The Internet Can Be Unreliable

Some years ago I was trying to verify some lines of poetry and found a Kansas travel website touting a poem by pioneer-era poet Ellen P. Allerton (born 1835) that bore a suspicious resemblance to “The Sweetest Life” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. One stanza in the middle of a much longer poem was pretty much word for word EBB. I wrote the site owners about it, and got this response:

It certainly does look like Ellen P. Allerton was strongly influenced, shall we say, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Maybe back in those days (the late 1800s) the idea of copyright wasn’t thought about much.

The travel folks took it well and, moreover, copied the State Library of Kansas—from whose site they’d gotten and carefully credited the poem—on our correspondence, and the poem was speedily removed from both places. (I do wonder, though, if Mrs. Allerton ever “borrowed” from other poets.)

I know this may come as a surprise to y’all, but it’s true: the Internet can be unreliable. This cartoon has come across my field of vision several times and it makes me laugh every time. And to my chagrin, I have been guilty, once or twice, of being that little crusader.

As we’ve discussed, those quote sites are probably the worst. I once worked on a manuscript whose author wanted to quote a (cheesy) poem (“If you think you are beaten, you are …”). He’d credited it to Mr. Anonymous. “You’ll have to source this poem,” I wrote in a margin note. “Also, if it is still under copyright, you can only quote two lines without seeking permission from the copyright holder.” Then I did some preliminary research. A brief google yielded credits to C. W. Longenecker, Napoleon Hill, Walter B. Wintle, Walter D. Wintle, and, improbably, someone called Kristone. What this shows is how absolutely unreliable the Internet can be.

Eventually I came across this article about the poem on Wikipedia. But that’s a whole other conversation, no? Sure, there’s data that shows Wikipedia is about as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica, but I’ve come across poorly written articles, weak articles, articles with mistakes, and articles that were war zones with highly opinionated contributors editing each other back and forth. It’s a mixed bag. I tell authors to refer to Wikipedia—it’s easy—but to use the footnotes to get back to original source material.

I also don’t approve of using websites that exist solely to propound a particular point of view. John Wiley & Sons, publishers of the For Dummies series, offers these points for discernment:

Look for a slant. Some articles are fair and balanced, but others look more like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. If an article has only one source, beware.

Consider the source. Even if an article cites external sources, check out those sources to see whether they are being cited fairly and accurately—and do, in fact, reinforce the article’s points.

Look who’s talking. If you research the contributors themselves and find that they are experts in their fields, you can be more confident in the entry.

Yes, they’re talking about Wikipedia here, but it goes for other websites too. I’ve been referring to for years—and feeling pretty darn good about it—but recently had someone slap me with the ol’ “everyone knows Snopes is biased” canard. That gentleman had an opinion to protect, but this article does a pretty good job of busting his myth. Read it and draw your own conclusions.

The writing community is hard to navigate too. There are lots of folks who claim to be authorities (I’ve written about this before), but sometimes it’s hard to tell: tweet something often enough, and people begin to believe it. However, there are some experts in this field, and Jane Friedman is one of them. In this interview, she has some good advice about finding reliable authorities. I rely on instinct sometimes (and so does Jane, who says, “After years in the industry and working online, I have an excellent sixth sense for who and what to trust”), but there are some excellent guidelines here.

Bottom line? Check your facts, always. And only align yourself with the sort of folks who care enough to check their facts. If you’re looking for advice, don’t just look for someone who believes what you believe; instead, look for someone who has good credentials. Take the Internet with a grain of salt, OK?

Tweet: Check your facts. And take the Internet with a grain of salt, OK?
Tweet: Here are some points for discernment when it comes to Internet research.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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  1. I also like to remind people that a blog (from a news source or respected magazine, like NY Times, LA Times, even Bust) isn’t the same thing as news + that there’s no underestimating a properly accredited .edu source. A lot of colleges + universities host good, peer-reviewed info for free!

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