May 15th, 2009

Wikipedia’s Wikiality – Social Experiments and Their Victims

Erin recently blogged Are You Fooled by Bad Resources? Well it turns out journalists and sports reporters who didn’t take time to fact check have found themselves on the foolish side of Wikipedia-based social experiments.

Shane Fitzgerald, an undergraduate student in Ireland, wanted to see what would happen if he posted a fake quote by a recently deceased French music composer. What he expected was to see the contrived quote in online blogs and other informal locations on the Internet. However he found the quote used in newspapers across the globe, including “obituaries published in the Guardian, the London Independent, on the BBC Music Magazine website and in Indian and Australian newspapers.” (From May 6, 2009 Irish Times article)

Fitzgerald said, “He wanted to show how journalists use the internet as a primary source and how people are connected especially through the internet…” (From May 6, 2009 Irish Times article). No one actually discovered the hoax until Fitzgerald himself alerted the offending newspapers of their faux pas. Fitzgerald emphasized that he’s not necessarily technologically savvy, proving that anyone with a computer and Internet connection can change the content of Wikipedia.

Earlier this year another Wikipedia hoax fooled British sports news reporters. A fake soccer phenom from Moldova was concocted and the British newspapers bit: Inside the ingenious hoax that fooled the British sports press.

In the soccer hoax a blogger thought something was fishy and he looked at Wikipedia history pages (where you can view all of the edits done to a Wikipedia page) and tapped other sources in the know and discovered the truth. There was no phenom Moldovan soccer player named Masal Bugduv.

This all goes to show how wary one must be when viewing content on the Internet. It’s important not to take things at face value and do a little investigating and critically evaluate information. It’s also good to keep in mind that many published newspapers and magazines with tight deadlines and budgets don’t always take the time to thoroughly fact check their content.

What can you do? Look for story retractions in later issues, or find other resources that reported the same story. But check their sources. Do a Google search of that quote or story. If it comes up with a page from Wikipedia that includes a quote or information without a reference attached, then be wary.

While Wikipedia can be useful for background information, it should never be cited or used as a source. Use it for keywords, not for content.

No discussion about Wikipedia would be complete without a visit from Stephen Colbert, the inventor of the term Wikiality. Here’s the video of Stephen Colbert’s take on Wikipedia from the segment of his show (The Colbert Report) called The Word: The Word – Wikiality.

wikialityFrom The Colbert Nation:


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