When was the last time you opened the Encyclopedia Britannica? I’ll bet it’s been awhile. A long while. Some of you younger folks might even be wondering what the heck I’m talking about.
The point is, in the digital age, when we want to know something, we Google it. We don’t go to the library, we just reach for our smart phone.
And whatever it is you happen to search for, there’s one site that frequently pops in Google’s top ten. One site that has become, for better or worse, the go-to source of information on the web:
But how reliable is Wikipedia, really? Can you believe everything you read there? Can you link to Wikipedia as a credible source? Let’s take a closer look…
Who’s Behind It?
For starters, always remember that Wikipedia is user created.
All articles are written, edited and uploaded by volunteers; usually amateurs, often anonymous. Anyone with internet access can edit and add content. Which means that pranksters, crazies and internet trolls can and do vandalize the site, posting false and misleading information.
Blatant fallacies are usually spotted and corrected quickly, but not always. A much bigger problem is “spin,” articles which are written or edited by someone in such a way as to promote a certain viewpoint. Each one of the 70,000+ active contributors has their own perspective, their own voice, and espouses their own opinion.
Not knowing who wrote an article, and why, and what particular assumptions they are bringing to the table, means that all information should be read with a healthy dose of skepticism, and facts should be thoroughly checked and verified.
Wikipedia relies on users and contributors to edit and critique each other, with the ideal that over time differing viewpoints will be resolved into a neutral consensus. This process can take a long time, if it ever happens at all.
As it says on their About page, “Wikipedia’s radical openness also means that any given article may be, at any given moment, in a bad state, such as in the middle of a large edit, or a controversial rewrite.”
And elsewhere, “We do not expect you to trust us. It is in the nature of an ever-changing work like Wikipedia that, while some articles are of the highest quality of scholarship, others are admittedly complete rubbish.”
That just about sums it up.
Epic Wikipedia Fails
Many people are quite outspoken in their criticism. Take Steve Cuozzo’s scathing critique of Wikipedia’s coverage of New York real estate, for example. This article from The Guardian gives the site more of a fair shake, but the message is pretty much the same:
Wikipedia articles are written by amateurs, not experts.
If you are a professional or an academic, who is intimately familiar with a given topic, you’re likely to find Wikipedia’s treatment of the subject sorely lacking.
This Reddit thread really drives home that point.
But there are several Wikipedia fails which go beyond botching a few details, or failing to grasp the intricacies of some esoteric discipline. There have been a few serious cases of defamation and libel.
Like the case of John Seigenthaler, former administrative assistant for Robert F. Kennedy, whose Wikipedia page falsely claimed that he was suspected of being directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations. This entry went uncorrected for more than 4 months.
Then there was the case of Wikipedia editor “Qworty,” eventually revealed to be novelist Robert Clark Young. Under this pseudonym, and countless others, Young spent years sabotaging the Wiki pages of other writers against whom he had a personal vendetta.
Then there’s the pranks. Like the time someone drew a mustache and devil horns on Bill Gates’ photo. Or when singer Robbie William’s Wikipedia page was edited to say that he ate pet hamsters. U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was accused of drinking children’s blood, and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair of collecting Hitler posters.
There have also been numerous false death reports through the years, including Ted Kennedy and Miley Cyrus.
Hoaxes at Wikipedia cover the width of the spectrum, from obvious and juvenile (like posting “BIG BALLS ARE TASTy” on the Leonardo Da Vinci page) to subtle and easily overlooked (like the stoned college sophomore who falsified Amelia Bedelia’s page for a laugh – only to find it was still uncorrected more than 5 years later, and had been cited by numerous news agencies).
See this page for a list of the most famous and long running hoaxes yet discovered.
There’s also the issue of “Wikiwashing,” wherein companies pay to have their Wikipedia entry crafted and edited by a third party, sometimes even their own staff. Obviously, this results in biased and unreliable entries, many of which go undetected for some time.
Gregory Kohs, founder of MyWikiBiz.com – a professional Wikiwashing service – recently conducted an experiment to investigate the site’s reliability. He inserted false information into more than 30 different Wikipedia pages, and monitored them for several months.
They weren’t fixed.
What’s worse is that when Kohs went back to correct these inaccuracies, his account was suspended for doing so – and another editor soon set about undoing the corrections he had made. A number of Kohs’ imbedded falsehoods may still persist.
In 2009, Shane Fitzgerald conducted a similar experiment designed to expose journalists and media outlets who cited Wikipedia as a primary source. He posted a fake quotation which he attributed to French composer Maurice Jarre, on the day of his passing.
Several newspapers published the quote in their obituaries, and the hoax went undetected for several days, until Fitzgerald wrote to the papers and notified them of it’s inaccuracy. In most cases, retractions were printed.
But the fake quote can still be found floating around out there in cyberspace, attributed to Monsieur Jarre.
So what’s the take-away here? Is Wikipedia a useful research tool, or an untrustworthy web of lies? In the end, it’s a matter of degree and perspective.
Clearly, you cannot believe everything you read on Wikipedia. But with nearly 5 million articles in English alone, a few bad apples – even thousands of bad apples – does not render the whole project worthless. Be skeptical, and use your own best judgment to separate the chaff from the wheat.
Remember that there is no such thing as pure objectivity. In fact, the more informed one is about a certain subject, the more apt one is to hold a strong opinion about it. So beware of bias, especially the subtle kind which attempts to pass itself off as neutrality.
You should never rely solely upon any one source for information – least of all a source that can be edited by anyone with internet access and a grudge. So don’t cite Wikipedia as a primary source of information — doing so is virtually admitting that you are too lazy to do proper research.
But you can use Wikipedia as an introduction, a starting point from which to delve deeper in your research. If an article cites valid sources and references, take the extra time to click through and read them, and verify the claims being made. Click on the “Talk” tab at the top of any page to go behind the scenes, and dig deeper into what edits have been made and why.
And remember, if a Wikipedia article cites no sources or references, then it is no better than an opinion piece, and shouldn’t be cited or trusted at all.
After all the research I’ve done for this article, and all the mistakes, pranks, and outright lies I’ve uncovered, you can still count me among the “true believers” in Wikipedia.
No, it’s not the Encyclopedia Britannica. It’s not supposed to be. It’s a product of our times, and our internet culture. It’s a grand experiment in free and open, crowd-sourced information. And a successful one, if you ask me.
It remains the single largest compilation of human knowledge – period. It’s free and easy to access from anywhere you can get a data signal. Studies have found it to be about as accurate and reliable as any other online encyclopedia (including the Brittanica) or professional journal, and it’s far more comprehensive.
Bottom line: when it comes to the sheer number of facts, as well as their range and scope, Wikipedia is unmatched. It’s a true wonder of information technology and online cooperation. It can be (if used wisely) an invaluable tool for research, education, and late night games of drunken bar trivia.
Sure, every now and then someone is gonna get called a douchebag… but hey, it’s the internet.
What do you expect?