learning journey rather than a race to find an answer, informed patients and caregivers have more than enough tools to find good information, but also detect the bad information related to any medical condition or treatment.
If there is anything more important than health, it's liberty. As James Madison put it, "A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." Madison was pointing at the significance of relatively accurate, unbiased, uncorrupted journalism to the functioning of a democracy. Digital media and networks have challenged the institutions and practices of journalism just as they have undermined the authority of medical professionals as the sole source of valid information about diseases. In the medical field, however, doctors and nurses are still the best caregivers for the ailing. In journalism, two billion Internet users, more than five billion cell phones, hundreds of millions of bloggers, Twitter and Facebook users, and hundreds of millions of camera phones have broadened as well as democratized the field, and at the same time multiplied the need for critical news consumers.
The power of nonprofessionals first came to light around the turn of the millennium, when bloggers on the left independently researched a story that mainstream media appeared to have let fade: the history of racist remarks by U.S. Senate majority leader Trent Lott, who was forced to resign his leadership post in 2002. As the power and spread of social media grew, acts of citizen journalism began to grow more common. The first pictures of the London terrorist bombings of July 7, 2005, for example, came from camera phones at the site of the attack. Along the same lines, the first pictures from the site of the plane that landed in the Hudson River in 2009 came via smart phone and Twitter. And smart-phones users sent video directly from the streets of Tehran in June 2009 and Cairo in 2011.
Before Twitter came on the scene, online services like Flickr and YouTube enabled users to tag photographs and video with keywords, making it possible to search for images tagged with those keywords, revealing all the still images and videos coming in from amateur chroniclers during an event. Because Twitter didn't have a native tagging capability, a Twitter user invented the "hashtag" by suggesting that people signal common interests by putting the # symbol in front of words -- like #jan25, the hashtag of the Egyptian popular uprising of 2011. The San Diego Union-Tribune called publicly for citizen reporters to use the same tags and hashtags for their images of that area's wildfires in 2007. Using the search facility on Flickr or YouTube enables you to see a stream of images or videos, and automatically subscribing to that search through Really Simple Syndication (RSS) means you can continue to see visual reports stream in as others upload them -- in real time.
Although traditional gatekeepers have been disintermediated through the widespread adoption of digital tools and networks, the need for trained verification of raw news reports is greater than ever.
Although traditional gatekeepers have been disintermediated through the widespread adoption of digital tools and networks, the need for trained (if not professional) verification of raw news reports is greater than ever. Anybody can send a video or tweet from the scene of breaking news. When those reports are vetted, situated in a context, coherent stories of real people involved are told, and spokespeople for different points of view about the reports are quoted--all that is when journalism is being committed, whether or not the individuals engaged in the verification, contextualization, and storytelling work for brand-name institutions. Like it or not, journalism is becoming something more akin to a network than a guild.
Many journalists believe that the news cycle accelerated past the breaking point with Newsweek's decision in 1998 to wait for confirmation while Internet reporter Matt Drudge broke the Monica Lewinsky story. The events in Iran in June 2009 made it clear to the world that the increasing velocity of information was overwhelming the traditional public filter of brand-name journalists who staked their careers and their networks' reputation on getting the story right before broadcasting it. Citizen reporters, credible and otherwise, using Twitter and YouTube swamped even the capabilities of previously fast-moving electronic journalists in vans with camera crews. When the political demonstrations happened in 2009, people in Iran and around the world used the now-famous hashtag #iranelection, and for a few days flooded the world with riveting images, shocking and politically inflammatory videos, torrents of contradictory reports, rumors, and apparent disinformation, along with both informed and ignorant political arguments. At one point, 221,000 tweets about Iran passed through Twitter each hour.
As the Iran events unfolded, Marc Ambinder wrote an astute article in the online Atlantic, in which he advised, "Follow the developments in Iran like a CIA analyst." Just as thinking like a detective is a strategy for trying to determine the credibility of Web info, thinking like an intelligence analyst is a strategy for trying to gauge the credibility of online reports about breaking news events. Ambinder recommends watching for disinformation, looking for patterns in the geographic location of sources (but warns against assuming that everything that resembles a pattern really is one), examining your assumptions, and seeking out sources that contradict them.
When I started paying attention to citizen journalism, Dan Gillmor, a traditional print journalist, was one of my trusted sources. A veteran reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, then regarded as the newspaper of record for Silicon Valley, he was one of the first newspaper reporters to take up blogging in the late 1990s. Gillmor didn't stop at blogging. Not only did he permit readers (who he started calling "the former audience") to comment but he replied to their comments too. And he enlisted his online network's help in providing tips and contextualizing the stories he was pursuing. I used Gillmor's book We the Media as a text when I taught digital journalism at Stanford University. Gillmor and I have talked often about the need for more effective crap detection, and I'm happy to say that he published a book, Mediactive, out of his work at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Mediactive seeks to improve the public sphere by helping people not only become more savvy news consumers but also encouraging them to be active, mindful participants in news making.
Gillmor's five "Principles of Media Consumption" add up to "core principles for turning mere consumption into active learning." The first principle, "Be Skeptical," is in line with what I've written here so far. The second one, "Exercise Judgment," cautions against reverting to cynicism in response to the unreliability of online information: "Clearly, we need to ask ourselves what kind of society our kids will inherit if they don't trust or believe anyone but their friends, regardless of whether those friends are well informed." Principle number three, "Open Your Mind," is an encouragement to seek out legitimate sources that disagree with your own beliefs.
One of the fears cited by scholars such as Cass Sunstein, head of President Obama's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, is the tendency of individuals to pay attention to only those online sources that reinforce their own beliefs. This has been called the "echo chamber" effect, in which bloggers read and quote other bloggers they agree with. In 2011, Eli Pariser, former online organizer for Moveon.org, published his book The Filter Bubble, in which he detailed how search engines use precise information about your interests and search history to customize your searches; people who mostly search for and click through to liberal political sources are less likely to see conservative sources, and vice versa--a factor that helps enclose people into bubbles without their conscious knowledge. Getting outside the echo chamber and bubble requires the conscious cultivation of sources beyond your usual ones. For example, if all the news you pay attention to is from the United States, Gillmor recommends GlobalVoices, an online project that aggregates reliable blogs from around the world.
Gillmor's fourth principle, "Keep Asking Questions," is also in line with the "think like a detective" investigative mind-set. Principle five, "Learn Media Techniques," reinforces the learning value of engaging actively in social media as a way of participating in the production of culture and familiarizing yourself with the attitude of the cultural producers whose product you consume.
Some people are exploring the use of social media for crap detection about journalism. FairSpin.org's community votes on stories in order for its aggregate judgments to identify opinion disguised as fact, and reflect the degree of political bias detected in stories from both the left and right. NewsTrust.net is an online community of reviewers (around twenty-two thousand as of this writing) who use a set of review tools devised by veteran journalists. I was one of its first members (and served on its board of directors). NewsTrust may or may not represent the way people curate the news for each other in the future, but it's definitely one of the experiments to watch in crowdsourcing critical thinking about journalism.
I can submit any story for review, and NewsTrust's home page then offers a selection of stories already reviewed by other community members. When I opt to review a story for NewsTrust, a menu pops up. I'm asked to rate on a scale of one to five whether the story is factual, fair, and well sourced, and whether (again on a one-to-five scale) I trust the publication or would recommend the story. NewsTrust has one-click-away details on how to assess a news story for factual claims, possible bias, and source credibility. While NewsTrust aims for depth of critical analysis, other applications of social media to journalistic crap detection are trying to do something about the difficulty of detecting credible sources at times of high-velocity reporting--from "social curation" to "crowdsourcing the filter," which I'll discuss later in this chapter.
Bad info isn't the only daily hazard for the mindful digital citizen. There's also the issue of too much information, too quickly. Infotention combines a mind-set with a tool set.