Wikipedia: where truth dies online

Run by cliquish, censorious editors and open to pranks and vandalism, Wikipedia is worthless and damaging.

Nigel Scott

Topics Science & Tech

A man knocks at your door. You answer and he tells you he is an encyclopaedia salesman.

‘I have the largest and most comprehensive encyclopaedia the world has ever seen’, he says.

‘Tell me about it!’

‘It has more editors and more entries than any other encyclopaedia ever. Most of the contributors are anonymous and no entry is ever finished. It is constantly changing. Any entry may be different each time you go back to it. Celebrities and companies pay PR agencies to edit entries. Controversial topics are often the subject of edit wars that can go on for years and involve scores of editors. Pranksters and jokers may change entries and insert bogus facts. Whole entries about events that never happened may be created. Other entries will disappear without notice. Experts may be banned from editing subjects that they are leading authorities on, because they are cited as primary sources. University academics and teachers warn their students to exercise extreme caution when using it. Nothing in it can be relied on. You will never know whether anything you read in it is true or not. Are you interested?’

‘I’ll think about it’, you say, and close the door.

News that civil servants in Whitehall hacked the Wikipedia entry for the Hillsborough disaster and inserted gratuitous insults about the men and women who died in the worst football-ground disaster in British history was greeted with predictable anger last week. This anger was directed at the anonymous vandals who posted the edits, rather than the organisation and website that facilitated the defamation. But, it must be said, Wikipedia is not blameless in this. It allows misinformation to flourish and provides it with a cloak of respectability. It is under-resourced and is unable to police itself adequately.

Wikipedia was launched in January 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger but was predated by an earlier Wales/Sanger project, Nupedia, also a free online encyclopaedia, but one that was written and peer-reviewed by experts. In its three-year life, Nupedia only produced 25 articles, with a further 74 in progress when it was shut down. The lesson learned from the Nupedia experiment was that this protracted process with meagre output would never produce a comprehensive and up-to-date online encyclopaedia. The experts and peer reviews would have to go. Wikipedia would take over where Nupedia left off and would be a free for all for anyone and everyone who wanted to edit it. Quality would have to give way to quantity so a complicated system of checks and balances evolved, intended to ensure accuracy and accountability, though, despite the best intentions of its founders, this has never really been achieved.

Wikipedia has been a massive success but has always had immense flaws, the greatest one being that nothing it publishes can be trusted. This, you might think, is a pretty big flaw. There are over 21million editors with varying degrees of competence and honesty. Rogue editors abound and do not restrict themselves to supposedly controversial topics, as the recently discovered Hillsborough example demonstrates.

Attempts to tighten up procedures by introducing more arcane and complicated editing processes and rules have themselves been criticised. Kat Walsh, a chair of the Wikimedia foundation, said ‘It was easier when I joined in 2004… Everything was a little less complicated…. It’s harder and harder for new [Wikipedia editors] to adjust.’

Wikipedia itself helpfully publishes a page of notable hoaxes that have littered its past decade. In 2007, the Sun alleged that Labour MP Chuka Umunna edited his own page. Umunna denied this but conceded that one of his campaign team may have set up the page. In 2013, the London Evening Standard further alleged that an edit to Umunna’s Wikipedia page was made in 2008 on a computer located at the law firm where he worked. Once again, Umunna repeated that he ‘could not recall’ editing the page. Umunna is not the only politician who has been accused of organising his or her own page edits. It would be easier to find a politician who has not done so.

But politicians are easy targets. Organisations are no better. Last year Wiki-PR, a company that was set up specifically to offer page editing for commercial clients, was issued with a cease-and-desist letter by the Wikimedia Foundation. Wiki-PR employed 45 staff who edited pages using ‘sock puppet’ (fake) accounts and advertised its services online. Sock puppets are a big problem for Wikipedia because so many of its editors are anonymous. This makes it almost impossible to verify bona fide users. Wikipedia literally has no idea who many of its editors are.

Another embarrassment for Wikipedia was the recent revelation that a hoax page had survived for five years and had won several awards. The ‘Bicholim conflict’ entry was a detailed but fictitious account of a war in Indian Goa that never took place. It was rated as one of Wikipedia’s top pages and received a quality award that only one per cent of all Wikipedia articles achieve.

Embarrassment may be bad enough, but having a whole country’s Wikipedia page controlled by a clique of fascists might be considered a step too far, yet this is what happened to Croatia. In 2013, Croatian newspapers reported that Croatian history was being rewritten on Wikipedia to promote anti-gay views. The Croatian minister of education was forced to issue a statement warning the country’s students: ‘We have to point out that much of the content in the Croatian version of Wikipedia is not only misleading but also clearly falsified.’ A Croatian historian called the disputed articles ‘biased and malicious, partly even illiterate’ and he expressed doubts about the ability of its authors to distinguish good from evil.

The standard of debate around controversial Wikipedia pages often degenerates into playground squabbling, in spite of rules that are intended to foster consideration and the principle of good faith between Wikipedia editors. Established editors who know the ropes find it easy to goad and ban newcomers with differing views. Thus, gamesmanship trumps knowledge.

The self-selection of Wikipedia’s editors can produce a strongly misaligned editorial group around a certain page. It can lead to conflicts among the group members, continuous edit wars, and can require disciplinary measures and formal supervision, with mixed success. Once a dispute has got out of hand, appeals to senior and more established administrators are often followed by rulings that favour the controlling clique.

Wikipedia is particularly unsuited to covering ongoing criminal cases, especially when a clique of editors who have already made their mind up about the case secures early control of the page. The ‘Murder of Meredith Kercher‘ entry is indicative of this. The page has been under the control of editors convinced of the guilt of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito almost continuously since 2007. The page has now been edited over 8,000 times by over 1,000 people. Its bias became so obvious that eventually a petition to Jimmy Wales was launched. Once alerted, Wales took a personal interest and arranged for new contributors to assist in editing the page. He commented: ‘I just read the entire article from top to bottom, and I have concerns that most serious criticism of the trial from reliable sources has been excluded or presented in a negative fashion.’ A few days later, he followed up: ‘I am concerned that, since I raised the issue, even I have been attacked as being something like a “conspiracy theorist”.’

It was easy to prove bias in the case of the Kercher page and some of the controlling editors even identified themselves as contributors to Knox hate sites. They had recognised from the start that Wikipedia would be the first stop for many journalists new to the case. By controlling Wikipedia they could set the media agenda, shape public opinion and even influence court proceedings in Italy where there has now been one trial and two appeals. Italian jurors are encouraged to read widely and do their own research – the polar opposite of the UK system – and this makes trials vulnerable to interference from outside the court.

The Kercher entry has come to be seen as a microcosm of all that is wrong with Wikipedia. Even the intervention of the encyclopaedia’s founder made only a limited difference. Many reliable sources remain excluded and are not referenced.

One columnist for The Times has likened Wikipedia’s reliance on consensus ahead of accuracy to an interminable political meeting with the end result dominated by the loudest and most persistent voices. Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist writing for an online publication, Edge, described Wikipedia as a ‘hive mind‘ that is ‘for the most part stupid and boring’.

Wikipedia may be the ultimate devolved business model. Its content is generated by unpaid and largely uncontrolled volunteers. Its management structure is almost non-existent. Editors earn ‘brownie points’ by obsessively editing as many different pages as possible, preferably in subjects that they know nothing about. Specialist knowledge is frowned upon and discouraged. Those with the best understanding of Wikipedia’s procedures join together to bully and sideline newcomers.

To the casual reader, much of Wikipedia appears adequate, but be warned, nothing can be trusted. If your life depends on it, go elsewhere. Search engines have given us the power to instantly uncover source material that used to take weeks of library research to find – if it was available at all. Sources can be biased, but at least with other sources you know who has written what you are reading. With Wikipedia, you do not. Everyone has an agenda, but with Wikipedia you never know who is setting it.

Insulting the bereaved and deceased of a football-crowd disaster is tasteless and upsetting; hijacking the history of a whole country is even more serious; and attempting to rewrite the public record with the intention of perverting the course of justice in a murder trial is unconscionable. An online encyclopaedia that is unable to prevent vandalism on this scale does not deserve to exist.

Nigel Scott is a writer and member of the advisory board of Injustice Anywhere.

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Topics Science & Tech