The Deadly Danger of Wikipedia and Corrupt Community Research

The problem with unrestricted community involvement in online research is the great risk to truth and accuracy in the reporting. If one community member cannot be trusted, then the entire veracity of the rest of the community — guilty or not — is also placed under the microscopic and burning Panopticonic eye of doubt and disingenuousness.

The actor known as Sinbad was reported dead of a heart attack on Saturday by Wikipedia — an online community encyclopedia — the problem with the report was that Sinbad is alive and well:

Rumors began circulating Saturday regarding the posting, said Sinbad, who first got a telephone call from his daughter. The gossip quieted, but a few days later the 50-year-old entertainer said the phone calls, text messages and e-mails started pouring in by the hundreds.

“Saturday I rose from the dead and then died again,” the Los Angeles-based entertainer told The Associated Press in a phone interview. The St. Petersburg-based company, which describes itself as “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” leaves it to a vast user community to catch factual errors and other problems.

Apparently, someone edited it to say Sinbad died of a heart attack. By the time the error was caught, e-mail links of the erroneous page had been forwarded to hundreds of people. Wikipedia was created in 2001 as a Web research tool. It has more than 1.6 million articles, contributed by members of the public.

Here is what Sinbad’s current, locked, Wikipedia page looks like:

This sort of gaming of the Wikipedia system demonstrates rather clearly why community research portals must only be used for entertainment purposes and should never be believed or employed as founts of truth or waterfalls of scholarly veracity.

Open systems like Wikipedia are ripe for abuse and are vulnerable for the corruption of what is right and true. If it is so easy to change the living into the dead on Wikipedia, what other more delicate truths have been surreptitiously corrupted by that free online “encyclopedia?”

Where is the Wikipedia oversight and intelligence and security to prevent this sort of prank from happening in the first place? Many universities and colleges do not allow students to use Wikipedia as a source in their scholarly research and papers because anyone can contribute to Wikipedia and there is no sustained or verifiable way to confirm all the information hanging in the ether of their 1.6 million articles before being published.

We have used Wikipedia a lot in the past to try to help back up what we are claiming in both our articles and in our comments. We now must stop using Wikipedia as a resource. We liked Wikipedia because it is free, easy to access, no registration is required to view articles and — most pernicious of all — Wikipedia indexes really well in the major search engines.

Oftentimes Wikipedia has several top entries for some of our more esoteric thoughts and ideas. It is easy to assume if a Wikipedia article is a top return in an online search that article must be honest and be embedded in the truth, but search engines do not test for scholarly merit or infallible factuality. Search engines merely reflect the popularity of an article. Search engines cannot promise their returns are verified by appropriate research methods.

It is now the publication policy of Urban Semiotic to require authors and Commenters to go beyond the come-hither simple search-and-pull of Wikipedia and to take the next scholarly step to back up their claims and contentions using established research portals and methods for inclusion in our articles and comments.

Wikipedia will never be used in Urban Semiotic again as a hotlink or as a quoted source because when we link back to Wikipedia, we are making a promise to you the link we are providing is verifiable and true. We are no longer able to make that promise using Wikipedia. To not take this hard stance against Wikipedia after this Sinbad betrayal is to perpetuate the lie that Wikipedia is an online research portal that can be trusted.