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Phony Prof Triggers Wikipedia Uproar

By Erika Morphy LinuxInsider ECT News Network
Mar 7, 2007 2:07 PM PT

One of the editors in charge of monitoring Wikipedia's content has been discovered to be a fraud.

Phony Prof Triggers Wikipedia Uproar

EssJay, whom the site had assumed was working under a false name for privacy, had presented himself as a tenured professor of religion with expertise in canon law.

However, it has been revealed that EssJay actually is a 24-year-old named Ryan Jordan who doesn't have any higher education qualifications.

Site Manipulation

This is not the first time the accuracy of the open source encyclopedia has come under question.

In 2005, John Seigenthaler Sr. was horrified to read in Wikipedia that not only had he been assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960s, but for a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in both of the Kennedy assassinations.

"Nothing was ever proven," the entry stated. The information, later found to have been done as a joke, remained on the site unnoticed by its editors for several months until Seigenthaler contacted founder Jimmy Wales, who then corrected it.

Other tales of Wikipedia manipulation can be found among the usually dignified and dry U.S. Congresspeople, several of whom were accused of tampering with opponents listings during the 2006 elections.

As a result of these and other less high profile inaccuracies, at least one university department -- Middlebury College's history division -- has banned its students' use of Wikipedia.

Losing Its Appeal?

Wikipedia will begin verifying the qualifications of its army of editors as a result of this latest incident. Indeed, EssJay's outing could well wind up being just another blip on the radar for what has become a wildly popular resource.

However, accounts that Wikipedia at first ignored the problem with EssJay and then forgave him have prompted speculation that Wikipedia -- and more broadly, the wiki model of group authorship -- may be losing its appeal.

"This is symptomatic of a larger trend in the information sphere," Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies, told LinuxInsider. "There is far, far more information available to us than even a generation ago, and not much adult supervision over its accuracy."

Accuracy, Accountability

Indeed, the wiki model in particular is very vulnerable to mischief and corruption, David Jenkins, an attorney at Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott, told LinuxInsider.

For instance, Stephen Colbert in his Comedy Central show, "The Colbert Report," had urged viewers to change the Wikipedia entry on elephants to say that the elephant population has increased significantly over the past six months -- something that, given the 22-month gestation period of elephants, would have been impossible besides outright false, Jenkins noted.

"Any type of public information system can be corrupted like this," he said.

Leaving aside the issue of pranks, it is clear that wikis --- as well as citizen journalists and bloggers -- do not feel it necessary to adhere to the same level of accountability that is part of mainstream media's DNA.

Victims Gain Power

There has been little legal recourse available for those victimized by such mistakes, in part because the laws are unclear and because litigation tends to follow deep pockets, which bloggers and wiki editors don't have.

However, this is changing as wikis and blogs gain more visibility.

Last year, for instance, a Louisiana woman was held liable for comments she made in her blog about the service a Florida resident provided in a situation that involved her sons. What was noteworthy about this case is that the defendant had no resources to pay a judgment, but the suit went forward anyway.

The Next Stage

Nevertheless, wikis aren't an endangered species due to the popularity of the model.

"I use wikipedia," Endpoint's Kay stated. "It can be a great resource, assuming you approach it with some judgment."

The next phase in their development, he commented, could solve some of these issues.

"There needs to be more filters in place to ensure that only good and accurate content is published," Kay concluded.

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