Internet Activities
for Political Science
 

 

 

 

Most of the following Web sites have been adapted for text-only use, to assist users who may be using screen readers. The sites have been organized into categories, to make it easier to find what you need.

Thinking on the Web: What's Real?

Thinking on the Web: What's Legitimate Research?

Thinking on the Web: What's Right? What's Left?

Thinking on the Web: What's Right? What's Left (Part 2)?

Thinking on the Web: Who to Believe


Thinking on the Web: What's Real?

If you're looking for some help in sorting out all the wonderful and not-so-wonderful data you find on the Internet, it's here. The following pages offer some practice. Whether you've played an instrument, perfected a scoring technique, or learned to move gracefully, you know that practice is essential. That's no less true for thinking. So, take some time and do some practice. It really will pay off—just like the time at the keyboard, on the ice, or in the pool.

Practice Makes Perfect

Here are a pair of sites to examine: http://www.lme.mankato.msus.edu/mankato/mankato.html and http://www.ic.mankato.mn.us/mankato.html. Create links to each of them, save bookmarks, and then compare the two. Look at more than just the "front pages" of these sites. See if you can figure out which one represents reality and which one is imaginary.

Initial Questions

1. Which site, "City of Mankato, MN" or "Mankato, Minnesota Home Page" actually represents the city of Mankato?

2. What evidence persuades you?

3. Can you find any information from other sources to verify information on either site?

4. What logical conclusions persuade you to believe one site or the other?

5. Are you very sure or somewhat sure of the accuracy of your conclusion?

Well, that comparison is pretty easy. But, if it's so easy to tell the real thing from the fake, why was Maureen Gustafson so upset about the fake? If you missed her letter, you can see it at http://www.lme.mankato.msus.edu/mankato/letter.html

Practice Makes Perfect

Now comes a harder part. Here are Web sites for two more Minnesota cities: http://www.ic.new-ulm.mn.us/ and http://134.29.12.207/

newhartford/newhtfd.html. "Explore" the pages at these sites. See if you can figure out which one is real this time.

More Questions

1. Which city is real, New Hartford or New Ulm?

2. What internal evidence ("within" the Web pages) can you find to support your conclusion?

3. What internal evidence can you find that contradicts your conclusion?

4. Can you find any external evidence (on other Web pages or in non-electronic sources) to support your conclusion? Did you, for instance, check an atlas? You should face the fact that you must use sources printed on paper to help verify online data.

5. Take a close look at the schools' pages at each site. (New Hartford: http://134.29.12.207/newhartford/schools.html and New Ulm High School: http://www.newulm.k12.mn.us/Web_Page88/info_pages/sh_descr.html)

Are there differences between the real city's school pages and the imaginary city's school pages? Do any of these differences provide hints about which one is real?

If you're not sure which city is real, how are you going to find out? Which one could you safely use in a bibliography for a paper on small town life in midwestern U.S.A.? Do you have any ideas about how you're going to evaluate sites you see on the Internet?


Thinking on the Web: What's Legitimate Research?

Thinking on the Web: What's Legitimate Research?

Occasionally, you will come upon fabrications on the World Wide

Web. (The examples above were created precisely to demand critical thinking about the information available.) However, if you do much serious research online, you will have to carefully evaluate huge amounts of information.

If you find a book on a library shelf that is published by a well-known company in which the author is identified as associated with a well-known academic institution, there's little doubt about the accuracy of that information (even if you disagree with the conclusions and opinions in the book). There is also little reason to suspect that the scholarship is less than respectable. The process of publishing a book involves a great many people and a great deal of money. Those people have huge built-in incentives to take care in the publishing process. Authors, critical reviewers, editors, and auditors are all involved in making decisions about the publication. In addition, putting the book on a library shelf involves more people, more evaluation, and another financial decision.

Now think for a moment what it takes to publish on the World Wide Web. It takes a very few basic coding skills to prepare text for the Web. It takes an Internet Service Provider (ISP), which for students will probably be the institution they attend. If you're not a student, finding an ISP is almost as easy as making a phone call and spending a little money. Therefore evaluating the information on the Web is really up to you and no one else! You may need some practice.

Practice Makes Perfect

Here's an exercise to give you some practice. From your Web browser link to the paper "Political Democracy, Political Protest and State Size: Some Empirical Findings" by Dana Ott at http://microstate.com/reports/ott1.htm.

1. According to the Web site, the author Dana Ott is associated with the Political Science Department at Brown University. Can you confirm that?

2. The site that hosts this paper is at "microstate.com." The ".com" suffix indicates a commercial site. Would this paper be more reliable if it were at an academic (".edu" suffix) site? What can you find out about the "microstate.com" site?

[HINT: Here's a method of investigating: The last part of the URL ("ott1.htm") is the name of the document you're reading. The word just before that (to the left of the "/") is the name of the file in which that document is located. If you remove the document name and the file name from the URL, you can link to the "home page" of the host for this paper ("microstate.com"). Link to that "home page" at http://microstate.com.]

Who is the sponsor? What makes the site commercial? Does what you find give you confidence in the information you find there?

3. According to the paper, indices from "Freedom House" and from "Michael Coppedge and Wolfgang Reinecke" were used in concluding that "the predicted probability of [a state] being democratic is 28 percent higher if the country is small." Can you find anything on the World Wide Web to lend credence to the reliability of those indices? (In other words, can you find any references to Freedom House, Michael Coppedge or Wolfgang Reinecke on the World Wide Web?)

4. The author hypothesizes that "Small states are less likely to experience political protest than large states," and contends that this hypothesis is supported by the findings of Powell (1982) and Bienen and van de Walle (1992). Can you find any authentication for these references?

5. Would you conclude that this paper, "Political Democracy, Political Protest and State Size: Some Empirical Findings" is an authentic scholarly study? Could you cite this paper as a source for a research project?


Thinking on the Web: What's Right? What's Left?

Even exquisite academic research includes the biases of its authors. But the methods of political science usually do a good job of muting the affects of the biases, and the responsible researchers try to let you know what their biases are up front.

When it comes to partisan politics, the situation is very different. Not only do the partisans try to present their cases as factual, they may actively try to hide their biases. It is important, then, that you be able to uncover these disguised opinions and evaluate the sources and the information you find online. Remember, that in partisan politics, liberal and conservative are relative terms that are not always consistent from one issue to the next. What's seen as liberal in the U.S.A. may be seen as conservative in a second nation and wildly radical in a third. And, an interest group's World Wide Web site may announce a liberal position on one issue and a conservative position on another.

Practice Makes Perfect

So, here are some exercises in which you can practice your critical judgments.

Go to the Web page titled "Turn Left . . . The Home of Liberalism." It's at http://www.turnleft.com/liberal.html. Look at the main page and several of the other pages.

1. What words are used that confirm for you that the orientation of these pages is liberal? Make a list of the words that are most important in persuading you of the liberal nature of this site's politics.

2. What issues are prominently featured on these pages? Does the choice of issues to feature confirm the liberalism of this site's "publishers?" List the three or four issues that you think best portray the liberal leanings of the "publisher."

3. What political positions are announced that suggest the pages linked to "Turn Left" really represent liberal people and groups? Jot down several which to you are most typically liberal.

Now link your browser to the Web page titled "The National Rifle Association of America." It's at http://www.nra.org/. Look at the main page and the pages for several of the groups linked to the main page.

1. What words are used that confirm for you that this a conservative site? Make a list of the words that are most important in persuading you of the conservative nature of the site.

2. What issues are prominently featured on these pages? Does the choice of issues to feature confirm the conservative politics of the site's "publishers?" List the three or four issues that you think best portray those conservative leanings.

3. What political positions are announced that suggest the "publishers" of this page are really conservative? Jot down several which to you are most typically conservative.

Finally, compare your lists of words, issues, and positions.

What you have done is to begin, at least for U.S. politics, to define liberal and conservative. If you continue to build on these definitions, you'll find them valuable in the future as you evaluate politics online.


Thinking on the Web: What's Right? What's Left (Part 2)?

When you have clues to begin with (like a site name "The Right Side of the Web"), it's fairly easy to identify the biases because you go to the site with some expectations. But what do you do when initial clues like that don't exist?

Practice Makes Perfect

Go to the Cato Institute site at http://www.cato.org/. The Cato Institute is a "think tank." It sponsors research and publishes the conclusions of the research. However, unlike an academic research institution, the research done at most think tanks is aimed at making a case for a particular policy or political position. That is why the news media, when they report on these publications, often label think tanks as liberal, moderate, or conservative.

If you've found the Cato Institute site, you've found links on much of its research. Choose one or two of the policy reports to examine. Look at the title and skim though the introduction.

Ask yourself the questions that you asked as you looked at the "Right" and "Left" Web sites.

1. What words are used? Do you find any of the words from your lists of words that gave you clues about the liberal and conservative natures of those earlier sites?

2. What issues are discussed? (You might want to look closely at the list of reports.) Does the choice of issues suggest that the Cato Institute is liberal or conservative?

3. Do the reports announce any political positions that give clues to the liberal or conservative nature of the Cato Institute?

Can you decide whether a reporter would label The Cato Institute liberal or conservative? Why? (Maybe you need to find out what the name "Cato" means.)

Practice Makes Perfect

Here are two other sites to analyze.

Go to the site of Labornet. Its URL is http://www.igc.org/igc/labornet. Look at the pages on this site. How do you answer the questions about the use of words, the issues featured, the positions taken?

Now aim your browser at the Labor Home Page. It's at http://www.abic.org/heritage/labor. What words are used on these pages? What issues are featured? What positions are taken?

1. What are the differences between the language used on these two labor-related sites? Do the words used match any of those on the lists you made earlier?

2. How do the issues featured on the Labor Home Page differ from the issues discussed on the Labornet site? What do those issues suggest about the political leanings of the institutions sponsoring these two sites?

3. What political positions are announced on these two sites? Do those positions tell you whether these sites are liberal or conservative?

4. Does either site make it difficult to tell what its political positions are? Why would a political site want to disguise its political affiliations or leanings? Does the information on either of these sites give you any clues in answer to these questions?

5. If you "deconstruct" the URLs for these sites, what do you find out about the sponsoring organizations? (In other words, if you point your browser at http://www.abic.org/ and at http://www.igc.org/ do you learn anything new about the origins of these labor union pages?) Does this new knowledge help you determine where, on the political spectrum, these two sites are coming from?

Practice Makes Perfect

Here's another example to figure out.

Go to the site of The Center for Democracy and Technology. Its URL is http://www.cdt.org/. Examine this organization's front page. Skim through several of the pages linked to the front page about the issues important to the Center. What publication have they produced? Ask yourself the same old questions.

1. What words are used?

2. What issues are discussed?

3. Are any political positions announced?

Would you attach a liberal or conservative label to The Center for Democracy and Technology? Why? (Or why not?)

Practice Makes Perfect

One more, perhaps more difficult example:

Go to the site for The Harvard Injury Control Center. It's at http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/Organizations/hcra/hicc.html. It seems to have a respectable academic affiliation and nonpolitical focus. Explore the site; look at the list of publications from HICC. Look at the current projects. Ask the questions.

1. What words are used?

2. What issues are discussed?

3. Are any political positions announced?

Is the Harvard Injury Control Center non-political? Is it liberal? Is it conservative? How can you tell? When you make judgments like that how do those judgments affect your evaluation of the information you find?


Thinking on the Web: Who to Believe

What happens when you find contradictory information about the same subject?

In the spring of 1989, a series of complicated events in China caught the attention of people all over the world. The effects of those events impinge on the behaviors of nations and individuals today. Can you find out what happened?

One rule of thumb is that first-hand evidence is better than second-hand evidence. Primary sources of information about what happened in China in 1989 abound.

Practice Makes Perfect

There are two very good sources of photographs on the Web. Link to The Chinese News Digest's InfoBase Pictures at http://www.cnd.org:8014/June4th/64pics.html or link to the Christus Rex et Redemptor Mundi Tiananmen—1989 site at http://christusrex.org/www1/sdc/tiananmen.html.

Examine a number of the photographs. Can you describe in a couple sentences what happened at Tiananmen Square in June 1989?

What more accurate evidence could you find than photographs of events? Do you know who took the photographs? Do you know when they were taken? Do you know where they were taken? Do you know that they are primary sources for information about the 1989 events in Tiananmen Square? What evidence supports your answers to these questions?

Practice Makes Perfect

Here's another primary source. Make a link to the text of Deng Xiaoping's speech on June 9, 1989. It's at http://www.nmis.org/Gate/chronology/Deng.html.

Now, what could be a more authoritative source than a nation's most powerful political leader? Read through Deng's speech (you can skim over many of the insider references to policy decisions in the speech unless you're trying to sort out the intricacies of Chinese politics). You might want to look at the text of the editorial from the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily that Deng refers to. It's at http://www.nmis.org/Gate/chronology/April26ed.html.

Are there any comments in Deng's speech that support the evidence in the photographs you saw earlier? Why are there no photos of dead or injured soldiers? Why does Deng make no reference to a massacre of students and protesters? Who is to be believed?

What are the limitations on primary sources like the photographs and the political leader's speech? Would those limitations apply to diaries kept by protesters or soldiers during the spring of 1989? Do they apply to other first-hand accounts of events?

Are primary sources really to be preferred?

Practice Makes Perfect

How about secondary sources? Try a couple. Make a link to an excerpt from Black Hands of Beijing: Lives of Defiance in China's Democracy Movement, a book by George Black and Robin Munro. The first is at http://www.nmis.org/Gate/chronology/BlackHchrn01.html and it is a description of the events of June 3 and 4, 1989, in Beijing.

If you'd prefer a personalized account of the events from that book, link to http://www.nmis.org/Gate/chronology/BlackHLu.html.

How does this account compare with the primary sources you looked at earlier? Does it lend weight to either? Does it contradict either? Can it be believed? Who are these authors? What is "nmis.org" that is the Web site's publisher? You do have some more research to do.

Practice Makes Perfect

If you choose the "Home Page" link at the bottom of either of the above pages (http://www.nmis.org/Gate/), you'll discover that it is connected to a Frontline film produced for WGBH Educational Foundation and PBS and is copyrighted by the Long Bow Group, Inc. Do these facts add to the credibility of the source? If you pursue the source even further, you'll find the "nmis" home page (http://www.nmis.org).

Networked Multimedia Information Services appears to be a busy production company. Does all this information provide valuable data for evaluating the source of information about the events of June 1989?

[HINT: If you look closely, you'll see that the pursuit of information about the source of information once again involved "trimming" the URL of the source. The slashes in the URL separate the names of documents and files. If you remove the name of a document and use the remainder of the URL, you'll link to the document or folder "above" the one you began with. The further to the left you move, the closer you get to the ultimate source of the document (the publisher). Sometimes this information can help you evaluate the source.]

Practice Makes Perfect

It might be more valuable to find out about the authors of the book that is quoted, George Black and Robin Munro. Which search engine would most likely produce results, a catalog or an index? If you guessed an index like AltaVista or InfoSeek, you're right.

[HINT: A search for George Black will probably not produce much good evidence. You will find references to a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, who does not seem to be associated with the book in question, and you will find references to the "nmis" site. This might require a trip to the library, where some paper resources still have an advantage over these electronic ones.]

A search for Robin Munro, will however, quickly produce the information that he is a representative of Human Rights Watch.

A bit more Internet searching reveals that HRW describes itself as an organization that "conducts regular, systematic investigations of human rights abuses in some seventy countries around the world. It addresses the human rights practices of governments of all political stripes, of all geopolitical alignments, and of all ethnic and religious persuasions. In internal wars it documents violations by both governments and rebel groups. Human Rights Watch defends freedom of thought and expression, due process and equal protection of the law; it documents and denounces murders, disappearances, torture, arbitrary imprisonment, exile, censorship and other abuses of internationally recognized human rights."

Does this information help you evaluate the information in the book Black Hands of Beijing? How does it affect your comparison between that information and the information in the primary sources? Does this lead you to the conclusion that primary sources are better than secondary sources?

There are at least as many things to consider and evaluate when doing research on the Internet as there are when doing research with printed or first-hand material. Research on the World Wide Web probably requires more careful thinking.

What, on the Web, is real? What is imaginary? What is wishful thinking? What is respectable, believable research? How can you tell? What biases exist in the information you find on the Internet? How can you identify those biases? When are primary sources an advantage? When are secondary sources better? What if you can't find on the Internet what you need to evaluate the information you've uncovered?

Take care out there. There is a lot of great, easily accessible information, raw data, processed data, and sheer balderdash out there. If you're going to use the Internet, you must get good at figuring out what is useful and what will only cause you problems.

Good Luck! Keep Thinking!

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