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Evaluating Online Sources: A Toolkit

Evaluating Online Sources: Simple Strategies for Complex Thinking

The Internet allows people to create and to share information in ways that once seemed possible only in science fiction. At the same time that we can benefit from the open nature of the Internet, it's sometimes hard to decide what online information to trust and to use.

We'll offer some simple, evidence-based strategies for evaluating the credibility of online sources, as well as critical reading strategies.


This guide draws largely on research from the Stanford History Education Group and on teaching materials from Mike Caulfield's SIFT approach and his Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers.

SIFT: Moves for Web Evaluation

SIFT is a helpful acronym for initially evaluating source credibility. SIFT (from Mike Caulfield) stands for:

  • STOP. Pause and ask yourself if you recognize the information source and if you know anything about the website or the claim's reputation.
    If not, use the four moves (below) to learn more. If you start getting too overwhelmed during the other moves, pause and remember your original purpose.
  • INVESTIGATE the source.
    Take a minute to identify where this information comes from and to consider the creator's expertise and agenda. Is this source worth your time? Look at what others have said about the source to help with you these questions. (See the "Four Moves" below for more on investigating sources.)
    (For example, a company that sells health food products is not the best source for information about health benefits/risks of consuming coconut oil. A research study funded by a pharmaceutical company is also suspect.)
  • FIND trusted coverage.
    Sometimes it's less important to know about the source and more importance to assess their claim. Look for credible sources; compare information across sources and determine whether there appears to be a consensus.
    Again, use the Four Moves below.
  • TRACE claims, quotes, and media back to the original context.
    Often online information has been removed from its original context (for example, a news story is reported on in another online publication or an image is shared on Twitter). Trace the information back to the original source in order to recontextualize it. 

Modified from Mike Caulfield's SIFT (Four Moves), which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Later, when you determine that the site is worth your time, you can analyze the source's content more carefully.

Four Moves of Fact-Checkers

When you first come across a web source, do a quick initial assessment, much like a fact-checker does. Fact-checkers don't spend too much time on a website; instead they quickly leave that site to see what others have said about the site.

Try out these "four moves" described in Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers:

  • "Check for previous work.": Has someone already fact-checked the claim or analyzed the research?
    (Search the Internet for other coverage on the claim. Consider where that coverage comes from.)
  • "Go upstream to the source.": Is this the original source of the information, or is this a re-publication or an interpretation of previously published work? Are you examining the original source? If not, trace back to it.
  • "Read laterally.": What are others have saying about the original source and about its claim?
    (For example, get other information about a website from other sources by searching Google for [WEBSITE URL] site: -[WEBSITE URL]
    • newyorktimes.com site: -newyorktimes.com
    • minimumwage.com site: -minimumwage.com

  • "Circle back.": If you hit a dead road, What other search terms or strategies might lead you to the information that you need? 

(from “Four Moves,” Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers, Mike Caulfield)


Later, when you determine that the site is worth your time, you can analyze the source's content more carefully. 

+ One Habit: Checking Your Emotions

Do you have a strong reaction to the information you see (e.g., joy, pride, anger)? If so, slow down before you share or use that information.  

We tend to react quickly and with little thought to things that evoke strong feelings. By pausing, you give your brain time to process your initial response to analyze the information more critically. Then you are better able to make use of the "Four Moves" described above.

Why Lateral Reading?

Online Verification Skills - Video 1 (Newswise)

Lateral Reading in Action

Online Verification Skills - Video 2: Investigate the Source (Newswise)

Quick Tips

Find what others say about a website. In Google search for "[WEBSITE URL] site: -[WEBSITE URL].

Examples:

  • newyorktimes.com site: -newyorktimes.com
  • minimumwage.com site: -minimumwage.com

The results will be from other websites. While some may have some relationship to the original domain, other sites can give insight into what others say about that site. 

Learn more about "web searching a domain" from Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers.


Check a Twitter account. Some Twitter accounts claim to be something they are not. To check the validity of a Twitter account:

  • Right-click on the Twitter handle (Twitter name) and select "Search Google for 'ACCOUNT NAME.'
  • On the Google results page select the "News" filter (top of the page). What do the results tell you about the Twitter account?

Learn more from this post by Mike Caulfield.


In Twitter check the origins of an image. If you find an image on Twitter and are unsure of its authenticity, you can check its orgins with a reverse image search. In the Chrome browser right-click on the image and select Search Google for image. The image search results will show you other places where the image has appeared. Examine these results to see if there are any discussions about the trustworthiness or origins of the image.

Learn more from Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers.