Content and source evaluation is the most important step in any search for information; see the video — https://youtu.be/-fFx5T5kTh8

Content and source evaluation means looking at the information itself (validity, usefulness, appropriate to use) and where the information came from (the web site, the blog, the book, the magazine, the journal, the TV show, the social media site, etc.)–both of these make a difference.

Yes, social media (and other digital media) today contains a lot of incorrect and deliberately false information; a fair chunk of that may come from bots/machines and is not directly human-produced. Plus, we/the average user play a big role in the spread of misinformation and disinformation through social media–often without intending to (see the video: https://youtu.be/OFSwcbHxggY).

How can we deal with that?

The key is to take charge; remember that you are in control.  Social media (indeed, the entire Internet) is a tool that you can choose to use (or not use).  Yes, even today, people survive quite well without being constantly tied to their smart phones, tablets, and computers.

There are basic “rules” about information that are important whether you are using social media, a commercial digital site, the general web, or a print book, magazine, or journal.

When looking for information, remember:

Seek information, not affirmation

–are you just looking to find people who agree with you?  Then, you are not looking for information.  Be open to information that may make you uncomfortable, ask questions, stretch the boundaries of your opinions; it’s not easy, it never was.  But, it is harder today with the thought bubbles/thought prisons of algorithm-driven and profit or ideologically-driven media.

Source + motivation + how you want to use a piece of information = Value

–if you can, go to the original source of the information (the peer-reviewed study, the video, the news broadcast, the interview, the book, the article, etc.).  Finding it/getting to it may not be easy.  Don’t just rely on someone’s else’s opinion or analysis; go to the original source and see what was actually said or done. 

And then, think about why that information was produced and why it is shown in that particular way (the choice of words, the images, the layout) … usually, it is done in a planned way in an attempt to create an emotional reaction within you–the reader or viewer.  What is that context?  What is the motivation?  Questions to ask.  Do “they” want you to buy something, watch something, vote in a particular way, send them a donation, believe in a particular ideology … what is “their” goal? 

Then, how do you want to use the information?

  • is it appropriate to use for your purpose?
  • does it actually help answer your question?

Through all of this (these three parts), you will discover the value of the information to you; the value may be very different for another person.

Dig deeper–do not rely on just one source

–and, if the information is important to you, do not rely on just one source.  Look for other analyses, other opinion, other research that may confirm or refute … “the” answer often lies somewhere in the middle.

As an example — why should you critically evaluate information? Because of situations like this


The most important part of any search for information is to understand what it is you have found in the context of how you would like to use that information.

With Google, Wikipedia, and thousands of other possible tools (free and commercial), you will almost surely find information on a topic.

As noted above, the challenge comes in understanding what you have —

  • go to the original source
  • for what purpose was the information produced?
  • do you understand the information?
  • can you use it?

Taking a critical look at the information you have gathered and where it comes from is the most important step of any search.

Keep in mind that there is a very natural tendency for people and organizations to present information in a way that best serves their own self-interests.  Sometimes this is done by deliberate disinformation; sometimes, it is done by truthfully presenting the information that is supportive and just not including the information that isn’t; there are many shades of these on the spectrum.

Many people tend to accept and not question information that comes from specific sources–a religious leader, a Presidential candidate (or the President!), another high government official, an advocacy Web site, a certain radio or television personality, a news network, and on and on. Despite the cynicism that is supposed to grip our society, the inclination to accept information uncritically is alive and well today.

When the information is important to you (personally, professionally, academically, etc.), it is essential that you take an honest, skeptical look at the information you gather. Do not assume that the information must be true or objective just because it comes from a certain source.

Many of us routinely do some evaluation of the information we take in, but very few of us make the effort to evaluate information systematically and to the extent truly needed–when that information is important to us.

The linked is a list of questions that will help you determine how appropriate, valid, and useful a piece of information may be.

Does the post, tweet, chat, blog, journal or magazine article, book, government document, news program, podcast, Web site, etc. provide answers to the relevant questions linked above? If not … why not?

To operate intelligently in our society, and to make up your own mind about issues means that it is essential to critically evaluate the important information you gather and use.

Be skeptical about the information you find. You don’t always need to be cynical, but a little skepticism is healthy … and smart.

Questions?  Please let me know (engelk@grinnell.edu).