Type in almost anything into a search engine and, aside from porn, Wikipedia will feature fairly prominently in the results as representing facts on that topic. Is that really a good thing?
In journalistic circles, Wikipedia is regarded a joke. Most credible publishers will automatically reject any work whose author cites Wikipedia as a source for basing an argument (yes, OK, I do it). This opens up an interesting debate and a few of my own favourite thoughts on this most nefarious of Internet inventions.
Wikipedia’s goal is to become an encyclopedia of everything; a one-stop shop for knowledge on any topic, corporation, person, historical event, war, scientific discovery, theological debate, everything.
To this end its style guidelines state that all articles must be in a neutral voice. A noble aim, except every article is written by people and no person is neutral: everyone is swayed by popular opinion. Everyone who reads a (real or online) newspaper, listens to the radio, or watches news on TV is manipulated — sometimes very subtly — into taking a particular stance. Consequently Wikipedia is swayed by majority thinking, led by the mainstream press.
Permit me to take a tiny detour to illustrate a point…
Remember Abigail? The girl who was out walking her baby in the park and was knifed? The day after it happened The Daily Star ran with this headline:
Young Abigail was out for a spring stroll with her baby when the knife-wielding maniac struck
Mild sensationalism, you think? Designed to manipulate people into either buying the paper and/or evoking empathy for the “victim” (whom I’d guess 99.997% of the population never knew) with very little corroborating evidence to the contrary at the time of publication. It directs your thought processes by using her first name; painting a serene setting; mentioning the baby; and generating animosity towards the man. All in seventeen well-crafted words.
While such an attack is no doubt deplorable, consider one of these scenarios — all valid outcomes that could have surfaced after investigation — that might shed a different light on things:
- What if this so-called knife-wielding maniac was her jealous boyfriend who had found her cheating on him?
- What if the man in question had spent the night on the park bench and had been robbed?
- What if her partner had come home the day before to find her beating their baby because she couldn’t cope with it crying, she’d thrown him out and it was his knee-jerk way of stopping her causing further harm to the infant?
Two wrongs of course don’t make it right, but human emotion is a complex animal; especially given there are so few places to legitimately vent our rage in today’s society.
Thus I’d argue the paper could have run with something like:
Woman in hospital after being knifed in throat
It’s factual, has no media spin associated with it, and doesn’t lay guilt without proof.
So how does Wikipedia fare in this regard? Pretty badly it seems. If I edit any article to provide a controversial counterpoint it could be rejected by wiki admins with higher authority than I have. The article could even be locked or I could be banned if I persisted, regardless if my comments were well balanced. So, primarily, my views have to fit in with those of the editors in order to be published.
Second is the laughable notion of authenticity. The rules state that I cannot claim anything in my neutral voice on a Wikipedia page unless it is backed up by a credible citation. Two immediate problems:
- This citation is a web link and all web links are transient at best, or their content can be altered at a later date.
- A ‘credible’ source carries more weight if it is one of the news websites; Fox, CNN, BBC, MSN, etc. All of which are edited by people with varying socio-political views; most of which are owned by a tightly knit media group; and most of which are guilty of sensationalism as highlighted above. If I link to one of these articles — and I’d of course pick the best fit from the varying versions of “the truth” that supported my wiki argument — it validates my writing and trumps anything that 10 000 bloggers might have written in opposition.
Marge, there’s the truth or… THE TRUTH
A wonderful example of the transient nature of Wikipedia can be found in the twelve-volume encyclopedia of edits to one wiki page. This exercise focused on The Iraq War and catalogues every edit made to that single page over a five year period.
While the author of the volumes and the various blogs that linked to it are quick to claim that it’s brilliant to document public squabbles and arrive at the “true” definition of what really happened in that media-for-oil war, very few touched on the problem that plagues Wikipedia’s mission statement of becoming the de-facto truth: at any point in those five years and 12 000 edits to that page, someone wanting to know about the Iraq War from a Google search would more than likely land on the wiki page and be presented with “The Truth” as it was on that day. 11 999 (and counting) of those edits were, by inference, wrong or at best misleading.
So the academics have it right: Wikipedia should never be trusted under any circumstances to deliver fact. Which begs the question: what is the point of its existence?