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What made Wikipedia lose its reputation?

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By TParis
Quora's logo.
Quora's logo.

There is a public misconception of Wikipedia: that any anonymous editor can edit Wikipedia at any time, and the person behind them cannot be tracked or identified. This is essentially a decade-old narrative, yet it is persistent and embedded in the public consciousness.

I most recently came across it in a March 31 Quora answer, published in response to a question about why Wikipedia is not allowed in official research. Many journalists ignorant of the deeper workings of Wikipedia simply read the headline "anyone can edit" and make an assumption that there are no controls in place: see, for example, Finding Dulcinea, the Economist, or the Guardian.

Many old-timers still remember the 2005 Seigenthaler incident: an anonymous editor inserted a hoax about John Seigenthaler, a prominent and then still-living journalist, and made a reference to his suspected involvement in the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy. The subject of the article read his biography and characterized this insertion as "internet character assassination". The anonymous troll was later unmasked as Brian Chase, an operations manager in Kentucky. The current biographies of living persons policy was implemented in response shortly thereafter, but the damage was done; the Seigenthaler incident spawned widespread criticism of Wikipedia among educators.

Since then, Wikipedia has made tremendous efforts to reach out to academia and build a foundation of trust. Jimmy Wales recently replied to a question on Quora on this very subject, writing that "if the recommendation is to not use Wikipedia at all, I think that's silly and naive advice—all students use Wikipedia a lot! ... If the Professor has a more nuanced view that Wikipedia should not be cited 'as a source' by university students, then I agree completely!" Jimmy Wales explains what many people already know: that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, and that it has a systemic bias in favor of white, male, young, and educated individuals.

The Seigenthaler incident happened right as Wikipedia's popularity was beginning to explode. Wikipedia had about 12,000 active editors in October 2005, a number that has climbed to close to 137,000 now. Hundreds of these editors participate in new page patrol and recent changes patrol, the main purpose of which is to review nearly every single edit. They use sophisticated tools like Huggle, page curation, Cluebot, edit-protection, pending changes, and edit filters to watch for and roll back vandalism and dubious editing, or to prevent it from occurring in the first place.

Despite these safeguards, Kent Fung cites the 2014 U.S. Congressional staff edits to Wikipedia as one of his prime examples of Wikipedia's unreliability. Yet this episode in Wiki-history sprung the development of tools to catch these kinds of changes. The case he specifically refers to sparked the creation of over a dozen Twitter bots that still catalog edits from the governments of Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, The Netherlands, North Carolina, Norway, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, and the United States.

None of this ensures the trustworthiness of Wikipedia—it simply demonstrates that the environment that allowed "anonymous editors" to create the aforementioned incidents has long since dissipated. Yet that hasn't stopped a Quora "Top Writer '14" from propagating such a viewpoint. There are plenty of reasons not to cite Wikipedia in a college paper, mind you. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia written by, for the most part, laypeople. Despite everyone having the title "editor", there is no actual editorial fact-checking process for most articles whose sources are generally filled with journalism, not academia. The most active demographic group is white, young men. Many of its best 'quality' articles face a bias towards recentism or cover topics in pop culture of questionable encyclopedic interest.

Kent, though, mentions none of this. Though he is right in the premise, he is entirely wrong in the details. In my view, Kent overlooks the actual real and pressing problem with Wikipedia: like Quora, Wikipedia suffers from an entrenched elitist attitude which celebrates the ignorant shut-out of ideas that the elites don't like. It's human nature, really. Wikipedia is willing to sacrifice information if it threatens the integrity of a well-known persona. Despite essays like "No Angry Mastodons" and the philosophy that adminship is "No big deal", our administrative noticeboards have an automatic knee-jerk reaction to support a veteran editor over a novice editor. Tools like page histories, a tool that provides indisputable proof of previous edits, are not utilized while investigating concerns. Editors quickly measure their opinion of the two editors and then draw out terms such as "WP:BOOMERANG" that have become Wikipedia buzz words. It's quite easy to predict a boomerang on ANI these days—one must only count the number of the user's edits.

Quora has compounded the elitism issue even further. As a forum similar to Wikipedia's reference desk, Quora is a forum where questioners ask the public about a particular topic and users vote on the best answer, Yahoo! Answers-style. The difference between Yahoo! Answers and Quora is that the latter has a handy threaded reply feature with a block button. The particulars matter: when one editor blocks another it also hides the comments made by the blocked editor, in this case hiding from public view my criticism of Kent's position—as though it never happened. It's an interesting tool that I know hundreds of politicians wish they had.

"Now, what does this have to do with Wikipedia?", you ask.

I believe Quora represents a larger issue: the number of authorities in the general public who are ignorant of the differences between 2005 Wikipedia and 2015 Wikipedia, and whose assumptions are never challenged because the public is unaware. Authorities in a subject are generally regarded by the average Joe to be authorities in all subjects. It becomes a sort of intellectual jack-of-all-trades. Their authority gives the misinformation legitimacy. And while I would never make the argument that Wikipedia is reliable, it is important to know why it isn't. Until you get to the real reason Wikipedia is unreliable, you'll never know what to actually be wary of. And in the end, you'll be unreliable to yourself.

TParis is an administrator on the English Wikipedia. He has edited the site since 2008.
The views expressed in this op-ed are those of the author alone; responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments. Editors wishing to submit their own op-ed should use our opinion desk.
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  • One may better ask, "How can Wikipedia lose its reputation" if the reputation has long been of shoddy, dishonest, frivolous propaganda. Any change in reputation might be seen somewhat more clearly if the light of public opinion polls years apart had been thrown on it. Jim.henderson (talk) 03:03, 16 May 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • ... the environment that allowed "anonymous editors" to create the aforementioned incidents has long since dissipated.
    • I don't agree. See last month's Washington Post article The story behind Jar’Edo Wens, the longest-running hoax in Wikipedia history for details of a breaching experiment carried out this year: On Monday night, Kohs wrapped up an experiment in which he inserted outlandish errors into 31 articles and tracked whether editors ever found them. After more than two months, half of his hoaxes still had not been found — and those included errors on high-profile pages, like “Mediterranean climate” and “inflammation.” (By his estimate, more than 100,000 people have now seen the claim that volcanic rock produced by the human body causes inflammation pain.)
  • The Seigenthaler incident happened right as Wikipedia's popularity was beginning to explode. Wikipedia had about 12,000 active editors in October 2005, a number that has climbed to close to 137,000 now.
  • All of the press articles linked here are recent, ranging from October 2012 to April 2015. Andreas JN466 08:35, 16 May 2015 (UTC)[reply]
Good information, Andreas. This trend will continue because there is no limit to how many articles can be created but there is a limit to human resources to manage those articles. Bots etc can solve a lot. The hardest problem is the correct-looking but not actually correct fact intentionally inserted. I think people know this, if not intuitively, which contributes to WP reputation as unreliable. Also, many people who disparage Wikipedia are disgruntled ex-editors who may have been reverted and treated unkindly by those core overworked and surly 3,000 editors - in part our problem is systemically self-inflicted. -- GreenC 15:32, 16 May 2015 (UTC)[reply]
I agree that the superficially plausible fact is the hardest hoax to identify. I do not agree that the number of articles is a problem: the amount of hoaxes is dependant on the number and activity of hoaxers, which at the size Wikipedia has been for some years is more or less independent of additional growth. Therefore the size of the problem is the size of the edit stream. Deeper inspection of edits (or more draconian restrictions on editing) is required to decrease hoaxes. All the best: Rich Farmbrough12:40, 21 May 2015 (UTC).
Surely it's both the number of articles and the number of hoaxers, Rich. Imagine 3 people busy hiding easter eggs in a field: it's your job to find them before a visitor accidentally steps on one. If your field is the size of your living room, with 10 visitors an hour, you can stay on top of things. But if it is the size of a football field, with bushes and hedges blocking your view, and 50 site visitors an hour, you'll find you can't be everywhere. And of course the superficially plausible lie is not always a hoax: sometimes it is just an error, a misunderstanding or an unsuccessful paraphrase. Andreas JN466 01:28, 22 May 2015 (UTC)[reply]
Indeed, for pragmatic purposes the distinction between edits based on motivation is irrelevant.
But the analogy is largely false: we don't need to be everywhere, just in the recent changes: furthermore the growth in number of articles in the mature project does not correspond to a growth in the amount of bed edits, at least not in a linear way. Someone could perhaps run some stats? All the best: Rich Farmbrough12:53, 22 May 2015 (UTC).
There is no need for a growth in bad edits, and none was stipulated: it's enough for bad edits to survive longer. You're right in theory: staying on top of recent changes would be enough. But that's all academic. As things are, even gross vandalism sometimes gets through recent changes. [1] Moreover, recent changes checking has never approximated anything resembling a rigorous check, incl. verification of sourcing, suitability of added content in article context, etc. It doesn't even approximate that in projects that have pending changes installed (though I believe pending changes cuts down on hoaxes, removing the instant gratification a hoaxer gets from seeing their change go live immediately, and if installed in en:WP would free up time currently spent by RC patrollers on competing with ClueBot). With such holes in the first line of defence, the fact that hundreds of thousands of articles are not on any active contributor's watchlist (or literally not on anyone's watchlist) comes into play. Andreas JN466 18:10, 22 May 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • Per "Wikipedia is an encyclopedia written by, for the most part, laypeople". For medical content I would disagree. The majority of our medical content is written by health care professionals. [2] And many Wikipedia editors are experts. Doc James (talk · contribs · email) 10:01, 16 May 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • About the headline: somehow I think it might be better if we played to the viewer's opinions of themselves, and change it to "the free encyclopedia that you can edit", like French Wikipedia currently does. (I first found this idea on Basemetal's userpage, but then I noticed that some other WPs actually do use that amended headline.) Double sharp (talk) 10:46, 16 May 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • Wikipedia will never be what it wants to be, a solid source of reliable info, because it lets the masses edit and will always be incapable of putting sufficient control mechanisms in place to control the bullies, POV pushers, and outright mentally unbalanced users who have far too much control here. HalfGig talk 10:55, 16 May 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • It's unclear to me what the source is for the statement that there are currently 137,000 active editors. Per the official statistics for Wikipedia, there just under 76,000 active editors in March 2015, across all language versions. That's down about more than 15% from the peak in 2007; it is also sharply up from the 2005 figures. (To be specific, March 2007 had just under 89,000 active editors, compared to just under 51,000 in March 2006 and about 14,000 in March 2005.) So yes, the number of active editors has sharply increased since 2005, but essentially all of that increase occurred between 2005 and 2007; the count has been generally downhill since then. -- John Broughton (♫♫) 04:29, 17 May 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • I think that one fact that is easily overlooked is that the number of former Wikpedia editors (say, who haven't edited in three years or more) outnumbers the current number of active editors. And it might outnumber the very active editors by a hundredfold! So, there are a lot of people who speak of Wikipedia with familiarity who were either blocked or got disillusioned or chased off or just got busy with life and quit editing. In a forum like Quora, a person who answers a question about Wikipedia could have, say, edited intermittently between 2005 and 2007, had a few bad encounters and left. But given their participation, I imagine they feel as qualified to answer questions about Wikipedia on Quora as an enthusiastic new editor who has been here for 4 months and thrown themselves into the project.
Meaning, because Wikipedia is such a highly ranked and familiar website, there is an incredibly varying level of experience and knowledge about it among individuals, and an appreciation of how it has changed over time really probably is only apparent to a small sliver of editors and readers. Liz Read! Talk! 20:17, 17 May 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • I think the 'Don't use Wikipedia' statement is misunderstood: I don't want students to use it because it is tertiary information, an encyclopaedia. They should use papers and monographs instead. Usage of Encyclopaedia Britannica is likewise improper in an academic context. That has nothing to do with trust. --Pgallert (talk) 08:55, 18 May 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • Thank you for your comments. Just yesterday one of my brothers complained about the misinformation that keeps popping up in the English Wikipedia article on Adam DeVine as evidence that you can't trust Wikivoyage. I know -- it's a logical error -- but that's what people think. One reason I got involved in Wikipedia was the over-use by my students. I solved that problem by limiting students in their citation of tertiary sources: to one (in a 200-level course) or two (in a 100-level class). Bearian (talk) 11:54, 18 May 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • Standards for sources seem pretty low to me. There's a reason legitimate news organizations don't cite many of the publications wikipedia will happily accept as a source. — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 13:52, 19 May 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • More simply, Wikipedia suffers any number of people (celebrities, media, etc.) upset about inaccurate articles without either learning why the inaccuracy exists or doing anything about it. Wikipedia doesn't have a chorus exalting how good our articles are. We only have readers that show up, get the content they want, and leave. Many readers are impressed with Wikipedia until they find clickbait that tells them otherwise. I don't think beating the drum about how n00bs get treated is germane here. Chris Troutman (talk) 00:40, 20 May 2015 (UTC)[reply]


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