Published in the Toronto Sun and Sun Media papers March, 2007.
Were you to look up the entry Rocky Mountains in Wikipedia recently, you would have happened upon a curious little ditty that went something like this.
“Waters from the Platte River, the Snake River and the Rio Grande are known for their healing properties, able to cure conditions like excema, dehydration and syphilis. When mixed with equal parts sugar and lemon juice, it is said to be a refreshing tonic in the summer,” it read. “Locals warn, however, not to consume water from Snake River untreated between the hours of 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., as it’s been known to turn people into furless rodents.” The addition was made on a recent Tuesday at 5:38 p.m. and remained on the site for about five hours before it was flagged as vandalism, taken down at
10:35 p.m. by a one Vsmith who issued a stern warning to the author.
“Welcome to Wikipedia. We invite everyone to contribute constructively to our encyclopedia,” they wrote. “However, unconstructive edits are considered vandalism and immediately reverted. If you continue in this manner you may be blocked from editing without further warning. Please stop, and consider improving rather than damaging the work of others. Thank you.” Admittedly, it was a cheeky experiment by Sun Media, but one that proved a valid point: If anyone can go onto the world’s largest online encyclopedia and tinker with things, how trustworthy is it?
The debate around Wikipedia isn’t a new, but it’s one that expands into a larger discussion about credibility on the web. Never in the history of mankind have we had as much information at our disposal and, quite literally, at our fingertips.
But with the sheer volume of information out there, is this vehicle of mass communication making us more knowledgeable, or just more misinformed?
Wikipedia touts itself as “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” The non-profit organization is growing at warp speed. In just six years - Wikipedia launched in 2001 - the site now has more than six million articles in 250 languages, 1.7 million of which are on the English site.
Articles are written collaboratively by an army of volunteers around the world, most of whom monitor subjects of personal interest or expertise and contribute consistently. Changes to Wikipedia are available immediately on the web, without formal peer review.
Just last week, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales asked contributors who claim credentials to disclose their full names instead of a pseudonym, following an incident that rankled Wikipedians. One of their most prolific contributors purporting to be a tenured professor of religion with expertise in canon law was exposed as a fraud. “EssJay,” who made over 20,000 contributions, was in fact a 24-year-old college dropout from Kentucky.
The Wikipedia philosophy is that unmoderated collaboration among “well-meaning, informed editors will gradually improve the encyclopedia...and given enough time, the truth will win out and even subtle errors will be caught and corrected.” Their hope is that “over time” the truth will emerge. But how and when is the average reader on a fact-finding mission to decipher the truth then?
For example, a search for Sgt. Cam Woolley - an Ontario Provincial Police communications officer with a highly visible profile - turned up an odd sentence recently (Sun Media is innocent in this edit):
“He presently holds the British Commonwealth title for most nachos eaten by a law enforcement officer.” But when asked, Woolley guffawed, laughing, “I don’t even like nachos.” He took it in stride, saying he’s learned to “expect it” as a public figure..
“We essentially have to be our own filters,” said Warren Nightingale, media education specialist with Media Awareness Network, an Ottawa-based resource centre for teachers. “It puts more burden upon the viewer, but at the same time it’s also more empowering.” Empowering only if viewers choose to let it be, said BJ Fogg, director of the Persuasive Lab Technology at Stanford University which studies web credibility.
“Determining credibility requires individuals learn how to judge information quality and put effort into it,” Fogg said. “But humans are too lazy, and we’re not going to change that.” Ideally, viewers should be able to determine who’s behind the site and check out if the host could have ulterior motives or vested commercial interests, advised Nightingale. Information should be up to date and the more credible the site - like an academic one - will give it more credence.
Deconstructing the language is also an important consideration, Nightingale said.
“Is the language heated? Does it present a balanced approach to the information, or does it read like personal testimony?” The network also suggests cross-referencing information with at least three other sources and to consider links.
“Input the site into a search engine and see how many are linked to it. If it’s linked by governments, schools and academic web sites, chances are it’s legitimate.” Experts widely cite studies showing that web browsers tend to assess a site’s credibility based solely on appearances.
It’s a modern take on judging a book by its cover, only now people are judging a web site by its homepage.
“If the site is designed in a way that’s professional and official, people tend to believe the information,” said Andrew Flanagin, assistant professor of communication and published author at the University of California.
“Most people aren’t as critical as they should be,” he said, though most recognize what they should be looking for.
Flanagin points to an example of a deceptively credible web site www.martinlutherking.org. The site comes up as the fourth of 22 million
hits, listed under a Google search for the activist.
At first glance, the site appears official, promising to provide “a true historical examination” of the man. But scroll down the page, and viewers will read in small type that the site is hosted by Stormfront. Click on the link and they’re taken to a white supremacist discussion page, “White Pride World Wide.” “The overarching point here is we constantly need to take it upon ourselves to be critical consumers,” Flanagin said.
Journalists aren’t infallible either to falling prey to questionable sites.
In recent weeks, the satirical magazine Frank proudly announced how it pulled a fast one on press baron Conrad Black and media outlets around the world including the UK’s The Guardian, and the Chicago Reader, when they set up a bogus supportconradblack.com website.
There’s been an important shift in the way information is viewed now, Fogg said - one that forward-thinking entrepreneurs are capitalizing on.
Instead of assessing credibility solely on the content of the information, Internet viewers are now evaluating the person behind the words, he said.
“As a shortcut, we will turn to communities and filters that we trust.” He calls these filters “portable reputation systems,” which give people the thumbs up or down - a scoring system that will take out the guess work for web users.
Fogg likens it to his university credentials - a Stanford PhD - which gives him instant credibility and a stamp of approval.
“We’ll see that model played out on the web where computer systems will put their stamp of credibility on individuals.” Rapleaf.com is one such example. Users on the site are able to rate people’s credibility as a buyer, seller or friend as well as find out how a potential seller checks out before handing money over to a stranger based on their email address.
“In a few years, you’ll be able to assess virtually everyone online,” he said.In the meantime, users will have to rely on their good sense to understand, for example, that though it was temporarily posted on the world’s largest encyclopedia, hunters have not resorted to the more humane method of seal hunting by coaxing the animals with peanut butter and apricot jam sandwiches. That is thanks to overseers like Vsmith