Jan 29, 2008

Wikipedia: Whirlpool or cesspool of information?

by Adam Privett & Will Mayer

Everyone has heard that in the realm of education, Wikipedia is not a reliable source for accurate information. A lot of the stigma has to do with the way Wikipedia gathers its information  from private, anonymous users. Nearly anyone can set up an account and add, edit or remove information from the Web site. According to an article in PR Week by Adam Hill entitled Wikipedia  friend or foe on the net?, the site is often used as a public relations tool by politicians and other people with malicious intentions. However, in the same article, Hill adds that Wikipedia is a powerful research tool and, for many, a benchmark for the positive role of free speech on the Web.

With 2.5 billion page views a year, Wikipedias influence is hard to discount. Some information on Wikipedia is not only wrong, however, but also walks the line of character defamation. According to Hills article, in one instance, a person was accused of making his living by consuming animals in pubs. Another example of Wikipedia being used for false personal attacks is the case of John Seigenthaler, administrative assistant to Robert Kennedy in the 1960s. According to an editorial in USA TODAY, Seigenthaler claims that Wikipedia stated he was directly involved in the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy. Even worse, according to Seignethalers article, the same malevolent information was soon adopted by Reference.com and Answers.com.

Wikipedia asserts that it is not responsible for inaccurate information posted on the Web site and, since the editing process is anonymous, finding who is actually to blame could prove to be a difficult task. Wikipedia does, however, have volunteer editors who are avidly scanning Wikipedia and deleting false articles. Wikipedia has also been used as a tool by politicians. According to Hills article, some U.S. Senators biographies on Wikipedia underwent a makeover  discarding any unfavorable, albeit factual, information. This is not an isolated incident; Wikipedias editors are conducting investigations of other incidences of slander. Hills article also quotes Joel Cere, vice-president of Hill & Knowlton, who said that people should not be worried about government officials or Wikipedias editors distorting reality. If an entry has been obviously modified to suit a particular agenda, it will only be a matter of time before it is swayed back to a more neutral ground or to the prevalent public opinion.

My PR colleagues should have more faith in the wisdom of crowds, he said. According to Hill, the most active two percent of Wikipedia users are responsible for 73 percent of all edits. You could go and write an article on someone you didnt like. But its probable that someone else will come along and modify or revert the edits you made, said Hill. For instance, President George W. Bushs entry is edited hundreds of times per day. The mistakes on Wikipedia go beyond misspellings and wrong dates. At the same time, it is a whirlpool of information, where sometimes fact meets fiction. A good rule of thumb when deriving any information from Wikipedia: remember the real sources behind Wikipedias articles and take the time to verify the information. Contact Adam Privett atajprivett@liberty.edu.

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