19.474 Wikipedia: not such a wonderful world?

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Sat, 3 Dec 2005 10:12:52 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 19, No. 474.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Sat, 03 Dec 2005 10:07:03 +0000
         From: Norman Hinton <hinton_at_springnet1.com>
         Subject: [Fwd: No wonder some people are skeptical about Wikipedia!]

   Untrustworthy Wikipedia again:

    A false Wikipedia 'biography'

By John Seigenthaler

USA Today (at Yahoo News), Wed Nov 30, 6:50 AM ET

      "John Seigenthaler Sr. was the assistant to Attorney General Robert
      Kennedy in the early 1960's. For a brief time, he was thought to
      have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both
      John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven." - Wikipedia

This is a highly personal story about Internet character assassination.
It could be your story.

I have no idea whose sick mind conceived the false, malicious
"biography" that appeared under my name for 132 days on Wikipedia, the
popular, online, free encyclopedia whose authors are unknown and
virtually untraceable. There was more:

"John Seigenthaler moved to the Soviet Union in 1971, and returned to
the United States in 1984," Wikipedia said. "He started one of the
country's largest public relations firms shortly thereafter."

At age 78, I thought I was beyond surprise or hurt at anything negative
said about me. I was wrong. One sentence in the biography was true. I
was Robert Kennedy's administrative assistant in the early 1960s. I also
was his pallbearer. It was mind-boggling when my son, John Seigenthaler,
journalist with NBC News, phoned later to say he found the same
scurrilous text on Reference.com and Answers.com.

I had heard for weeks from teachers, journalists and historians about
"the wonderful world of Wikipedia," where millions of people worldwide
visit daily for quick reference "facts," composed and posted by people
with no special expertise or knowledge - and sometimes by people with

At my request, executives of the three websites now have removed the
false content about me. But they don't know, and can't find out, who
wrote the toxic sentences.

Anonymous author

I phoned Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's founder and asked, "Do you ... have
any way to know who wrote that?"

"No, we don't," he said. Representatives of the other two websites said
their computers are programmed to copy data verbatim from Wikipedia,
never checking whether it is false or factual.

Naturally, I want to unmask my "biographer." And, I am interested in
letting many people know that Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible
research tool.

But searching cyberspace for the identity of people who post spurious
information can be frustrating. I found on Wikipedia the registered IP
(Internet Protocol) number of my "biographer"- 65-81-97-208. I traced it
to a customer of BellSouth Internet. That company advertises a phone
number to report "Abuse Issues." An electronic voice said all complaints
must be e-mailed. My two e-mails were answered by identical form
letters, advising me that the company would conduct an investigation but
might not tell me the results. It was signed "Abuse Team."

Wales, Wikipedia's founder, told me that BellSouth would not be helpful.
"We have trouble with people posting abusive things over and over and
over," he said. "We block their IP numbers, and they sneak in another
way. So we contact the service providers, and they are not very responsive."

After three weeks, hearing nothing further about the Abuse Team
investigation, I phoned BellSouth's Atlanta corporate headquarters,
which led to conversations between my lawyer and BellSouth's counsel. My
only remote chance of getting the name, I learned, was to file a "John
or Jane Doe" lawsuit against my "biographer." Major communications
Internet companies are bound by federal privacy laws that protect the
identity of their customers, even those who defame online. Only if a
lawsuit resulted in a court subpoena would BellSouth give up the name.

Little legal recourse

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.

Recent low-profile court decisions document that Congress effectively
has barred defamation in cyberspace. Wikipedia's website acknowledges
that it is not responsible for inaccurate information, but Wales, in a
recent C-Span interview with Brian Lamb, insisted that his website is
accountable and that his community of thousands of volunteer editors (he
said he has only one paid employee) corrects mistakes within minutes.

My experience refutes that. My "biography" was posted May 26. On May 29,
one of Wales' volunteers "edited" it only by correcting the misspelling
of the word "early." For four months, Wikipedia depicted me as a
suspected assassin before Wales erased it from his website's history
Oct. 5. The falsehoods remained on Answers.com and Reference.com for
three more weeks.

In the C-Span interview, Wales said Wikipedia has "millions" of daily
global visitors and is one of the world's busiest websites. His
volunteer community runs the Wikipedia operation, he said. He funds his
website through a non-profit foundation and estimated a 2006 budget of
"about a million dollars."

And so we live in a universe of new media with phenomenal opportunities
for worldwide communications and research - but populated by volunteer
vandals with poison-pen intellects. Congress has enabled them and
protects them.

When I was a child, my mother lectured me on the evils of "gossip." She
held a feather pillow and said, "If I tear this open, the feathers will
fly to the four winds, and I could never get them back in the pillow.
That's how it is when you spread mean things about people."

For me, that pillow is a metaphor for Wikipedia.

John Seigenthaler, a retired journalist, founded The Freedom Forum First
Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. He also is a former editorial
page editor at USA TODAY.
Received on Sat Dec 03 2005 - 05:31:50 EST

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