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Information on the Internet: Sources & Messages

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Internet contains a seemingly endless supply of information, but how much of it can you trust? In this lesson, we'll talk about Internet sources and see how you can begin to identify their credentials.

The Internet

Where do most Americans like to spend their free time? Where do people today go to find information? Where can you even receive accredited lessons on topics like using social sciences and communications? The answer, of course, is the Internet, the global digital communications network that links computer-based devices around the world. The Internet is becoming a greater part of our lives and societies and has changed many of our traditional expectations about social interaction and education. However, while we are more than willing to accept the information we find on the Internet, how much do we really know about where that information comes from? Let's explore what may be our next great frontier, the unrestricted and largely unregulated digital world.

.Com

One of the easiest ways that we can begin to talk about information on the Internet is by looking at domains. A domain is a type of network, maintained as a unified system. It's identifiable by the letters that come after the period in a website address. Identifying websites by their domain lets the computer know where to go in order to find that information.

One of the most common domains is the commercial domain, which we simply call .com. A website with a .com address is owned by a for-profit company, which means that they are using the Internet to generate revenue. Websites in this domain are largely unregulated, giving people the right to post essentially whatever they want. For this reason, you should always be cautious when accepting information from a .com website.

That being said, many .coms are entirely legit. Most news stations maintain a .com website, and in the digital era, online news aggregators and political blogs are quickly becoming the most commonly-used sources of information for many people. For example, The Huffington Post is an online news company that operates solely over the Internet, yet has won Pulitzer Prizes for its reporting. In fact, it was the first digital news site to do so. Like most online news and political sites (others include Poltico.com and the Drudge Report), The Huffington Post does present information with its own political bias. This is something you should always be aware of when evaluating the validity of any news source.

The Huffington Post is a for-profit organization, but still respected for journalistic integrity
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.Org

Another common domain you may have seen is .org. A .org domain originally stood for organization, and implied that the site was owned by a non-profit. While that is still the general expectation, again there is very little regulation of free use domains like .coms and .orgs so they are not formally restricted to non-profit use. .Orgs are often used by groups who want to inspire the same sort of image as a non-profit, often identifying themselves as driven by activism and public interest rather than profits.

Some .org websites have become very influential. Change.org, for example, lets users generate petitions that can be shared amongst millions of Internet users. While the site does allow users to generate most petitions, it should be noted that much of the site is paid for by private corporations who may also use it to promote their own interests. Another example of a popular .org website is Wikipedia. Like Change.org, Wikipedia is almost entirely user generated. While this ideally serves to eliminate institutional bias, the lack of regulation again can cause questions of validity. Most college professors do not let their students cite Wikipedia as a valid source of information for this reason.

Change.org is a popular petition-based website
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