Problems with Wikipedia and cranks. (4.55 / 9) (#31)
by Kasreyn on Mon Apr 08, 2002 at 01:18:45 PM EST
Cranks give themselves away. Careful revisionists are much more dangerous.
Example issue: The holocaust.
A crank will erase the article and say "There was no holocaust! The dirty Jews invented it to keep the Aryan people down!" Obviously, this sort of crap will be caught and eliminated very rapidly. Even those whose whose opinions on the Nazis and Jews vary wildly, will recognize this as a lie, and repair it (if they're good contributors).
A revisionist will be smarter. He won't erase the original article, or change it drastically. He'll change a word here, a sentence structure there, to alter the connotation and meaning of things more subtly. Most users, simply on the lookout for factual errors, will miss this sort of misrepresentation. Semantics and choice of language can really influence people more than most think.
Another kind of misrepresentation is to post a huge article full of many facts that all check out, with one extremely obscure, hard-to-check, or made-up fact used to bring it to an incorrect conclusion. For instance, inventing up an historical atrocity in some tiny village in Africa that doesn't exist. If people try to check it and can't find the village, they'll just assume they're not looking hard enough (after all, they don't exactly have a huge internet presence, those obscure African villages). When people don't know, themselves, they tend to assume that anyone who sounds like they know what they're talking about, does.
In my opinion, this kind of sabotage is much more dangerous to a project like Wikipedia. The great, widely known facts will all be filled in easily (probably have been already), while the less known facts will be much more subject to corruption by cranks and those with agendas, because not only must a person find them in the first place, then after they're changed ANOTHER person must know the data to notice the error and fix it again.
Another problem is, what if a "fact" known to the public is actually wrong? If Wikipedia were made back when everyone believed the Earth was flat, those writing a correct article about its near-spherical shape would have had it continuously "repaired" by those who think the Earth is flat ("EVERYONE knows that!" ;-). Thus, information in Wikipedia will tend to be the popularly accepted truth, rather than the hard factual truth, in cases where the issue is obscure.
Since cranks and misrepresentationists are probably at least slightly outnumbered by fair and unbiased contributors (perfectly well-meaning people can be so biased their contributions will be worthless), Wikipedia's been doing ok. But I see it dying down a bit when all the really well known stuff is documented, unless it can get a much larger base of contributors. Eventually it may fall into the rut of all new contributions merely being popular current events - and many of these contributions will be colored by media reporting.
One advantage Wikipedia has working in its favor (besides the GPL), is this: Where a publication like Britannica could be controlled entirely by biased interests with agendas, causing the entire contents to be questionable, Wikipedia cannot be controlled by a single point of view. So while there may be cranks and misrepresentationists contributing, its overall goal and direction will always be to be a free and accurate encyclopedia. In the end, with enough users, that will allow it to do so.
P.S. Of course, the real fun begins when someone writes an article about the CoS and gets Wikipedia sued. Or someone will post the DeCSS poem in an article on that topic. Anti-free-speech suits are probably going to be its greatest single threat to existence (unless lack of funding is a problem).
"Extenuating circumstance to be mentioned on Judgement Day:
We never asked to be born in the first place."
R.I.P. Kurt. You will be missed.