The Last Chapter in the Wikipedia Tale?

So we now know who was behind the Wikipedia Seigenthaler entry : the prankster has confessed.

It started as a joke and ended up as a shot heard round the Internet, with the joker quitting his job and Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, suffering a blow to its credibility. A man in Nashville, Tenn., has admitted that, in trying to shock a colleague with a joke, he put false information into a Wikipedia entry about John Seigenthaler Sr., a former editor of The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville.

Brian Chase, 38, who until Friday was an operations manager at a small delivery company, told Seigenthaler he had written the material suggesting Seigenthaler had been involved in the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy. Seigenthaler discovered the false entry only recently and wrote about it in an op-ed article in USA Today, saying he was especially annoyed that he could not track down the perpetrator because of Internet privacy laws.

Ah, well. Next question: How many other similar entries are there?

The Lessons of Wikipedia

The Seigenthaler/Wikipedia case is attracting attention from strange quarters. I’m not sure what it means, but it’s fodder for pondering on the nature of truth, falsehood and deliberate obfuscation. From OfficialWire, there’s this piece: “It’s Your Story…You Tell It Anyway You Want On Wikipedia”:

After four months, Seigenthaler was finally able to get Wales to remove the offending piece from Wikipedia and from the other online ‘resources’ that simply copy from Wales’ pool of data, but not before it had been read by tens of thousands of people, who may or may not have repeated, copied or stored the nonsense.

I may not have looked hard enough at this, but I can find no support for that assertion in Seigenthaler’s original piece. He visited the site in late September, and doesn’t specifically say when the offensive remarks about him were removed. But he does say they had been up there for four months, which, given an initial publication date of May 26, I put at late September. In other words, it sounds as if pretty much immediately after Seigenthaler had complained to Jimmy Wales, the owner of Wikipedia, the remarks were removed. The OfficialWire piece is ambiguous, but a casual reader might well assume that Seigenthaler had been bugging a reluctant Wales for four months to pull the offensive text. Doesn’t sound like it was like that.

So, a distorted and offensive entry on Wikipedia now spreads like a stain in the retelling. Is it just an innocent mistake? OfficialWire is run by someone called Greg Lloyd Smith, who wrote the December 4 piece. In it he links to another piece OfficialWire put out back in early January, written by one Jennifer Monroe, who writes about the activities of a Wikipedia volunteer, Christian Wirth, whom the piece alleges to have been trying to “sully the good work” of an organisation called QuakeAID. QuakeAID is an organisation with the same owner as OfficialWire. These two organisations, and other linked groups, have extensive entries on Wikipedia, none of the material particularly flattering (sentences such as ‘The following indicators raise questions about QuakeAID’s legitimacy and good faith’).

On first glance the contents of these articles seem damning and I’m not going to question their veracity. But is there something not quite right with this picture? It’s good that research is being done, and, to judge by the pages’ history, there’s plenty of “toning down” being done. But one can’t help asking the questionL Is there an ax to grind on the part of certain members of Wikipedia about Lloyd Smith and his activities, and, if so, is Wikipedia the correct forum in which to wield one? I wonder whether Seigenthaler’s case might not be offering us a more nuanced lesson than merely its occasional unreliability. After all, we still don’t know the motive (or the identity) of Seigenthaler’s character assassin. Perhaps it’s not mindless vandals we should be worried about on Wikipedia; it’s people using its benign offices to settle scores and run opponents out of town.

The “Danger” of Wikipedia: “volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects”

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.