Evaluating Information Sources

We've all seen urban myths and scams circulated through email - the Internet email tax, the dying boy who is collecting post cards, the antiperspirant that causes cancer, and the Nigerian bank scam. And, since the tragic events of Sept. 11, many of us have received emails about Nostradamus' predictions, rumors that CNN film clips were faked, and a copy of the 28-year-old "America: the good neighbor" column presented as current commentary.

Separating fact from fantasy (or at least from exaggeration) is difficult when all you have to go on is an email message. There is no context, no setting with which to view the information. It is similar to receiving an anonymous letter in the mail, with no return address -remember those chain letters from years gone by?

Before you forward an email or web site URL to all your friends and family, run it through the following check list:

If not, treat the email or web site as questionable at best.

The following are good web sites for tracking down information on rumors and urban legends currently floating around on the net. They make for fun reading, even if you aren't tracking down a specific rumor.

UrbanLegends.com
http://www.urbanlegends.com/

Urban Legends and Folklore at About.com
http://urbanlegends.about.com/

Snopes
http://www.snopes2.com/

Related to Internet hoaxes and scams are the reports of email viruses. The warnings, which usually include the admonition to "forward this to everyone on your email list!!!", are themselves viruses of a sort. They often warn about nonexistent threats, and they replicate themselves by scaring readers and encouraging them to send the warning to everyone they know. Before you fall for this manual version of an email virus, check one of the Internet virus alerting sites to see if the warning is fact or fiction. Some of the most reliable and current sites for email virus hoaxes include:

Symantec
http://www.symantec.com/avcenter/hoax.html

McAfee
http://vil.mcafee.com/hoax.asp

Dept of Energy's Computer Incident Advisory Capability
http://www.ciac.org/ciac/

Bottom line? Think before you forward an email. The person who sent it to you probably didn't check the reliability of the information, but you can. Verify the information on web sites in the same way. It's one way that you can strike a blow for Internet information integrity.

Mary Ellen Bates is the principal of Bates Information Services http://www.batesinfo.com/, a research and consulting business based in Washington, DC. Her email address is mbates@BatesInfo.com.

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