Wikipedia, Creationism and Wall Street – the battle for online accuracy

Written on 28 October, 2008 by Jonathan Crossfield
Categories Web Design & Content

The internet thrives on the idea of democratic information – everyone has the ability to contribute to the sum of human knowledge that populates the web. Sadly, not everyone uses this new freedom with the same sense of responsibility and this can have devastating results.

The recent credit crunch and global economic slowdown has been blamed in large part on the popular practice of naked short selling. Patrick Byrne, CEO of Overstock.com, tried to raise the alarm about naked short selling over two years ago. Byrne found himself ridiculed and his fears dismissed by journalists and industry commentators on the basis of inaccurate information created on Wikipedia by someone else with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. The sorry tale was recently revealed in The Register.

Online information was distorted in a biased attempt to shut down Byrne’s arguments and convince practitioners that naked short selling was a safe practice. The popular, but untrue, perception of naked short selling continued and eventually contributed to the current collapse.

The internet, and particularly social media, has led to an amazing power for anyone to present and share information, data and opinion. Yet this huge online brain is just as prone to misperception as you or me. It has become the zeitgeist, the hive-mind, the physical embodiment of the entire human psyche – complete with knowledge, beliefs, prejudices and delusions.

I’m right and you’re wrong

The principle behind Wikipedia is highly attractive. By relying on a worldwide network of volunteers and the massive user base to create, edit and update entries, Wikipedia represents the ideal praised by many online pioneers of giving the power for the recording and ordering of information back to the people. The principle is that with thousands of contributors, errors will be spotted and corrected and the quality of information will continually improve. Everyone has an equal right to submit, edit and contribute – as long as their facts are corroborated elsewhere. But does that make the information correct?

Wikipedia has always been criticised for inaccuracy and/or bias. Some readers will try to skew an entry towards their own interpretation of events while others attempt to corroborate the alternative just as quick. Yet perceptions of Wikipedia as flawed do not prevent millions of people, including a large proportion of journalists, using the site for research.

Wikipedia versus Intelligent Design

One such battle of objectivity has occurred over the entries related to Creationism and Intelligent Design. The Wikipedia editors and moderators decided to categorise Creationism under pseudoscience instead of science.

This prompted Creationists to vehemently defend their views as a science with an equal right to the validity afforded to Evolution or the Periodic Table or Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Believers in Creationism and Intelligent Design repeatedly tried to update the entries with their views, only to be met with resistance from the moderators. Here we discover the problem with democratised information.

One group adamantly believes their view is correct, and therefore should have an equal right to include their ‘facts’. Another group – in this case the moderators – believe the views are provably false and edit the pages accordingly to preserve a legitimate quality of information. It becomes a battle of absolute right and wrong with no middle ground.

The Discovery Institute, a conservative think-tank that heavily promotes the concept of Intelligent Design (ID), frequently criticises Wikipedia for bias. “I know of numerous people who have tried to suggest changes to Wikipedia to lessen the current bias of the ID entries — including staff of Discovery Institute. They were rebuffed. The moderators of Wikipedia’s ID-pages have repeatedly rejected and censored changes that would provide some semblance of balance or objectivity to the discussion. Basic accuracy on dates and names have suffered, never mind the downright falsehoods about the science.”

Yet how is true balance to be achieved in a social network like Wikipedia?

The right to be wrong?

Part of the Creationist argument against Wikipedia sits on the idea of free speech. They argue that Wikipedia – by moderating the presentation of their views on the site – is impeding this right. But is free speech a suitable defence for provably incorrect facts that risk derailing true scientific endeavour? If The Flat Earth Society decided to present their views as fact through Wikipedia, should they be allowed to do so as free speech or should the information be filtered through a sensible benchmark of scientific proof? If I honestly believe 2+2=5, despite all evidence to the contrary, do I have an equal right to pass that ‘fact’ onto other people as the truth?

Creationists have since created their own Creation Wiki, to present their views in a way that they determine as unbiased. Of course, their entry on Evolution clearly labels Darwin’s theory as a ‘farce’, but bias is only ever in the eye of the opposition.

The inability of user-generated information gathering to avoid such disputes illustrates the incredible risk we all take in using the internet as a research tool. The way Wikipedia tries to avoid personal agendas distorting their resource is by corroboration. That is, if the facts are supported by further documentation – for example, news reports – they are accepted. This method actually has grave repercussions for anyone trying to correct their own Wikipedia entry based on their first-hand knowledge of their own lives. If inaccuracies in other biographical books and articles are used to validate entries on Wikipedia, your own personal experience will not allow you to remove or edit those mistakes. After all, many memories are not necessarily corroborated by documentation.

This is exactly the experience some celebrities have encountered, when discovering that their own recollections of their lives and careers are not deemed as reliable as a gossip-filled magazine. More alarmingly, the US comedian Sinbad was amused to discover that he had died of a heart attack, according to his Wikipedia entry.

Perpetuating the lie

All this corroboration has also led to an increase in online misinformation, exactly because Wikipedia has become so successful. As Byrne discovered when he tried to interest journalists in the naked short selling story, the majority performed their fact-checking within Wikipedia. By gathering facts from Wikipedia, mistakes became repeated on other media and then – in a cruel twist – those articles would then be used to further corroborate the Wikipedia mistakes.

There is no doubt that the internet is the greatest information resource we have ever known. The sum of human knowledge is almost entirely available with a few keystrokes. But so are all the urban myths, mistakes, rumours, spin and lies, polluting the quality of our online information. As the internet continues to evolve and grow in the future and as we find more interesting ways of swapping and sharing information of all kinds, the issue of safeguarding truth from bias or deceit is going to become bigger. Without safeguards, there is a massive risk of biased information distorting how the real world approaches real problems.

Is the current global financial crisis a taste of how this can happen?