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Snared in the Web of a Wikipedia Liar

By Judi McLeod
Sunday, December 4, 2005

Finally, two major media outlets have carried stories about the major failings of the online free encyclopedia, Wikipedia.

"Snared in the Web of a Wikipedia Liar" was today's headline over a New York Times story written by Katharine Q. Seelye.

Seelye had picked up on the Wikipedia character assassination of John Seigenthaler Sr., who wrote "It could be your story," for USA Today.

For four consecutive months, Wikipedia had depicted the elderly Mr. Seigenthaler as a suspected assassin.

"John Seigenthaler Sr. was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960's. For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven," stated Mr. Seigenthaler's "biography" on Wikipedia.

"At age 78, I thought I was beyond surprise or hurt at anything negative said about me," wrote Mr. Seigenthaler. I was wrong. One sentence in the biography was true. I was Robert Kennedy's administrative assistant in the early 1960s. I was also his pallbearer. It was mind-boggling when my son, John Seigenthaler, journalist with NBC News, phoned later to say he found the same scurrilous text on Reference.com and Answers.com.

"I had heard for weeks from teachers, journalists and historians about "the wonderful world of Wikipedia", where millions of people worldwide visit daily for quick reference "facts", composed and posted by people with no special expertise or knowledge–and sometimes by people with malice.

"At my request, executives of the three websites now have removed the false content about me. But they don't know, and can't find out, who wrote the toxic sentences."

Mr. Seigenthaler telephoned Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's founder and asked, "Do you…have any way to know who wrote that?"

"No, we don't," he said.

"Representatives of the other two websites said their computers are programmed to copy data verbatim from Wikipedia, never checking whether it is false or factual," said Mr. Seigenthaler.

"Naturally, I want to unmask my "biographer". And, I am interested in letting many people know that Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool."

And "letting many people know" could be the only way to make Wikipedia accountable.

Though I'm only a flea compared to Mr. Seigenthaler's stature, I had a similar experience with Wikipedia. In fact, my "biographer" had everybody in my office in tears when they first came across the malice.

Most painful for me was that some of the "information" posted to Wikipedia was word-for-word from a poison pen author who's been at it for more than a decade.

How naïve we were when told by Wikipedia people that anyone–including us--could edit the biography. I'll never forget the shock of canadafreepress.com staff when the words being edited out were being restored back to Wikipedia--even as they were being edited!

Just like Mr. Seigenthaler, I would like to unmask my tormenter.

But as Mr. Seigenthaler found out, "Major communications Internet companies are bound by federal privacy laws that protect the identity of their customers–even those who defame online.

"Federal law also protects online corporations–BellSouth, AOL, MCI Wikipedia, etc.–from libel lawsuits. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, specifically states that "no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker." That legalese means that, unlike print and broadcast companies, online service providers cannot be sued for disseminating defamatory attacks on citizens posted by others."

In a recent C-Span interview with Brian Lamb, Wales insisted that his website is accountable and that his community of thousands of volunteer editors corrects mistakes within minutes.

In the interview, Wales said Wikipedia has "millions" of daily global visitors and is one of the world's busiest websites. He says he has one paid employee and that his volunteer community runs the Wikipedia operation. He funds his website through a non-profit foundation and estimated a 2006 budget of "about a million dollars".

I liked Mr. Seigenthaler's anecdote about the evils of gossip: "When I was a child, my mother lectured me on the evils of "gossip". She held a feather pillow and said, "If I tear this open, the feathers will fly to the four winds, and I could never get them back in the pillow. That's how it is when you spread mean things about people."

"For me," says Mr. Seigenthaler, "that pillow is a metaphor for Wikipedia."

For me, that's a gentle admonishment for Wikipedia from an absolute gentleman.

I prefer the name I call them in my head: "Wicked-pedia".


Canada Free Press founding editor Most recent by Judi McLeod is an award-winning journalist with 30 years experience in the print media. Her work has appeared on Newsmax.com, Drudge Report, Foxnews.com, Glenn Beck. Judi can be reached at: [email protected]


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