By Frank Hou
Founded in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, Wikipedia has revolutionized the way Americans gather information and conduct research. A web-based encyclopedia spanning 16 million articles written by its users, Wikipedia is among the most widely used websites in the emerging digital era. Millions of Americans, varying from high school students to college professors, use it on a daily basis to study for tests or write papers. The credibility of Wikipedia, however, has long been a hot topic among academic circles, with some dismissing it as a source lacking oversight and easily prone to sabotage. Despite the fact that the policies of Wikipedia “strongly espouse verifiability and a neutral point of view (Wikipedia),” many of the most zealous editing disputes, such as the 2003 Invasion of Iraq or Proposition 8, mirror the intensity of the issue in the real world. Critics contend that Wikipedia’s open source foundation not only triggers systemic bias and inconsistencies, but also “favors consensus over credentials in its editorial process (Wikipedia),” thereby hindering its credibility. Others, such as David Parry, an assistant professor at the Emerging Media and Communications program at the University of Texas and author of Wikipedia and the New Curriculum, believes the website “has grown into an immensely useful resource” in helping readers become more knowledgeable about general topics. He follows, “what is perhaps more important and useful, though, is the extent to which Wikipedia also preserves the debate and discourse around a particular subject (Parry).” Although many claim the collaborative editing makes it vulnerable for misinformation and systemic bias, I would argue Wikipedia combats vandalism in a timely and professional manner, and is a reliable source of reference.
In today’s fast-paced, world-at-your-fingertips type of society, Wikipedia has replaced traditional print journalism as a constantly updating source. With events documented almost as soon as they happen, Wikipedia has sold itself as the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit, an aggregate of knowledge that is ever expanding because it is continuously updating. Among its most important attributes is the dedication to accuracy. In fact, one of the criteria for a “good user” is they ensure the articles are “factually accurate and verifiable (Wikipedia 2).” This can be seen in even the most controversial entries, such as the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. For example, anonymous user 126.96.36.199 noticed fabricated information, and quickly brought it to the attention of the editors. On May 5th, 2008, the user pointed out the entry’s inclusion of U.S. 7th Infantry and 5th Armored Divisions’ participation of the initial invasion, when they plainly had no connection whatsoever, since they have not been active since the mid 1950s. Soon, the user Spartacusprime replied, “I think the best response to the vandalism is to put the page under semi-protection; most of the vandalism comes from unregistered editors.” Sure enough, the page was soon tagged with the label “this is a controversial historical topic that may be disputed,” and warned “please read the talk page and discuss substantial changes there before making them.” The visible process Wikipedia took to protect its information can easily be seen as evidence of Wikipedia’s reliability. Sensing a flaw, it proves the ability to fix the problems while simultaneously preventing similar occurrences in the future.
Further verification of Wikipedia’s ability to police itself can be seen when user Jetpower45 mentioned the subtitle “Casualties and Losses” appears to be misleading. He notes, on November 1st, 2009, that Wikipedia states “172 coalition soldiers were KIA’d during the initial invasion of Iraq.” However, numerous outside sources have the hostile fatalities at 135, and non-hostile fatalities at 37 (Wikipedia 3). His gripe is “the way it is right now just seems to be inaccurate,” because ‘killed in action’ should not include non-hostile fatalities. A user named Slatersteven called for more evidence, as he doesn’t believe “we should split up the deaths into those killed by hostile action or those killed by allies,” as he “couldn’t think of any other war where this is done.” Jetpower45, in response, alluded to Wikipedia’s own ‘Killed in Action’ article, where he based his reasoning on the following definition: “a KIA does not mean just anyone killed serving in a theater or area under warfare. The difference between a KIA and someone dying in or near an active combat zone of non-hostile causes is a definite and valid one.” After presented with the clarification, Slatersteven acknowledges, “The US DOD [does] indeed seem to differentiate between KIA and non hostile deaths.” As a result, the Wikipedia information box now reads, as Jetpower45 proposed, “172 Killed” instead of “172 Killed in Action.” This seemingly subtle correction serves a concrete instance of Wikipedia’s meticulous attention to detail. Even the smallest error is fixed, grounds Wikipedia’s status as an accepted and dependable reference.
Critics are quick to insinuate the Seigenthaler incident as irrefutable proof of Wikipedia’s unreliability. Brought to the forefront of the nation’s attention in May of 2005, the Seignethaler incident was a hoax where an anonymous poster added fictitious information to John Seigenthaler’s Wikipedia biography. Seigenthaler, a well-known American journalist, worked for the newspaper The Tennessean for over 40 years and the founding editorial director of USA Today. On May 26, 2005, an anonymous poster, later identified as Brian Chase, added defamatory statements to the page, including, “for a short time, [Seigenthaler] was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassination of both John, and his brother, Bobby (Wikipedia 4).” Undetected for months, the incident acts are fuel for those condemning Wikipedia and its open editing model. However, this episode does not denote Wikipedia as unreliable, because, as with any young and growing community, it learned from its mistakes. As Jimmy Wales explains, “Wikipedia’s use has grown faster than its self-monitoring system could comfortably handle (Wikipedia),” and shortly after the outrage, Jimmy Wales took steps to address the situation. He deliberately restricted new page creation to account-holders only, “addressing one of Seigenthaler’s main criticisms (Wikipedia 4).” Interestingly, studies by the scientific journal Nature indicate such events do not reflect Wikipedia’s capriciousness. Comparing the accuracy of Wikipedia to Encyclopædia Britannica, a privately published encyclopedia with employed editors, Nature found both have similar levels of accuracy (Wikipedia 4). A second study, conducted by PC Pro Magazine described Wikipedia as “largely sound,” “well handled” and “broadly accurate.” Another study, carried out by California State University at Dominguez Hills, revealed its research found Wikipedia and Encyclopædia Britannica have equal rates of accuracy (Wikipedia 4). All of these conclusions corroborate the claim that high-profile examples, such as the Seigenthaler situation, are the exception rather than the rule. While many of these findings are experimental and not necessarily scientific, this example drives home the point that Wikipedia is as well resourced as the publications it is weighed against. Though few will argue Wikipedia is faultless, it certainly holds a case for being a trustworthy reference.
It is important to realize that Wikipedia not only ensures the information is correct, but also presented in a neutral, unbiased format. As with any large community, it laid down a foundation of rules, including a User’s Creed, which reads, “I believe in the maintenance of a neutral point of view when editing. I accept that it’s not negotiable and I think it can work. I will try to put whatever understanding I do have into practice whenever I edit an article.” As with any contentious subject, personal opinion will oftentimes overspill into script, but the discussion section of the 2003 Invasion of Iraq page provides clear examples of Wikipedia users’ collaboration in maintaining neutrality. Shaoquan, a registered user on the site, created a post questioning the objectivity of the section “War Crimes”, complaining “currently, the ‘War Crimes’ section only list events that portray the iraqis’ as the ones committing warcrimes. Some of the issues are like ‘Sergant Who’ has been shot dead of ‘Jessica Lyn’ has been raped. Like wtf? Guys? Did someone at the whitehouse wrote this section or what?” At the time of the post, September 12th, 2008, the Bush Administration was in control of the White House, and Shaoquan’s rhetorical question alludes to what he believes is Republican bias. Another user, Jtrainor, bemoans he “wants the thing to be balanced,” as he too believes the content aims to castigate the Iraqis on perceived crimes while failing to mention ones committed by the United States. In response, the section now links to another Wikipedia page, “International Criminal Court and the 2003 invasion of Iraq,” where it details allegations of war crimes of both sides, including numerous allegations of torture deaths in American controlled areas. At the same time, a user that goes by Abusing reminds everyone,
“this isn’t about balance, it’s about facts. In the case of war crimes, it means war crimes. That’s it. Not by your definition, that’s just what it covers. If you can improve the article by adding factual information about war crimes, whatever the side, please do so, if you can list a reliable source.”
The points Wikipedia made to improve the section illustrates its ability to compromise while presenting the information in a neutral and professional manner.
Critics will argue, with respect to numerous controversial topics, Wikipedia relies too heavily on consensus to come up with content. Jaron Lanier, an American computer scientist and theorist, expresses skepticism toward Wikipedia’s reliance on accord in his article Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism. He describes it as a “hive mind” that is “for the most part stupid and boring,” and claims, “the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force (Wikipedia 4).” Unfortunately, this line of reasoning is flawed, as it chooses not to acknowledge the steps Wikipedia has taken to combat this so-called faulty consensus thinking. Internet consultant Clay Shirky points out Wikipedia has “many internal controls in place and is not a mere mass of unintelligent collective effort. [It] is best viewed as an engaged community that uses a large and growing number of regulatory mechanisms to manage a huge set of proposed edits.” His viewpoint is validated in the 2003 Invasion of Iraq discussion page, when on June 13th, 2008; anonymous user 188.8.131.52 asked, “why did the 2003 war in Iraq start?” The question prompted a flood of responses, including one from Prussian725, who pointed out “because Saddam was making nukes, he supported Al Qaida, he housed Al Qaida.” This extreme perspective is offset by another of the opposite spectrum, with anonymous user 184.108.40.206 ranting “the blame falls completely on Bush and his administration for giving FALSE evidence they KNEW to be false so they could start this war on trumped up lies” and to “ensure control of the oil resources there.” With quarreling from the two viewpoints, the users of Wikipedia decided to create a balance between the two perspectives. In the actual entry, they quoted Tony Blair, the Prime Minister of Great Britain at the time, saying the reasons to invade Iraq were “to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s alleged support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people.” Making sure to draw points from both sides, Wikipedia also includes “there also have been claims that the war was waged in order to take oil from Iraq.” The aforementioned example verifies Wikipedia is not reliant on consensus opinions. Despite the numerous cries of people on both sides of the debate, the online encyclopedia’s aptitude for maintaining neutrality in such a controversial topic reflects its potential to be a substitute to current writing standards.
Wikipedia has changed the way information is recorded and archived. Its unique attribute of peer-editing has allowed all the entries to be continuously updated. Wikipedia has become the source of news for Americans, which, of course, raises questions about its responsibility and whether or not it is trustworthy. People previously believed the website’s open source policy implied anyone had the ability to edit articles, and vandalism would ensue without repercussions. The myth has been disproved. Wikipedia now structures itself to encourage average readers to contribute their knowledge and skill for the benefit of the general public. Previously, information was only accessible from a select few experts in their respective field, but Wikipedia’s collaborative model changed that. Perhaps rules and laws, rather than the inception of a small bloc of think tanks, will incorporate a collaborative approach of the entire population. Wikipedia’s successful model demonstrates how teamwork and collaboration works in America, and suggests a future open source shift is in store for numerous aspects of American society.
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