Too little, too late: Wikipedia decides accuracy is good and vandalism is bad

An article in today’s New York Times revealed that Wikipedia, after years of embarrassing incidents,  “will begin imposing a layer of editorial review on articles about living people”:

Wikipedia, one of the 10 most popular sites on the Web, was founded about eight years ago as a long-shot experiment to create a free encyclopedia from the contributions of volunteers, all with the power to edit, and presumably improve, the content.

Now, as the English-language version of Wikipedia has just surpassed three million articles, that freewheeling ethos is about to be curbed.

Officials at the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit in San Francisco that governs Wikipedia, say that within weeks, the English-language Wikipedia will begin imposing a layer of editorial review on articles about living people.

The new feature, called “flagged revisions,” will require that an experienced volunteer editor for Wikipedia sign off on any change made by the public before it can go live. Until the change is approved — or in Wikispeak, flagged — it will sit invisibly on Wikipedia’s servers, and visitors will be directed to the earlier version.

The change is part of a growing realization on the part of Wikipedia’s leaders that as the site grows more influential, they must transform its embrace-the-chaos culture into something more mature and dependable.

Roughly 60 million Americans visit Wikipedia every month. It is the first reference point for many Web inquiries — not least because its pages often lead the search results on Google, Yahoo and Bing. Since Michael Jackson died on June 25, for example, the Wikipedia article about him has been viewed more than 30 million times, with 6 million of those in the first 24 hours.

“We are no longer at the point that it is acceptable to throw things at the wall and see what sticks,” said Michael Snow, a lawyer in Seattle who is the chairman of the Wikimedia board. “There was a time probably when the community was more forgiving of things that were inaccurate or fudged in some fashion — whether simply misunderstood or an author had some ax to grind. There is less tolerance for that sort of problem now.”

…Although Wikipedia has prevented anonymous users from creating new articles for several years now, the new flagging system crosses a psychological Rubicon. It will divide Wikipedia’s contributors into two classes — experienced, trusted editors, and everyone else — altering Wikipedia’s implicit notion that everyone has an equal right to edit entries.

That right was never absolute, and the policy changes are an extension of earlier struggles between control and openness.

For example, certain popular or controversial pages, like the ones for the singer Britney Spears and for President Obama, are frequently “protected” or “semi-protected,” limiting who, if anyone, can edit the articles…

The new system comes as some recent studies have found Wikipedia is no longer as attractive to first-time or infrequent contributors as it once was.

Ed H. Chi of the Palo Alto Research Center in California, which specializes in research for commercial endeavors, recently completed a study of the millions of changes made to Wikipedia in a month. He concluded that the site’s growth (whether in new articles, new edits or new contributors) hit a plateau in 2007-8.

For some active Wikipedia editors, this was an expected development — after so many articles, naturally there are fewer topics to uncover, and those new topics are not necessarily of general interest.

But Mr. Chi also found that the changes made by more experienced editors were more likely to stay up on the site, whereas one-time editors had a much higher chance of having their edits reversed. He concluded that there was “growing resistance from the Wikipedia community to new content.”

To other observers, the new flagging system reflects Wikipedia’s necessary acceptance of the responsibility that comes with its vast influence.

“Wikipedia now has the ability to alter the world that it attempts to document,” said Joseph Reagle, an adjunct professor of communications at New York University whose Ph.D. thesis was about the history of Wikipedia.

Under the current system, it is not difficult to insert false information into a Wikipedia entry, at least for a short time. In March, for example, a 22-year-old Irish student planted a false quotation attributed to the French composer Maurice Jarre shortly after Mr. Jarre’s death. It was promptly included in obituaries about Mr. Jarre in several newspapers, including The Guardian and The Independent in Britain. And on Jan. 20, vandals changed the entries for two ailing senators, Edward M. Kennedy and Robert C. Byrd, to report falsely that they had died.

Flagged revisions, advocates say, could offer one more chance to catch such hoaxes and improve the overall accuracy of Wikipedia’s entries.

Foundation officials intend to put the system into effect first with articles about living people because those pieces are ripe for vandalism and because malicious information within them can be devastating to those individuals.

Exactly who will have flagging privileges has not yet been determined, but the editors will number in the thousands, Wikipedia officials say. With German Wikipedia, nearly 7,500 people have the right to approve a change. The English version, which has more than three times as many articles, would presumably need even more editors to ensure that changes do not languish before approval.

“It is a test,” said Jimmy Wales, a founder of Wikipedia. “We will be interested to see all the questions raised. How long will it take for something to be approved? Will it take a couple of minutes, days, weeks?”

Mr. Wales began pushing for the policy after the Kennedy and Byrd hoaxes, but discussions about a review system date back to one of the darkest episodes in Wikipedia’s history, known as the Seigenthaler incident.

In 2005, the prominent author and journalist John Seigenthaler Sr. discovered that Wikipedia’s biographical article connected him to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, a particularly scurrilous thing to report because he was personally close to the Kennedy family.

Since then, Wikipedians have been fanatical about providing sources for facts, with teams of editors adding the label “citation needed” to any sentence without a footnote.

“We have really become part of the infrastructure of how people get information,” Mr. Wales said. “There is a serious responsibility we have.”

I’m not impressed. Though this may prevent some of the more outrageous vandalism, it doesn’t go far enough. Why does the new policy only apply to articles on living people? What about the rest of the articles? What about the bad information that already exists throughout the site? Are the Wikipedia editors going to systematically review existing articles or only new changes to those articles? Who are these “editors” and what are their qualifications?

I’m glad there is finally some acknowledgment among the powers that be at Wikipedia that accuracy is important. But that’s not enough. If accuracy is important, you have to make it a priority and do things on many different levels to try to achieve it. You have to apply your policies to the entire site, not just some articles. You have to bring in people with knowledge, experience, and qualifications to do real editing and fact-checking. (With all of the unemployed editors, fact-checkers, and journalists out there, why not hire a few and let them work their magic.) This new policy is not really about making Wikipedia more accurate, it’s just about trying to stop the embarrassing vandalism stories that hit the news with disturbing regularity.

5 responses to “Too little, too late: Wikipedia decides accuracy is good and vandalism is bad

  1. Hi, Lisa.

    The reason living people are called out as a special case is that they can be harmed by incorrect information in a way that other article subjects can’t.

    In Wikipedia parlance, all contributors are editors. That’s appropriate, because most of the work is continuously improving things.

    Suggesting that accuracy was previously thought unimportant is unkind and untrue. For many years, many people have been working to increase quality at — as you suggest — many different levels. This is probably another step forward, although not one without risks.

    The reason they don’t hire out-of-work journalists and the like? Lack of money. As far as I know, the Wikimedia Foundation doesn’t pay anybody to work on content. All the permanent staff work on is keeping the lights on. The rest is up to the community.

    I should point out that the community could include you, and anybody else who either has those editorial skills or the resources to hire them. It’s an open project, and if you don’t like how it’s going, you’re welcome to get involved, or copy all the content and start your own version.

    • Accuracy is reached with (a) good input, and (b) checking that input out! The editorial process of Wikipedia is not exactly reliable … too many times, random editing leaves a lot to be desired in the finished product. Until a reliable and equitable editorial process is established at Wikipedia, the reader should BEWARE.

  2. Hi Lisa,

    I subscribe to your posts (heard about you from Neil) and I’ve found it disconcerting that foten you, a source for source information and pointers for referencing, seem to over-quote your own sources. This story is a prime example. You’ve quoted the entire text of this New York Times story on your own site. I wouldn’t mention it but it’s not the only time I’ve seen similar occurrences. Does that not bother anyone?

    Maybe I’m way off base but when it does happen it just strikes me as odd. In my own postings, I try to find the nuggets that I particularly want to point out and quote those and offer commentary between quotes if I want to quote more. But to wholesale copy&paste the entire article or even the majority of an article seems… not so savory.

    Thoughts?

  3. Pingback: » Flagged Revisions Come to the English Wikipedia The Wikipedian

  4. After reading about the accuracy of snopes—I really am anxious to know just how accurate snopes really is. Where is their input coming from? Individuals are reasearching this material for snopes– does individual opinion come into play?
    Hoping to find out by doing a bit of research myself.
    Thankyou
    Ann Schepens

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