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By National Science and Media Museum on

It’s on Wikipedia, but is it true?

When Jimmy Wales founded the website Wikipedia in 2001, he envisaged that it would ultimately become a digital brain representing the sum of all human knowledge.

The site invites all users to add posts and share their knowledge on any particular subject with other users, providing an enormous online resource of global knowledge on virtually every conceivable topic.

Any place where the general public is allowed to freely express their opinion without having any sort of prior approval from authority—it is dangerous. Free speech is dangerous. But it’s also incredibly powerful and useful.

—Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales (USA Today, June 12 2005)

Wikipedia is a combination of the words wiki—meaning a technology for creating collaborative websites, derived from the Hawaiian word wiki, meaning fast (it also stands for ‘what I know is’)—and encyclopedia. Twelve million articles (2.77 million in English) have been written collaboratively by volunteers around the world and Wikipedia is currently the most popular general reference work on the internet. The site is a multilingual project supported by the Wikimedia Foundation, a charitable organisation with a goal to develop and maintain open-content, wiki-based projects and provide content to the public free of charge. (Other projects include Wiktionary, Wikiversity and Wikibooks.) In January 2009 Wikipedia was at the centre of one of the most successful online fundraising campaigns ever when Wales appealed to users for funding to enable the site to remain free of charge and independent from advertising and raised over $6 million.

Wikipedia incorporates a unique editing model wherein articles do not undergo a formal peer review process but instead can be amended by anybody with a registered user account. The history section of a Wikipedia page enables site users to view all additions/amendments to an article. This editorial model has been described as “consensus over credentials” as it delivers the control to the user and not a specific site editor. This does mean, however, that Wikipedia cannot guarantee that all information on the site is factually correct. As the website’s disclaimer points out:

Please be advised that nothing found here has necessarily been reviewed by people with the expertise required to provide you with complete, accurate or reliable information. That is not to say that you will not find valuable and accurate information in Wikipedia; much of the time you will. However, Wikipedia cannot guarantee the validity of the information found here. The content of any given article may recently have been changed, vandalised or altered by someone whose opinion does not correspond with the state of knowledge in the relevant fields.

While much of the information on the site is correct, not all postings are, and the site has been targeted by pranksters and—in some cases—users with more malicious intentions. Wales admits that when the site first launched he would wake up in the middle of the night anxious that the site had been subject to vandalism. A site which invites the participation of its users to create material which is presented as factual relies upon the reliable knowledge and good intent of its contributors.

Wikipedia has hit the headlines on numerous occasions as the site has been at the centre of a number of false reports of the death of people in the public eye. On September 13 2008 a post on the Wikipedia page for presenter Vernon Kay stated that he had died after falling from a yacht in Greece. The page was then updated to say that a funeral for the presenter would be held in Bolton the following Friday. Friends and family of Kay flooded him with calls and were relieved to hear he was fine and presenting his regular radio show on Radio One. Other celebrity deaths recently and incorrectly announced on Wikipedia include John F Kennedy’s youngest brother Ted Kennedy (in January 2009) and teenage sensation Miley Cyrus (in September 2008). Incorrect posts such as these are usually removed or amended very quickly—but only once the false information has been shared among a number of people—and often covered by the media.

The most recent contentious edit on Wikipedia to hit the headlines was an embarrassing political dispute which broke out between the Conservative and Labour parties over the artist Titian. In February 2009 Gordon Brown used an anecdote about the artist to explain the UK financial crisis:

I’m reminded of the story of Titian, who’s the great painter who reached the age of 90, finished the last of his nearly 100 brilliant paintings, and he said at the end of it, ‘I’m finally beginning to learn how to paint,’ and that is where we are.

In the subsequent Prime Minister’s Question Time, David Cameron took delight in reporting that Brown had got his facts wrong and that Titian had actually died at the age of 86. Initially Wikipedia recorded the artist as having died at 90, but in the aftermath of Cameron’s accusation, an overzealous Conservative staffer altered the Wikipedia entry to prove his leader right. Cameron was forced to respond publically and point out that the staff member had been disciplined.

Incorrect Wikipedia posts can, however, have much more serious implications. In 2005 John Seigenthaler Sr.—a prominent journalist who had been the editor of Nashville’s Tennessean and the editorial page editor of USA Today—discovered that his post had been altered to read:

John Seigenthaler Sr. was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960’s. 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.

The fictitious post was displayed on Wikipedia for 132 days and when Seigenthaler contacted the site to have the information removed and the culprit uncovered he was told that the author was unknown and difficult to trace. He started his own research into the user’s IP address and Wikipedia was forced to revise its policies to enable only registered users to post or revise an article. Eventually the culprit, Brian Chase, a manager at a small delivery service in Nashville, sent a letter of apology to Seigenthaler. The posting had been a joke—supposedly played on a coworker of the same name—and he had believed the site to be a “gag” encyclopedia. He never expected the post to be taken seriously but the controversy surrounding the case forced him to resign. The incident received a great deal of coverage in the media and harmed the reputation of Wikipedia. Seigenthaler himself described the site as “a flawed and irresponsible research tool” in USA Today.

Wikipedia is invaluable in logging and sharing human knowledge yet, while it remains an open content resource, it is reliant on its users’ knowledge and intentions to ensure that content is accurate and trustworthy.

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