Saturday, May 09, 2009

Wikipedia hoax

John Timmer in Ars Technica: Wikipedia hoax points to limits of journalists' research:

A sociology student placed a fake quote on Wikipedia, only to see it show up in prominent newspapers, revealing that a lot of the press doesn't go much further than most 'Net users when it comes to researching a story. [...]

[Shane] Fitzgerald [who's a student at Ireland's University College Dublin] was apparently curious how far his hoax would spread, and expected it to appear on a variety of blogs and similar sites. Instead, to his surprise, a search picked it up in articles that appeared at a variety of newspapers. Fitzgerald eventually removed his own fabricated quote and notified a variety of news outlets that they had been tricked, but not all of them have apparently seen fit to publish corrections or to ensure that their original stories were accurate, even though fixing a webpage shouldn't be a challenging thing.

Of course, it shouldn't be a surprise that journalists use Wikipedia as part of their research—especially in this case, as Jarre's entry comes out on top of the heap in a Google search for his name. However, the discovery that so many of the writers apparently failed to find an additional source on that quote comes at a rather awkward time for journalists in traditional media, who are facing a struggle to stay above water as the newspaper industry is sinking and the line between traditional journalism and casual reporting gets ever blurrier.

Among Indian newspapers, the Economic Times has fallen for this hoax; there may be others as well, but my cursory search didn't yield any links.

The Guardian was also a victim of this hoax. In her commentary, its Reader's Editor dwells on how the Wikipedia editors/monitors dealt with the unsourced quote planted by Fitzgerald before it got a chance to stay long enough for lazy obit writers to run with it:

Fitzgerald's fakery was not particularly sophisticated. All he did was add a quote to Jarre's Wikipedia page and he provided nothing to back it up. The absence of a footnote containing a reference for the quote ought to have made obituary writers suspicious.

Wikipedia editors were more sceptical about the unsourced quote. They deleted it twice on 30 March and when Fitzgerald added it the second time it lasted only six minutes on the page. His third attempt was more successful - the quote stayed on the site for around 25 hours before it was spotted and removed again.