Category Archives: Hoaxes

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.

My Wikipedia lolcat is not amused (but I am)

Yesterday Craig Silverman at Regret the Error spotted this correction from The Guardian newspaper:

An obituary of Maurice Jarre (31 March, page 36) opened with a quotation which we are now advised had been invented as a hoax, and was never said by the composer: “My life has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life.” The article closed with: “Music is how I will be remembered,” said Jarre. “When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head and that only I can hear.” These quotes appear to have originated as a deliberate insertion in the composer’s Wikipedia entry in the wake of his death on 28 March, and from there were duplicated on various internet sites.

Just the day before my husband blogged about this interesting “fact” he found in the Wikipedia entry for “Ancient Pueblo Peoples”:

The Ancient Pueblo were one of four major prehistoric archaeological traditions of the American Southwest who hunted, killed, and ate Sasquach [sic]. The others are the Mogollon, Hohokam and Patayan. In relation to neighboring cultures, the Ancient Pueblo occupied the northeast quadrant of the area and consumed almost all of the Sasquatch…

We couldn’t help but wonder how many term papers that will end up in this week.

For those of you who are new to my blog, here are links to some of my earlier Wikipedia-related blog posts:  my very first blog post on evaluating sources; my commentary on a study of college students’ research methods; and my Wikipedia lolcat.

More on literary hoaxes

After every big literary hoax, the media suddenly remembers earlier ones. ABC News has a slideshow of 19 famous literary hoaxes, and a March 2008 LA Times article lists some other interesting cases.

I find this subject fascinating and I am curious as to what motivates people to do this, especially these days when facts are easier to find and frauds are more likely to discovered (eventually).

And now, a brief rant to the media: Learn from your mistakes! And bring back fact-checkers! (And if you expect editors to fact-check for you, give them the time, training, and resources they need to do it right.) I’ll stop now.

Happy New Year!

Why don’t publishers fact-check memoirs?

A memoir is discovered to be more fiction than fact, a scandal erupts, and the publisher cancels the book. How many times have we heard this story?

In this newest case, the book is a Holocaust memoir titled Angel at the Fence, the love story of Herman Rosenblat and his wife Roma. While Rosenblat was in fact in a concentration camp as a teenager, the love story that captured the imagination of his publisher, Oprah Winfrey, and a movie producer is false. Berkley Books, part of the Penguin group, just canceled the February publication of the book. No word yet on the fate of the planned movie.

You should read Gabriel Sherman’s New Republic article, “The Greatest Love Story Ever Sold,” and his follow-up piece, “Wartime Lies,” which uncovered the story and set the latest events in motion. You should also read Deborah Lipstadt’s series of blog posts titled “Apples over the Fence,” as she cast doubt on the story a year ago, was quoted in Sherman’s article, and has interesting information and commentary about this. Here’s the link to the Angel at the Fence website, and here’s the link to a statement from Rosenblat’s literary agent, Andrea Hurst.

Each time another false memoir scandal emerges, I ask the same question– why don’t publishers fact-check memoirs? I’ve always assumed that memoir was a form of biography and thus should be fact-checked. (I know you can’t fact-check every little detail, conversation, and memory, but shouldn’t the basic premise, events, and story be true?) Why, after James Frey, haven’t things changed at all? And the bigger question– why does a story become more interesting to publishers and readers when it is represented as truth rather than fiction?

Update: Here’s the link to the New York Times‘ December 29th article about it. Here’s TNR’s summary and chronology of the events.

Oops! The New York Times prints a fake letter

I nearly choked on my tea this morning while reading the editor’s note on the letters page of today’s (December 23rd) New York Times:

In Monday’s newspaper, we published a letter over the name of the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, criticizing Caroline Kennedy. This letter was a fraud and should not have been published. Mr. Delanoë’s office has since confirmed that he did not write it.

Printing the letter, which also appeared on nytimes.com until it was removed, violated the standards and procedures of The New York Times editorial department.

It is our practice to verify the authenticity of every letter we publish. Like more of our letters these days, this one arrived by e-mail. We sent an edited version back to the writer of the e-mail and did not receive a response.

At that point, the letter should have been set aside. It was not.

The Times has expressed its regret to Mr. Delanoë’s office for the lapse in judgment that led to this error. We now express those regrets to our readers.

We will be reviewing our procedures in an attempt to ensure that an error like this is not repeated.

Here’s the link to the The New York Times web page containing the text of the original letter and the online version of the editor’s note, which differs slightly from the printed version.

I know the newspaper industry is in serious financial trouble, but hiring a few fact-checkers might save a lot of embarrassment.