Sunday, March 28, 2010

Web Bias

Understanding the Nature of Bias and Authenticity on the Web

"I want the news delivered unbiased. I thought that was the whole point with journalism.
" ~Aaron McGruder

Wikipedia reports that as of 28 March 2010 there are approximately 3,235,437 articles in the English Wikipedia, built collaboratively by over 11 million contributors since it's beginnings in 2001.  To consider that this is only one source available on the world wide web gives a sense of enormous numbers, the internet becomes a staggering resource for information. With such information easily accessible to anyone with an online connection, for the content to be useful, it's critical to analyze how to best ascertain reliable information.

It's helpful to begin with clarity of meaning

BIAS: a particular tendency or inclination, esp. one that prevents unprejudiced consideration of a question; prejudice.

AUTHENTICITY: worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact. 

So the purpose in researching, finding material and authenticating it is to have some reasonable assurance that the information is unprejudiced, not skewed and based on fact.

Controversial Sugar Substitute

I'd like to focus on the example I began in this week's forum: ASPARTAME: the name for an artificial, non-saccharide sweetener used as a sugar substitute in many foods and beverages.

In 1995, a friend of a friend became diagnosed with M.S. (Multiple Sclerosis). She had been exhibiting weakness and numbness in her limbs, pain and irritation, trouble walking along with various other symptoms. The symptoms had been going on for some time with increasing severity and impairment in her daily life. It eventually came to light that she was a heavy user of sugar substitutes including aspartame. When she stopped using these substances, the symptoms eventually disappeared. Needless to say, I became aware of my own use, and have reduced it considerably, turning to Stevia which is a natural product. 

I applied and researched this topic as a focused study into fact-checking for bias and authenticity on the web. On initial google search, there are numerous and differing points of view offered, and 2,190,000 instances found. After researching and reading general history, several differing perspectives applying John Hopkins University's model for authenticating internet information my point of view has changed considerably about this substance.

I believed that much of what I knew before beginning this exercise fits in better with last weeks topic of Urban Legends. In conducting research and applying the fact-checking tools we have been using,, checking authorship, credibility, currency, place within the body of knowledge on the topic, I have opened my perspective.

Nill Ashley at the Harvard Law School reports the following. Aspartame is the most controversial and most consumed food additive in the U.S. "Sloppy research methods" were used and the substance approved by the FDA. "
FDA's approval of aspartame for human consumption, and the agency's tenacity in holding on to its position on this matter led to a heightened level of public scrutiny of the agency as well as increasingly virulent attacks on aspartame." Ashley goes on to report the controversy and empirical data proving that in fact, there are no clear indications for it's dangerous reputation. This study helped to dispel many of the myths that I held and attributed to Aspartame and its potential dangerous side effects. (Ashley, 2000)

In Conclusion

Ashley concludes with "As the controversy surrounding aspartame has petered out in governmental forums for example, it has once again flared through scare tactics amongst consumers. The Internet provides the public with access to enormous amounts of data, but that data is oftentimes one-sided and not entirely reliable." (Ashley, 2000) This served as an eye-opening exercise in critical thinking for me. Dispelling long held beliefs by using tools and techniques to validate and truly assess information is a key skill that I will continue to improve and use on a daily basis.


Ashley, N. G. (2000). The History of Aspartame. Retrieved Mar. 28, 2010, from Harvard Law School, Cambridge, MA. Web site:,_Ashley_-_The_History_of_Aspartame.html.