[Paleopsych] NYT: Snared in the Web of a Wikipedia Liar
checker at panix.com
Thu Dec 8 02:20:55 UTC 2005
Snared in the Web of a Wikipedia Liar
[An excellent summary of the issues. What the article didn't say is that
votes can be taken on articles on issues that others would not like to see
the light of day, such as Jewish ethnocentrism. I should think it unlikely
for Jews not to have assimilated themselves out of existence without being
ethnocentric, and indeed there have been books by Jews urging their
co-religionists to have more children. The suitability of the article was
discussed at length on a Wikipedia forum and was nixed, on the grounds that
the topic should be handled in a general one on ethnocentrism.
[Regards Mr. Seigenthaler's alleged role in the Kennedy assassination, I
would never take this to be an established fact and my have come to doubt
the rest of the article as well. But, looking at it just now, the Kennedy
reference having been excised, I see no reason to doubt its facts.
[What's really great is that I can get a good summary of reigning theories.
I failed to find an article that answered a question I often ask, why there
are emotions, but I just glanced at some entries. Nor was I successful in
getting a rundown of the various theories of elites. Many articles there,
and one of them may do the trick. But there are other cases where Wikipedia
had just what I wanted.
[On the other hand, standard reference sources have their biases, too. I
praise Jimbo for his work!]
By KATHARINE Q. SEELYE
ACCORDING to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, John Seigenthaler
Sr. is 78 years old and the former editor of The Tennessean in
Nashville. But is that information, or anything else in Mr.
Seigenthaler's biography, true?
The question arises because Mr. Seigenthaler recently read about
himself on Wikipedia and was shocked to learn that he "was thought
to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of
both John and his brother Bobby."
"Nothing was ever proven," the biography added.
Mr. Seigenthaler discovered that the false information had been on
the site for several months and that an unknown number of people
had read it, and possibly posted it on or linked it to other sites.
If any assassination was going on, Mr. Seigenthaler (who is 78 and
did edit The Tennessean) wrote last week in an op-ed article in USA
Today, it was of his character.
The case triggered extensive debate on the Internet over the value
and reliability of Wikipedia, and more broadly, over the nature of
Wikipedia is a kind of collective brain, a repository of knowledge,
maintained on servers in various countries and built by anyone in
the world with a computer and an Internet connection who wants to
share knowledge about a subject. Literally hundreds of thousands of
people have written Wikipedia entries.
Mistakes are expected to be caught and corrected by later
contributors and users.
The whole nonprofit enterprise began in January 2001, the
brainchild of Jimmy Wales, 39, a former futures and options trader
who lives in St. Petersburg, Fla. He said he had hoped to advance
the promise of the Internet as a place for sharing information.
It has, by most measures, been a spectacular success. Wikipedia is
now the biggest encyclopedia in the history of the world. As of
Friday, it was receiving 2.5 billion page views a month, and
offering at least 1,000 articles in 82 languages. The number of
articles, already close to two million, is growing by 7 percent a
month. And Mr. Wales said that traffic doubles every four months.
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.
Mr. Seigenthaler, after discovering that he had been defamed, found
that his "biographer" was anonymous. He learned that the writer was
a customer of BellSouth Internet, but that federal privacy laws
shield the identity of Internet customers, even if they disseminate
defamatory material. And the laws protect online corporations from
He could have filed a lawsuit against BellSouth, he wrote, but only
a subpoena would compel BellSouth to reveal the name.
In the end, Mr. Seigenthaler decided against going to court,
instead alerting the public, through his article, "that Wikipedia
is a flawed and irresponsible research tool."
Mr. Wales said in an interview that he was troubled by the
Seigenthaler episode, and noted that Wikipedia was essentially in
the same boat. "We have constant problems where we have people who
are trying to repeatedly abuse our sites," he said.
Still, he said, he was trying to make Wikipedia less vulnerable to
tampering. He said he was starting a review mechanism by which
readers and experts could rate the value of various articles. The
reviews, which he said he expected to start in January, would show
the site's strengths and weaknesses and perhaps reveal patterns to
help them address the problems.
In addition, he said, Wikipedia may start blocking unregistered
users from creating new pages, though they would still be able to
The real problem, he said, was the volume of new material coming
in; it is so overwhelming that screeners cannot keep up with it.
All of this struck close to home for librarians and researchers. On
an electronic mailing list for them, J. Stephen Bolhafner, a news
researcher at The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, wrote, "The best defense
of the Wikipedia, frankly, is to point out how much bad information
is available from supposedly reliable sources."
Jessica Baumgart, a news researcher at Harvard University, wrote
that there were librarians voluntarily working behind the scenes to
check information on Wikipedia. "But, honestly," she added, "in
some ways, we're just as fallible as everyone else in some areas
because our own knowledge is limited and we can't possibly
In an interview, she said that her rule of thumb was to
double-check everything and to consider Wikipedia as only one
"Instead of figuring out how to 'fix' Wikipedia - something that
cannot be done to our satisfaction," wrote Derek Willis, a research
database manager at The Washington Post, who was speaking for
himself and not The Post, "we should focus our energies on
educating the Wikipedia users among our colleagues."
Some cyberexperts said Wikipedia already had a good system of
checks and balances. Lawrence Lessig, a law professor at Stanford
and an expert in the laws of cyberspace, said that contrary to
popular belief, true defamation was easily pursued through the
courts because almost everything on the Internet was traceable and
subpoenas were not that hard to obtain. (For real anonymity, he
advised, use a pay phone.)
"People will be defamed," he said. "But that's the way free speech
is. Think about the gossip world. It spreads. There's no way to
correct it, period. Wikipedia is not immune from that kind of
maliciousness, but it is, relative to other features of life, more
Indeed, Esther Dyson, editor of Release 1.0 and a longtime Internet
analyst, said Wikipedia may, in that sense, be better than real
"The Internet has done a lot more for truth by making things easier
to discuss," she said. "Transparency and sunlight are better than a
single point of view that can't be questioned."
For Mr. Seigenthaler, whose biography on Wikipedia has since been
corrected, the lesson is simple: "We live in a universe of new
media with phenomenal opportunities for worldwide communications
and research, but populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen
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