It must be true, I read it on the web!

faith

Do you search the web for information on everything from ‘whether you really need to go to the doctors’ to ‘which restaurant to go to next weekend’?

You are not alone!

People rely on information from the internet to guide their decisions in many areas of their lives. For example:

  • Where to go for lunch? TripAdvisor receives 230 million unique monthly visitors (Google Analytics, 2013) and has over 100 million reviews including information on over 1.3 million restaurants! (Tripadvisor, 2013)
  • Is that lump, bump or rash serious? According to the latest research by the PEW Research Centre, 72% of internet users say they use the net to find out health information, and 52% of smartphone owners have looked up medical information on their phone. The NHS even has their own website, NHS Choices, which includes a symptom checker for this purpose.
  • What is the best TV available? Product review sites are ten a penny, e.g., Which?, Engadget, Consumer Reports. Not to mention the reviews that can be found on shopping sites such as Amazon and Play. Which? has over 254,000 online subscribers.
  • Where is the cheapest place to buy that product? How can I get a better deal? In addition to the aforementioned review sites that often compare retailer prices, there are also cashback websites such as TopCashBack and Quidco who pass commission from the retailers onto the consumer. Combined, TopCashBack and Quidco have over 5.5 million members!
  • Should I wait for the next version of the iPhone? Sites such as the ever-popular MacRumors include speculation on when the latest products will be released. MacRumors even has its own Buyers Guide where consumers can check how much time has past since the last release of a product and whether the guide advises them to buy now or wait!

Other searches may include:

  • How can I lose weight?
  • Where do I stand, legally?
  • What is the best way to tackle debt?

But what if it goes wrong? The internet is a wealth of useful information but it has also got its fair share of inaccurate and downright bad advice. This could potentially lead to negative consequences such as:

  • The person who decides not to go to the doctor having diagnosed themselves online. Some studies suggest that the quality and reliability of health information on the internet may not always meet expectations (Adams, 2010; Scullard, Peacock & Davies, 2010Ogah & Wassersug, 2012).
  • The person who finds information on an extreme diet or a site selling a quick fix rather than a healthy solution. There are countless diets out there in cyberspace advertising the ability to shrink to a size 0 in the blink of an eye… without the need to exercise… and all the while eating all the junk food that you love (you can see their appeal, right?). Although slightly controversial, there are also concerns that extreme websites such as pro-anorexia websites may influence the eating behaviours of younger viewers (see Rouleau & von Ranson, 2011).
  • The worried person who follows unsuitable advice on how to address his/her financial problems or the person who follows incorrect legal advice that they found online.

The list could go on…

Although I would never dispute that the internet is a wonderful source of information (As you know, I do love the internet!), I think it is important that users recognise that not everything they may read online will be correct, reliable or without ulterior motive.

It has been suggested that sometimes we are not the best when it comes to judging which websites to trust, for example we may tend to trust the websites that appear early in search results (“In Google We Trust” Pan et al., 2007). However, a good search engine rank does not necessarily equate to good quality content. To illustrate why this is worrying, recent research shows that 77% of internet users looking for health information start their search using a search engine such as Google or Yahoo rather than heading specifically to a website that specialises in health information (e.g., NHS Choices).

Even more scary, 2% said that they started their search for health information on Wikipedia or Facebook! (PEW Research Centre, 2013).

Having discussed some of the more common concerns over incorrect information on the internet, there is another more extreme example of the potential negative effects of incorrect information…

Online witch hunts.

Take for example, the story of Sunil Tripathi who whilst missing was wrongly identified online as one of the Boston Bombers. This led to Sunil being incorrectly identified by the press – leaving his family to deal with the negative consequences rather than being able to focus upon finding their missing son. These consequences included being forced to close the Facebook page that they had set up to help them with their search. This case of mistaken identity came about as a result of a post on Reddit, the social news website; A member of the site made an incorrect connection between photos that had been posted by Sunil’s family on a missing persons post, and photos from the press of the Boston Bombers. They posted the photos for comparison on the site and soon the story had spread that Sunil was one of the bombers. Reddit has since apologised for this:

Reddit apologises for online Boston ‘Witch Hunt’

(Sadly, Sunil’s body has since been found)

Although this is an extreme example, it helps to illustrate that not everything on the net should be taken as gospel.

Perhaps we could all do with remembering that we should always play it safe and approach information on the internet with an open but critical mind.

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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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4 responses to “It must be true, I read it on the web!

  1. This is a really interesting post Dawn. I find tripadvisor really annoying and can’t bear some of the moaning – but then again I never really book a place to stay now without at least looking to see the average score. I so think it is also scary that lots of students use wikipedia as a reference tool for essays and reports. With all of the sites and examples you mention perhaps we need to focus on developing online information literacy?

  2. Reblogged this on alcohol research and commented:
    Interesting post from Dawn Branley which considers the way in which we have come to trust online information. Young people often use the web for drug and alcohol information so it is vital that there are reliable sources to counter some of the myths and misinformation

  3. Thanks for sharing Emma 🙂 I agree completely regarding the need for accurate drug and alcohol information online (or anything health related for that matter!).

    That’s odd that you mention finding TripAdvisor annoying, I heard someone else say that just the other day! Personally, I’m a bit of a TripAdvisor fan (basically I just like finding new places to eat!) and like you, I always check the score of any restaurants or hotels I’m visiting. It’s done me well so far… fingers crossed that spoof reviews like this one (http://preview.tinyurl.com/pesj8vb) don’t change that!

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