"The more I find out, the less I know."

Thursday - December 01, 2005 at 01:05 PM in

Wikipedia Horror Story

One of my most-read articles in the archive is How Authoritative is Wikipedia? in which I performed an experiment by inserting deliberate (but minor) errors into Wikipedia to find out if they would be discovered and corrected. I terminated the experiment (and corrected the errors) after a week, when none of them had been discovered.
The experiment basically confirmed my belief that Wikipedia can be a useful general resource on many topics, but that it has to be taken with a grain of salt. Claims that it is more accurate than other sources remain suspect and unproven.

But today, we have a new wrinkle: deliberate character assassination via Wikipedia. Since Wikipedia content is viewed (rightly or wrongly) as authoritative on every topic it covers, and because Wikipedia content gets distributed fairly widely, a malicious person can easily and anonymously insert defamatory information into the Wiki, and that information will quickly be presented as fact across many Internet outlets.

And odds are (as my experiment shows) that the information won't get corrected for a long time, if ever--unless the subject of the attack happens to be a matter of great interest or prominence.

In this particular instance, the personal assistant of Bobby Kennedy was portrayed (through a carefully worded non-denial) as possibly somehow involved in the assassinations of both Bobby Kennedy and JFK, and possibly a Russian agent. That's exactly the kind of historical footnote which Wikipedia will probably never self-correct: a vanishingly small number of readers will know who John Seigenthaler is, much less what small role he might have played in events around the Kennedy assassinations.

But while the point is relatively unimportant to most Wikipedia readers, I can assure you that to John Seigenthaler it is very important.

Posted at 01:05 PM | Permalink | | |

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