independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Wikipedia: trick or truth?

The online encyclopedia has been voted the world's second most influential website - but with the public allowed to edit its one million entries, this font of knowledge is a prankster's dream, writes KIM BIELENBERG

If he happens to log on to the internet encyclopedia Wikipedia during his summer holidays, Pat Kenny may be surprised to discover that he is a "scientologist".

According to Wikipedia's utterly misleading entry for Pat Kenny, the broadcaster "became a devout scientologist in the early 1970s".

The entry for the Late Late Show presenter was also claiming last week that he presents the "acclaimed" RTE Radio 1 Show, "Granny-punching with Pat Kenny".

Over a million articles have now appeared on Wikipedia; it has become one of the world's greatest sources of information. Last week, it was named by The Observer as the second-most influential website on the internet.

But, as well as being a useful starting point for anyone looking for information - including millions of school pupils and students - it is also one of the world's leading repositories of comical misinformation and nonsense.

Wikipedia's strength - the fact that it has an estimated 13,000 voluntary contributors - is also its greatest weakness. It invites anyone - absolutely anyone - to add an entry or edit one that is already there. This is the heart of the problem.

Wikipedia's article about Pat Kenny has been hit by pranksters before. Previously, the world's most popular encyclopedia claimed that Pat Kenny was suspected of being "The Midnight Commando, a Batman-style vigilante who fought night crime in late 1970s Dublin" and "once claimed to have travelled to space in a giant hat".

Pat Kenny is not the only famous person to have been targeted by pranksters on Wikipedia. Until Wikipedia imposed restrictions on changes to its article about Tony Blair, the entry was being changed as many as 25 times a day. Pranksters have given him the middle name 'Whoop-de-Doo' and made the unfounded claim that he had posters of Adolf Hitler on his wall as a student.

An entry for the singer Robbie Williams recently suggested that he "makes his money by eating domestic pets in pubs in and around Stoke".

David Beckham has been described as a Chinese goalkeeper in the 18th century, while George Bush was reported to be the frontman of 1980s heavy metal band Poison

In the most notorious case of Wikipedia misinformation, an article on the website falsely named a journalist John Seigenthaler as a suspect in the assassinations of president John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert.

The howlers on Wikipedia would perhaps be unimportant if it was not such a popular source of information. It is now the 17th most visited site on the web. Experienced researchers see it as a useful starting point, but know that they should take its information with a pinch of salt. But as an unimpeachable source for students, it is decidedly flawed.

Wikipedia began five years ago more or less as a lark. Jimmy Wales, its founder, had been interested in encyclopedias ever since his parents bought the World Book from a door-to-door salesman (and Wales became obsessed with cross-referencing the additions that came with each of the annual supplements).

Wales ran an earlier internet encyclopedia called Nupedia, which relied on the old-fashioned technique of inviting experts to contribute.

Wales's encyclopedia revolution began when he was introduced to the wiki, a software tool that allows online collaborative writing and editing. Wales sent out a message: "Humour me. Go there and add a little article. It will take all of five or 10 minutes."

He expected nothing very much, but within a short time there were 600 contributions. Then word got out and in a couple of years, there were 20,000 entries. Now, with over one million entries and 14,000 hits a second, it is a paradise for the anorak who wishes to achieve internet immortality.

Refreshingly, perhaps, the encyclopedia that has been described as "the world's brain" can devote as much space to characters from The Simpsons as to a Nobel prize-winning writer.

There are substantial entries on such diverse Irish themes as Eamon De Valera's car, the word scanger ("a derogatory term for a stereotypical member of a youth subculture group in Dublin, Ireland") and Dustin the Turkey.

About 80% of the contributors, who remain anonymous, are male. And the vast majority of the pranksters who type in nonsense are believed to be male teenagers with a lot of time on their hands (vandalism increases at weekends and during school holidays).

In theory, its entries reflect a neutral point of view and the material in articles must be verifiable and previously published.

Disputes inevitable arise, however. Feelings can run high and arguments over various arcane facts can rumble on for months. For some reason, "cheese" has been among the most contested entries, but you can see that others might be more politically sensitive.

The entry for the Israel-Lebanon conflict was posted just six hours after Hizbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in a raid on July 12, but it has since been edited by other contributors more than 4,000 times.

Jimmy Wales, who runs Wikipedia from Florida with a tiny permanent staff, was initially reluctant to ban persistent vandals from the site. But as it has grown, he has had to act more swiftly.

There are various entries that cannot be altered without special clearance - the one on George W Bush has been vandalised so frequently that it is often closed to editing for days. Other surprisingly contentious pages that are protected from random abuse are those on poodles, oranges and Chopin.

With its fast-and-loose editing system and its mass appeal, Wikipedia has inevitably incurred the wrath of the more august encyclopedias.

An editor at Encyclopaedia Britannica acidly commented about Wikipedia: "We can get the wrong answer to a question faster than our fathers and mothers could find a pencil."

Although it has attracted many high-profile howlers, many of its errors have been weeded out with time. Last year, a survey in Nature magazine estimated that for every three errors in Encyclopaedia Britannica, there are four on Wikipedia.

Is this good enough? The founder Jimmy Wales thinks so, given that his site is free and much more comprehensive than Britannica, but Pat Kenny and others might beg to differ.

Wacky Wiki

Five postings from the weird and wonderful world of Wikipedia

The moon: "The moon does not exist. It was blown up in a nuclear test in the 1960s by a scientist named Malcolm Cohen. What you see now is a projection so that people do not panic."

The Jules Rimet Trophy: "Named after the Fifa president Jules Rimet who, in 1929, passed a vote to initiate the competition after a bittersweet reunion with the gruff but lovable dwarf who took him in as a child and raised him, despite his constant bout with rickets."

Malaga (province): "The Sun Coast (Costa del Sol) is a concrete monster that swallows, burns, and spits back millions of happy European tourists."

Vauxhall Corsa: "Popularly driven by retired ladies and hairdressers, Corsas can be seen in their natural habitat on their roofs in a ditch surrounded by livestock and insurance assessors."

Stepping: "The name for a process of locomotion - either forward or backward movement engaged in by bipedal (i.e. humans and chickens) and quadripedal (i.e. rats, deer) and multipedal (i.e. insects) organisms consisting of putting the left foot forward, following with the right foot and repeating. Monopedal organisms often experience difficulty in stepping."

What the experts say

*Alan Byrne author of 'Thin Lizzy: Soldiers of Fortune', on Wikipedia's Thin Lizzy entry:

"In general, it seems far better than the last time I saw it. There isn't a huge amount that I can fault but as a resource, Wikipedia is not a site I would usually use. More often than not, fan websites contain far more detail."

*Justine McCarthy, journalist and author of 'Mary McAleese, The Outsider' on the Mary McAleese entry:

"As a starting point, it's quite useful but it seems to gloss over some of the more controversial episodes in her career. It does not deal with the troubles she encountered in RTE, her role in the second abortion referendum and her promise to hold a bonfire in the Aras grounds on July 12."

*Bernard Share, author of 'Slanguage - A Dictionary of Irish Slang':

"I found it useless. It is not in any way comprehensive. When you look up 'Irish slang', there is just a list of mostly vulgar terms. The word 'conker' is included as Irish slang, even though it is used in England as well."

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