Wikipedia gets it (very) wrong

Making the rounds today is an op-ed piece in USAToday by John Seigenthaler in which he justifiably criticizes Wikipedia for publishing a false and defamatory “biography” of him. The bio, which has since been taken down, apparently said that Mr. Seigenthaler was suspected of involvement in the assassinations of both John and Robert Kennedy. Such is the mischief that can — and apparently does — slip through the cracks when human beings can hide behind anonymity.

My “biography” was posted May 26. On May 29, one of Wales’ volunteers “edited” it only by correcting the misspelling of the word “early.” For four months, Wikipedia depicted me as a suspected assassin before Wales erased it from his Website’s history Oct. 5. The falsehoods remained on Answers.com and Reference.com for three more weeks.

…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.

This sad event, I’m afraid, is going to be used by the mainstream to beat the snot out of the ideas of trust noted in my most recent essay. Mr. Seigenthaler certainly didn’t deserve this, and nobody would deny him his anger. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.

We live in a litigious culture, something that I personally believe is horribly wrong. Lawyers milk (for their own gain) laws written largely by other lawyers and have established a life for us in which the LAW is God. It’s the fruit of Modernity, and the one force that could really “uninvent” the new media being built on a level playing field for all. In the wake of this event, we’ll hear calls for regulation and lawsuits that’ll make some people feel good while not likely solving anything.

Wikipedia is quite honestly an amazing entity, but the user caveat has always been (and will always be) “consider the source and proceed.” This is an awful example of what can go wrong with such openness, but to treat it as justification for libel and slander suits against Wikipedia would be a mistake. Something needs to be done, and perhaps even new laws need to be written. Craig Newmark says, “We’ll figure it out,” and while I suspect he’s probably right, that’s little comfort to Mr. Seigenthaler.

Comments

  1. On the other hand he was able to correct the error. If it hadn’t been a wiki it would have remained online or in print for years.

  2. Mr. Seigenthaler’s criticism of Wikipedia is understandable. As for those of us who read this type of “information”, we must filter the comments through whatever filter experience has helped us develop. We are buried in a barrage of lies, half truths and spin. We should be suspect of anything we read — especially on the internet.

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