By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Wikipedia’s mounting woes

There are reasons that the Encyclopedia Britannica has been around for 237 years. One of them, obviously, is that its editors do not allow anyone to post anything and claim it’s authoritative. An example of that would be the Wikipedia.

It’s easy to see why the Wikipedia had become a darling among Internet users. It’s well-designed, free and comprehensive. It also taps into the notion — a dubious one, in my estimation — that the “wisdom of the crowd” is superior to that of professional editors. (When did the “madness of the mob” become the “wisdom of the crowd,” anyway? When they got computers?)

Right now the Wikipedia is under siege as the result of two scandals. The better-known involves former Robert Kennedy aide John Siegenthaler, who wrote an op-ed piece for USA Today last week about how he’d been falsely cast as a conspirator in both Kennedy assassinations — and that this horrifying error was not removed for months.

But there’s more. It seems that Adam Curry, the former MTV veejay who helped launch podcasting, has been caught messing around with the Wikipedia entry on that subject, possibly to aggrandize his own role. Curry tells CNET’s that his motives were pure, and whines that he’s now been cast as “the asshole of the week.”

Back to Siegenthaler. According to this piece, the Wikipedia may have some responsibility for the slime job, but it’s probably not liable. The reason is that a provision of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 exempts Internet service providers from legal liability for anything posted on their sites.

As notes, publishers — even exclusively online publishers such as Salon — may be successfully sued for libel by those who are able to demonstrate that they were defamed with false information, and that the publisher acted with some degree of fault. But ISPs were given a get-out-of-court card in the 1996 law on the theory that it would be impossible to monitor the thousands, even millions, of posts from their users. quotes Kurt Opsahl, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, as saying that the guiding case in this area is Zeran v. America Online, 1997 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (not the Third Circuit, as claims). Kenneth Zeran was the victim of a malicious AOL subscriber who posted messages in which, claiming to be Zeran, he offered T-shirts for sale that mocked victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. The court ruled that the 1996 law clearly exempted AOL from any liability.

Now, I don’t want to go toe to toe with a lawyer. Logically, though, the Wikipedia strikes me as being more of a publishing venture like Salon than an ISP like America Online or EarthLink. The Wikipedia’s model of allowing anyone to contribute content doesn’t strike me as somehow magically transforming it into an ISP.

But those are questions for lawyers and judges to decide. Either way, the Wikipedia’s honeymoon is over.

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  1. Ken D.

    Australian blogger Tim Lambert is a long-time critic of pro-gun author and alleged acadmemic John Lott. One front for trench warfare has been Lott’s Wikipedia biography, pitting Lambert and allies against mysterious posters who Lambert argues vociferously are “sockpuppets” being animated by Lott’s own unacknowledged hand. For the gory details see

  2. Anonymous

    I think the comparison between the wikipedia and the encyclopedia brittanica is an apples and oranges comparison. The comparison implies that wikipedia is just a digitized version of the old-fashioned encyclopedia and should be evaluated by the same metrics. As Macluhan would say, the medium is the message, and Wikipedia, by its very nature as a free, open source web site, blows away any cloth-bound encyclopedia. By focusing on some edge case where the wikipedia is not as factually correct as the Encyclopedia Britannica was in the old days is to deny the incredible value of the wiki format. The wikipedia allows the intellectually curious to find high-quality information on almost any conceivable topic that interests him. I use it as my homepage and go there first whenever I am interested in any subject. (Today, I read articles on the Dresden fire bombings, Abdullah the Butcher, and Sadaam Hussain). I think you are really undervaluing wikipedia if you dont appreciate the breathtaking variety of hugh-quality information it provides.

  3. Rick in Duxbury

    DK, With all due respect, the “wisdom…of professional editors” hasn’t exactly had a good year either. The morphing of “ink-stained wretches” into “Woodstein” wannabes that occurred post-Watergate has resulted in some folks with inflated opinions of their own importance/expertise. (You have ably described them in this and other venues). I guess the bottom line is that everyone is responsible for what they say/write and the intent thereof.

  4. Jim in St. Louis

    In a country where 50% of the “crowd” believes dinosaurs and humans coexisted at some point in time and 20% believe the sun revolves around the earth, I have trouble trusting in the “wisdom of the crowd”. Important people, such as the president of South Africa, believe that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS. Or how about evolution or global warming, where opponents of those concepts actively misrepresent the issues? Some ideas and assertions, despite how many people hold them (or write about them somewhere), are simply wrong. Expertise does matter, even if it isn’t always perfect.

  5. Anonymous

    The truth is that Wikipedia serves a useful purpose. The fact that a very small percentage of problems has arisen doesn’t change that. There are always nitpickers everywhere, and that doesn’t change anything either. I like Wikipedia because I can go there and find just about anything I’m looking for. I’ve yet to find anything there that isn’t true.

  6. Anonymous

    Jim,You complain that others are stupid, yet you toss off anecdotes (and statistics) like the Oracle of Delphi. A bit less anger and a bit more sourcing will enhance your credibility to that of oh, say, the Wikipedia?

  7. blatant

    Yes, Anonymous at 12:07, “the hugh-quality information it provides” perfectly illustrates why Wikipedia is not a credible source. And Anonymous at 7:09, if you’ve “yet to find anything there that isn’t true,” you haven’t looked very far.

  8. Wes

    Wikipedia’s inane existence is just one short hair on the back of the huge gorilla that is the I’net. Anyone who concludes that the net is more than a digital Speaker’s Corner deludes themselves.

  9. neil

    The “wisdom of the crowd” can determine the number of jellybeans in a jar more accurately than an individual can. But it’s not clear how this curious phenomenon can be extended to an information collection model. Wikipedia addresses these issues in their “Replies to common objections” FAQ. It includes such topics as cranks, trolls, flamers and partisans. Under cranks:People who stubbornly insist that an article must reflect their personal biases are rare, and then they generally receive a drubbing.The FAQ reflects an assumption that contributors will practice “Wikiquette” to avoid these problems. But their model relies on this voluntary goodwill. The Lambert example cited by Ken is a great example of what can happen when this honor system breaks down. The mechanisms in place to correct the behavior are weak:There are probably always a few trolls and flamers trying to stir up trouble on Wikipedia. While these folks can be noisy, the great majority of contribution to Wikipedia continues, paying little attention to them.Basically, since it doesn’t happen much, we can ignore the problem. If it’s only the reputations of a few people, too bad…

  10. worldbooker

    The question, inevitably, is can you trust it. The answer has to be no. There is absolutely no restraint on bogus information being up for public view and if its not accurate at the moment you click on it, it’s worthless.

  11. neil

    By the way the culprit in the Siegenthaler case has been revealed. He quit his job over it.He thought Wikipedia was a “gag” web site, he said. Seems like he’s right! The correct gag website however, is Uncyclopedia, which deftly demonstrates the inherent unreliability of the model. Probably the two will merge over time.

  12. Neil

    Sorry, I mangled the link to the story. Try this

  13. Anonymous

    Wikipedia, Britannica: A Toss-Up. Wikipedia help up fairly well.The Wisdom of the crowd is what has made open source software strong. many eyes can review and improve what has been written.

  14. Neil

    Too bad this entry has scrolled off the visible articles in Dan’s blog. Today’s Globe has an article ‘The Wiki Effect‘. The headline is “Wikipedia relies on ‘community’, a notion that’s beginning to carry the weight and promise of ‘expertise’.” It talks about the the Seigenthaler case.By coincidence I happened to download “Glassfish” which is an open-source application server sponsored (or something) by Sun. When I went to the Glassfish site, it’s all about the GlassFish “community”, and the Glassfish “project”. It was as if the most important thing about Glassfish was the community that developed it, rather than what the damn thing actually is. As if the product itself were an afterthought. I complained about it here.

  15. William the Bloody Boring

    Wiki NPOV prose is nauseating. Worse than committeelish.

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