In my classroom the quickest way to fail an assignment or possibly even the entire course is to cite Wikipedia as an authoritative source. I have been expressing concern about Wikipedia as a reliable source for information for almost as long as the Heidelblog (or its predecessor) has been in existence (see the resources below). Wikipedia came into existence in 2001. Most of my students were toddlers when it was born. They have grown up with it and some are shocked to hear that it should not be regarded as a reliable resource.
Since I first started paying attention to Wikipedia it has only become more ubiquitous and more dubious. It is the 5th most popular platform on the internet. The algorithms used by the various search engines (e.g., Google or Duck Duck Go, my preferred search engine) favor Wikipedia. Indeed, when I searched for the history of the origins of Wikipedia, the first entry to pop up was, of course, Wikipedia. It was not easy to find a history of Wikipedia not controlled by Wikipedia. Frankly, it was a little eerie. What if one could find no history of the most dominant research platform on the internet, which was outside of that research platform? It is for this reason and others that I have described Wikipedia as a “cult.” See the resources below for more.
There are a variety of reasons to distrust Wikipedia.
- Anyone can make it say anything he will. Several years ago I was listening to my favorite sports-talk radio station (1620 The Zone, Omaha) and the two hosts were editing someone’s Wikipedia biography live, on the air.
- Most of those who create and maintain entries are anonymous. Whatever its virtues, anonymity licenses irresponsibility. Anyone can claim expertise about any topic.
- A real, actual, professional reference would be edited by an accredited scholar or even a team of scholars. The entries would be written by scholars. The entries are supposed to be fair, clear, and professionally written. To be sure, this is no guarantee that every entry is completely accurate but Wikipedia does not even begin with these basic protocols and safeguards. It is ostensibly democratic but actually a sort of digital oligarchy.
- It is easily manipulated by PR companies and others who have professionals devoted to “curating” and manipulating entries.
- The guardians of Wikipedia can be worse than its entries and authors.
I was reminded this morning of yet another reason no one should take Wikipedia seriously. The entries can be weaponized. Sharyl Attkisson is a veteran journalist of the old-school variety. She has worked for PBS, CNN, and most famously for CBS. She is a best-selling writer who became known for more than her reporting when she announced in 2013 that someone had hacked her computer. Investigations were conducted by the Inspector General’s Office of the Department of Justice (DOJ), by CBS, and others. Some of the hacking has been traced to computers from the United States Post Office. She is currently in litigation against the DOJ. Should you want to take her on, you might want to cinch up the belt on your dobok, since she is a 5th degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. I just discovered that She has a podcast, which is related to her weekly news magazine program, Full Measure. In July of 2019 she did an episode on the “Weaponization of Wikipedia,” in which she explain how Wikipedia “editors” control its content.
As it turns out, Wikipedia rewards those who make the most edits. Let us imagine that you found an error in your Wikipedia biography. The rules say that you are not supposed to edit your own entry. Instead you are supposed to make a note on the page’s “talk” page. Should a third-party try to correct your page, those who have spent more time on the platform, who have accrued thereby more authority, can over-ride those edits in favor of their own point of view. Special interests assign people to make enough edits to gain authority. Attkisson says that these editors violate Wikipedia policies regarding neutrality and libel.
The reason why biographies of influential people read like public relations entries is because that is precisely what they are: professionally crafted entries posted by PR firms. There is an entire industry now, represented e.g., by the company Reputation Defender, which is successful enough to be able to afford prime-time advertisements on major Los Angeles radio stations, devoted to scrubbing the internet of damaging reports or information about those who can afford their services. Such businesses almost certainly begin with Wikipedia, since many other sources simply copy Wikipedia entries thereby extending its influence. Even a new competitor, Everipedia (the Encyclopedia of Everything), founded by Larry Sanger, one of the founders of Wikipedia, uses Wikipedia entries as the core of their entries. One hopes that Sanger’s new enterprise is more accurate than Wikipedia.
According to Wikipedia policies, controversial issues are supposed handled fairly but that is not the case. Attkisson reports that Sanger has complained that the inmates, uninformed ideologues, control Wikipedia. They “controversialize” views with which they disagree. Should one get into trouble with such editors, one can be sent to Wikipedia jail. Attkisson observes the weird dynamic of contributors begging to superiors to be released from Wiki jail. Some of these editors have even stalked Attkisson outside of Wikipedia. In another case, editors contacted the employer of another editor and that editor lost his job.
I recommend that you listen to Attkisson’s episode on the weaponization of Wikipedia. She also discusses some of the larger issues regarding the control of information and the influence of Big Social Media and the control of our information by third parties, over which we have no control.
The traditional process for creating references has its weaknesses. Editors only know what they know. Contributors are not always expert in their field. Often they are young scholars who need lines (publication credits) for their curriculum vitae (their academic resumé). Some contributors may know little about their topic. Nevertheless, under the Enlightenment (as distinct from the post-Enlightenment) model, a reference at least stands a chance of being useful, a place to start one’s research. Even if an entry is incorrect, it should at least contain references to literature and sources on the topic so the diligent student can keep learning. That is true, to a certain degree on Wikipedia but most of the references are to online literature, which contains a bias toward information published online and against that created only in print or before the internet was made available to the public.
If you are under 30 you should know that Wikipedia marks a radical change in the way we create and maintain sources of information. It was one thing to do it when there was a group of relatively well informed people gathered around a computer in an office, which is how Wikipedia came to be conceived. It is quite another thing to try to crowdsource scholarship. Have you ever been to Twitter? Would you let Twitter write your biography? I thought not. Wikipedia is Twitter after a shower and a shave. It may be fun but it is no place to go for reliable information.
- The Cult of Wikipedia
- Is Wikipedia Becoming a Fence for Stolen Goods?
- Student Hoaxes “Reputable” Media Outlets Via Wikipedia
- A Brief History Of Wikipedia
- Wikipedia at 15: How the Concept of a Wiki Was Invented
- The Weaponization of Wikipedia