Imagine you read someone’s blog about job trends. Thinking your friends might find it as interesting as you did, you post it on Facebook. A few days later, you find out that the blog used outdated statistics. Would you be willing to retract your original post saying that it was inaccurate?

Soo Young Rieh

Soo Young Rieh is an associate professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan. She has conducted research projects about credibility assessment with funding from the MacArthur Foundation.

You read someone’s comments about Ann Arbor in an online newspaper site, and you know that what the person said is wrong. Do you enter a comment that says why it is wrong or do you ignore it and let other people get the wrong impression about Ann Arbor?

You want to book a hotel for a family vacation. Every hotel website you examine is positive about the hotel and posts nice pictures. Can you trust what you read and see? Tripadvisor.com gives an average 3.5 rating to these hotels and counters with negative opinions. Which information do you trust more?

Every day, we interact with a great amount of information from various sources such as search engines, general websites, online news sites, and social networking sites. As more and more people contribute content online, people increasingly find themselves in situations where they must decide whether they trust the information they read online.

This is the general problem that the members of Information Behavior and Interaction (IBI) Research Group at UMSI have addressed over the past decade. We have studied a host of research questions such as how people make judgments about information credibility and how their credibility judgments influence the ways they seek, use, create, and share information. We have also studied what can be done to help people find information they can trust. The findings from our recent investigations using online information activity diaries, interviews, and lab-based studies can be summarized as follows:

Multi-dimensional constructs of credibility assessment 

Credibility judgment is a highly subjective assessment reflecting individuals’ knowledge level, prior experience, and expertise. It is not something that resides in information or a person objectively. People conceptualize credibility with respect to multiple dimensions and they consider certain dimensions of credibility more important than others, depending on the types of digital media they have used. For instance, our study showed that when people use social networking sites, currency, trustworthiness, and truthfulness are the most important constructs. When they use online news sites, they consider currency, accuracy, and reliability more important than trustworthiness or truthfulness. According to our online activities diary study, expertise, which has long been understood as a primary construct for credibility assessment, is considered important only when people use articles or e-books.

Predictive credibility judgments before interactions with information 

Our studies have shown consistently that credibility judgments are not necessarily made only when people evaluate the credibility of information. Rather, people make credibility judgments throughout the entire process of information seeking and use. Generally, people make two distinct kinds of judgments: predictive judgments and evaluative judgments.* When people begin the process of information seeking, they make predictions that guide them in deciding what actions they will take, given a number of different information sources. Credibility is important to people making predictive judgments because such judgments help them determine where to begin to look for information they need by identifying the most trustworthy sources and finding the “best” information.

Credibility assessment heuristics derived from prior experience and knowledge 

We found that people do not always spend time and effort to ensure that they have found credible information online. We have learned that they have developed their own “rules of thumb” to guide them in finding information quickly and conveniently. These rules are heuristics denoting people’s “fast and frugal” judgments and they are based on simple rules.** People are able to rely on their credibility heuristics based on their prior experience and knowledge. The advantage of a heuristics-based strategy is that people do not need to evaluate the credibility of content every time they use such sites, as they already are familiar with them or they know that they are popular sites used by many other people. The disadvantage is that judgments of information become habitual and they may accept information that is not credible easily because of their familiarity with or the popularity of information sources.

Effort spent making credibility judgments is related to perceived success of online activities

Occasionally, people are in situations where they must make a more conscious effort to assess credibility. When they use websites or other information sources for the first time, they are more likely to make such an effort. When they engage in information seeking to find information for someone else, they want to make sure that they provide information that is credible. In a lab study, we found that people who invested more effort in making credibility judgments were more likely to admit that they learned something new and they expressed a higher degree of satisfaction with the outcome of their task (for example, search or content creation tasks).

Our studies’ findings indicate that it is important for information professionals to encourage people to expend extra effort in making credibility judgments while engaged in various information activities because this could result in improving the outcome of their information activities. We suggest that information professionals need to design new tools and features that assist, support, and enhance peopleís ability to make credibility judgments while interacting with information using digital media. This is the next step that our research group is taking.

* The terms predictive judgment and evaluative judgment were originally coined by R. M. Hogarth (1987) in his book Judgment and Choice: The Psychology of Decision (2nd Ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons) to explain people’s general judgments and decisions, and we applied them specifically in the process of information seeking and retrieval.

** Fast and frugal heuristics was a term used in Gerd Gigerenzer and Peter M. Todd’s (1999) book Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart (New York: Oxford University Press) to model human reasoning and decision making in general. We found that heuristics was a common strategy people use when making credibility judgments.