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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.
Below are some simple, evidence-based strategies, for evaluating the credibility of online sources as well as reading critically.
These strategies will help you look beyond less important surface features of a web source (for example, how professional it looks or if it's a .org), and think more carefully about who is behind the source, what their purpose is, and how trustworthy and credible they are.
SIFT: Moves for Web Evaluation
SIFT is a helpful acronym for initially evaluating source credibility.
It 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.
Sometimes 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). If needed trace the information back to the original source in order to re-contextualize it.
Modified from Mike Caulfield's SIFT (Four Moves), which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Find what others say about a website. In Google search for "[WEBSITE URL] site: -[WEBSITE URL].
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.
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?
Four Moves of Fact-Checkers
There are numerous ways to "SIFT." These "four moves" from Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers will help you "SIFT."
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.
- "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]
- "Circle back.": If you hit a dead road, what other search terms or strategies might lead you to the information that you need?
- newyorktimes.com site: -newyorktimes.com
- minimumwage.com site: -minimumwage.com
(Adapted from “Four Moves,” Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers, Mike Caulfield)
+ 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 less thought to things that evoke strong feelings. By pausing, you give your brain time to process your initial response and to analyze the information more critically. Then you are better able to make use of the "Four Moves" described above.
This guide is adapted, with gratitude, from Rowan University's Evaluating Online Sources: A Toolkit