By: Jay DeFoore
After running a summary of John Seigenthaler’s USA Today Op-Ed in which the retired journalist criticizes the popular citizens’ media initiative Wikipedia, several readers wrote in to either defend the site or share their own horror stories.
In his USA Today article earlier this week, Seigenthaler called Wikipedia a “flawed and irresponsible research tool” after learning that an anonymous user had posted a “malicious” biography of him on the site. Several readers wrote in to say that Seigenthaler could have simply edited the item to remove the potentially libelous statements. True. But the argument they seem to overlook is the damage already done to Seigenthaler’s good reputation by the time he discovered the offending article.
When done right, the Wikipedia concept can produce great results. But Seigenthaler’s points — and others raised below — about oversight problems and the like should not be ignored. The wiki concept is not going away, nor should it. For an example of how a closed wiki system — giving only those with expertise in a particular niche — can create valuable, verifiable, and accurate research tools, look no further than the wiki experiments at the Online Journalism Review’s site.
E&P is encouraged by the outpouring of response and presents several of the e-mails we received below. We will add to this story as new perspectives come in, so feel free to sound off. If you want your letter posted here, send an e-mail to email@example.com.
From Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales, responding to Daniel Brandt’s letter below:
Brandt wrote: If the vandal had taken the extra 30 seconds to do it this way, then Mr. Seigenthaler’s case would be much more depressing. He would have had to convince the Wikimedia Foundation to provide the IP address behind the username. In other words, he’d have to sue Wikimedia Foundation first to get the IP address, and then discover that this is from BellSouth, and then go on to get stonewalled by BellSouth.
We would have gladly published the ip number in this case, had it not been already public. And indeed, as Mr. Seigenthaler will confirm, we helped him trace the ip number to bellsouth.
Brandt wrote: If Wikipedia did this, they would be more convincing as they try to shift the blame to individuals outside of their control.
Wales: This is Daniel Brandt’s opinion. I don’t regard him as a valid source about anything at all, based on my interactions with him. I tried very hard to help him, and he misrepresented nearly everything about our conversation in his very strange rant.
He considers the very existence of a Wikipedia article about him to be a privacy violation, despite being a public person. I find it hard to take him very seriously at all. He misrepresents everything about our procedures, claiming that we have a “secret police” and so on.
I question whether you really want to rely on him as a critic of Wikipedia, but of course I don’t mind. With critics who are prone to incoherent rants, we end up looking pretty good.
I would like to point out that your article is rather unbalanced, in that Mr. Seigenthaler could have, at any time, registered as a user with Wikipedia and simply corrected the article himself. He also could have, at the very least, posted comments to the article about it. Consequently, his arguement rings hollow with echos of sour grapes as it very much appears that he’s more interested in a witch hunt of his anonymous antagonist than in historical accuracy or protecting his reputation.
Thank you for your time.
I tried unsuccessfully over the last six weeks to get the biographical article on myself deleted. My case is much more marginal than Mr. Seigenthaler’s case. My privacy was invaded, I believe, but I’m not libeled. There is an invasion-of-privacy statute in Florida, and I still have four years before the statute of limitation expires. I’ll see what happens in the meantime.
While you have described the essentials of Mr. Seigenthaler’s case, there are other aspects to the situation regarding Wikipedia. For one thing, the vandal in Mr. Seigenthaler’s case did not use a login name. This means that his IP address was displayed instead.
If he had bothered to make up a name, and start a new account, the situation would be more complex. Anyone can start a new account in about 30 seconds. No e-mail or other validation is required. Here’s the clincher: if you use a login name, then your IP address is hidden.
If the vandal had taken the extra 30 seconds to do it this way, then Mr. Seigenthaler’s case would be much more depressing. He would have had to convince the Wikimedia Foundation to provide the IP address behind the username. In other words, he’d have to sue Wikimedia Foundation first to get the IP address, and then discover that this is from BellSouth, and then go on to get stonewalled by BellSouth.
The structure at Wikipedia makes life very easy for vandals. I doubt that Section 230 would apply to Wikimedia Foundation and Wikipedia. There is an entire complex architecture, with dozens of policies, at Wikipedia. All of this is in place specifically to resolve disputes regarding articles and volunteers. This is very unlike BellSouth or AOL. The problem is that this structure is still flawed because it is applied very unevenly, and it failed miserably in Mr. Seigenthaler’s case.
The more people you have to sue, the more difficult it is. What about data retention? Does BellSouth even keep logs that are several months old? If not, then is Mr. Seigenthaler completely out of luck?
I believe that Wikipedia should display everything it knows about the login names of its editors and administrators. In most cases, this only amounts to an IP address. That’s why Wikipedia should require a verifiable e-mail address for a login name, and make this information available on request to any party with a dispute about content that affects them. Edits should only be done by those with login names, once this policy is instituted.
If Wikipedia did this, they would be more convincing as they try to shift the blame to individuals outside of their control.
Wikipedia is not perfect. It never will be. But, before you decide the site is worthless, why don’t you take a look at the new, updated site of John Seigenthaler, and you will see how Wikipedia handles mistakes. They currently have more than 800,000 English articles and it is not that crazy to imagine some being completely wrong. But, watch John Seigenthaler article from now on and you’ll find it to be accurate. I guarantee some wiki is watching that page from here on out.
Here’s another article that illustrates how fast Wikipedia will fix itself.
My suggestion to you: Start editing in Wikipedia yourself.
Great article. A friend of mine sent me a thread from a Wikipedia chat that was very dismissive a local musician’s bio. Without checking the source, the people involved in the chat decided to erase the info for the suspected offender.
My friend tried to contact the skeptic and found that the email address was no longer in service. However, my friend did track down the musician through email in a matter of minutes and alerted him to the chat. The musician was quite upset.
Not only was the musician’s reputation called into question, the person doubting the credentials never did the required homework.
Similar to your article, only in reverse.
Has anybody explained to this guy that wikipedia can be edited by anyone and that this meant that he could do so? It’s mob rule over there for the most part, and isn’t exactly authoritative. He sounds like a grumpy old man saying “get off my lawn!”