Truth and Accuracy in Wikipedia
John Seigenthaler Sr.1 is a retired journalist, a friend of the late Robert Kennedy, a founding editor of USA Today, and founder of The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. He may not exactly be famous, but he is well known within certain circles.
On the 26th May 2005 a biography of this John Seigenthaler appeared on the English version of Wikipedia. It made a number of claims about John Seigenthaler's life. It stated that he had lived in the Soviet Union between 1971 and 1984, that he had founded one of the USA's largest public relations firms, and most curiously of all that 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 it happens, of all the statements made in the article, only one, that he was an "assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960's" was true. The rest of the biography was pure twaddle, and fairly libelous twaddle at that.
Despite the oft repeated claim by James Wales that Wikipedia "corrects mistakes within minutes"2 this quite erroneous biography remained on Wikipedia for four months without amendment. (Well somebody did correct a misspelling of the word 'early' on the 29th May but other than that they left it alone.) Eventually in September 2005 one of Seigenthaler's old friends named Victor S. Johnson, stumbled across the article and alerted him to its contents.
Fairly obviously John Seigenthaler was not happy about being accused of involvement in the assassination of the 35th President and his younger brother. He regarded the Wikipedia entry as an example of "Internet character assassination" and requested that it be removed. On the 5th October Wikipedia acceded to his request and deleted it from their history.
Tracking down the author
Very naturally, John Seigenthaler now wanted to find out who was responsible for writing "this false, malicious" biography as he described it. From Wikipedia's own records he could easily establish that his biographer's IP address was 188.8.131.52, and that this address identified them as a customer of BellSouth Internet. Of course BellSouth refused to divulge their customer's identity unless forced to do so by court order.
This left Seigenthaler in the position of considering expensive legal action in order to discover who was responsible. However Daniel Brandt, the man behind Wikipedia Watch who, let us say, has his own issues with Wikipedia3, came to the rescue and was able to identify the IP address as belonging to a Nashvile, Tennessee based courier service called Rush Delivery.
On the 9th December one Brian Chase, an operations manager at Rush Delivery, having now become aware of the whole scandal, admitted that he was responsible for posting the false information on John Seigenthaler. In his defence he claimed that he had no malicious intent and that it was all "done as a joke that went horribly, horribly wrong". One of his co-workers at Rush Delivery knew the Seigenthaler family, and so he thought it would be a fine jest if they were presented with some scandalous titbits regarding the family. Apparently, as the BBC reported, "he did not realise that the online encyclopedia was taken so seriously."
Chase has subsequently resigned from his job at Rush Delivery, although Seigenthaler has very charitably asked the company not to accept his resignation.
Seigenthaler's charity does not however extend to Wikipedia itself. Describing the website as a "flawed and irresponsible research tool" he has questioned the whole 'open editing' philosophy of the site4 and bemoaned the fact that the current state of US law appears to absolve it from any responsbility for its content5. Much of the coverage of the incident both in print and online has sympathised with Seigenthaler and commented unfavourably on Wikipedia.
A Brit Hume from Fox News has sarcastically referred to Wikipedia as "calling itself an encyclopedia" whereas it was really "an open site in which anyone can enter erroneous information and where factual errors abound", whilst the New York Times is reported to have sent out a memo to their entire staff regarding Wikipedia with the instruction "We shouldn't be using it to check any information that goes into the newspaper."
James Wales himself has been forced to announce the adoption a new policy whereby only registered users are now permitted to create new articles, although unregistered users can continue to edit existing articles as before. (It is arguable whether this makes the slightest difference, but presumably the intention is to enable the site's admininstrators to flag new articles created by new registered users for special attention.) Wikipedia is also apparently testing a new mechanism for reviewing the accuracy of its articles.
This is not the first time (and one imagines not the last) that Wikipedia has faced this issue6. The Seigenthaler scandal comes hot on the heels of the Jens Stoltenberg scandal, where the Norwegian Prime Minister found his Wikipedia biography included the entirely false statement that he was a former convicted paedophile, whilst the SF writer Harlan Ellison has had his own problems in the past with his Wikipedia entry. Some enterprising individual has even set up www.wikipediaclassaction.org which is "currently gathering complaints from the entire Internet community including individuals, corporations, partnerships, etc., who believe that they have been defamed and or who have been or are the subject of anonymous and malicious postings to the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia." Whether anything ever comes of this is anyone's guess.
These are not the only problems that Jimmy has had to face in recent months. There was the Adam Curry brouha, where thr former MTV VJ was allegedly caught anonymously editing the Wikipedia entry on Podcasting in order to magnify his own role in that phenomenon at the expense of others. And not so long ago Jimmy was placed in the somewhat embarassing position of being forced to admit that the entries on Bill Gates and Jane Fonda were "nearly unreadable crap".
He may therefore be somewhat gratified to learn that the journal Nature has determined that, at least as far as science is concerned, Wikipedia is (nearly) as accurate as the Encyclopædia Britannica. Or 32% more inaccurate, depending on how you choose to interpret the results.7
This of course begs the question of to what extent you can rely on the accuracy of Wikipedia as a source. Personally, I generally try and avoid Wikipedia and its viral clones as much as possible. In my experience Wikipedia entries are either, a) bowdlerized versions of an entry from the 1911 Encylopedia Britannica b) plagarised from some other Internet source or c) crap. But that's just me. Your mileage may vary.
1 We have to refer to him as John Seigenthaler Sr., in order to distinguish him from his son John Seigenthaler, who is also a journalist.
2 Some of us are aware of 'mistakes' on Wikipedia that have been there for years. And in 'Featured Articles' as well. Maybe one day I'll fix 'em for Jimmy.
3 Daniel Brandt entered into a dispute with Wikipedia regarding his own biographical entry on the site. The essence of his argument appears to be that Wikipedian content is determined by the 'consensus' of those who happen to be users. This consensus is misconstrued as objectivity and thus your entry may contain content that you personally regard as objectionable or inaccurate, but you have no source of redress and posses no right of reply.(Or something along those lines.)
4 Seigenthaler's complaints have elcited the typical response from some Wikipdians when challenged with the fact that a particular entry is crap: that you should simply edit it yourself so that it isn't crap any more. (As if the very existence of the website imposed some kind of universal moral obligation on the rest of the world to contribute to it.)
5 Based on an interpretation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act 1996, which states that "no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker." Although the applicability of this 'get out clause' to Wikipedia has yet to be tested in the courts.
6 It is noticeable that Wikipedia itself choses to refer to the matter as the "John Seigenthaler Sr. Wikipedia biography controversy" when in fact there is nothing controversial about Seigenthaler's biography, it was simply factually inaccurate and libelous. Scandal is a better description.
7 Nature reviwed 42 articles and found that Britannica and Wikipedia each had four serious errors or misleading statments. Although in total they identified 2.92 mistakes per article for Britannica and 3.86 for Wikipedia. Leading Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopedia Britannica to assert that Wikipedia has a third more errors. This should be gratifying news to all factual noders, who can now make two mistakes per article and still be more accurate than the Encyclopedia Britannica.
- John Seigenthaler, A False Wikipedia 'biography', November 29, 2005
From USA Today http://www.usatoday.com
- John Seigenthaler, Truth can be at risk in the world of the web, December 4, 2005. From The Tennessean http://www.tennessean.com/
- From CNET News at http://news.com.com/
Daniel Terdiman, Adam Curry gets podbusted, December 2, 2005
Daniel Terdiman, Newsmaker, In search of the Wikipedia prankster, December 15, 2005
- From http://news.bbc.co.uk
Wikipedia survives research test, 15 December 2005
Wikipedia joker eats humble pie, 12 December 2005
Wikipedia tightens online rules, 6 December 2005, 11:47 GMT
- John Seigenthaler Sr. Wikipedia biography controversy
At en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Seigenthaler_ Sr._Wikipedia_biography_controversy
- Andrew Orlowski, Wikipedia founder admits to serious quality problems
18th October 2005 http://www.theregister.co.uk