The Internet: A Cornucopia of False Information?

April 2006

Imagine John Seigenthaler’s surprise last November when he read in an Internet encyclopedia that he was suspected of being involved in the assassinations of John F. and Robert Kennedy. The article also claimed that he had lived in the Soviet Union for 13 years.

This demonstrably false information about the 78-year-old former editor and publisher of The Tennessean newspaper was eventually found to have been put into the encyclopedia as a prank. But it had been online for four months before Seigenthaler discovered it and had it deleted.

And when he did discover it, he wrote about it in USA Today and drew worldwide attention to the incident.

The encyclopedia in question, of course, is Wikipedia. Launched in 2001, this collaborative web site is now the world’s largest encyclopedia with nearly 900,000 articles in English.

Unlike most encyclopedias, anyone can contribute to this one. Therein lies its success — and its failure. The open nature has resulted in a trove of useful information, especially in the science and technology areas. But on controversial topics, Wikipedia articles sometimes descend into a free-for-all, and the information may be biased or inaccurate.

The Wikipedia controversy continues to play out. After the spate of articles noting the errors and inaccuracies in some of the entries, the British journal Nature published a study that compared the relative accuracy of Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica, finding that the two were about the same in their coverage of science topics.

The controversy highlights one of the present dangers of the Internet. Like Wikipedia, its growth has been phenomenal, from a handful of web pages 12 years ago to perhaps 20 billion today. And like the articles in Wikipedia, the information on those pages varies in quality.

Two conclusions can be drawn from this. The first is that Internet users need to learn to be discriminative when using the Internet — including Wikipedia. And second, the Internet is, in a sense, overthrowing traditional institutions of information.

Throughout the 20th Century information had largely been the province of mainstream media: broadcasters, magazines, newspapers, book publishers. It cost a considerable amount of money to make information available, and if they were to compete in the marketplace, that information had to be credible. Their stock in trade was accuracy. And many of these institutions had procedures in place for verifying that accuracy.

Enter the Internet. Suddenly anyone could publish anything at virtually no cost. The information and opinion on the Instapundit blog competed with the New York Times. The careful and cultivated control of information devolved into, in the eyes of many librarians, information anarchy.

Yet at the same time it has been somehow rejuvenating. Because hand in hand with institutional control has often been institutional censorship, which is why countries like China are trying to put restrictions on the Internet. Some critics have also noted that the Internet has surmounted a sort of tacit censorship in the United States. Mainstream media can sometimes tend to follow the herd, to hew to common idioms such as President George Bush’s supposed lack of intelligence. A reader or viewer would be hard pressed to find an article or news segment praising his intelligence or insight.

The phalanx of personal blogs has brought a fresh voice and has occasionally influenced public dialog and politics, most notably being credited with bringing down Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott in 2002 after he made inappropriate remarks at the 100th birthday party of Strom Thurmond.

In its scope and almost organic vitality, the Internet is like nothing the world has seen before, and the key lies in using it intelligently. Here are steps sometimes recommended by information professionals:

• Be skeptical; don’t assume information online is true

• Pay attention to effectiveness and correctness of presentation to get a sense for overall quality

• Try to determine who’s responsible for the site, whether an individual, institution, university, government, media organization, etc.

• Look for an About This Site link or other information or clues to determine the point of view or bias of the site. Clues include the links to other sites, sponsored links, and ads. Use LinkPopularity.com to see who’s linking to the site

• Try to determine the purpose and audience of the site

• Look for an indication of how current the material is

In the face of uncertain information online, one fact rings true: Wikipedia and the Internet itself have taken on a life of their own and are only going to become larger and more pervasive. The lesson: learn how to deal with it.


© 2006 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D

E-mail Jim Karpen