Knowing Your Sources and the Danger of the Internet

Jun 13, 2017 | Posted by Nicholas DiDonato


The Internet is a magical place full of memes and cats, but this same magic that is so good at finding ways to waste time is not so good at finding reliable sources. If given the choice between doing research on the Internet or at a library, most students (in my experience) prefer the Internet because it’s “easier.” Yet, what they really mean is “quicker,” for the Internet makes research difficult by exchanging reliability for speed.

In the abstract, if told that the Internet can produce unreliable sources, students agree without hesitation. In practice, however, they tend to trust whatever is on the first page of a Google search, and all talk of “knowing the author” or “knowing the publisher” as checks of reliability go out the window.

For instance, as of 5/24/2017, if one were to Google “flounder encyclopedia,” the first site that appears is the New World Encyclopedia. Well, that certainly sounds reliable. Better the New World than the Old World (at least for Americans). Their motto is, “Research Begins Here,” and their homepage assures the reader that their articles are, “Written by online collaboration with certified experts.”

So, our research on flounders is done! Why bother looking into who actually wrote or published this information? The short, if not obvious answer, is that research is only as good as its sources. Let’s take another look at this encyclopedia.

There is no actual author named, except for the vague claim of being a “certified expert” (whatever that means—to my knowledge, one can get a Ph.D in an area but not a “certification” of expertise). Since the authorship is hidden, what about the publisher? Going to their About page, it reads, “The New World Encyclopedia organizes human knowledge in a way that allow a reader to learn information, not just for its own sake, but for its value to the world as a whole. The underlying goal of the encyclopedia is to promote knowledge that leads to happiness, well-being, and world peace.”

At this point, I would hope that students would pause. The goal is promote world peace? That seems like a bit of an odd goal for an encyclopedia. Perhaps they simply see knowledge as leading to peace in some undefined way? The picture gets clearer soon enough: “This encyclopedia transcends the metaphysical assumptions of both the Enlightenment and Modern Encyclopedias. The originator of this project is Sun Myung Moon.”

This is no joke. And it gets better: “This path-breaking foundation combines with the devotion of NWE editors and writers who use Wikipedia articles as the basis for their articles and work to improve them based on training and expertise in their respective subject areas, and compliance with strict writer guidelines for this project.”

In a nutshell, this encyclopedia is about cribbing Wikipedia articles, and then making them conform to the ideology of the Unification Church, widely considered to be a cult. A worse source, in terms of reliability, could scarce be imagined! Sad to say, I have had 6th, 8th, 9th, and 10th graders cite this encyclopedia over these past two quarters.

Hence, my concern that the Internet provides quick “information” (to be generous) but of questionable reliability. A library, if it would even bother buying an encyclopedia that aims to rewrite history to fit the ideology of Sun Myung Moon, would certainly clearly label the source as such. Much could be said about how Google can be tricked by interested parties into getting their results to appear at the top of a Google search, but suffice it to say that a librarian is not so susceptible to such manipulation.

 Of course, do not be so crippled with fear as to avoid Internet research altogether, but go into it knowing that the reliability of sources must be discerned (and if they cannot, they should be discarded), and thus it will be just as much work, if not more, than going to a library.


© Nicholas C. DiDonato

Topics: internet, primary sources, reliable source