From the Classroom
Intentionally Misleading Web Sites
4/1/2005 By: Frank Westcott
There are many intentionally misleading Web sites. Your students need to know that they exist and how to recognize them. They also need to learn how to evaluate the trustworthiness and authenticity of what they read on the Internet. They have to understand that anyone with a computer and Internet access can publish a Web page and promote their point of view.
The following is a great example of why it's so important to teach our students how to evaluate Web sites for accuracy and bias.
Imagine youâ€™re looking for information for your report about Martin Luther King Jr. You go online to Google, where you type "Martin Luther King." You notice that the fourth site listed is "Martin Luther King, Jr.: A True Historical Examination" (www.martinlutherking.org). You visit the site, and since youâ€™ve never been taught to critically analyze Web sites for accuracy or bias, you have no reason to believe that what youâ€™re reading might be biased.
The site claims to be "A True Historical Examination". Now an educated, sophisticated, and adult observer like yourself might notice that the homepage contains a few hints suggesting that this site isnâ€™t exactly what it claims to be. But these clues can be missed by a student looking for information. The site looks pretty legit and could easily be taken at face value by some of our students.
But to find out what it really is, go to the site, scroll down to the bottom of the page, and find the link to the site's host. Click on that link and see who put together this "True Historical Examination". Youâ€™re in for a shock, as itâ€™s hosted by a white supremacy group.
What better way for a hate group to get out their message then to disguise their agenda and masquerade their hate in a well designed, albeit historically inaccurate, Website. Keep in mind that anyone can put together a legitimate looking site. But whether or not these sites can be relied upon as historically accurate is another story.
For example, check out Facts About the Civil War (http://scnc.hps.k12.mi.us/%7Ehwms/encyclopedia/content/civilwar.htm). Anyone who has spent any time learning about the Civil War should know that Confederate army didnâ€™t invent "balloon-fired guided missiles." Unfortunately many of our students are under the false impression that if they find it online, it must be true. The Internet is filled with so much misinformation, whether accidentally or intentional, that educators need to spend as much time teaching students how to analyze what they found as they spend teaching them how to find it in the first place.
If anyone is planning on integrating any Internet component into a lesson or plans on having students use the Internet to search for info, it is very important that you spend some time first teaching them some of the tricks to "test" sites to ensure they're legit.
The first thing we should teach our students is to look for an author. If a Web site appears to be legitimate, yet includes no author, be suspicious. That doesnâ€™t mean that every Web site without an author should be ignored, nor should every Website with an author be taken at face value. Even a well documented site, with the authorâ€™s name clearly displayed, could in fact have a hidden agenda. Luckily we have at our disposal some very useful tools to check for these hidden agendas.
Googleâ€™s "Link to" feature:
Go to Google and type in a site's URL (such as www.martinlutherking.org) and click "Go." Then select "Find Web pages that link toâ€¦." and you will get a list of other sites that link to that particular site. Some are perfectly legitimate but some are not. First, if this site were so trustworthy and accurate why would so many hate groups link to it? Second, why would so many Web sites teaching how to evaluate the Web use this one as an example of a bad site? These are questions that we must teach our students to ask.
A quick visit here will allow a user to check the organization or person who owns the site in question. For example, searching for www.martinlutherking.org quickly reveals that the site is owned by an organization called "StormFront". Another quick search reveals that the organization responsible for the "True Historical Examination" of Dr. King, is indeed a White Supremacy Group. I think itâ€™s safe to assume a bias in this case.
The Tilde ~
Look closely at a Web site's URL. Does it contain a tilde (~)? If so, that should set off a caution flag. Consider the following, fictional, URL: www.reputableuniversity.edu/~walker/historyfacts.html.
Because it contains the name of a reputable university one would assume it is a trustworthy source, right? But while it may be part of a university's site, that tilde lets us know that this portion of the site is created, published, and maintained by somebody else. Universities typically allow their students to create Web pages. While the pages may physically be part of the university's site, the tilde let's us know that the university does not necessarily endorse the material.
Get a Second Opinion!
If you read something that arouses suspicion, find another source. We should constantly remind our students that the Internet is filled with information and finding another Web site that hopefully confirms but may contradict what one has read shouldnâ€™t be too difficult or time consuming.
The Internet is a great tool for educators and students. We must remember to tell our students that they shouldn't necessarily believe everything they read just because it's online. If we remind them of some of the techniques available to verify the accuracy of the information they find, we'll be able to counter the demagoguery of these intentionally misleading Web sites.
Here are just five sites that deal with the issue of Web site evaluation. It would be worthwhile to take some time to examine these and perhaps to also do a Google search for other pages on the topic "evaluating Web sites."
Evaluating Web Sites: Criteria and Tools.
Kathy Schrock's Guide for Educators — Critical Evaluation Surveys
Evaluating Web Sites
Multnomah County Library Homework Center - Evaluating Web Sites
ITS Center for Instructional Technology
Email: Frank Westcott