So long, Wiki-bloopers?

Wikipedia promises to clean up its act. Does that mean no more famously wrong obituaries?


Vincent Rossmeier
August 25, 2009 7:26PM (UTC)

Sadly, for the impish and malicious, the days of using Wikipedia as an international practical joke outlet and slander machine are about to be over -- at least when it comes to the entries on living people. The hugely popular online encyclopedia is set to institute a dramatic new policy change that will require an editor to review and approve revisions to the Wiki pages of all living people and some major organizations. Wikipedia will test-run the new editing structure for two months before most likely instituting the alterations permanently.

Wikipedia started in 2001 as a true open-source reference site in which practically anyone who wanted to could contribute to a page on a particular subject. The site relied upon the vigilance of its users and readers to make sure that inaccurate and inappropriate information was quickly corrected or removed. But recently, Wikipedia has become more hierarchical in their editorial oversight: anonymous users can no longer create pages as they once were able to and there are also now committees that monitor both the site's topics and its content.   

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While the new editorial policy does mark a sharp change from the site's founding principles, it's understandable why co-founder Jimmy Wales and the rest of the organization's staff would want to exert a little more control over what appears in individual entries. As almost anyone who has ever used Wikipedia before knows,  the site has had its fair share of embarrassments. Here's a look at some of the more memorable times Wikipedia entries have led readers seriously astray.

Senators Robert Byrd and Ted Kennedy - January 2009:  Earlier this year, thanks to Wikipedia, reports of these two Senate legends' deaths were greatly exaggerated. On January 20, shortly after he went into convulsions at a luncheon in Washington D.C., Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. was rushed to the hospital. Though Kennedy very much survived the ordeal, that same afternoon, his Wikipedia page announced his death. The error was caught within about five minutes. But shortly after, when one of Kennedy's closest friends, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., also left the luncheon, Byrd's Wikipedia page indicated that he had died as well. Fortunately, if you were wondering about other people who had their deaths prematurely reported, Wikipedia has a very useful page on the subject.

Steve Jobs - August 2008: Many people thought Apple CEO Steve Jobs  had died last August after Wikipedia announced his death following the unintended publishing of his obituary by Bloomberg News. The obituary was on Bloomberg's site for less than a minute, but Jobs' Wiki page was quickly updated to reflect his death -- until it was corrected, shortly afterward.

The Essjay fabrication and the New Yorker - February 2007: Hopefully the editors involved in Wikipedia's new review process won't lie about their credentials as one infamous editor on the site did from 2005 to 2007. Using the pseudonym "Essjay," a man named Ryan Jordan began editing Wikipedia posts in 2005. Essjay claimed to be a professor who had numerous advanced degrees in religious studies. Essjay became a passionate and committed member of the Wikipedia community, editing so many entries that when the New Yorker's Stacy Schiff wrote about the site in 2006, Essjay was prominently featured.

Unfortunately, Jordan turned out to be  a community college drop out. His deception was discovered in early 2007, leading to an embarrassing editorial note from the New Yorker and Jordan/Essjay's "retirement" from the site.

John Seigenthaler - November 2005: The case of journalist John Seigenthaler has to rank as Wikipedia's most notorious and disastrous incident to date. When Seigenthaler stumbled upon his Wikipedia page, he found that not only was much of the information flat out wrong, but that he was accused of being part of a murder. His entry 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."

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Making matters worse, the entry stayed up on Wikipedia for 132 days. In an incensed editorial in USA Today in November 2005 entitled "A False Wikipedia Biography," Seigenthaler recounted his traumatic experience. He wrote:

I have no idea whose sick mind conceived the false, malicious 'biography' that appeared under my name for 132 days on Wikipedia, the popular, online, free encyclopedia whose authors are unknown and virtually untraceable ... At age 78, I thought I was beyond surprise or hurt at anything negative said about me. I was wrong. One sentence in the biography was true. I was Robert Kennedy's administrative assistant in the early 1960s. I also was his pallbearer. It was mind-boggling when my son, John Seigenthaler, journalist with NBC News, phoned later to say he found the same scurrilous text on Reference.com and Answers.com.

The Communications Decency Act protected Wikipedia from being liable for the misinformation, but the incident was hugely shameful for the organization. Eventually, a man named Brian Chase confessed to being behind the entry and he apologized directly to Seigenthaler over the incident.

Jason Scott and Carmine DeSapio - November 2004: In Andrew Lih's excellent history of Wikipedia, "The Wikipedia Revolution," Lih cites critic Jason Scott's series of problematic interactions with the site as a prime example of the failings of open-sourcing. Scott wrote:

Carmine DeSapio was the last head of Tammany Hall, which is the political machine that controlled New York City for a hundred years. He was the only non-Irish head, he basically got into a lot of trouble, and that was the end of Tammany Hall.

Now, almost all the information on Carmine DeSapio is from Wikipedia. If you go and type this man's name in, you'll get a hundred matches. All of them are variations of the Wikipedia article. The Wikipedia article was typed in by a retiree from Iowa, off of the New York Times obituary from Carmine DeSapio's death, which happens to be locked down under registration so it doesn't get out as much. He transcribed it wrong! In doing so he got the name of his daughter wrong, he got his age wrong, he got a number of other important facts wrong, all of which are duplicated now throughout the web.

 

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Open Call: Know a good Wikipedia blooper? Blog about it on Open Salon.


Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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