Did you know that TWA Flight 800, the commercial airliner that tragically crashed last summer off Long Island, was accidentally shot down by a U.S. Navy missile?
OK, this was just a rumor that was circulating on the Internet last year. But some people believed it, including such respected authorities as Pierre Salinger, former ABC News correspondent and one-time press secretary to John F. Kennedy. Salinger embarrassed himself by announcing to the world that he had "indisputable" proof, only to have his proof quickly debunked.
The fact is, the Internet is chock full of rumors, gossip, hoaxes, exaggerations, falsehoods, ruses and scams. Though the Net can reveal useful, factual information that you'd be hard-pressed to find elsewhere, it can also appear to be a gigantic electronic tabloid.
"Information on the Net has an aura of credibility that it may not warrant," says Joyce Flory, Ph.D., co-author of five books about the Internet.
Can you ever trust the Internet? Sure you can. You just need to apply critical thinking in evaluating the information and advice you come across. Here's a six-step approach to doing this.
1. Just as you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, don't judge a Web site by its appearance. Sure, if a Web site looks professional rather than slopped together, chances are greater that its information is accurate and reliable. But looks can and do deceive, frequently. A flashy site can merely be a marketing front for quack health remedies or illegal pyramid schemes.
2. Try to find out who's behind the information. Check to see that the author is identified or if there are links to a page listing professional credentials or affiliations. Be very skeptical if no authorship information is provided.
If you're looking at a message in a Usenet newsgroup or Internet mailing list, see if the author has included a signature -- a short, often biographical, description that's automatically appended to the end of messages. Many people include their credentials in their signature or point to their home page, where they provide biographical information.
3. Try to determine the reason the information was posted. Among those who create Web sites are publishing companies, professional and trade organizations, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, for-profit companies, educational institutions, individual researchers, political and advocacy groups and hobbyists. Each has its own agenda, sometimes explicit, sometimes hidden. Unearth the agenda, and keep it in mind when evaluating the information presented.
Similarly, look behind and between the words posted in Usenet and mailing list discussions. Is the author trying to promote his own ends or be helpful? You can often do both, but not always. Someone posting inside information about a stock, for instance, probably has his own interests at heart, not yours.
4. Look for the date the information was created or modified. Unless you're doing historical research, current information is usually more valid and useful than older material.
If the Web site doesn't provide a "Last updated" message or otherwise date its content, check out some of its links. If more than a couple are no longer working, the information at the site may no longer be up to date.
5. Try to verify the same information elsewhere. This is particularly important if the information is at odds with your previous understanding or if you intend to use it for critical purposes, such as an important health, family or business decision.
Ideally, you should confirm the information with at least two other sources. Librarians and information scientists call this the "principle of triangulation of data." Spending a bit of time validating the material, through the Internet or at a local library, can be well worth the investment.
6. Try to find out how others feel about the reliability and professionalism of the Web