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This is the third in a short series of posts on a great new book by Howard Rheingold: “Net Smart”. I recommended you find time to read this fascinating volume yourself (see link below) but if you can’t find the time, these posts summarise the main themes: this week: Crap Detection.


How to find what you need to know, & how to decide if it’s true

This heading sums up Rheingold’s purpose in teaching us online crap detection skills.

He makes the point that historically it was the writer’s duty to make sure that information was correct – just think of all the fact checkers that work for the major US newspaper and TV outlets – but that now it’s up to those of us reading information online to exercise “due diligence.”

I find Channel 4’s FactCheck Blog a great source for drilling down into the claims made by politicians, in particular.

In an entertaining journey through famous hoax websites, Rheingold notes the range of misinformation:

the help save the endangered tree octopus site is mildly amusing but the one that claims to be an online pregnancy detector is more frightening – “fill in your name and press the Start Test button”

Some hoaxes run for a considerable length of time: The Gay Girl In Damascus blog was widely followed during the Syrian revolt only to be exposed as being written by an American man.


Rheingold’s central principle is that we have to use a combination of mind and machine – developing an intelligent, mindful approach to the Net while profiting from computer-powered information filters.

He calls this approach Infotention:

Infotention consists of three elements:

  1. Practising being mindful when online – when to pay total attention, when to allow yourself to click on hyperlinks and explore and when to have a complete break from email, Twitter and the Net
  2. Putting together intelligence dashboards using online filters from trusted sources
  3. Using social media to develop networks of people to discuss and test ideas and information

Key principles

Rheingold sets out a clear strategy for testing the validity of online information.

Who is the author?

Be very sceptical of anonymous sites. Check out Easywhois (or other Whois sites), in 5 seconds you can find out who any domain name is registered to.

If the site is a .gov or .edu, you can turn up the credibility meter.

If  the author provides a way to comment – and actually responds to your comments, this is also a positive sign.

If a site claims to be authoritative but is sloppily designed, be wary.

Be warned though, the opposite is not always true. Some sites dedicated to misinformation boast professional design levels.

What are the author’s sources?

Depending on the type of material, check out the author’s sources. If I blog about re-offending rates, I will link direct to the online data, rather than summarise it in the text.


Researchers and journalists routinely use triangulation techniques – checking out findings or stories by looking at three different, credible sources.

When you do this, especially if you are trying to run down a story on Twitter, don’t be taken in by lots of people re-Tweeting the same original, inaccurate or mischievous Tweet.

Don’t trust the search engines

Rheingold cautions that many of us seem to put greater credence in a website because it came up in a Google search. Search engines are generally not discriminating, they merely match search terms and return what is on the web, just because something’s popular, doesn’t mean it’s accurate.

He provides a great tutorial on how to maximise the chances of search engines finding what you are after including one tip I found particularly helpful:

“When investigating a topic, I often add the words “critique” or “criticism” to my search query in order to find contrary or skeptical opinions.

We all need

I’d like to end with a case close to my normal concerns in the world of criminal justice.

Plenty of police officers, trained to be sceptical, with professionally developed investigative skills friended this  US man who set up a phone Facebook profile as a police officer.

If even police officers can be taken in, the rest of us can only take advantage of all the wonderful opportunities the Net gives us to access information and collaborate across the globe if we tune up our crap detection skills.


Next weeks’s post explores the Power of Participation.

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