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Critically Evaluating Online Information: SIFT for Information Evaluation

The Importance of Evaluating Information Online

In our online world, there is seemingly no end to the amount of information we can access. From blog posts to news sites and TikTok to research studies, there is an abundance of opinions, media, articles, advertisements, and the list goes on and on. However, as we know, not all information is factual and not all sources are reputable. It can be difficult to evaluate what we read and see online, but it is very important that we do. On this page, you can learn about SIFT, a model and process to follow that can help you evaluate information online.

SIFT infographic. Stop, investigate the source, find better coverage, trace claims back to their original source.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licensehttps://hapgood.us/2019/06/19/sift-the-four-moves/ 

The SIFT Model for Information Evaluation

The SIFT Model for Evaluating Information

SIFT is a 4 step process created by Mike Caulfield, a digital literacy expert, that we can use to critically analyze and evaluate information. SIFT stands for:

  1. Stop
  2. Investigate the source
  3. Find better coverage
  4. Trace the claim back to the original source

 

The 4 Steps of SIFT

First, STOP!

Counterintuitive maybe, but taking a step back from articles or social media posts to really reflect on the information and the source can set you up for evaluation success. It is easy to get swept up in clickbait or emotionally charged headlines. Pause and remind yourself that as a responsible researcher, you are seeking truth with an open and curious mind.

When you are ready, ask yourself:

  • What/Who is the source/website?
  • Is it a source/website I am familiar with?
  • If not, what information do I need to help me analyze the information or claim and evaluate the credibility of this source.

The last question above leads into the second step of SIFT, which is to Investigate the Source. 

In this step, you will find out about the source as well as the author. For example, if an article is posted on a website, you will want to know what that website (the source) is all about. You will also want to know about the person who wrote that article (the author). To investigate the source, employ a strategy called Lateral Reading, a term coined by Sam Wineburg’s Stanford research team

Lateral reading is a strategy that you can use to compare several websites side by side at once. We’ve all been guilty of having a couple (ok more like 20 for some of us) web browser tabs open at once. Now, you can utilize multiple tabs to read laterally and compare information.

How to read laterally:

  1. Open up a tab next to your original webpage.
  2. Google the website, author’s, or organization’s name and read what other websites not affiliated with the original source has to say. This can give you insight into the source and their reputation on the web.
  3. Look at a few sources to confirm (use more tabs to really maximize that lateral comparison).

Check out this video from CrashCourse all about lateral reading. 

 

Lateral reading works well for evaluating specific information within an article or website too, since you can look at multiple sources and compare. We’ll discuss this in more detail further along.

One reason why reading laterally is important, is because it helps us put an individual source, author, or claim in perspective among the larger body of information around that topic. In other words, we do not want to take any given source at face value. People, organizations, and websites that have underlying agendas or are less than straightforward with their purpose will not directly state this in their About Us section. We need to see how that source is stands up outside of itself. Lateral reading is one technique that can help us do that.

During your lateral reading, you will gain insight and information into the original source. You will use that insight to determine whether the original source has merit and is appropriate for your research purpose.  Here are specific elements that you can look for to help make that determination.

Authority of the source or individual author

What expertise, credentials, work experience, life experience, or other significant subject knowledge does this person or organization possesses that qualifies them to provide credible information?

Bias of the source or the content of the information

Is there a known bias, political leaning, or social agenda related to the source? Lateral reading is especially helpful for uncovering bias since most sources will not openly detail this on their website.

The next step in the SIFT process is to Find Better Coverage. This steps involve determining the credibility of a specific claim or piece of evidence from the source.  In your preliminary evaluation you may have determined that the author’s credibility is appropriate and that the source is representing a balanced point of view (or at least you are aware of the source’s stand if not completely balanced). Now you need to determine if individual claims or evidence are accurate and contextually appropriate. Lateral reading is still helpful with these steps. Here are specific elements to look for to do this:

Credibility of the content

Does the source provide citations or attribute information to a particular source or person? If so, follow that citation back to the original source to verify the claim. If not, Google the quote or claim to find more about it. In many cases you’ll come up with websites that are either discrediting or supporting the information as accurate.  Fact checking websites and hoax busting websites are also good sources to consult. Below are 3 fact checking websites.

  • PolitiFact “…is a fact-checking website that rates the accuracy of claims by elected officials and others
  • factcheck.org “…is a nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.”
  • Snopes is...“The definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation."

Website domain endings

Domain endings are part of the URL of a web address. Review the table to learn about common domain endings.

Domain ending Description
.gov Websites with this domain are from U.S. government agencies. CDC.gov, EPA.gov.  Government websites can be excellent sources of information for finding statistics, laws, etc. For example, to find demographic information check out census.gov 
.edu Websites with this domain are from U.S. educational institutions. For example scottsdalecc.eduasu.edu. Many universities are research institutions and make their research available on their websites. These are great sources to consult. For example if you are researching poverty issues check out UC Davis Center for Poverty Research.
.com Websites with this domain can be published by anyone, anywhere in the world.  Traditionally, .com stands for commercial but these websites can have many purposes.
.org Websites with this domain can be published by anyone, anywhere in the world. The .org stands for organization and many non-profits and other groups do tend to use this domain.  However, non-profit or group status does NOT indicate a bias-free, fact-based provider of information. In fact, many non-profit groups have explicit or underlying agendas that influence the information they share or produce.

 

Date of information

This element is a small but significant detail when determining the accuracy of claims or information because, well, things change over time. If someone’s claim is using out of date information as evidence, their claim can be weakened if not completely deflated.

Check out this video from CrashCourse for more information on verifying claims and information. 

 

In the last step of the SIFT process, you will trace the claim or evidence back to the primary source (if possible). Primary, also meaning first, are sources where information originiated. Primary sources can be:

  • Data from research studies or experiments (helpful for determining if claims using statistics are accurate).
  • Government documents (also helpful for finding data, statistics, laws, legislation, etc).
  • Quotes, tweets, or posts from famous people or politicians (helpful for verifying if that screenshot of someone's Twitter account is real or fabricated).
  • Images (it is important to note that it is very easy for images online to be manipulated, photoshopped, or used out of context).  Check out the video below to learn how to verify the original image and its context. 

 

 

 

CC License

This guide is adapted from Rhetorical Research in Claim Your Voice in First Year Composition, Vol. 2 by Serene Rock and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.