Controversies in Wikipedia

April 25, 2021

Wikipedia is one of the most widely used sources of information on the internet. Using crowdsourcing to gather information has contributed a lot to the growth of Wikipedia’s database, but has also made it equally vulnerable to vandalism and misinformation. There have been many incidents questioning the trustworthiness of the site and responsibility of the community towards the consumers. This article is a compilation of some of the controversial uses of Wikipedia in relation to issues such as the spread of hoax, misinformation and disputes existing within the community.

It had been seen in an experiment conducted during September 2020 that Wikipedia articles do control human behavior to a certain extent. Economists from Collegio Carlo Alberto in Italy and ZEW in Germany added contents into articles on cities in Spain, which had been randomly selected. The researchers found that the cities in whose articles photos were added had an increase in the nights spent there by 9%. Following this incident being published on The Guardian, the research team was banned from making any edits on the Dutch Wikipedia.

An example of an attempt to character assasination using Wikipedia took place in September 2005. Above is an excerpt(left) from the Wikipedia article of the well known American journalist John Seigenthaler(right) which stated that he had been suspected for involvement in the assassinations of the U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. The article also talked about him having lived 13 years in the Soviet Union. It was later revealed that the hoax started as an attempted prank by the perpetrator to fool his coworker. The hoax was removed from Wikipedia in early October 2005.

Although Wikipedia has its quality check guidelines and a list of “good articles” which it deems to be trustworthy, hoaxers have found ways to fool the community. In January 2013, it was discovered that a “good article” on the Bicholim conflict was actually a meticulously crafted hoax about a fictitious war in Goa, India. This hoax lasted for 5 years before it was discovered. 

It’s interesting to note that media outlets have relied on Wikipedia for news which has resulted in the spread of hoax. A class project was conducted in December 2008 by Professor T. Mills Kelly on “Lying About the Past.” Students created a website and a fictitious entry on Wikipedia about Edward Owens, a fisherman who later became a pirate. It was later revealed by the class to be a hoax when the media outlets and academics began reporting the story as fact.


Another interesting example took place in March 2009, hours after the death of French composer Maurice Jarre. Irish student Shane Fitzgerald(pictured above) added a fake quote to Jarre’s Wikipedia article that said “One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head, that only I can hear.” This quote quickly got circulated around the world by newspapers such as The Guardian and The Independent. “My aim,” Fitzgerald said, “was to show that an undergraduate university student in Ireland can influence what newspapers are doing around the world and also that the reliance of newspapers on the internet can lead to some faults.”

Wikipedia’s choice of secondary sources as reliable references and its skeptical take on primary sources has been called into question several times. In the February of 2012, American labor historian Timothy Messer-Kruse, an expert on the Haymarket affair, tried to edit the article to include the new information he had discovered which, in his opinion, cast doubt on the existing beliefs regarding the incident. His attempt was denied by other editors on the grounds that primary sources were not acceptable and that he would have to find published secondary sources. He gave it another shot in 2011 after the publication of his book but it wasn’t accepted on the grounds that it was a minority view and could not be given “undue weight”, even though he had proved in his book that the majority view was incorrect regarding major details of the case. Steven Walling of the Wikimedia Foundation later stated that “We do not rely on what exact, individual people say, just based on their own credibility.”

Wikipedia has also been used as a way of attacking opponents. In September 2011, British writer and journalist Johann Hari(pictured above) admitted to having engaged in a six-year trolling spree where he repeatedly painted himself in flattering light while also fabricating insertions in the entries for people he considered enemies.

In May 2013, it was revealed that a Wikipedia editor with username Qworty, whose real identity was writer Robert Clark Young, had been engaging in “revenge editing” on Wikipedia articles of authors he disagreed with. He did so by routinely making negative revisions to those articles. Shortly after the reality was divulged, Young was blocked indefinitely from editing Wikipedia. 

By putting forward this compilation of incidents, it is intended to show it to the reader that Wikipedia, although a rich source of information, has been used for malicious intentions, be it intentionally or not. Thus it is advised that readers keep their “detective mode” on while reading Wikipedia articles and do some homework before accepting the information provided. 


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