An interesting piece in Editor & Publisher on The Danger of Wikipedia, that quotes a USA Today piece written by John Seigenthaler, a retired journalist who served as Robert Kennedy’s administrative assistant in the early 1960s, says that a very personal experience has convinced him that “Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool”:
Seigenthaler writes that a “biography” on the site posted by an anonymous author libeled him when it offered the following unsourced statement: “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.”
As the founder of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, Seigenthaler is not known to be an advocate of restricting the right of free speech.
Indeed, it’s hard to understand why Seigenthaler’s alleged role appeared in his biography. I could find no reference to him at all in the JFK books I have, and there’s nothing, at least obviously, online about it. Clearly it was a deliberate piece of falsification, and, to Wikipedia’s credit, it has investigated the case. The point made there is that there isn’t much one can do about chasing down vandals working via Internet Service Providers “with providers who use proxies and dynamic IP addresses to give their users complete anonymity.”
That’s not enough for Seigenthaler, and the story relates his frustration in trying to find out who had libelled him, and Wikipedia comes in for a bit of a pounding:
Seigenthaler disputes Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales’ assertion that the site’s thousands of volunteer editors operate a quick self-correcting mechanism. “My ‘biography’ was posted May 26. On May 29, one of Wales’ volunteers ‘edited’ it only by correcting the misspelling of the word ‘early,'” Seigenthaler writes. “For four months, Wikipedia depicted me as a suspected assassin before Wales erased it from his website’s history Oct. 5.”
Seigenthaler concludes with the following: “And so we live in a universe of new media with phenomenal opportunities for worldwide communications and research — but populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects. Congress has enabled them and protects them.”
Well, yes. In a way I can appreciate his frustration (and you wonder how many more libels there out there in Wikipedia-land). But I fear he overreacts. The fact that there were no edits of the page for four months — and that it took him four months to find it, or for someone to point it out to him — has more to do with how little the page was read, I suspect, than with the invidious nature of the enterprise. I’m not saying that things couldn’t be improved — indeed, according to a poster on Slashdot, some improvements are in the works in the field of validation — but I think it’s harsh to say the the universe is “populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects”. Peppered with, dotted with, sprinkled with, scattered with, speckled with, strewn with; perhaps. But overall the sum of human knowledge is significantly increased by the volunteers of Wikipedia.