If Wikipedia Says It Loves You, Check It Out

The idea of using social media to report a story is appalling to some journalists. They have a certain germophobia when it comes to the Internet. Because it is littered with rumor and lies, they never use it as a source for a story, they say. They’re right, of course. Social media like Twitter and Wikipedia are littered with rumor and lies, but so are most city halls and almost every other place journalists ply their trade.

Social media, I tell my students who have been scared away from it by other professors and editors, are like all sources — a great place to start and a lousy place to finish.

Armed with the same skepticism and curiosity with which I treat any other source, I try to teach students to stop worrying and love the hyperlink.

No journalist has been long in the business before he or she hears someone warn them, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” They’re taught that this mantra of ultimate skepticism — to question even your own mother’s love — will keep them fiercely independent.

That phrase, though, too often gets interpreted as “If your mother says she loves, you, don’t believe her.” But journalism doesn’t happen until the second part of the sentence — until curiosity is piqued and some effort is made to satisfy that curiosity.

Journalists shouldn’t avoid social media as a reporting tool simply because they can get infected with lies and rumor. Journalists should inoculate themselves with curiosity and wonder how they work.

One good case study is the story of Jared Fogel, spokesman for Subway sandwiches. He died … but Wikipedia saved his life… here’s how…

Imagine you get a Twitter message from one of your friends — someone you know and trust — that Jared is dead. It might have even come from someone with a reputation to protect. It might have even come from Kevin Rose, one of the founders of Digg.com, a site rumored at one point to be worth about $300 million.

You’re a skeptical journalist. How do you check it out? (Presuming neither Subway nor Jared’s people are returning your call…)

A lot of people on June 25, 2008, turned to Google for help. And that’s not a bad place to start. So let’s search “Jared Fogel death” just to get things started. The first link we get is to Snopes.com. You — like the vast majority of searchers — click on the first link. Most searchers never look beyond the first three links and very, very, very few every go beyond the first page.

So Snopes said the story is false. But our skepticism can’t end here. We’ve got a good ol’ fashioned “he-said, she-said” on our hands, a virtual 1-1 tie in this steel-cage death match of truth.

What now?

We could just go back to Google and settle this with a popularity contest — more sites claiming the news is fake would win out over more sites claiming it’s true. But truth and popularity rarely go hand in hand. So let’s put that on hold for a second, and we will come back later to understanding just how something ends up as the top link on Google anyway.

Journalists learn that it’s important to understand whether their sources have an ax to grind. So it would be great to know who’s behind this Snopes.com anyway. This brings us to one of my most favorite things about the Internet. It’s my favorite because it speaks directly to one of my core beliefs about journalism — that transparency breeds accountability. The Internet can be an incredibly transparent place.

The Internet has a big ol’ database (or collection of databases, really) that store the names and contact information for every domain name (like “snopes.com”). You can query that database by using one of several Web sites that use the WHOIS protocol. For this example, we’ll use the one at Network Solutions.

Type “snopes.com” in to the search field on that site, and you’ll see that it is owned by David Mikkelson in Agoura Hill, California. You can even call him at (702) 988-4047. (And, just to save time for the most curious among you, here’s where you can reach the owner of this site.)

Of course, there are plenty of ways to hide a domain’s owner from public view. But this is at least a nice start. A Google search for “David Mikkelson” turns up a nice summary of information about snopes.com that you can check out when you call him.

All signs at this point are pointing to the rumors of Jared’s death being greatly exaggerated. But what if you had started from a slightly different point. Let’s say your first Google search was for “Jared Fogel” with the “death.” The first link at the top of that query would be to our old nemsis Wikipedia.

As I’m sure you know, Wikipedia is a site that can be edited by anyone. And certainly it has had its share of nefarious editors hacking the site. Perhaps the most famous are the ones done by congressional staffers.

Inaccuracies have also plagued Jared Fogel’s page, where his death has been reported and removed several times. But once again transparency comes to the rescue. For every Wikipedia entry, any reader can see when it was edited, who made the edits and what the edits included. For a real understanding of how Wikipedia actually stays relatively free of error despite its lack of centralized governance, let’s check out the “History” page for Fogel’s entries. (You can get to the history page of any entry by clicking on the “History” tab at the top of the entry page.)

At first glance, the history page looks like an indecipherable log of technical details. That’s why you should now spend a few minutes reading the user’s guide to this feature. I’m going to check my email. Give me a shout when you’ve read it…

…OK, you back? Any questions?

Now, on the same day that one of Digg’s founders was spreading the rumor on Twitter and Google saw a jump in Jared queries, let’s see what the unwashed masses were doing to the truth on Wikipedia.

7:02 p.m. – Jared’s dead.

7:10 p.m. – Not quite dead yet.

8:42 p.m. – We are sad to report…

(Someone spends the next 11 minutes adding fantastic details about his death to the page. At one point, however, the anonymous editor seems to doubt his or her technical accuracy. The possibility of factual accuracies never seem to dawn on him or her.)

9:00 p.m. – He’s baaack.

11:09 p.m. – Another anonymous editor makes a gutsy defense of the 8:42 edits.

11:30 p.m. – Not completely healed, but some progress toward truth.

12:34 a.m. – Yes, his death was a hoax…

2:20 a.m., June 28 – Dead.

2:21 a.m. – Not dead….And he remains in this state until July 11, when he briefly dies again in the Wiki world.

There are two ways to read the history. One is that it is proof that horrible, horrible factual errors make it in to Wikipedia. Most of the erroneous edits were made anonymously, identifiable only by the IP address from which they came.

On the other hand, the errors get corrected amazingly fast for a site on which no one is responsible. Vandalism and lies do not tend to stay on Wikipedia for long.

But is taking the chance worth getting bad information in to your stories? I guess it depends on the alternatives. One study found that newspaper sources reported finding that 21 percent of the stories for which they were a source had an objective error, 18 percent a math error and 53 percent a subjective error. I wonder how that would stack up to Wikipedia at any given moment.

So, by all means, use Wikipedia as a source. But just know how to use it. Here are some tips:

  • Check out the article’s sourcing. Most articles are well footnoted with links to primary source documents. You can use those footnotes as your source, rather than Wikipedia.
  • Check the history page for any entry about which you have questions. See if there have been a lot of edits around a specific piece of information.
  • See what you can find out about the person who added the doubted material. Is the person anonymous? Have a profile page on Wikipedia? Does he or she make a lot of edits across topics? Is he or she a specialist on one topic? How many of his or her edits are reversed by subsequent editors?

Hopefully, you’re still skeptical of Wikipedia. You might even be getting ready to argue that Wikipedia itself is nothing more than a lawless board of anonymous bickering. Not true, I’d argue. Check out Wikipedia’s policies, which include a “neutral point of view” that should warm even a journalist’s heart.

Even still I hope you’re skeptical of Wikipedia and other social media. That’s fine. In fact, that’s good. The point is not to accept everything with blind faith. The point is to understand how social media works and to use that understanding for good instead of evil. If you do, you just might win $10,000.

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