October 28, 2006
Can Wikipedia Ever Make the Grade?
From The Chronicle of Higher Education:
Alexander M.C. Halavais, an assistant professor of communications at Quinnipiac University, has spent hours and hours wading through Wikipedia, which has become the Internet's hottest information source. But to Wikipedia's legions of ardent amateur editors, Mr. Halavais may be best remembered as a troll.
Two years ago, when he was teaching at the State University of New York at Buffalo, the professor hatched a plan designed to undermine the site's veracity — which, at that time, had gone largely unchallenged by scholars. Adopting the pseudonym "Dr. al-Halawi" and billing himself as a "visiting lecturer in law, Jesus College, Oxford University," Mr. Halavais snuck onto Wikipedia and slipped 13 errors into its various articles. He knew that no one would check his persona's credentials: Anyone can add material to the encyclopedia's entries without having to show any proof of expertise.
Some of the errata he inserted — like a claim that Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist, had made Syracuse, N.Y., his home for four years — seemed entirely credible. Some — like an Oscar for film editing that Mr. Halavais awarded to The Rescuers Down Under, an animated Disney film — were more obviously false, and easier to fact-check. And others were downright odd: In an obscure article on a short-lived political party in New Brunswick, Canada, the professor wrote of a politician felled by "a very public scandal relating to an official Party event at which cocaine and prostitutes were made available."
Mr. Halavais expected some of his fabrications to languish online for some time. Like many academics, he was skeptical about a mob-edited publication that called itself an authoritative encyclopedia. But less than three hours after he posted them, all of his false facts had been deleted, thanks to the vigilance of Wikipedia editors who regularly check a page on the Web site that displays recently updated entries. On Dr. al-Halawi's "user talk" page, one Wikipedian pleaded with him to "refrain from writing nonsense articles and falsifying information."
Mr. Halavais realized that the jig was up.
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