The digital world moves fast. Between your group chats with friends, your online game chats, and your social media, you see a lot of information when you’re online. Some of it is fun or silly, some of it is sad – and some of it is there to trick you.

You can decide what is true – and what’s not – by asking questions[1]. These questions will help you think about what you are seeing online. They will help you to decide if what you are seeing is there to help you – or there to hurt you.

Who made this – and why?

Making a website or a social media post look legit is easy.

A nice logo, a few sources, and some good pictures. That’s all you need to make even the dodgiest information look like it’s coming from experts. Add in a .org or a .edu URL and even savvy web users can be fooled. This means it's important to read laterally instead of vertically.

Reading vertically – reading a website or post with care – isn't enough to know if the information in it is helpful.

Reading laterally means knowing who created it – and why.

Here’s how to read laterally

Open a new tab on your browser, head to your favourite search engine, and see what you can find out.

  • Start by searching the author or the organisation who released the information. See if you can find news articles, a Wikipedia entry, or another source that talks about the creators of the information you are seeing.
  • Not sure who created the information? Search for what others say about the claims in the article or post from all points of view
  • Don’t rely on the creator’s own website – find out what other people have to say about this person or organisation. This means that the first link you see might not be the best one to use.
  • Never rely on a single source. Find a few sources and think about what they say.
  • Ask for help from the AnyQuestions(external link) service if you get lost online.
    • AnyQuestions is a free, online chat service that helps New Zealand school-aged students with their research. The service is run by the National Library, funded by the Ministry of Education, and staffed by real librarians. Between 1pm and 6pm weekdays, students can log in and chat with a librarian who'll help guide their research. Librarians also teach valuable information literacy skills so students can learn how to find relevant and reliable information for themselves.

Now you know who the creator is – and what others think about them.

Did anything you find worry you?

For more tips and advice on figuring out what's real and what's not on the internet, visit Netsafe(external link).

What about bias?

Everyone is biased. But that doesn’t mean that information from biased sources isn’t useful or true. For example, anti-smoking groups share information about the dangers of smoking and vaping. They are very biased – against smoking and vaping. But the information they share is true – and useful.

You also have biases. Think about whether you want a piece of information to be true. If so, be extra careful when deciding if the information is useful or trustworthy. The more we want something, the more we can overlook red flags.

What does the evidence tell me?

Sometimes we have to examine facts to decide if information is trustworthy. Evidence can be a whole range of things. It can include pictures, data, videos, or scholarly journal articles.

 When evaluating evidence there are two questions to ask yourself.

1. Is this evidence reliable?

Think about the source and use your lateral reading skills to decide if they are reliable. Remember reputation and biases are key parts of deciding if a source is reliable.

If the evidence is in a New Zealand newspaper or media source check to see(external link) if they have agreed to abide by the Media Council Principles(external link). These organisations have set high standards for themselves. They still make mistakes, but they have processes to correct them.

2. Is this evidence relevant?

This means deciding if the evidence relates to the claim you are examining. If the source is reliable, you can feel confident trusting it.

But a picture on social media from an unknown account may or may not show what it claims. Statistics and other data can also be hard to verify. Be suspicious and take your time.

If you can’t decide, it’s ok to be skeptical.

[1] The underlying information from this section derives from the Creative Commons licensed portion of the Stanford History Group Civic Online Reasoning Curriculum and should be properly cited in the final text.