My “biography” was posted May 26. On May 29, one of Wales’ volunteers “edited” it only by correcting the misspelling of the word “early.” For four months, Wikipedia depicted me as a suspected assassin before Wales erased it from his website’s history Oct. 5. The falsehoods remained on Answers.com and Reference.com for three more weeks
John Seigenthaler, “A false Wikipedia ‘biography’,” Nov. 29, 2005, USA Today
John Seigenthaler, of course, is a respectable gentleman who had nothing whatsoever to do with Kennedy’s assassination.
The case triggered extensive debate on the Internet over the value and reliability of Wikipedia, and more broadly, over the nature of online information.
Still, the question of Wikipedia, as of so much of what you find online, is: Can you trust it?
And beyond reliability, there is the question of accountability.
Katharine Q. Seelye, “Rewriting History: Snared in the Web of a Wikipedia Liar,” Dec. 4, 2005, New York Times.
Many bloggers jumped to Wikipedia’s defense, pointing out that Mr. Seigenthaler could have edited the information himself. That is how Wikipedia works: a reader finds an error, corrects it, and moves on.
“He could have removed it himself. How many other information sources can you say that about?” –I Saw Fate Whiz Back By Me
“I don’t blame the guy for being pissed. I don’t blame him for trying to unmask the gossip. I don’t blame him for going public about his ordeal. I do, however, blame him for seemingly not attempting to correct the misinformation himself. Don’t rail against the system and say it’s broken until you’ve tried to make it work yourself. What stopped him from editing the article? It’s not like doing so would be mutually exclusive with his efforts to track down the previous author or publicly point out the weaknesses of Wikipedia.” –Ales Rarus
Charles Cooper was more sympathetic:
Of course, Seigenthaler might have registered as a user with Wikipedia and corrected the article himself. Failing that, he could have posted comments to the article correcting the mistakes. The reality is that this is asking too much. We’re talking about a 78-year-old guy who came of age when state-of-the-art was defined by 78 rpm records, tube radios and black-and-white televisions. And with so much stuff out there–and more getting created each day–was the burden on Seigenthaler to know he was the subject of a Wikipedia article? I’m sure his first question was, “What in the heck is a Wikipedia?”
Charles Cooper, “Perspective: Wikipedia and the nature of truth,” CNET News.com, Dec. 2, 2005.
One solution to problems like this might be to make all Wikipedia editors known—if there is no anonymity, there will be no more anonymous character assassinations. And if World Book and Britannica authors could stand by their research by signing their real names, Wikipedia authors should be brave enough/required to do the same.
In the meantime, we should learn how to use Wikipedia properly when doing any research, or at least follow Mr. Hammock’s advice:
I’ll be even more blunt: You’re crazy if you take what you read in Wikipedia at face value. Don’t do that with what you read anywhere. Don’t do it with newspapers or magazines. But especially don’t do it with a personal medium like blogging (especially not this one) or a collaborative one like Wikipedia.
Use Wikipedia as a gateway to facts, not as a source of facts. People who make Wikipedia entries often have personal (and passionate) points-of-view on the topic that taint their contributions with a clear bias. If it’s a tech-oriented or political topic, this often leads to months-long feuds and flames. Accuracy often takes months (if ever) to achieve and truth can have many sides.
Rex Hammock, “Use Wikipedia as a gateway to facts, not a source of them,” RexBlog.com, Dec. 4, 2005.