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December 15, 2005
Wikipedia hit by surge in spoof articles
By Simon Freeman
Wikipedia was yesterday described as being as reliable as the Encyclopaedia Britannica despite a sustained attack from vandals intent on further wrecking its reputation for accuracy.
In an online article published by the respected scientific journal Nature , articles in Wikipedia - the web-based encyclopaedia created by volunteers - compared favourably to those in the foremost repository of knowledge in the English language.
This is despite a surge in the number of spoof articles and vandal attacks which have followed the furore over a biographical Wikipedia article linking John Seigenthaler, a respected retired journalist, with the assassinations of both John F and Robert Kennedy.
In one such fake article, it was suggested today that Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's creator, was shot dead at his home by Siegenthaler's wife.
Wikipedia's founder accepts that the site's open and egalitarian nature renders it vulnerable to such attacks, but after the Seigenthaler scandal he promised to tighten up procedures to prevent misleading articles from being published.
A cursory search today suggested that these procedures - which require contributors to register basic details before posting articles - were being defeated by a relentless wave of vandals, apparently co-ordinating their assaults from a series of chatrooms dedicated to its demise.
The loss of credibility has caused commentators to question whether Wikipedia is destined to follow the LA Times's doomed experiment in unrestricted internet comment, Wikitorial, which had to be closed down after just two days under a bombardment of pornographic postings.
Today's false report of its founder's murder read: "At 18:54 EST on December 12, John Seigenthaler's wife, who was infuriated at Wikipedia regarding the recent scandal regarding his role in the Kennedy Assassination, came into the house, where Jim was having dinner. Wearing a mask, he [sic] shot him three times in the head and ran."
A search for the term 'Wikipedia' revealed the one-line entry: "An encyclopedia full of crap."
Subsequent searches revealed: "Although it may seem factual, Wikipedia is largely a web of lies and falsehoods, and it is not to be trusted by any means. Do not use wikipedia as a source for anything; it is worthless."
And later: "Editors are encouraged to uphold a policy of sticking it's head up it's ass; under which notable perspectives are summarised without an attempt to determine an objective truth."
The army of 600 volunteer editors were rapidly updating and amending the falsified entries, but the continued assault highlighted flaws in one of the best-loved and most successful websites.
The embarrassing attacks came despite the survey published in Nature which suggested that errors on Wikipedia appeared to be the exception rather than the rule after the journal used peer review to compare Wikipedia to Britannica.
Based on 42 articles reviewed by experts, the average scientific entry in Wikipedia contained four errors or omissions, while Britannica had three.
Jimmy Wales, who is still very much alive, said: "We’re very pleased with the results and we’re hoping it will focus people’s attention on the overall level of our work, which is pretty good." He said that Wikipedia plans to begin testing a new mechanism for reviewing the accuracy of its articles from next month.
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