Wow, the episode titles of Ryan Lochte’s old reality show were eerily prescient, given what happened to him in Rio … wait, hang on. Has this been tampered with?
That’s Wikipedia for you: somebody makes the news and the pranksters come out in force. A quick glance at the edit history of the page reveals a calm lack of activity until 18 August, at the height of the row over the alleged robbery the US swimmer suffered, at which point a brief “edit war” appears to break out:
The signs are classic: the sudden influx of anonymous users; the addition of 529 characters without explanation; the deletion of 531 characters without explanation; then the intervention by an adult some 10 hours later (“removed spurious entry”) to restore the site to its correct state – a state in which, at the time of writing, it still remains:
This is, as has frequently been pointed out, the uniquely alarming thing about Wikipedia: not that some of it is wrong, or that some of it is badly written, but that all of it might change. As John McIntyre put it years ago:
“This is the most troublesome part[:] the editing is not stable. An editor corrects an error, and an hour later or a day later, someone undoes the editing. You cannot tell, when looking at a Wikipedia entry, whether it is correct at this moment.”
That is true: it would be most unwise ever to cite a Wikipedia article in a book, if only because you would have no idea what the page might be saying in a year’s time. But as a user of the site, clicking on the page to read at any given moment, it’s often pretty easy to tell what state things are in. For example, it wouldn’t be hard to detect the damage in these examples from Wikipedia’s own list of its most vandalised pages:
Vandalized a lot given the nondescript nature of the school. Students there vandalize pages and employees there revert them.
Vandalized daily, multiple anonymous edits, usually with deletions, obscenities, deliberate scrambling of text, or insertion of jokes.
nonymous vandal with ever changing IP addresses who turns this into an article on the Republic of China
andalised regularly by anons who insert scare quotes around the word “comedian”.
That’s not to say vandalism hasn’t caused problems – big ones – in the past. While entries about topics in the news are often monitored closely and re-edited quickly, the dusty historical corners of the site can go unexamined for years, as this hair-raising example – recounted by Wikipedia in its own article about frauds it has suffered – shows:
In May 2010, French politician Ségolène Royal publicly praised the memory of Léon-Robert de l’Astran, an 18th-century naturalist, humanist and son of a slave trader, who had opposed the slave trade. The newspaper Sud-Ouest revealed a month later that de l’Astran had never existed—except as the subject of an article in the French Wikipedia. Historian Jean-Louis Mahé discovered that de l’Astran was fictional after a student, interested by Royal’s praise of him, asked Mahé about him. Mahé’s research led him to realise that de l’Astran did not exist in any archives, and he traced the hoax back to the Rotary Club of La Rochelle. The article, created by members of the Club in January 2007, had thus remained online for three years—unsourced—before the hoax was uncovered.
And journalists have suffered too, not least in the notorious case of the Norman Wisdom Falsehood in the same year, which caught out several newspaper obituarists and revealed just how short – at least in those days – the route was from Wikipedia to the printed page. (For the record: for all his many talents, Wisdom did not write the lyrics to “There’ll Be Bluebirds Over The White Cliffs of Dover”.)
But newsrooms have learnt something in the intervening six years. The Wisdom incident exposed some shameless cut-and-paste writing, but it also perhaps revealed an endearingly trusting approach to encyclopaedias – a pre-digital belief in reference sources as inviolate and trustworthy. A series of embarrassments over the last decade have changed that; our understanding of what a wiki is now is much more mature than what it was then.
For example, it is interesting that, as Wikipedia notes, the De l’Astran article was completely unsourced: nowadays, there would be a large flag at the top of the page pointing that out, and no fact-checker worth their salt these days would rely on a Wiki article without a single footnote. In more borderline cases, or faced with more subtle vandalism, you still have options: you can check the edit history of a page to get a feel for the bona fides of the contributor who made the amendment. Do they have a proper username, or are they just anonymous? Did they leave a note explaining what they had done, which is good wiki practice? Have they amended other pages too? What did they do there? Did anyone undo their revisions? If so, why?
To be clear: Wikipedia is not, and can never be, authoritative. The phrase “Source: Wikipedia” should never appear anywhere in a reputable publication. Nothing in it that is not cross-referred to an external source should ever be taken as true. The Britannica version of a subject is always greatly to be preferred – except that there is no Britannica entry for What Would Ryan Lochte Do?, nor for the many other ephemeral and trivial phenomena about which newspapers write. If you need some briefing on reality stars, talent show winners, Japanese video games or the Doge meme, there often is nowhere else – reliable or unreliable – to turn; just as sometimes, faced with hip-hop lyrics or regional slang that you don’t understand, there is sometimes no alternative but to resort, nervously, to the pages of the Urban Dictionary.
Wikipedia is still a hazard for the unwary. Of course it isn’t “safe”. But journalists make a living from assessing the probity of sources, and we can apply the same talent here. After the initial upheavals over vandalism, incompetence and mutability, we are starting to make a mental accommodation for a new kind of reference source: ones that are extremely useful but not entirely reliable. Wikipedia can never truly provide an answer; but sometimes it’s the only thing that can help you understand the question.