Volume 1, Number 2
May 1, 2006

Articles

Can The Wikipedia Be Trusted?
by Lawrence Hall

Can all users be trusted to create resource information, or should elitist have the final say?

In recent months, many problems with Wikipedia have arisen. Most notably, various people have complained about slanderous and damaging material being written. For those that do not know, the Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia that can be edited by any person who accesses it with a web browser. It is a product of the Wikimedia Foundation and is joined by similar sites such as an online dictionary, open source images, free books, and more.

For years many have always doubted the credibility of the web. For starters, how can you count on a source of information to be true on the Internet? How can someone who is making a claim on a given topic prove their own credentials? Those two questions have crossed anyone's mind while navigating the world wide web - from a rumor site such as thinksecret, to social sites such as The Facebook or MySpace. The problem amplifies itself on the Wikipedia pages, now boasting nearly 1 million user edited entries in English alone (there are 100+ languages the material comes in), the question becomes clear. How much of this content is to be trusted?

Elitist vs Commoners

The downfall of Wikipedia will be the same thing that boosted its popularity; its own growth and maintenance rely on its huge user base. But with so many hands controlling a body of information, how can it maintain credibility. Larry Sanger, a co-founder of Wikipedia, mentions that the Wikipedia needs to shed its anti elitist attitude. He points out that this needs to take place from people within the academic community.

As the Wikipedia and its sister projects continue to grow in popularity, teachers and researchers continue to view it as a credible source. Despite this view on the Wikipedia their inaction to verify its content makes it an unjustified body of information. To assist Wikipedia in its goal, the acedimic community should become more visibly active with it, yet they rarely have input into topics. Sanger states, "To the extent that the project is not reaching, and being supported by, these people, it is not succeeding as well as it might."(Sanger) He is alluding to the fact that as more users trust this material with out being verified by properly qualified individuals, Wikipedia is severely diminishing its content in the name of being an open document.

This image includes the wikepedia logo.  It is dyed red and blue to symmbolize the divisons discussed in this article. "To the extent that the project is not reaching, and being supported by, these people, it is not succeeding as well as it might." - Larry Sanger

Another issue pointed out by Sanger is the ability of general users editing more specific topics. He points out that a well formed article written by someone who is very knowledgeable on a topic could write an article. Unfortunately, once it is written anyone may edit it as they see fit. This could eventually lead to a once well formed article becoming a pieced together entry that does not help anyone.

Personal Issues With Wikipedia

Despite the fact that there are volunteer administrators for the Wikipedia, a few humans cannot police such a large body of information alone. Also, each of these administrators only monitor posts with in their topical interest. For this very reason, Wiki relies on its user base to provide support to help keep content clean and true. By using a system of votes, users choose whether questionable or offensive content should stay or not. Sounds like a very democratic plan, but when so many editors are in control it simply must fail at some point.

In the end of 2005 two major cases in the Wikipedia world became very public. One involved a case of libelous material being written about "John Seigenthaler, whom was President Kennedy's Attorney General. In this instance an anonymous user signed on and created a new entry about Mr. Seiginthaler stating that he was involved President Kennedy's assassination. Mr. Seigenthaler became upset at this false posting and contacted the Wikimedia foundation, only to find out that there was not much that they could do for him. For starters, even if they tracked it back and found out the users IP address to block them from the site it may not stop the problem. This user could simply continue to post from another location. Second, he was more or less hopeless in this situation due to the Telecommunications act of 1996*. One of the areas of this law protects users and internet companies from being responsible for content posted to sites such as Wikipedia. Seigenthaler states, "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."(Seigenthaler)

The issue here is that when humans can catch a large audience personal agendas come into play. In Online Encyclopedia Is a Gathering For Internet Predators, Alfred Cunningham points out a circle of pedophilic users who use Wikipedia for posting pedophile content. More specifically he mentions one user who maintains the Wiki page on pedophilia. For the foundation this is not an issue, the administrators allow him to edit the topic as a subject matter expert. Seems good for the getting the truth out on the topic; he has a user name and a tracked ip, and he admits to have never doing anything illegal (but who would say if they did something illegal); so who better to write on the topic . But Cunningham points out that there is a cabal of pedophiles creating entries on the topic. The issue is that anyone with a web browser can edit entries anonymously, So there are large strings of messages and edits from random people. Cunningham says "Any pedophile can edit any page to promote a deviant agenda."(Cunningham).

Conclusion

The intention of this article is not to point a finger at anyone, but it is to open the readers eyes to the issues with trusting user edited content. Over time, the Wikipedia may balance out. Eventually, or possibly even now, user tests are being performed to see how much content is credible. Also, the academic communities could step up and decide unanimously that the Wikipedia is not a trusted body of information to use for research. Once this happens the Wikipedia will have to change the way information within their pages is handled to maintain existence.

About the Author

Lawrence Hall is an undergraduate student in the Digital Rhetoric & Professional Writing program at Michigan State University. He aspires to be a technical writer or auto magazine journalist, and intellectual property lawyer.

Email: Lawrence Hall

References

*Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, specifically states that "no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker." FCC - Telecomunications Act of 1996

Sanger, Larry "Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism"
Kuro5in.org
<view source>
Seigenthaler, John "A false Wikipedia 'biography'By John Seigenthaler"
USA Today
<view source>
Cunningham, Alfred "Online Encyclopedia Is a Gathering For Internet Predators"
Official Wire
<view source>

Extended Readings

Class Action Lawsuit Against Wikipedia
<view source>
Jesdanun, Anick "When Information Access Is So Easy, Truth Can Be Elusive "
Technology Review
<view source>