Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Beyond the Card Catalog: The Dangerous World of Internet Research

In his second article, William Hatheway, adjunct professor of English at ELI, will continue to shine some light on writing in the 21st century.
A few centuries ago, two individuals, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz, invented calculus…. separately. Working a certain unknown number of years apart and certainly with a great deal of distance between them, each in their own way developed an entire field of study. Now, can you imagine this happening today? No, instead we’d hear of it from a tweet by @newton, or a text from Leibnitz, as soon as one of them got finished. In short, information gets out and around today in ways and extents unimaginable before.
Now, for today’s student this offers great opportunity. Who needs to zip through the microfiche reader (do you even know what that is? am I dating myself?) when we have the mighty Google machine? But there are also risks, of course, and prime among them is how we know whether to accept a source as valid or not. And this is made even more complicated because the rules change as fast as the net itself; Wikipedia, for example, was basically banned from college essays just a few years ago, but nowadays it seems that it has accrued enough respect to be allowed in certain academic venues.
So, when you do a search, and a number of hits pop up, where to start? I suggested you begin at the end; that is, look at the end of the address: any corporate interest can buy any .com url, but only verified non-profits can get .org, vetted government agencies .gov, and accredited educational institutions .edu. While these are no guarantee of absolute veracity, they each carry with them a certain standing as being legitimate, trustable entities.
But here’s the rub, and where this entry becomes a cautionary tale. Imagine you know very little about Martin Luther King, Jr., and you are assigned to report on his ethical and moral character. So being a responsible researcher, you take a stab at martinlutherking.org. Makes sense, right? It is a non-profit, and it’s his name. Now you actually take a look at the homepage, though, and you get quite a shock … is this the MLK we are just now building a monument to in our nation’s capital? For what you start to read tells you not about an amazing activist who gave his life for peaceful change, but rather someone so repulsive that you can download a flyer that asks “Which holiday honors a liar, a cheater and traitor?”
You and I know that something is up here, but how? Isn’t this a vaunted .org site? Shouldn’t that alone make it trustworthy? Well, this may surprise you: racist groups can incorporate themselves as non-profits just the same as those that are formed for the purpose of saving the world… and if they get to a website name first, it’s theirs. So who runs this martinlutherking.org? None other than Stormfront, an organization dedicated to “white power."
It just goes to show that, while often invaluable, the internet can be treacherous ground for even informed researchers. So, take your time, dig deep, and question everything before you take its word.

No comments:

Post a Comment