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Boston Globe: Behind the e-curtain: WIKIPEDIA, the online encyclopedia: Royal Dutch Shell rewrote a benign description of the company…

Globe Editorial
August 26, 2007

WIKIPEDIA, the online encyclopedia, seems like a democratic fountain of facts, because anyone can add to or edit its storehouse of knowledge. Google “Nellie Bly” or “photon,” and the first results the search returns are helpful Wikipedia entries describing the journalist and the unit of energy.

But Wikipedia’s sweeping compendium of information also suffers from the pollution of pranksters, publicists, self-interested pundits, and the merely misinformed.

The problem is that readers can’t easily tell who is saying what, so it’s hard to tell which of Wikipedia’s roiling masses of contributors can be trusted.

Fortunately, a new Web tool is lifting the veil of anonymity. WikiScanner, created by Virgil Griffith, a California Institute of Technology graduate student, lets readers search Wiki’s editing changes to see who wrote what.

It’s a remarkably crowded virtual copy desk. Wiki editors write from the offices of the National Rifle Association, Al Jazeera, Pfizer, Raytheon, the Department of Homeland Security, the Vatican, Bob Jones University, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Central Intelligence Agency — as well as unaffiliated friends, neighbors, and relatives.

And, no surprise, lots of people are editing to make themselves look better. Corporations, or at least people who use their computers, are brushing up their Wikipedia entries, deleting descriptions of controversies or buffing up facts. The companies giving themselves wiki-face lifts include Pepsi, Wal-Mart, and ExxonMobil.

There are plenty of scams and put-downs. Wired Magazine, which first broke the WikiScanner story, asked readers to submit their own WikiScanner findings. Among them: In 2005, someone using a computer inside Royal Dutch Shell, the oil company, rewrote a benign description of the company, claiming it is “run by a group of geriatrics who find it impossible to make timely decisions and have an aversion to highly-profitable ventures.”

Wikipedia also has good Samaritans: people who clean up grammatical and factual errors and misspelled words.

So while hours of fun will probably be had by WikiScanners, there’s also an important if antiquated lesson here: Don’t believe everything you read.

The Internet is great at fostering democracy when it creates more access to original sources of information, from scientific databases to the Congressional Record. And Wikipedia shines when it does the same, offering entries with links to such sources. But democracy alone doesn’t create truth. Users, especially students, still have to be wary of spin, fluff, and falsehoods.

It’s exciting to try to get at the truth in sprawling editing groups. But as WikiScanner shows, its also important to identify the editors and judge the truth they tell.

© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.

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