CyberWatch Column


Bad Information


Professor of Computer Information Systems

Norwich University, Northfield, VT

This is another in a continuing series devoted to how ordinary people can protect themselves when using the Internet.

The Internet and in particular the World Wide Web are in some ways as great a change in information distribution as the invention of writing 6,000 years ago and the invention of movable type 600 years ago.  Where publishing once required printing presses, capital and extensive administrative infrastructure, or at least relatively expensive mimeographs (1950s), photocopiers (1960s) and printers (1970s), today publishing to a potential audience of millions can be essentially free.

Unfortunately, freedom to publish  has liberated some people from responsible reporting, adequate research, and even rudimentary principles of spelling and grammar.  The dictum, "Don't believe everything you read" is even more important when reading Web-based information.  Individuals may publish incorrect versions of technical information, unsubstantiated theories about historical and natural events, and revisionist history.

You can imagine the effect of this kind of misinformation on children if they are not trained in critical thinking and skepticism about information they encounter on the 'Net.

Another source of information is the USENET — that collection of thousands of discussion groups on every conceivable topic.  In a moderated group, messages are either passed through a moderator who decides whether to post them for participants or the moderator deletes offensive or otherwise inappropriate messages.  Not all moderated groups are reliable, and not all unmoderated groups are unreliable.  However, many unmoderated groups distribute unsubstantiated information from people who seem to enjoy insulting other participants and making outrageous claims about any topic that comes up.  Children should be trained to recognize emotional and inflammatory language and to be skeptical of information from rants.

Practical Guidelines:

“An Educators' Guide to Credibility and Web Evaluation” (1999) by Toni Greer, Donna Holinga, Christy Kindel and Melissa Netznik (University of Illinois/Urbana-Champaign) < >

  • “Evaluating Internet Research Sources” (1997) by Robert Harris.  < >
  • WebQuester: A Guidebook to the Web (2000) by Robert Harris.  Dushkin McGraw-Hill, ISBN 0-07-235083-0.