Unreliable sources

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Some popular sources are particularly unreliable, and the information is not useful for citing in academic papers, nor even for personal purposes such as making informed decisions about political beliefs. These can include the following types.

  • Scams
  • Conspiracy theory sites
  • Deceptive / malignant hoaxes
  • Benign hoaxes (e.g., humorous)
  • Humor sites, especially satire / parody
  • Biased news / political sites
  • Propaganda sites
  • Fake news sites

1 Characteristics

This subgenre of popular sources have the following discourse and editorial features.

  • Unqualified to write on the topic
  • Non-expert – not an academic or professional expert
  • No credentials; or non-relevant credentials; or maybe fake credentials
  • Maybe completely unreliable
  • Possibly unethical motives (e.g., greed, fame, political agenda...)

For example, some anti-evolution / creationist web sites might feature a person with a Ph.D., but it is from a minor school or is in a non-relevant field like education; the person has no formal science training.

  • Often less educated and more vulnerable persons
  • Superficial
  • Unreliable
  • May be distorted, falsified, or entirely fake
  • Maybe secondary, often no citations
  • Often subjective, anecdotal, and/or biased
Quality control
  • Often none
  • Quality control, if any, has no concern for facts or objectivity
  • Quality control, if any, is only concerned with popular appeal, emotional appeal, or mass market appeal

Likewise, the production quality may be of poor quality at many of these websites, and the tone is very colloquial, unprofessional, and even emotionalistic.

The site may have no credible credentials, or it may boast of questionable credentials. A famous hoax website called the Northwest Pacific tree octopus warns of a tree octopus that is in danger of extinction, and makes appeals for the public’s help and support to save it. It is a benign hoax (the intentions are likely humorous). At the bottom of the web site are some questionable affiliations: a non-existent university and a nature group that probably does not exist.

2 Examples

2.1 Hoaxes

Some websites warn of a chemical called DHMO--dihydrogen monoxide--which is an odorless, tasteless chemical that can be deadly if inhaled. Once residents of Aliso Viejo, a small town in California, believed this, and the town council of Aliso Viejo in California was about to pass a law restricting the use of DHMO, until they realized that DHMO is simply water. DHMO sites are simply humorous pranks, with some advocating for water and some warning (humorously) of its dangers and advocating banning it.

Some hoaxes are more malignant, such as websites telling people that certain product logos are satanically inspred—most notably, the Proctor and Gamble logo or the Starbucks logo.

2.2 Conspiracy theories

Most notorious are conspiracy theory websites and channels, where the, information is grossly distorted or and falsified, or outright made-up. The most notorious example is the Infowars website and channel, which promote false and bizarre conspiracy theories with information that is completely completely made-up. Anti-vaxer websites try to scare parents, persuade them that vaccines cause autism, and persuade them not to vaccinate children. It is based on false research, false information, or information that is grossly distorted by people who do not know science and medicine. This kind of information easily counts as fake news.

Conspiracy theories can have a wide appeal, because human minds are very adept at finding patterns, but are sometimes good at finding patterns that do not actually exist. Conspiracy websites rely on this effect. As one examines a large set of information, such as all that has happened in ㄱrecent politics, geopolitical news, current events around the world, and years of economic and political data, it is easy to put together any kind of false pattern that one wants to believe. It is easy to find data to support a secret Illuminati or communist conspiracy at work in the world, or a secret alien conspiracy, or a secret lizard people conspiracy at work, that is that is driving world politics. It is all based on false pattern recognition mistakes in human decision making and information processing.

2.3 Humor sites

In 2012, a famous satire site known as the Onion (www.theonion.com) published an article stating that among rural white American voters, President Ahmadinejad of Iran was more popular among these white voters than Barack Obama. The Fars news agency of Iran picked up the story and reprinted it as a real news story. In 2012another Onion article stated that Korean dictator Kim Jong-un was selected as the sexiest man alive. The China People's Daily News service picked it up and ran it as a real story. However, most Internet-savvy people in North America who have heard of the Onion know it is an entertainment and humor website and hould never be taken seriously.

2.4 Biased news sites

More political news sources like Fox on the right and minor alternative news sources on the left are clearly biased their coverage. The information is superficial and often through a very biased lens. They cater to very conservative viewers or very liberal viewers and readers. The contents and the headlines and contents are not objective, and they aim to persuade readers to a particular point of view. Thus, these are not good sources.

These contrast with respected, professional news outlets. Some reputable news sources like the Wall Street Journal that may tend to lean conservative and others like New York Times tend to lean liberal. Likewise, the reputable European newspapers also tend to lean conservative or liberal. However, these are all reputable news sources because in spite of their left or right leanings, they do serious, objective journalism; they are reputable sources of information, they do investigative journalism, and contain professional analysis by professionals writers. So such professional news sources can be cited easily in college papers.

2.5 Propaganda sources

There exist propaganda sites, which are more extreme example of biased information and even fake news. Examples would be include sites like the infamous Breitbart.com. Breitbart is a very pro- Trump, nationalist, extreme right-wing site, with xenophobic, white supremacist and racist tendencies. Much of the information is falsified or distorted, and it is only concerned with promoting an extreme point of view. Writers would not ever cite these unless they want to cite examples of propaganda sources for a paper.

3 Detecting unreliable sources

Some more obvious signs might be the following.

  • Credentials that are fake or not relevant.
  • Poor production quality
  • Obvious factual errors
  • Relying on logical fallacies
  • Emotional tone or rhetoric
  • Depending on false patterns in information

3.1 Fact checking

The easiest thing to do is a Google search to check on a rumor or information. One can also search in Google Scholar (scholar.google.com). This is a special Google search engine to check academic sources and academic websites, which can be useful for checking something of an academic nature like vaccines or moon-landing conspiracies. There are a number of fact-checking websites for (1) general rumors and for popular hoaxes that are seen on the Internet and social media; for (2) popular political hoaxes and fake news.

Fact-checking sites:

General http://www.google.com
Academic http://scholar.google.com
General Internet & media http://www.hoax-slayer.com
(e.g., for email & SNS hoaxes)
General and political http://www.Snopes.com
Political http://www.PolitiFact.com,

4 See also

  1. Academic versus non-academic writing
  2. Google Scholar searches
  3. Academic versus non-academic sources
  4. Popular sources
  5. Unreliable sources
  6. Professional sources
  7. Academic sources

4.1 Youtube videos

  1. Evaluating sources #1: Introduction
  2. Evaluating sources #2: Popular sources
  3. Evaluating sources #3: Unreliable sources