Effective and Safe Online Searching – Part Two

by Patrick Siebold

I think most of us acknowledge that the internet can sometimes feel like a wilderness. There is no question that there is a ton of great information out there; YouTube instructional videos alone have empowered millions of us to try and fix our own broken appliances, usually voiding their warranties in the process. But there are dangers lurking out there in the corners of the internet. In the early days of the internet, the dangers seemed a lot less dire. Sure you might get spammed and the endless pop-ups were irritating but a quick reboot or disk defrag usually did the trick. These days the consequences seem direr, probably because we have become so dependent on it. The internet isn’t just a place for novelty entertainment, it is how we connect with our friends and family, where we do our banking, work, shop, collect government assistance and much more. Indeed, the UN has even declared that our online freedom is a basic Human Right.

But, as it has grown to be an essential component of our everyday lives, the risks have also proportionally increased. Like something out of a dystopian cold war alternate history novel, hackers have evolved from misunderstood teenagers breaking into things for the fun of it to sophisticated teams of state-sponsored ‘foreign actors’ (usually Russians) meddling in things like elections and stock exchanges. The most troubling part of this is that they are doing these things by manipulating us. The spread of disinformation via thousands of false social media accounts with nefarious links which are then shared again and again and again is well documented. And evidence has shown that this happens all throughout the political spectrum so no one is immune.

So how do we know what is real and true?  Surely there has to be an easy way to determine the veracity, or authenticity, of a website or online source? Well, unfortunately, there isn’t an easy way to do this.

The best tool is you. Thinking critically. Look at everything with a critical eye. Be a detective. One technique for doing this is called, somewhat cheekily, the CRAAP test.

CRAAP stands for Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose. The CRAAP Test was developed by Sarah Blakeslee and her team of librarians at California State University and is used to instruct students how to do research, but I would argue that this is useful for everyone who uses the internet:

  1. Currency: Is the information up-to-date?
  2. Relevance: Is the information relevant and of a level appropriate for your research?
  3. Authority: Where is the information published and who is the author?
  4. Accuracy: Where does the information come from? Is it supported by evidence?
  5. Purpose: Why was this information published? What was the motive?

Also, there are some specific things to look for when opening a website, particularly the URL (universal resource locator). This is what appears right after the www. and it tells you the name of the organization or host of the site (e.g. virl.bc.ca). The domain (usually one of the last parts of the main URL) tells you the nature of the organization (.com.gov.edu.org etc.). It is important to be aware of who is providing the information, for example, information on research into smoking and lung cancer might be more reliable if it comes from an .edu site than if it is a .com site related to the tobacco industry or a .org site from an anti-tobacco group. Finally, the last letters represent the country.

A strangely long and complicated URL is sometimes a clue that a website may not be what it seems.

One good rule to go by is that if you suspect something is fishy, it probably is.

If you want to take it a step further and really give yourself some tangible tools to navigate a world awash in fake news and misinformation, Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin West at the University of Washington have developed a free online course to this effect, entitled Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning in a Digital World. This site has a variety of fun, interactive and informative resources that are also great for impressing your family and friends with.

Good Luck! And for Pete Sakes, don’t open that email if you don’t recognize the source!