Technology - Circuits
March 4, 1999

Whales in the Minnesota River?

Only on the Web, Where Skepticism Is a Required Navigational Aid

TOURISTS drove six hours to Mankato, Minn., in search of underground caves and hot springs mentioned on a Web site. When they arrived, there were no such attractions.

Laird Campbell

People searching for a discussion of Amnesty International's views on Tunisia learned about human rights in that North African country -- but from supporters of the Tunisian authorities, not from the human rights group. The government supporters brought surfers to a site with a soothing Web address:

And bibliophiles who trust the grande dame of on-line retailers,, for suggestions under the headings of "Destined for Greatness" and "What We're Reading" were dismayed to learn that some publishers had paid for special treatment for their books -- meaning a more accurate heading would have been "What We're Paid to Say We're Reading." (After the disclosure, Amazon added a note on its home page to make a subtle acknowledgement of the practice.)

On the World Wide Web, straight facts can be hard to find. After plowing through dense and recalcitrant search engines that offer more sites than you can point a mouse at, after enduring delays, lost links and dead ends and arriving at a site that looks just right, Web surfers must deal with uncertainty: Is the information true, unbiased and free of hidden sales pitches?

Even though it is easy to fall prey to parodies, politics, payola and ignorance on line, solid, watertight information can indeed be found on the Web.

But experts on Internet research point out that the Web is largely unregulated and unchecked, and so they agree that it is wise to be skeptical: Consider the source. Reconsider the source. Is the information up to date and professional and traceable? Can it be verified, or the source checked, off line? And just who was that source again?

Don Ray, a freelance investigative reporter in Burbank, Calif., and the author of "Checking Out Lawyers" (MIE Publishing, 1997), has what he calls a J.D.L.R. test to apply to Web research. "There should be a switch in every Internet user that toggles when something Just Doesn't Look Right," he said, "to make them re-evaluate the credibility of the source." If a Web page has grammatical errors, sloppy spelling or a goofy design, that makes him distrust the content.

And people who are getting ready to spend money on the basis of Web information should, of course, approach their decisions with at least as much skepticism as they would use about a purchase off line.

Related Article
How to Separate Good Data From Bad
(March 4, 1999)
Whoppers have found a home on the Web since the very beginning. Yet for many people, computers have generally been treated as authority figures, able to calculate compound interest in a single bound. A machine that has been perfected by institutions of higher learning and is relied on by the Government isn't likely to lie, is it?

"We've inherited this notion that if it pops up on a screen and looks good, we tend to think of it as fairly credible," said Paul Gilster, author of "Digital Literacy" (Wiley Computer Publishing, 1997.)

Although the Web has come to resemble a monstrous library system where everyone has a printing press and all information is seemingly created equal, even the newest surfers come to it with useful information-sorting skills from the off-line world. They can differentiate among information from a trusted newspaper, a bulk mailing from a charity, a sales pitch from a stockbroker and a letter from a friend. They can distinguish commercial broadcasts from public television programs. They can skim over the pages in Reader's Digest with "Advertisement" printed at the top.

But on the Web, the clues for credibility are different, and so are the tools needed to assess the information.

How can someone know if a favorite portal site is making a nanobuck in sales commission every time the person buys something at the florist featured on the page? Comments from people who are either touting or trashing a stock on the Web for their own financial gain have been investigated repeatedly by the Federal Government. And is that medical information on that site underwritten by a drug company or by someone on drugs?

Research specialists agree on the importance of determining who finances a site and what profit motives may be at work. While the boundary between news material and advertising is fairly clearly marked in many print publications, on the Web the signals pointing to paid content are often subtle or nonexistent, or vary widely from site to site.


These Web sites tell you what to look for when seeking reliable information on line:





PRACTICAL STEPS IN EVALUATING INTERNET RESOURCES's practice is only the most visible of many arrangements between Internet companies -- including one involving The New York Times.

The Web site of The Times includes, on book review pages, links to; The Times receives commissions from the resulting sales.

Of course, off-line retail stores -- including bookstores and groceries -- have long accepted pay for product placement.

And being a knowledgeable consumer is important on line as well as off line.

At Time Warner's Pathfinder Network, Andrew Weil's theories on vitamins and health are used to create a profile of your vitamin needs and -- surprise, surprise -- sell you vitamins at the end (

Or consider, which presents all kinds of information on smoke-free dining and how to kick the nicotine habit -- and won't let visitors miss out on the opportunity to buy No Smoke software to quit smoking.

Even outright spoofs can deceive the unwary Web traveler. Take the case of a site posted through Mankato State University by people fed up with the cold winters. The Mankato, Minn., Home Page advertised sunny beaches, an underwater city and whale watching on the Minnesota River ( Deep at the bottom of the disclaimer page one finds: "Mankato, as portrayed on these pages, DOES NOT EXIST! PLEASE do not come here to see these sites." Er, sights. (Of course, anybody looking at a map would probably be suspicious about the site's statement that "the winter temperature in many Mankato neighborhoods has never dropped below a balmy 70 degrees!")

That Mankato site "has caused some bad publicity for us," said Maureen Gustafson, head of the Mankato Area Chamber and Convention Bureau. "There was a guy who drove here from Canada with his son who was really ticked," she said. "And another one from Kansas."

She wrote the site's creator a letter -- which he later posted, to her dismay -- suggesting that he and his companions go play with Game Boys rather than undercut the city's promotional efforts.

Some Web sites appear designed to mislead or even intercept surfers, sometimes for political reasons. For instance, to counter what it calls intentionally misleading information, Amnesty International, the human rights group, has posted, which includes point-by-point refutations of the site at, which Amnesty calls "official Tunisian Internet propaganda." The Internet addresses of the pages are, of course, very close, adding to the confusion. But most surfers who wanted impartial information about Tunisia would perhaps choose not to rely on a site that prominently features a quotation from the president of Tunisia, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

William Thomas Cain for The New York Times
Genie Tyburski, a law librarian, runs a Web site on reliable research online.
In a medium where truth is so elusive, medical misinformation is all too easy to find. Beth Mark, a librarian at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., said a friend had sent her husband, Ken, an article from a commercial Web site ( about the health risks of the artificial sweetener aspartame. Mr. Mark, a diabetic, had recently suffered a mini-stroke, and he became worried after reading in the article that aspartame in the sodas he drinks could cause numbness, a claim that is generally not supported by scientific studies, although other questions have been raised about aspartame.

"It is sensational and contains unfounded claims regarding aspartame causing symptoms of M.S., numbness, etc.," Mrs. Mark said of the article, via E-mail.

Soon after, a senior medical adviser to the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, Dr. David Squillacote, posted a refutation of the article's claims (

Deborah Cestone, head of the library and media department at the Pelham Memorial High School and Middle School in Pelham, N.Y., teaches students how to evaluate Web sources for their research papers.

"You'll find sites like the University of Pennsylvania Cancer Center, and you know that's good solid information, but then you'll find a paper done by some 10th grader as a project, and he's created a Web page from it," she said.

After all, anyone with an Internet service provider and a quarter to call it can set up a Web page that looks as official as a 1040 form, without the quality control that used to come from editors, fact checkers and large publishing houses. There are few barriers to bad information on line.

"If you wanted to publish a book that says 2 plus 2 equals 5, you had to go through a lot of effort and spend a great deal of money," said Tara Calishain, co-author of "The Official Netscape Guide to Internet Research" (International Thomson Publishing, 1998). "But the cost of putting up a Web page saying 2 plus 2 equals 5 is virtually nothing."

Genie Tyburski, a law librarian in Philadelphia, runs a site about reliable research on line (, which includes pointers on how to avoid being duped. "Many of us who are my age, 41, grew up trusting print," she said. "If we read it, it must have been true. We translate that same comfort to the Web, where it's much more dangerous."

She recalled a Web site about the medical uses of marijuana that had been run from a man's personal home page. It included copies of articles from medical journals but no mention of permission to reproduce them, she said.

"With the technology of the Web, there's no barrier to editing," she said. "An entire interview reproduced in the article on the bogus site was not in the original article at all, and there were graphs to support certain statements that weren't in the original article."

Rob Rosenberger, a computer security expert, set up a Web site to dispel myths about computer viruses (

"I just claim to be unaligned, but how do you know that?" Mr. Rosenberger said in an interview. To encourage critical thinking, he has a link on his site titled "Learn About Rob Before You Start Taking His Advice," which dares people to treat his writing with the same skepticism he brings to virus scares.

Of course, it is hard to know who is paying whom for what kind of Internet presence. "There are the ones we know about, like, which got caught," Mr. Rosenberger said.

"But there are unscrupulous people in the securities industry who are trying to pump up or drive down stocks, to buy at low prices and sell at high prices, who may not be disclosing their fiduciary interests."

"People send out spams on the greatest I.P.O. on the Internet this year, or trash an I.P.O. that's going to occur, so they can get in at the low end," Mr. Rosenberger said. "We know that goes on, too."

Mr. Gilster, the author of "Digital Literacy," said Internet users need to be trained to triangulate in on the truth.

"We need to set up content evaluation as part of the intellectual superstructure here and explain it to kids," he said, "so we end up with students who can use the Web intelligently and know when to cast grave doubt on a particular Web site. People have to be their own editors and take that upon themselves. Once you begin doing that, the habits become second nature."

But some questions about the validity of Web sources are impossible to answer beyond a reasonable doubt without stepping outside the hermetic box of the Internet. In such cases, no combination of pixels is sure to help.

"When you want to check citations, your librarian is your best friend," Ms. Calishain said. "There's a lot of stuff on line, but working with librarians is one of best things you can do with research. They're trained to classify information, and they can help you out."

It is also true that many librarians are learning to navigate the world of the Web, and they may just point an information-hungry consumer elsewhere.

Ms. Cestone, the Pelham school librarian, said she worked hard teaching students how to evaluate what might be the best resource for a given research problem.

"It may be the Internet is the best resource, or maybe a book, or maybe a person will be the best resource," she said.

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