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Can you trust information on Wikipedia.org?

Special Report

  • Can you trust information published on Wikipedia.org?
  • How does Wikipedia.org deal with vandalism and defamation?
  • Can Wikipedia.org's anyone-can-edit web site be held responsible for publishing libelous, slanderous or defaming information?

It used to be that most people believed what they saw on television. Then we learned how the broadcast networks manipulated situations to produce the "news" to drive higher ratings.

It also used to be that most people believed what they read on well known internet sites, such as Wikipedia.org. But we're now learning that Wikipedia.org is not really as reliable an information source as the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Perhaps Wikipedia.org is a fairly reliable source of basic scientific information, word definitions, information on movies, books, and other such articles. But when it comes to biographies of people it's another story all together.

Case Study -John Seigenthaler - USA TODAY

John Seigenthaler, a retired journalist and former editorial page editor at USA TODAY, discovered that the Wikipedia.org page with his biography contained information claiming that he was suspected of involvement in the assassination of both John and Robert Kennedy. The article continued with details of how he lived in the Soviet Union for a period of time.

None of this information was true. The actual truth is much simpler.

Mr.Seigenthalerwas an administrative assistant to Robert Kennedy in the early 60's. He was also his pallbearer. He went on to become a respected journalist working for major publications including the USA TODAY and foundedThe Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.

Upon searching the internet Mr. Seignenthaler found other sites that automatically copied the information from Wikipedia.org without verifying it. He also discovered that anyone could post anything on Wikipedia.org at any time without verification.

Even worse, he discovered that people posting information on Wikipedia.org are anonymous and it was almost impossible to discover their true identity. The editors at Wikipedia.org are also anonymous and are protected by an Act of the United States Congress from being held legally responsible for liable, slander, or defamation published on their web site. Here's a quote from an article in USA TODAY about this legal loop hole.

Federal law also protects online corporations - BellSouth, AOL, MCI Wikipedia, etc. - from libel lawsuits. 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." That legalese means that, unlike print and broadcast companies, online service providers cannot be sued for disseminating defamatory attacks on citizens posted by others.

The editors at Wikipedia.org refused to change the defamation. Their response to his request to remove the defamation was correcting the spelling of the article. For four months Wikipedia.org depicted Mr. Seigenthaler as a suspected assassin before finally removing the information. It took another few weeks for the other sites that copied Wikipedia.org to erase the defaming and incorrect information.

Click here to read the full story on USA TODAY.

Biographies of Living Persons Noticeboard

It turns out that Mr. Seigenthaler is not the only person with a Wikipedia.org biography containing lies and defamation. There are so many issues with biography pages being vandalized that Wikipedia.org has a special page for storing the ongoing discussions about vandalized pages. The link to the History of this page reveals hundreds of issues, many that are unresolved. Here's what the writers at The Wikipedia Review have to say on this subject.

Wikipedia's anyone-can-edit culture has allowed baseless defamation of various individuals to spread widely through the Internet.
To get an idea of the scale of the problem, look no further than the archives of the Biographies of Living Persons Noticeboard. This is the Smithsonian Institution of defamation, a vast virtual museum bursting with tales of false rumors, libelous comments, and revenge attacks on biographical subjects - all cataloged, dated, and folded away in neat little drop down boxes.
The noticeboard was introduced some fifteen months ago, (following the Siegenthaler controversy) but has already swelled to unmanageable levels, becoming a burden to maintain in itself. This is before one considers the complex subject matter of each case and the numerous legal ramifications, which at present appear to be (mis)handled by besieged juvenile Wikipedians way out of their depth. And the noticeboard only covers the problems that got profiled by administrators. Most of the nastiness never even finds its way into this back chamber. And worse, a lot of the horror remains entirely unattended to.

Biographies have been vandalized and people's lives harmed by lies about prison sentences, affairs, divorces, sexual misconduct, court cases, and other malicious acts of anonymous perpetrators. There is no recourse except the anonymous editors of the Wikipedia.org web site who, at best, are backlogged and unequipped to sort through these legal matters. Some biography pages have experienced numerous vandalisms and yet are still open for editing by anyone with a grudge. Interestingly, the only biography on Wikipedia.org that is locked to prevent vandalism is that of Jimmy Wales, the founder of the web site.

Click here to read more at the Wikipedia Review.

More Links about Wikipedia.org and Defamation

For more information, type "Wikipedia defamation" into any internet search engine. Google.com currently returns over half a million articles about the subject. Here are links to a few of the more informative sites:

Wikipedia editors hit with $10 million defamation lawsuit

Judge puts defamation lawsuit against Wikipedia to the sword

Wikipedia Lies, Slander Continue

Billionaire Louis Bacon Wins Wikipedia Defamation Suit, Will Go After Names

Share your experience - have you or someone you know been harmed by vandalism on Wikipedia.org?