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Political tiff, error repeated in press, predictions of doom

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By Cryptic C62 and Sage Ross

UK Conservative Party edits Wikipedia entry to support leader's statements

David Cameron, leader of the UK Conservative Party

On Wednesday, February 11, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, clashed over the age at which the Renaissance painter Titian died. Brown claimed he was 90, Cameron later claimed that he was 86. Within minutes, a user editing under the IP, which is registered to the British Conservative Party, changed Titian's year of death from 1576 to 1572 to back up Cameron's statement. This sparked a flurry of editing activity (both constructive and vandalism) over the next several days, including nearly 100 edits on February 11. The article's traffic also dramatically increased, as it was viewed more than 15000 times on February 11 alone, up from an average of roughly 1600 views per day earlier this month. In response to the incident, user Malcolmxl5 wrote on the IP's talk page, "I would advise people using this IP address to avoid editing subjects related to the Conservative Party in particular, and to UK politics in general. Such editing may be seen as compromising the neutrality of articles in these areas and risks causing public embarrassment outside of Wikipedia to the [Conservative] Party."

Wikipedia misinformation repeated in press, then cited by Wikipedia

In the German Wikipedia version of the article Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, about German politician Karl-Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg, an additional name (Wilhelm) was added, a mistake that was then widely reproduced in German television and print media. According to an anonymous report on Slashdot, based on a post on the German site BILDblog, the error was reverted on German Wikipedia in the meantime. However, it was subsequently reintroduced and backed up by the erroneous media reports caused by the original falsehood.

Wikipedia doomed to fail?

Following a pessimistic story from The Independent on February 3 (see last week's coverage), more pundits and Wikipedia observers from the academic world have been discussing Wikipedia's future and whether the project is sustainable.

According to Ars Technica, law professor Eric Goldman sees Wikipedia faced with a dilemma as its influence continues to spread but its core community stops growing to match. Wikipedia could either remain open and fall prey to vandalism and misinformation—Goldman cites the above Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg incident—or exert more control—for example, with Flagged Revisions—and slow the influx of new community members even further.

Andrew Lih, author of the upcoming book The Wikipedia Revolution: How a bunch of nobodies created the world’s greatest encyclopedia, sees the vitality of community waning already. On his blog, Lih laments the failure to keep up with new popular culture topics, long the community's strong suit. Until after his post, Wikipedia had no article on How's Your News?, a potentially controversial new American television show premiering on MTV. He also notes an instance of content loss through an undiscussed article merge. Lih concludes that "perhaps that’s Wikipedia’s long term fate as a product of a decimated crowd: a slow march towards being stale and conventional, not out of commission but omission."

Joseph Reagle, a scholar who recently completed a doctoral dissertation on the collaborative culture of Wikipedia, takes a more optimistic view: "I think Wikipedia will survive even though/if the number of contributors levels off and flag revisions are enabled. The latter feature might prompt a flurry of stories about how Wikipedia is over, but it might stem the flow of future stories about embarrassing vandalism. Wikipedia won't be the same a couple of years from now as it was a couple of years ago, but nothing ever is."

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