Information Reliability

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[Claimed by Lauren Guldan]

Information reliability[1] is the question of how much confidence one can place in certain information. The measure of reliability largely refers to how little error is present in the information, how unbiased the information is, and how faithful the data remains to the source.[2] Even before the advent of the Internet and the subsequent digital revolution, the notion of reliable information has always been important. The ability to have faith in the information we are presented with is often taken for granted, and in the former world where highly vetted printed published works, taking the accuracy of information for granted garnered fewer consequences. It was easier to be confident in the information published in books and reference works when highly respected publishing companies and editors stood behind the information being presented, but the nature of information changed with the influx of self-publication that is now available via the web. Now more than ever, the potential to exploit the people who most need accurate information is greater than ever, so vigilance and scrutiny are both crucial ingredients in the fight against unreliable sources and fake news. The ethical issue that rings most important in this area of study is the notion of honesty. No matter how crucial the importance of reliable information to someone's livelihood or well-being, the bottom line is that everyone deserves to feel equally confident in the information they are consuming.


With the advent of Information Systems, the problem of determining information reliability has been at the forefront of nearly every debate on such topics. However, there is a rich history specifically in the realm of information reliability. The most ancient scholars took great pains to copy the works they were responsible for exactly as they appeared, so as to transmit the most accurate version of the information throughout history. Many of the original scholars were Arabic, and their practices mainly involved the dissection of religious texts. This scholars obeyed strict rules for the transmission of their writings in order to preserve the nature of cultural events of their time; the notion of providing a wholly accurate account of each event held significant religious importance to the Arabic scholars. Following some of the earliest recorded scholarly writings was the practice of journalism, in which the purpose was centered on the accurate relaying of information to the general public. Truth in what kind of news was reported was considered by far the most important characteristic of any transfer of information. Following the older concept of journalism were another set of strict rules put in place in the realm of library and information sciences. The six criteria deemed most important in the cataloguing of information are accuracy, authority, coverage, currency, objectivity, and support.[3]


Richard O. Mason, a researcher from Southern Methodist University in Dallas,[4] published work outlining what he considers to be the four main ethical issues of the information age. As he outlines it, these issues are privacy, accuracy, property, and accessibility. One of Mason's main claims in regards to the importance of information accuracy is that misinformation has a particular influence in the realm of agents gaining power and control. So much crucial information, from data about our personal health to our banking information, and even data that reveals details about our identity that are most important to keep private, is now available online; having this type of information so easily accessible and editable raises questions about purposefully misreporting or lying about information for personal gain. Mason refers to the importance of information accuracy in which the information has implications in life-or-death scenarios. The reference to misinformation about a terrible storm in 1980 that the National Weather Service failed to predict resulted in a $3.2 million lawsuit and countless damages. [5]

When a computer or some other form of digital technology mediates interactions between people, many of the resulting ethical concerns stem from the perceived distance between the actors in a system. The perceived psychological distance during interactions often leads to a decreasing threshold for moral accountability. The nature of ethical dilemmas is largely agreed upon as being situations in which someone loses out on account of another actor's moral wrongdoing. Research indicates that when a computer mediates the connections forming between users, it is more likely that a user will feel exempt from factors that are more present during in-person interactions, such as surveillance, criticism, and the general consequences from their actions. The notion of accuracy in information systems is regarded as being error-free documentation or generally complete data sets; the majority of empirical research suggests that knowingly providing inaccurate information can be regarded as an unethical practice. [6] While researchers present their findings in the realm of ethics in an unbiased fashion, the opinions of academics and experts that fall outside of official publications and data collection tend to agree that practicing reliability in information is paramount to maintaining an ethical presence online.

Best Practices

In general, best practices for determining whether information is reliable tend to be subjective. However, there are some general guidelines to follow when assessing the reliability of information, particularly on the Internet. Offline, best practices tend to suggest that the user determines the author and date of the source. Information on the author and their past writings or education can often point to reliability; furthermore, the date of sources should be considered during the process of vetting information. Information about more recent topics, such as digital technology or the Internet, tend to be more reliable when their publication date is more recent. These same policies can be useful specifically in determining the reliability of online sources. For instance, online sources in which the author's name cannot be found or verified would be considered less reliable. Online resources whose source is from a reputable institution, such as a university, government website, well-known organization, or credible media site, offer more reliability.[7]

In many cases, the problems in reliability tend to exist way beneath the surface, causing later problems with how the information is later incorporated into different scenarios. Take the University of Vermont case study dissertation[8] written about the problems with validity and reliability in the scale used to measure attitudes of sportsmanship among college athletes. Essentially, what the researcher found was that the previous method for evaluating the athletic standards was using a fairly negative approach that brought out a lot of issues with both the reliability and validity of the information being used to evaluate the sportsmanship tendencies of college athletes. What this dissertation did was take the scale, EMSOS (Extended Version of the Multidimensional Sportspersonship Orientation Scale), and test its reliability in being used to evaluate a wider range of college athletes across the United States. Whereas previously, the scale was only reliable when applied to a small percentage of college athletes from a certain demographic. The revised scale was tested and passed as a reliable measure for sportsmanship tendencies across much larger demographics of gender, socioeconomic status, location, and college type. This same basic pattern holds true in many cases where reliability is at the core; making adjustments to how information holds up at a very basic level often leads to the ability to solve greater problems on much larger scales.

Issues of Reliability in the News

Following the 2016 presidential election, one news story broke relaying the story of a teenage boy who has earned upwards of $60,000 in six months due to the viral nature of his fake stories, which generated revenue through their penny-per-click models. The boy, whose real name was not revealed, was one of many Macedonian teens who used fake news to generate income. Much of the fake news centered on President Donald Trump and negative aspects of Hillary Clinton's campaign. For example, one of the most popular fake news headlines during the election read "JUST IN: Obama Illegally Transferred DOJ Money to Clinton Campaign!"[9] This web page no longer exists.

More recently, larger Internet companies like Facebook have been addressing the problem of Fake News as it relates to the surge of incorrect and generally unreliable information that has been populating many social networking sites. Much of the dissent stems again from the problems following the election, which many called controversial at best. In an effort to repair the opinion on online information in the eyes of the general public, Google launched a new fact-checking service[10] that essentially runs Google search results through various online fact-checking systems in addition to some third-party fact-checkers. Because Google's sources are determined by its own algorithms, as a site it has largely been awarded more reliability from its users than social network sites like Facebook. In fighting against the unreliability of certain information, platforms like Google keep its users from falling into the Filter Bubble filter bubble of resoundingly similar pieces of information.

See Also


  1. Cambridge English Dictionary: Reliability
  2. The Nature of Accounting Information Reliability
  3. Information Reliability Evaluation: From Arabic Storytelling to Computer Sciences
  4. ResearchGate: Richard O. Mason
  5. Four Ethical Issues of the Information Age
  6. Ethics and Information Technology Use: A Factor Analysis of Attitudes to Computer Use
  7. Purdue OWL: Using Research and Evidence
  8. Dissertation, Geraldine S. Knortz
  9. NBC: Fake News
  10. Google's War: Online Giants Determine 'Who Should Own Internet Interpretation'