Finding Quality Information in a Sea of Rubbish

Truth be told, I have an agenda that has everything to do with you. My writing on Modern da Vinci aims to help you and other readers become better, more knowledgeable, more productive, more confident, and more creative humans. If you're reading this now, my agenda is working. If you share this post or subscribe, I'll consider it a great success.

...much of what we consume on the Internet is rubbish. Utter, unforgiving, relentless rubbish.

Eventually, you will find another blog to peruse or news article to read. They too will have an agenda. It may be to sign more subscribers, push a political view, or drive sales of a new product. Whatever it is, they wrote every word with their agenda in mind.

When you return to Facebook after a long day of surfing the Internet for news, every wall post, every forward, and every video link you find has an agenda behind it. Your friends, family, and neighbors post and share for their own reasons--often without thinking, without consideration for their readers, and without wondering whether what they're posting is true.

In other words, much of what we consume on the Internet is rubbish. Utter, unforgiving, relentless rubbish.

We're not supposed to read/believe/like/tweet/forward such nonsense, but we do anyways. Why? Because it sounds good and gets a reaction. Because, on the Internet, nobody stops you. Nobody will think about what you've written... they will just "like" your post. You get a warm fuzzy while spreading the nonsense further before they move on with their lives.

A section of the Berlin wall, on display at the Washington Post Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. A reminder of the dangers of misinformation and the liberation of a country who discovered the truth. 

None of this should be surprising, and on some level none of this matters. But looking at the bigger picture, we know that the posts and tweets flying around have an effect on both small and big events in life. After all, the way we interact with others is fed by our misconceptions and system of beliefs. World leaders are elected by a populous, educated or not. Walls are torn down when freedoms are restricted. The things we read and choose to believe affect how we treat those around us, how we cast those votes, and how fast we tear those walls down.

Of course, we can't fight every snippet of misinformation or uninformed opinion. There's not enough willpower or time to go around. What we can do is cultivate a challenging, questioning attitude while we peruse the Internet. By challenging our worldview, we will learn more. By questioning what we read, we will start to get a sense for quality information vs. the nonsense.

This is easier said than done. Staying alert 100% of the time while under a barrage of hype and misinformation can be a challenge in itself. Here are a few things to keep in mind while reading to maintain that questioning attitude:

  1. Anyone can post anything at any time on the Internet. Long gone are the days when the primary information sources came from newspapers and television shows--sources who (albeit biased like any source) took the time to research their facts and kept their opinions to a separate section.
  2. Others often represent their opinions as facts, but they are still opinions.
  3. The Internet moves fast. Bloggers post new articles quickly, companies release new products daily, and journalists publish news as it happens; not the day after. The result? Information may be unintentionally inaccurate.

So what do we do? How do we find quality information in this sea of rubbish? Doing so may feel impossible, but it only requires that you challenge and question what you read. Ask yourself:

What am I reading? A friend's Twitter post? A news article? An opinion blog? Keeping in mind the type of article you are reading will prevent you from mistaking opinion for fact.

What is the author's agenda? As we discussed above, everything you read is backed by an agenda. Not every agenda is malicious, but you must understand it. Once you know the author's motivations (and funding sources), you can better assess the quality of the information at hand.

If what you are reading is portrayed as fact, does the author cite sources? Is there evidence? Is it supported? Missing sources doesn't mean the author didn't have any, but an article with sources is far easier to verify.

Is the site or article trying to sell you something? This goes back to the motivations of the author. If the author is selling, it's almost impossible to trust them as a source of valuable information; it would be far better to seek an external opinion.

Is the article grammatically correct and free of spelling errors? While grammar and spelling have nothing to do with whether the statements made are fact or fiction, a clean, well-written article shows the author has taken the time to proofread his or her work. They show at least a basic level of care for the content they are publishing. Review poorly formatted, improperly constructed material with caution. Recognize that the author may not have taken the time to verify facts if they didn't take the time to proofread.

There's no perfect system for finding pure, unmotivated, quality information. These are a few ways to combat the relentless flow of rubbish and develop a more informed, sensible approach to the information you read. Most importantly, by spending the necessary time to keep the points above in mind, you will develop your own conclusions about what you're reading. And creating your own conclusions will, at the very least, arm your knowledge with reason.

Additional Tools

  • Read scientific papers. They are peer-reviewed, controlled to determine cause and effect, and many times use randomization to reduce errors. Google Scholar is an excellent tool for finding such papers.

  • Find a trusted source and continue to use it. For example, I love using Engadget to read technology reviews. I trust them. I find their reviews to be full of relevant detail. They help me understand new technology far better than a Facebook friend who has an opinion but doesn't understand why they like or dislike the technology.

  • Spot check information you find. and are two websites built specifically for this.