Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Path to the Lowest Common Denominator

My ears picked up when I heard the radio news story about the CIA editing entries in Wikipedia for purposes that had more to do with propaganda than information; so I was glad to see that Jonathan Fildes, science and technology reporter for BBC News, had prepared a story that gave a more comprehensive account of just who is now playing this game. However, while this turns into a plague-on-all-your-houses account, one has to wonder just what that CIA agent was thinking while assuming the role of editor:

On the profile of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the tool indicates that a worker on the CIA network reportedly added the exclamation "Wahhhhhh!" before a section on the leader's plans for his presidency.

This was enough to prompt Wikipedia to issue a warning about vandalizing behavior (along with a polite request to cease and desist) but, apparently, not enough for Wikipedia to undo the vandalism.

Lest with think that only the right-wing is capable of such outrageous behavior, Fildes points out that Rush Limbaugh is faring no better than Ahmadinejad:

The [monitoring] site also indicates that a computer owned by the US Democratic Party was used to make changes to the site of right-wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh.

The changes brand Mr Limbaugh as "idiotic," a "racist", and a "bigot". An entry about his audience now reads: "Most of them are legally retarded."

The IP address is registered in the name of the Democratic National Headquarters.

Furthermore, this is a game that is being played beyond the borders of the United States:

The site also indicates that Vatican computers were used to remove content from a page about the leader of the Irish republican party Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams.

The edit removed links to newspaper stories written in 2006 that alleged that Mr Adams' fingerprints and handprints were found on a car used during a double murder in 1971.

The section, titled "Fresh murder question raised" is no longer part of the main online encyclopaedia entries.

The final example Fildes cites involves Diebold editing out links to stories about the alleged role of their digital voting machines in the rigging of the 2000 election.

I take this all as evidence that the wisdom-of-crowds Wikipedia philosophy is only viable if one can assume the good will of all the participants. All it takes is one or two incidents that involve deliberately introducing "noise" to the content to turn the very editing process into a mud-slinging contest. In other words the information content of Wikipedia entries will rapidly descend to the information level of most political advertising (or just about any other form of advertising, for that matter). Like it or not, the authority of a cool-headed, informed, and skeptical editor really does add value when the publication of information is at stake!

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