Quality of information.... and disinformation online

Truth or 8-( ?

a logo from and link to The Bobs (the band); no relation, just
inspiration An INLS 310.74 project by Bob Stepno and Bob Henshaw

(This version posted 11/14/95 and moved to this address May 4,1998. Sorry, but this is a "cobweb" that hasn't been updated to remove outdated links, etc. But the code does disable some 1995 Java applets that don't work with 1998 browsers; and a copy of that gif file of "MrYuk" must be around here somewhere. The fact that some of the links also are out of date raises a "quality of information" issue in itself, as does the fact that the original Web server that housed this page, blake.oit.unc.edu, has been offline for some months. Bob S, May 1998.)

Who's Defining Quality?

Not us. This area is as subjective as it comes. Two people named Bob might even disagree over a simple statement like, "One person's information is another person's disinformation. One person's 'quality newscast' may be another's 'quality entertainment.'" For some, printing and binding may be a required mark of quality information.

Two books, Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, and Bill McKibben's The Age of Missing Information  argue that our entertainment-oriented culture, especially television, has reduced the content of much of our public discourse to dangerous nonsense...
Print is now merely a residual epistemology, and it will remain so, aided to some extent by the computer, and newspapers and magazines that are made to look like television screens.... (Postman, p.28)

Postman's point is that the "this just in" form of late-20th century media deprives information of context and renders much of it meaningless. Can the World Wide Web restore context through linkage, history, depth and debate? That's too philosphical and open-ended a question for a brief class discussion. We might as well ask, "what is truth?"

Instead, we will focus on "quality" as the more practical matter of seeking out information which we can rely on as being (by some definition) factual, accurate or objective....

You, the Consumer...

....have a number issues to consider in your quest for reliable information.

Consider Your Needs

Strategies for locating information are determined initially by the nature of our information needs. How much detail is needed? How esoteric is the subject matter?

In this marketing and special-interest-oriented culture, media are increasingly aimed at "niche markets." On a medium like the Internet which allows almost anyone to publish, the number of niches increases exponentially. You are your own niche.

There is also the problem of information we do not need. We ignore most of the information we do not need, but it is increasingly difficult to filter. Do we have more control over our exposure to irrelevant information on the Internet than on broadcast media like radio and television? How will Java and other dynamic languages change this equation?

Consider Your Options

If you live on a mountaintop and your satellite dish is down you may feel starved for information and actually go to the library for a book. For most of us, however, too much information is the problem. And the Internet exacerbates this information overload by adding almost unlimited quantity to the problem of weighing the relative quality of the information.

Consider Your Time

Convenience is an American tradition, and part of our day-to-day decisions about information. That's why we have authors, publishers, editors, librarians and other "gatekeepers" of information. They collect, process and disseminate information so that we don't have to spend as much time looking. Home-delivered newspapers, radio and television are convenient. Information providers like Crayon help maximize convenience of access to online information sources.

Consider the Source....

With traditional media, we can draw significant conclusions about content from the source alone. Information providers tend to be most successful when consumers can consistently predict certain characteristics about the content.

Assuming their content is in demand, providers may become "brand names" for information consumers who welcome the convenience of a reliable, consistent source of information.

Internet search engines, hypertext links and directory services complicate this process. You may be led to the content of a Web page first. You can consider the source if you have reason to question its accuracy or are interested enough to seek further information.

Some existing media "household words" or "brand names" are establishing themselves on the Web, and some Internet start-ups and upstarts are trying to brand themselves as reliable, authoritative and well-known sources, Yahoo being a current favorite of the news media and advertisers. Does the combination of commercial advertising's (literal) brand names lend credibility to an information source? On the other hand, your personal experience browsing a net entity like Sunsite may add to the reputation of the commercial sponsor.

But what other signs of authority might we use to evaluate (or establish) the reliability of a Web resource? Some of these are borrowed from other media, for better or for worse:

In a bookstore, similar considerations influence our decision to buy. But trying to evaluate the legitimacy of information providers on the Internet can be frustrating. Are we more susceptible to disinformation on the Internet for this reason? Is anyone surprised that many online users are looking to the same brand names they have counted on for information in traditional media?

Are brand-names an indicator of quality information?

Try reading the articles in this exercise. Does it help, or further confuse you?

When Rupert Murdoch's Delphi/NewsCorp/Fox online service tweaked TimeWarner for an online error by "the world's largest media company" it didn't mention that Murdoch isn't exactly an old guy selling pamphlets on the corner. Do you feel any differently when the same online screwup is reported by an anonymous bunch of web-gazers called SUCK? Do they raise any different issues?

Questions:  Brand-name information is one strategy for minimizing information overload. But is the real "quality" of information on the Web your opportunity to break free of the "trustworthy" brand names of media moguls with hidden agendas and big bank accounts? The traditional news media hope that their reputation for professional (fair? unbiased? objective? well-researched? timely? familiar?) reporting of information will bring acceptance in the new online media, and that they'll continue to find a way to make a buck. By providing quality information? Or by pandering to the lowest common denominator of infotainment-seekers?

Hidden agendas exist in other media and can be exposed on the Web. But then you have to consider the source of the expose' too... Is all of this access to information and the ability to publish a guarantee of quality, or a guarantee of Babel?

More Questions

Here are some discussion questions of the quality of information and of web pages, both in terms of the aesthetics and the content:

Who do you trust?

Familiar and unfamiliar faces:


Here are a few net personalities. How do their home pages try to establish them as purveyors of "quality" information?


The NandO Times has stopped capitalizing its "O," hinting that it sees its own international presence as "Nando.net" as a familiar name -- more familiar to its WWW audience than the old reliable "N&O" newspaper in that small corner of the Web called Raleigh, N.C.

The New York Times isn't fully online, but demonstrated what it could do on the Web when the Pope visited New York.

The Wall Street Journal publishes its Personal Tech column online and on paper.

Even the net presence of a relatively small newspaper with a local focus, like the Tucson Weekly can take on a sense of quality by making good use of Web features and pointing out awards it has won.

Getting to the Web early, and having Silicon Valley as a "local" beat, both may contribute to the status of the San Jose Mercury's online edition, Mercury Center. Does the fact that the company expects you to pay for some of its information convince you that it must be high quality? Or the presence of syndicated "brand name" features, including comics?

The Boston Globe presents a recognizable name and "newspaper" image, but is part of a much more varied site called boston.com, which features other "brand name" media sources of content. Notice the movie listings, restaurant reviews and other features at The Globe. The site is also trying a variety of interactive features like instant polls and chat.

In fact, you can choose among hundreds of brand-name newspapers on the Web; the quality of their newspapers and their websites may be quite different.

Does their history as providers of "news" information give them a higher sense of quality than other web information sources? Does it help that the people involved may have been trained at journalism schools, brow-beaten by crusty old editors, and may even have read a code of ethics? Professional newspaper photographers are even concerned about the quality of information provided by digitally manipulated photographs, whether online or off, whether intended to inform, disinform, or "be artistic."

On the other hand, Jon Katz suggests that the old models of authority and "quality" might not work in the new media.


If you've followed the cyberporn debate and the discussion of media oligarchies, you know thatTime-Warner's Pathfinder represents more than Time, Fortune and Sports Illustrated.

Do a big budget and enormous sources of information assure "quality"? Do giant corporations have hidden agendas online? Here's the Cyberporn debate for consideration. (The print edition of Time also has suffered from "quality" issues related to new technology.)

The Web also allows "niche" publications to reach a wide audience.... does their presence on the Web say anything about the quality ("up-to-date," "with-it," "cool") of their print editions?

TV, radio, and mixed media orgs

To the extent that these are even bigger brand names than their print counterparts, will their mastery of designing and presenting information on the small screen transfer a sense of "quality" to the computer screen? Does a broadcaster (or wire service's) sense of "deadline every minute" time lend itself to cybercasting, even when it primarily provides text?

Born on the Web

The accessibility of the Internet as a publishing medium has given rise to scores of new online information products and providers. How do those providers who do not enjoy brand name status legitimize themselves within the chaos of the Internet? Does good content and a listing in Yahoo guarantee you a following on the Web? How do online providers go about establishing consumers' trust? Do the menu listings of Netscape or Spry Mosaic, or the compilations of "cool site," "hot site" and other rating systems convince you of quality?

The Web is also a venue for criticism of Web publications, see Suck.com for today's episode of Netscape-enhanced attitude. Does the "bad boy" style add to or detract from the message? Is a full-color photo the best way to comment on the use of the Web as a commercial medium for the sale of a penis-enlargement pump? Does anonymity detract from this review of the Web entitled TV for the Blind by an employee of a company that hired marketing "experts" to put it online?

Convergence of old and new forms

CompuServe, America Online and Prodigy for years have presented traditional media information sources as "brand name" partners. Now NBC has joined MSN, and MSN has hired a well-respected magazine editor, Michael Kinsley, who has also been visible on CNN. Will you trust him because of his CNN connection, or his New Republic connection, or the Microsoft logo on the page? Does one source or "quality assurance" cancel out another? In any event, brand names in print, broadcast and the net seem well on their way to becoming interchangeable.

Disinformation Issues

The Disinformation Spectrum.....A Fine Line Indeed

Disinformation & Counter measures

What safeguards do various communities take to minimize the risk of dis- or misinformation? The academic community uses peer review to help ensure against false research results.

Conspiracy theorists, political minorities (and majorities), artists, scientists, the sleepy, drunk, bored, inspired.... anyone can contribute to a Usenet discussion and can probably find access to a Web server somewhere, or build their own.

Usenet and listserv discussions also provide a strong forum for evaluation of the quality of web sites, despite the uneven quality of the Usenet discourse itself.

A case study

It may not be a "brand name" source yet, but Freedom Magazine has a lot to say about On-line Lies... In addition to the "Cyberporn" debate and the "Green Card Lawyer" case discussed earlier in this course, the Internet has been the scene of publications and counter-publications by followers and critics of the Church of Scientology, complete with litigation and action against an anonymous remailing service. The Scientology organization's use of the web is instructive: it presents itself as an organization campaigning against misuse of the Internet. Here are some other links to the Scientology debate:
Dutch scientology fight
CNN U.S. News: Church of Scientology protects secrets
F.A.C.T.Net 3 Background
Scientology v. the Internet

Controversies and questions

Finally, here are some samples of serious and less serious web sites related to the issues of information quality, on and off the net.

50 Greatest Conspiracies online

The Risks Digest -- Forum on Risks to the Public in Computers and Related Systems

The Psychology of Dreamland -- How Secrecy is Destroying Public Faith in Government and Science

Electric Communities Links! on the Cyberporn Debate as disinformation and the response of a Net community.

Homeopathy: A Position Statement by the National Council Against Health Fraud

Alien Identities: Transhuman Contact in Vedic Civilization and The Skeptic's Dictionary

Banned Books On-line

Skeptics Society

Special thanks to The Bobs for use of their icon and photograph.

This page composed by Bob Stepno and Bob Henshaw for Paul Jones' Fall 1995 course on Internet Issues and Applications in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Comments: bob@stepno.com