Authentication 101 - Introduction

The digital age presents us with unprecedented problems when it comes to finding information and making sure that it’s true. Where our first problem used to be getting information, what’s more difficult today is filtering out what we need from what we don’t. In fact, creating and distributing information is now so easy that we can no longer assume that sources have anything to lose by spreading content that’s false or misleading. In essence, today we all have to be our own librarians, researchers and fact-checkers.

Reality and fiction in digital media

Some content, such as a fake blog entry, is very easy to create: all it takes is an account on a free blogging platform and knowing how to write. Other content, such as videos, is harder to fake, but the tools to do so are becoming increasingly sophisticated and cheaper, which means that they are accessible by more people than ever. Combine this with the fact that anyone can easily publish content online and potentially reach millions of people, and you begin to see the danger.

Not all fake content online is automatically problematic, and part of the challenge is discerning the intention behind each one: a lot of photos are obviously manipulated to make people laugh, for example. When the intent is to mislead, though, to manipulate, to influence, to cheat, or to radicalize, it is crucial that we be able to identify that content for what it is. As well, because it’s so easy for content to be reused for different purposes online; even things that were obviously fake in their original context may wind up being used in a way that leaves doubt as to whether it’s true or false.

The challenge is that there is a lot of content online – both in quantity and in variety – and each type of content has its own list of elements that need to be analyzed and its own set of conditions that need to be met in order to determine if it is true or false, real or fake, reliable or unreliable.

MediaSmarts’ research has found that search and authentication rank first among the digital literacy skills students want to learn,[1] and it’s easy to see why: the same things that make the Internet such a valuable source of information can just as easily become pitfalls. For all of us, knowing how to search and how to authenticate information are both essential skills to master if we want to end up with relevant and reliable information.


[1] Steeves, Valerie. (2014) Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Experts or Amateurs? Gauging Young Canadians’ Digital Literacy Skills. Ottawa: MediaSmarts.