Saturday, May 07, 2011

Wikipedia and Truth in Fiction

I have commented more than once about erroneous information in Wikipedia becoming what Wikipedia calls a ‘reliable source’, and so turning a previously unreliable source into a reliable one. Here is another fascinating example, reported in the Telegraph today.

It began with alterations to the online Wikipedia entry of the art dealer Philip Mould, by some anonymous contributor questioning the importance of “discoveries” and suggesting other dealers had made far more important finds. Then, in October 2009, the same person sent a “press release” to national newspapers, falsely claiming Mould was having an affair with Charlotte Barton, a 42-year-old artist.

These were complete fabrications.  The problem for Mould was how to remove the entries.  The slanderous allegations were now in the tabloid press, and Wikipedia could now substantiate the same unsourced allegations with 'reliable sources' (yes, Wikipedia does treat tabloids as 'reliable sources' as most Wikipedian editors do not have access to proper libraries, and rely on the internet almost exclusively).   So Mould was forced (apparently) into an 'edit war' with Wikipedians who were determined to defend the source.
  • 21:06, 11 October 2009 a Wikipedian called Trident13 adds a 'personal life' section.
  • 08:51, 12 October 2009 Mould (or someone acting for him) removes it, with the comment 'unnecessary gossip deleted'.
  • 10:10, 12 October 2009 some editor called Teapotgeorge adds the material back, with the comment "revert removal of referenced material by coi editor". Yes that's right. Philip Mould cannot remove this slander (a) because Wikipedians imagine the planted story is a reliable source and (b) even more hilariously the subject of the slander has a 'conflict of interest'.
  • 17:24, 15 October 2009 Mould attempts to remove it again.
  • 17:42, 15 October 2009 Teapotgeorge adds it back, commenting 'You have a conflict of interest please don't remove referenced material take to talk page'.
  • 09:50, 16 October 2009 Mould removes once more.
  • 12:32, 16 October 2009 Teapotgeorge thankfully gives up but moves the contested material to the 'talk page of the article. But it does not end there.
  • 19:38, 9 December 2009 an anonymous IP address changes "The couple separated in May 2009, after Mould started an affair with artist Charlotte "Charlie" Barton." to "The couple separated in May 2009, after Mould started an affair with marriage wrecker Charlotte "Charlie" Barton." ...
  • 19:40, 9 December 2009 ... then changes 'marriage wrecker' to 'notorious marriage wrecker'.
  • 19:44, 9 December 2009 Teapotgeorge changes 'notorious marriage wrecker' back to 'artist', but comments that he is reverting good faith edits. Good faith?
  • 00:51, 10 December 2009 The IP changes back to 'marriage wrecker'.
  • 23:46, 6 May 2011 And there, incredibly, it stays for a year and a half, until yesterday when a senior Wikipedia adminstrator 'NewYorkBrad', who for once is not anonymous, being Ira Brad Matetsky of the law firm Ganfer & Shore, LLP in New York, removes it at last, commenting "Section removed. There is evidence of a deliberate plot to defame the subject of this article. For those investigating this misuse of Wikipedia, the content formerly here can be found in the page history".
Matetsky should know better than to have anything to do with Wikipedia, and should perhaps use his legal expertise and influence to prevent this sort of thing happening at all, but he did the right thing here. But the wider problem remains. The issue is how Wikipedia, which is a very reliable source on stuff like Boron and the orbit of Jupiter and the US road system, leverages its unquestioned reliability in the field of science onto the murky and poisonous world of the internet.

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