Separating information from misinformation

Tips from Dr. Platt

Separating information from misinformation

Alana Platt, Contributor

The internet is a robust resource for gathering information. It is estimated that 63,000 Google searches are performed per second, which is roughly 2 trillion per year. However, the intertubes is a double edged sword for information seekers. On one hand, there is a wealth of data on innumerable topics, but there is little oversight as to the veracity of the information that is available online. A savvy internet user must identify bad information and data on her own. In my ITSCM Data Analytics courses, we frequently address how to ensure data integrity and how to avoid interpretation errors. But these concepts are useful for anyone to aid in navigating online learning. Below are a few tips to avoid online misinformation:

  1. It’s important that you always check the source of the data or infographic. Anyone can post a graph or a statistic online. Information from non authoritative sources or those with a bias should be avoided.
  2. In data analytics, there is a saying: “Garbage in, garbage out”. If you start with poor quality data, its interpretation will be unreliable. The same applies to data on the internet. If the data was collected in a dubious manner, you can’t trust the outcome. If no discussion is made of the data’s origins, avoid the resource.
  3. Beware of inconsistent data. If you’re looking at data from different sources, it may have been collected differently. For example, reports of COVID vaccination rates by region can differ based on how each locale collected the data. So when comparing the numbers, a reader must ask themselves questions such as “Does this number include only those who are eligible for the vaccine or the entire population?” and “Is this counting one dose as vaccinated or must both be administered?” To properly interpret the data, you must have the answers to these types of questions.
  4. Unfortunately, there are bad actors on the internet who produce content with the purpose of deceiving the public. Some information is just flat out false, so always check its source (see previous point #1.) Independent, non-partisan fact checking websites such as Snopes.com or Politifact.com can be great resources. Look critically at how the information is presented to ensure it matches the actual data – sometimes infographics are labeled specifically to be confusing or misleading. 
  5. Also, keep a sharp eye out for logical errors. A statistic or infographic will be accompanied by analysis that may not be sound. A common error is conflating correlation (i.e. a relationship between two variables) with causality. A tongue-in-cheek illustration of this problem is an infographic that shows a relationship between the increase in global temperatures and the decrease in pirates (https://bit.ly/3obLRCy). Obviously, this infographic is intended as a joke, but it helps explain this serious fallacy.

These are some of the most common tips that I give regarding deceptive data and information online; however, I would encourage people to continue to learn more in this area. If you’re interested, you might consider checking out some of our analytics courses, like ITSCM 230 or ITSCM 382. 

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