Hoax, Jest & False Biography

Based on a Mar. 16th lecture by Gearóid Ó Súilleabháin

In a 2014 Guardian article, Go ahead: waste a day on Wikipedia, Dan Gillmor (who does disclose that he is a friend of Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales), is primarily positive about Wikipedia, noting that it “remains the most visible of the collective-intelligence projects” and “gets better every day”. To be fair he does clearly state, as many have, that Wikipedia is a great place to start learning about a topic but not the place to stop. He acknowledges that some deliberately corrupt information for various reasons, but goes on to claim that the minor hoaxes and bogus entries can be endured because, despite its imperfections, Wikipedia creates real value.

Amelia Bedelia Source: The Daily Dot

Amelia Bedelia
Source: The Daily Dot

On minor hoaxes and jests I tend to agree in large part. One hoax, which Dan alludes to, is described in detail by EJ Dickson in a 2014 Daily Dot piece, How I accidentally started a Wikipedia hoax about Amelia Bedelia. As diverting as the story about the insertion of a falsehood about a children’s book series character is, I find the fact that it had persisted for over five years, and that it had subsequently been cited numerous times in a myriad other publications, more revealing. Despite the admonition not to use Wikipedia as a primary or sole source it would appear that many do. A Wikipedia editor offered Dickson multiple reasons why the fabrication had not been spotted.
Equally amusing was Wikipedia’s banning of US Congress access after certain edits, presumably made in jest, were spotted by a Twitter bot. They were on subjects as odd as lizard people controlling government, Cubans faking the moon landing, and Donald Rumsfeld being an alien wizard. The article also mentions tracking of Wikipedia edits from inside the House of Commons.

John Seigenthaler

John Seigenthaler
Source: PBS

Considerably more serious was the “character assassination” (his words) perpetrated on the late John Seigenthaler, a well-known journalist, writer, and one-time administrative assistant to Robert F. Kennedy. The false Wikipedia entry suggesting Seigenthaler “was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby”. Seigenthaler’s frustrating attempts to find out who had posted the information, through Wikipedia and BellSouth Internet, was detailed in a USA TODAY op-ed. Seigenthaler contended that Federal law with respect to defamation in cyberspace had enabled and protected “volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects”. The author of the falsehood was ultimately identified and did apologize; Wikipedia did make some rule changes as a result.

Second Thoughts: In the Weeds with Wales

When I watched the Jimmy Wales TED Talk on the birth of Wikipedia,

I came away thinking Wales was part showman and part salesman, but also wanting to understand a little more about the governance of the Wikipedia he described.

The best place to start is, naturally, with Wikipedia itself, which defines its policies and guidelines in minute detail. There is no way I could adequately summarize either here. The procedural policies, which include an explanation of the Arbitration Committee – Wikipedia’s “Supreme Court” – and how it operates, are complex. The behavioral, content and editing guidelines I scanned are positively byzantine. However Wikipedia summarizes its principles in what it calls its five “pillars”:

  • Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia
  • All content on Wikipedia has to be written from a neutral point of view (NPOV)
  • Wikipedia is free content that anyone can use, edit, and distribute
  • Editors should treat each other with consideration and respect
  • Wikipedia has no firm rules a.k.a. ignore all rules

Put in such straightforward terms it almost sounds like a collective Utopia. But further reading reveals some cracks in the foundation. I will return to some of the criticisms of Wikipedia in a follow-up post. But I did want to point here to a Guardian piece about the deletion of a Wikipedia entry on a Sunday Times journalist by Jimmy Wales himself, which shows that even he is not above breaking the rules. As the author notes, “Wikipedia, it seems, has a god, and occasionally he deletes stuff.”