Wackipedia and the Limits of “New Media”

Via Kevin Drum, we have an example of why the “New Media” can be a very, very dangerous place:

A false Wikipedia ‘biography’
By John Seigenthaler

“John Seigenthaler Sr. was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960’s. For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven.”
? Wikipedia

This is a highly personal story about Internet character assassination. It could be your story.

I have no idea whose sick mind conceived the false, malicious “biography” that appeared under my name for 132 days on Wikipedia, the popular, online, free encyclopedia whose authors are unknown and virtually untraceable.

And this, folks, is why I tend not to trust stuff written in Wikipedia (and yeah, I know I’ve linked there before out of laziness… what can ya do?).

I phoned Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder and asked, “Do you … have any way to know who wrote that?”

“No, we don’t,” he said. Representatives of the other two websites said their computers are programmed to copy data verbatim from Wikipedia, never checking whether it is false or factual.

In other words, it’s like an encyclopedic Instapundit. Just what the world needs.

Y’know, I’ve been doin’ a lot of thinking about the demise of American newspapers lately, and I find it really ironic that the wingnutosphere gets a kick out of pissing on “Old Media’s” grave, especially since they rely on them for most of their material. What Insty, Simon, Chazmo and the Powertools don’t understand is that reporting the news requires a lot more effort than posting excerpts from Wall Street Journal op-eds and adding an “indeed” at the end of them. When you’re an real reporter, you actually have to, you know, call people and ask them for their side of the story. Also, you might have to, God forbid, leave your house. Oh, and you have to do real research- Google searches just won’t cut it.

The problem is that real quality journalism takes a lot of time and effort. You have to find and maintain an extensive list of reliable sources, you have to waste precious hours deciding what’s fact and what’s spin, and you have to make the effort to really learn about the subject you’re covering. There are still some news outlets that dedicate significant resources to investigative journalism (WaPo, Knight-Ridder, the Toledo Blade, WSJ), but in-depth reporting mostly gets left by the wayside. This is, of course, why you end up with he-said, she-said stories about the involvement of Noah’s flood in creating the Grand Canyon.

The dilemma for the papers is that once news is posted on-line, it’s quickly re-posted everywhere. While it’s good that more people have access to a wide variety of news sources, it also means less revenues for the papers, which means less resources devoted to hard news. If papers could figure out how to make money without putting their stories behind firewalls… well, then they’d make money without putting their stories behind firewalls. The trick is figuring out how to generate serious on-line ad revenue, a la Salon.com, without forcing your readers to pay for each and every story. At any rate, something has to be done to save quality journalism. I shudder to think of what’ll happen to discourse in this country if half of us get all our news from Kos while the other half get all their news from Powerline.


Comments: 38


but i read it on the internet!


Faulting accuracy is one thing, and I agree with you there, but AFAICT, about 3 out of every 5 complaints about Wikipedia arise because it presents facts that are inconvenient to the complainer’s ideology.


I was gonna write something about that too. Anythign good will get corrupted. And in this case, corruption has the perfect cover, the majority of the entries are OK. So sickening.


I like Wikipedia (not that I’d ever use it as a source on a paper- though I usually look things up on it to give me ideas of what to look for specifically), but the format has the major weakness of being open to editing by everyone- including stupid people.
A tradeoff, to be sure, but as long as no one confuses Wikipedia with Britannica, then it’s not a huge problem.


It’s more HHGG than Encyclopedia Galactica?


Wikipedia is great for finding out what obscure things are, and where you can find more information on it.

It’s not so good at anything people have a high ideological stake in, though.

As long as you keep in mind that articles are written by any random goon, though, it’s pretty darn useful.


People that decry “Wikipedia” as a nonsource are doing what amounts to decrying open source as a ..well…non source.

Of course it’s not a definitive source….um…DUH? Who the fuck is using what is said there as a definitive source? It’s akin to google except anyone can put anything up to the top.

Wiki is nothing more than a compendium of sources and it’s up to the user to verify and go further than Wiki to understand what’s quoted at Wiki.

Who the fuck doesnt understand what Wiki is at this point? I see this on dailykos almost, well, daily. HELLO?!? It’s an open source contribution encyclopedia and it’s a great source to begin with but it’s not a source to conclude with or cite. It’ ssimply a good place to find other sources.

Why is this even neccesary to explain and why would you do anything more than mock those who don’t get that fact at this point? Gracious lol. This is like Internet 101 3 years late…..no need to explain to people who dont get it…..point them to somewhere that gives internet tutorials circa 2005.


I write for Wikipedia now and agai, and we have a whole template for this: {{sofixit}}. Yes, Wikipedia is no substitute for real research — and anyone relying on it is equivalent to a third-grade kid xeroxing his report on Wyoming out of the World Book.


Well, I use wikipedia as a quick place to look up math and science facts, (Want to know the def. of Expectation Value? Of Eigenvector? Wikipedia is a quick first stop.) For political stuff, I look at the edit history. If there are enough comments from non-anonymous sources in the history, it is usually OK for facts. If there are just a few edits from 3183.22.54.214, there’s no reason to trust the accuracy.


Hey! Up yours, buddy!


Some irony about Wikipedia.

My old high school classmates and I wrote a fairly extensive entry on our high school [we have some famous graduates and we’re the largest secondary school in our state], and within 24 hours it was under suspicion of being inaccurate. Juxtapose that with this story, and I’m shocked it took them that long to catch that.


Um, was 3183.22.54.214 supposed to be an IP address? You’re out of range…


Let me offer my opinion as a librarian:

Wikipedia is like a microcosm of the Web itself. Pretty much anyone can contribute to it at minimal effort and cost. That is both its strength and weakness. The Web, and Wiki, are great for instant facts and trivia, like how high is Mt. Everest, who was the female lead in “Rashomon,” who was president during World War I, etc.

Would I use Wiki as a legitimate reference for a paper or something? No.

My managed passed along a task from admin about adding an article about our library system into Wikipedia (since there’s already a link to a non-existant article). I said, are we going to monitor that article regularly in case some asshole rewrites it? What will we do if Wiki’s editors slap the old “biased” tag on us? It’s really not worth our time.


Wiki is useful. The internet is useful. Libraries are useful. There is knowledge, and then there are the USES that some people put that knowledge to. Some are ideological. Many people complain about actual facts that do not align with their worldview. Other people write their worldview as fact. It’s like an “activist judge”. An activist judge is simply a judge whose decisions you happen to disagree with. The point here is that while ANY source can be useful, before you accept something as factual, well, fact-check it. Not hard. Just objective, and some people don’t want to be objective. They just want to be RIGHT.



I was gonna write something about that too. Anythign good will get corrupted. And in this case, corruption has the perfect cover, the majority of the entries are OK. So sickening.

I agree completely! Just the other day, I noticed a strange word in the urban slang dictionary that I’m sure only a handful of people use!


Y’know, I’ve been doin’ a lot of thinking about the demise of American newspapers lately, and I find it really ironic that the wingnutosphere gets a kick out of pissing on “Old Media’s” grave, especially since they rely on them for most of their material.

And the flipside of that irony is that the pajama corps relies on the “Old Media” to spread the news of how important their self-styled revolution is. Case in point: Rathergate. Chazmo and his sycophants were all pumped up about how they put the lie to the documents and proved the MSM is a left-wing conspiracy of eeeeeevil, blah de blah de blah. But without the real media reporting on the results of Chazmo’s typographic analysis, I’m pretty sure the story would have circulated a few days in cyberspace and disappeared. The freepi and Chazmotrons would pat themselves on the back about how their conspiracy theory was RIGHT ON… but nobody outside of their tiny little domains would have given half a rat’s ass.

But when the major news media looked into the matter, WHAM BOOM! there was a real reaction. And they put a notch in their belts, without ever acknowledging that all they did was act as a source for the Old Media they purport to be supplanting.


Um, yeah, I would say, if your entry is so wrong, fix it? It’s not so hard.


Anyone who doesen’t understand that Wiki is no good for sourcing doesen’t deserve to be paid attention to.
Hmmm… I see Open Sores Pyjamas has picked it up, right on the front page, guess that just reinforces my statement.


Holy shit they even linked to SN.


Exactly right. Good post.

It got me thinking: I need my own wikipedia entry (which is evidently frowned upon). So here it is: http://fuckkarlrove.blogspot.com/2005/12/wicked-pedia.html


Holy shit they even linked to SN.

Damnit, I was gonna ask Gavin if i could help TP their house.


Sorry about your troubles. Nobody believes anything they read anymore anyway. Wicked wikipedia is good if you want to look up “troll” or “neo-con” beyond that, you have to consider the source.


If you’re interested, I’ve got a response for this particular issue.


Adam – I stopped being interested after the obligatory swipe at Michael Moore.


I’m sorry. Would you have preferred I use Ann Coulter as an example?

Or would that then lead to conservatives ignoring the discussion as it pertains to wikipedia, solely because I had made an “obligatory swipe” at one of their partisan hacks?


I will admit Moore is over the top at times, but naive or not, I think he is a good guy at heart.
Besides that, I read the list of things Moore has distorted. Don’t fool yourself, at no time do Moore’s various distortions come close to the egregious reality substitutions made by Coulter repeatedly.
Anyway since you personally responded to me and therefore aren’t just some spammer I went back and read it. I can’t argue with your conclusions, but they would seem like rather obvious ones, perhaps your article would be more useful to the various readers of OSM, who seem to be having trouble with what the authority of a directory under constant revision by anonymous contributors is.


I find both of them to be shrill and lacking in content, but that’s just a personal taste, I suppose.

Thanks for reading my post; in truth, my real annoyance isn’t with Bjorn Staerk or the people at OSM, but with that guy who’s searching high and low for whoever wrote something about him on Wikipedia so that he can get the satisfaction of suing him for “character assassination”.

Some people just aren’t cut out for public service.


On that, my friend, we are in agreement.



That’s character assassination! CHARACTER ASSASSINATION I TELL YOU!

I’ll get you for this, Timmah! And your little retarded turkey, too!


Michael Moore is a pompous ass.

that said, he is OUR pompous ass, and he is a great editor and filmmaker.

I dislike Rush, I dislike Prince, I have no great love for Ozzy. I do respect them, however, for their talent and drive.

I probably wouldn’t buy michael moore a beer, or even a coffee, but I’m actually glad to shell out 8 bucks for one of his films.

8 bucks is nothing for ammunition.


plus, you have to appreciate the difference between moore and coulter.

Moore shows you REAL IMAGES and offers interpretation. yes, pushy slanted interpretation, and a laugh.

If you made it out of high school, that IS obvious.

But Coulter just offers interpretation and bile, and she is INCAPABLE of humor.

Sorry, I believe my eyes, and I know funny.


Wow, the first time I’ve read this blog. It’s about 35 IQ points above the typical Wikipedia “Talk” page, and about 65 points above the average Slashdot page. What’s your secret?

With all the problems there have been since about 1980 with mainstream journalism, I’d have to say that compared to some of what passes for Web 2.0, I’m ready to toss my computer into the dumpster and subscribe to the New York Times again.



What’s your secret?

Steel Reserve. The higher gravity content is good for the snark glands.


And in this case, corruption has the perfect cover, the majority of the entries are OK. So sickening.

I strongly disagree. What people don’t realize is that entries like Siegenthaler’s old one aren’t just _rare_, they’re probably close to _unique_.

Every media source has filtering mechanisms, and every filtering mechanism has a hole in it. What we’re being presented with here is a case study for how bad information got through all of Wikipedia’s filters. But come on, what does this really mean? Bad information has gotten through all of The New York Times’ filters; through all of CNN’s filters; through all of Encyclopaedia Britannica’s filters; through all of the Supreme Court’s filters; and on, and on, and on.

What we have here is the fringe case where: 1) Bad information was added; 2) It wasn’t removed for several months; 3) When it was found, it was found by the person who it referred to; 4) He wrote an article about it.

I would be surprised if it ever happens again, in fact. And by the way, please note that the damage done by his career and image was absolutely nil (although this is not counting the damage caused to the reputation of the founder of the First Amendment Center by trying to sue people for unknowingly reprinting libel), that getting a correction was absolutely easy, and getting the information universally repudiated was absolutely trivial. Please note also that his article is now very good, following the general trend of Wikipedia articles to get better the more exposure they get.

Indeed, probably the only reason that this vandalism persisted as long as it did is because nobody ever looked at the article (which, in itself, is very rare). This, fortunately, constitutes an automatic damage-limiting mechanism: The likelihood of false information persisting on Wikipedia is inversely proportional to the number of people who see it. And this is why Wikipedia is more trustworthy than you think.

The final point is that in the age of Internet self-publishing, people have to be better critical readers. To that, I would say, Duh. And I would add, Good.


Broken link in the last post, correct link is Jon hn Seigenthaler, Sr..


Wow, the first time I’ve read this blog. It’s about 35 IQ points above the typical Wikipedia “Talk” page, and about 65 points above the average Slashdot page. What’s your secret?

Daniel, they steal all of their content from 3bulls and change it to be completely the opposite. That’s how someone gets gooder IQ points.


Oh, and here’s another good one. Anyone who thinks that this destroys Wikipedia’s credibility should ask Wen Ho Lee what he thinks about The New York Times. Just saying.


But Coulter just offers interpretation and bile, and she is INCAPABLE of humor.

Sorry, I believe my eyes, and I know funny.

Won’t argue with that. Moore may be a dick, but he’s a talented filmaker and certainly a funny one.


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