South Africa

How to conduct effective research online

National Manager Learning Design
PMI
4 mins

There is a lot of fake news going around these days! There is also a lot of fake news about fake news!

It is purported that Microsoft founder Bill Gates once shared his belief that the Internet would inspire and deliver increased trust in information. His reason was simple and straightforward: the ‘net’ would be filled with authorities. And because the ability to check somebody’s reputation would be so much more sophisticated on the net than it was in print, it would balance out the spread of misinformation. *

Today, the term ‘fake news’ has become commonplace. It is a very clever ‘catchphrase’ to discredit people and/or institutions. Misinformation or disinformation, which is what fake news is, has been around a lot longer than the Internet, but now because of the network effect of social media, it should be of concern to all of us.  

Why should we care about the problem that is ‘fake news’?

There are a few simple but powerful reasons why we should care:

  • Making good decisions depends on having the full facts. 
  • Bad arguments destroy credibility and hurt people. 
  • Having accurate information is the way we ascertain the truth. 
  • False statements, if acted upon, yield contradictory – and often inappropriate – results. 

The problem with too much information

The challenge is that the Internet is where we find most of our information. We research markets and competitors when we want to sell something. We research products and options when we want to buy something. We research topics when we want to know or learn something. The Internet has changed the way we can access knowledge and expertise, from YouTube videos to academic articles.

The ability to publish, share and consume news and information at scale has broadened all of our horizons and democratised access to information. But, thanks to relatively little regulation or editorial standards, with millions of search results to choose from, it also means that anyone can present themselves as an expert. And it can be very difficult to determine which stories are credible and which are untrustworthy. 

So what to do about it? How do we effectively research topics online and how do we ensure we are not being misled or misinformed? 

Awareness is key! Learn to spot misinformation and disinformation. 

First, we want to ensure that the information we discover is accurate, which means we need to be able to separate fact from fiction. Here are a few key things to keep in mind when you are online.

Does the information inspire fear? Is fear being triggered to motivate a particular response? If information seems to deliberately inspire fear, be sceptical, and fact check. 

Ask yourself, “Why has this story been written? Is it selling me a particular product? Is it to persuade me of a certain viewpoint? Or is it trying to get me to click through to another website? Am I being triggered?”

Is the source credible? Have you heard of the source? Does it have a good reputation? What other websites does the source link to? If there are references, what are they and where do they lead? 

There are two great ways to double check sources. Google the information or fact you have found. Does it appear in other sources or only on that site? If a study is referenced, can you find the actual study? Often, stories and websites will link to each other without ever actually linking to the study or statistic that is referenced. If you find yourself going in ‘online circles’, critically examine the validity of the content. 

Trusted online fact-checking sites like Snopes can help you to identify good information and nonsensical information. Actually, their “What’s New” page is a favourite of mine because it is a quick way for me to check up on the latest fact checks. 

Become an expert researcher

The availability of excellent content at the click of a button means you can research anything but it’s important to be critical – and vigilant – when researching online. Here are some ways to become an expert online researcher. 

  1. Choose what you want to research 

You need to be specific about what you’re looking for. What’s your objective? What action do you need to take at the end of your research? What do you need to be able to do? This helps you define the parameters of what you are researching. It’s also a good idea to keep re-evaluating these goals and objectives based on what you learn, you may find you have additional questions once you begin the research process. 

Be careful of your own biases that cause you to overlook relevant facts. People tend to not look for what they don’t see, a concept known as WYSIATI. ‘What you see is all there is’, is a cognitive bias described by Nobel-winner Daniel Kahneman in his book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’.

  1. Identify your field of study

There are experts in every field. Start by identifying who they are and concentrate your research there. For example, if you’re doing medical research, you don’t want to be on non-medical sites, you want to be researching relevant medical journals. If you’re doing competitor research, find respected third-party review websites. 

Once you have your parameters and you’ve identified sources to begin with, you can start the research process. How have these sources approached your topic? What questions have been asked and answered? What additional sources have been referenced? What do they have to say? Do you need to broaden your search criteria?

  1. Evaluate your sources and information

This is a most important step and relates back to our discussion of fake news. Take the time to understand and evaluate your sources. Always look for at least three or four different sources that share the same information to verify the content. Critically evaluate the objective of every site and author you are reading. What is their goal? If it’s to persuade you of a specific opinion or fact, ask yourself why. Be critical. Everyone has biases and opinions, so be sure you understand the motives behind content before you accept and use it. 

So why care about the process of researching and finding information? 

Following the above three steps will help you in the pursuit of truth, and the pursuit of truth is something we should all care passionately about because trust is built upon telling the truth. And trust is at the heart of all relationships, and to my mind, necessary for growth and prosperity. 

According to the World Economic Forum, critical thinking and problem-solving top the list of skills employers believe will grow in prominence over the next three to five years. For this reason, PMI has a range of offerings for employees wanting to advance their critical thinking, problem-solving, analytical, and creativity skills.

* In a 1995 GQ interview, Microsoft founder Bill Gates shared his belief that the Internet would inspire and deliver increased trust in information. 

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National Manager Learning Design
PMI

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