The Dangers of Wikipedia

Posted: June 7, 2012 in Uncategorized

Hello all, another blog post here. Today I’ll be discussing wikipedia.org, the online user created and edited encyclopedia. In particular, I’ll be looking at the potentially disastrous uses of Wikipedia, from the editing of biographies to the idea of truth versus verifiability. However, there are seemingly positive aspects as well, where Wikipedia has been taken in as a teaching tool of sorts, in this case taking advantage of Wikipedia’s ease of user editing to create purposeful hoax. However, I will first focus on what would be considered the most dangerous of Wikipedia’s uses, that of editing the biographies of living persons.

One of wikipedia’s allures is the ease in which anyone can create or edit an article about anything on the site. However, this can have dangerous implications, specifically in the case of the biographies of living persons. One such incident involved John Seigenthaler, an American journalist who found his biography on Wikipedia altered. Within his bio it stated that he had once been involved in the Kennedy assassination, which was completely false. Seigenthaler was able to get the article corrected after a lengthy amount of time, but it does leave a dangerous precedent. The entry had been up for four months before it was brought to Seigenthaler’s attention. Who’s to say there aren’t other individuals with potentially erroneous biographies, that will be taken as fact? It is a dangerous precedent, and an obvious reason why Wikipedia is not to be cited academically.

Thankfully, Wikipedia does edit themselves. In my own search, I looked up former President George W. Bush. The history was littered with revisions. One in particular I found (be warned, there is foul language) was clearly using Wikipedia to simply insult the President. While this is an extreme case, the rest of the revision history page did show many edits that were also changed or removed for structuring, word use, and the more subtle bias within the article. In this way I would credit Wikipedia for being as diligent as possible with their articles. Thankfully, now after the incident with John Seigenthaler’s bio, biographies on Wikipedia are semi-protected from edits.

In a more positive light, Wikipedia has been put to academic use. Not in the sense of using it for citations, rather it was used as the platform for a class. In it the professor instructed his students to create a fictitious student who was to research the additionally fictitious historical figure Edward Owens, an American pirate. The hoax was successful, up until the professor decided to bring the affair to light. He believed that the class had taught student to be more careful in their own research, adopt some digital experience, as well as have fun. The class as a whole obviously explore Wikipedia’s faults, but it also presents a dangerous possibility. Given enough time and effort, and large group of people could literally change history, and the flow of information, by creating a convincing enough entry on Wikipedia, given the sites high traffic and the ease with which many people take Wikipedia’s information as academically factual.

This flows right into the “gatekeeper” role that Wikipedia flies in the face of. Prior to Wikipedia’s creation, the academic world controlled the evaluation of and presenting of information. Now that has changed, as NPR radio discussed in their interview with two authors, Timothy Messer-Kruse and Andrew Lih. In the interview they discuss how Messer-Kruse, an author on the Haymarket Bombing in 1986 attempted to edit an article on the matter on Wikipedia. He wished to make corrections to the article because he had primary sources that supported his position, yet his edit was rejected. The issue came down to that Wikipedia is about verifiability, not truth, and that the sources provided by Messer-Kruse were to obscure, and needed secondary authorship to verify. Lih provided the insight that Wikipedia relies much on the popularly accepted concept, namely that Messer-Kruse’s sources may have been accurate, but that had not filtered to the general public yet, and thus could not be verified for their authenticity.

How strange. Normally primary sources are paramount in original research and backing up a statement. Yet the opposite is true with Wikipedia. It can only use what “could” be popularly considered true, as opposed to what is. This is very dangerous. Academics in this arena are no longer the “gatekeepers” of knowledge, the masses who access and edit Wikipedia are. And because of its ease of use, it makes the website all the more scary. Nevertheless, Wikipedia as a whole should not be completely vilified. I completely believe that the site is an excellent tool for background information and a good way to find sources, provided they are there. In the end I would stick with, use Wikipedia as much as you want, just don’t cite it. You never know what outlandish information may be on the screen.

(Journal added for best blog post)

HST 488 Journal

  • Browsed through Wright State’s CORE for interviews to use for class project.

  • Selected Elise Kelly’s interview with Sister Maria Francine Stacy

  • Listened through the entire interview and took notes to determine an appropriate subject matter, themes, keywords, etc.

  • Used the notes from the interview to construct an outline. The outline ordered the information by section. These sections were in turn used to create a shell of sections on the web page. The outline contained the paragraphs of my own remarks, as well as a breakdown of the entire interview, with which time ranges would be appropriate for each.

  • Use Wright State University’s STAC center to break up the interview into the desired time ranges.

  • Contacted Sister Stacy and arranged a time to meet.

  • Met with Sister Stacy and acquired several photos of herself and her work. Additionally took several photos of Sister and the surrounding area.

  • Scanned photos into a digital format using resources provided by WSU’s STAC, and edited them as necessary.

  • Uploaded edited audio files and photos to Omeka and arranged them into the shell of the website.

  • Downloaded and broke up the transcript of the interview in order to place them in the appropriate sections of the website.

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