December 4, 2005

How easy it is to defame someone in Wikipedia.

Who is accountable? Or should we just not worry?
Lawrence Lessig, a law professor at Stanford and an expert in the laws of cyberspace, said that contrary to popular belief, true defamation was easily pursued through the courts because almost everything on the Internet was traceable and subpoenas were not that hard to obtain. (For real anonymity, he advised, use a pay phone.)

"People will be defamed," he said. "But that's the way free speech is. Think about the gossip world. It spreads. There's no way to correct it, period. Wikipedia is not immune from that kind of maliciousness, but it is, relative to other features of life, more easily corrected."


Dave said...

Wikipedia is a fascinating experiment but the things that they get wrong boggles the mind. I realize you're discussing defamation in particular, but because defamation is a kind of distortion of facts, bear with me here.

I recall, for example, that the Wikipedia entry for Mary Lou Retton refers to her as the most famous person ever to have been on a Wheaties box; that's hard to assert when Michael Jordan has been on. (This may have been changed since I noticed it.)

Another entry I saw claimed that the band Iron Maiden got their name from Churchill's phrase "iron curtain"; this is not true either. Iron Maidens were a medieval torture device, and the inspiration can be seen in the band's imagery.

Icepick said...

Dave, perhaps the Iron Maiden entry was written by Sharon Osbourne....

Dave said...

Is Sharon Osbourne not supposed to like that band?

the Rising Jurist said...

The Mary Lou Retton thing is a prime example of why Wikipedia is garbage. People don't seem to understand the difference between fact and opinion, between the sort of things that belong in an encyclopedia and those that don't.

EddieP said...

Wikipedia is what it is. People who demand it to be the final authority on any matter are bound to be disappointed. As to libel, I've no idea, but it seems a weak argument.

Jonathan said...

An anonymous comment in an old discussion thread on a group blog I participate in was the source for the inaccurate birthdate reported by Wikipedia for a well-known author. I only learned about this because someone emailed me (anonymously) to ask me to correct the birthdate in the old comment so that the Wikipedia entry could be corrected! I don't think you can trust Wikipedia for anything, not even for simple information that has no political angle.

chuck b. said...

John Siegenthaler (former RFK aide [or JFK--like I care], now USA Today editor) wrote an op-ed about his own defamation on Wikipedia (someone wrote he was long considered a conspiracy suspect in the murder) and he went on and on about how hard it was to find anyone accountable at Wikipedia, etc. Here it is.

I'm sorry, but if you don't like what it says, just change it. You can even leave a note that says "Hi, I'm John Siegenthaler, and I was never a conspiracy suspect and I consider such accusations defamatory."

Ben Regenspan said...

Wikipedia is what it is. People who demand it to be the final authority on any matter are bound to be disappointed.
The problem is that Wikipedia's greatest evangelists are exactly these sort of people, which is why they currently seem to be working on hardbound editions for developing countries (where there is a deficit of knowledge that Mary Lou Retton was the most famous person to appear on a Wheaties box that apparently must be remedied immediately).

Tom T. said...

Why should it be Siegenthaler's (or anyone else's) burden to check Wikipedia on a daily or hourly basis to see if someone is running a defamatory hate campaign against him?

Doesn't everyone have a relationship that ended badly in their past? How would you like it if an angry ex girl- or boyfriend anonymously posted a Wikipedia entry about you falsely stating that you have a sexually transmitted disease and a criminal record for theft? And reposted those lies after you went in and changed it? And did so every week? Do you want to have to explain those circumstances to every future date and every future potential new employer? Why shouldn't Wikipedia be liable for spreading those lies?

HaloJonesFan said...

>if you don't like what it says,
> just change it.

:rolleyes: First off, if you're trying to pass Wikipedia off as an authoritative source, then you should downplay the fact that anyone in the world can change any of the articles in any way they want.

Second, Wikipedia runs on a de facto seniority system. If you've been there longer, then your changes will "stick"; someone who recently registered will see those changes disappear if a higher-up doesn't like them. John S: "Sorry, but I wasn't involved in any conspiracy." WP bigshot: "sorry, but yes u wer" (deletes John S's comment)

chuck b. said...

It's not Siegenthaler's responsibility to check what Wikipedia says about him. But having found an error, he can easily fix it.

There are many, many places on the Internet where people can write anonymous slurs about third parties that the general public can read--many of which are much harder to correct than Wikipedia.

Furthermore, Wikipedia offers users the opportunity to challenge the neutrality of an entry (See Palestine Territories).

And as for the deletion of a correction, there is no indication in this case that Siegenthaler made a correction.

I'm all for not defaming people. I think Siegenthaler's "case" against Wikipedia is weak.

chuck b. said...

And besides, doesn't the tort of defamation require the likelihood of people actually believing the accusation? (I'm not a lawyer, so I expect to be correted if I'm wrong.)

If anyone can say anything on Wikipedia (which is probably not exactly true in the first place), then how can there be likelihood of believing anything that gets said?

And who can credulously believe *anything* relating to alleged conspiracies to assassinate the various Kennedys? Isn't that all hokum?

And the statement wasn't "Siegenthaler participated in a conspiracy", it was something like "Some believed he participated in a conspiracy"... isn't that different?

And doesn't Siegenthaler have to show "harm" for a case of defamation. Duty, Breach, Cause, and Harm as I recall. Where's the harm?

His feelings were hurt. That's a different tort--the intentional infliction of emotional distress-- which has a much higher hurdle to clear, no? Siegenthaler has to have a stroke or something.

Palladian said...

"Second, Wikipedia runs on a de facto seniority system. If you've been there longer, then your changes will "stick"; someone who recently registered will see those changes disappear if a higher-up doesn't like them."

While it is true that things you write on Wikipedia might get "changed" (or reformatted or corrected) eventually, this has nothing to do with "seniority". Ann's question about defamation is an interesting one. The standard Wikipedia bitch session isn't.

chuck b. said...

(Palladian, you have some interesting stuff on your website...the installation with the arrows..? neat!)

HaloJonesFan said...

If Wikipedia wants to be taken seriously, then it needs to have a serious approach to ensuring the accuracy and fairness of its articles. Allowing random strangers to walk in off the street and write whatever they want is not serious.

Bruce Hayden said...

Slightly OT, but one of my big complaints about Wikipedia is when it is used as a definitive or original source. It isn't. Rather, esp. when the contents of a page are controversial, you sometimes find what I call a "voting" effect. The point of view that can mobilize the greatest number of posters will typically win.

That said, I do find it a useful tool - though not autoritative.

Palladian said...

chuck b, thanks!


"Allowing random strangers to walk in off the street and write whatever they want is not serious."

Sounds like the mainstream media attitude about blogs.

Pogo said...

Wikipedia seems to be relying on "good information driving out the bad" as the method by which the actual truth of a thing is written.

Hogwash, of course. While that might happen eventually, one cannot be sure that the entry one is currently reading is true, false, defamatory, nearly true, partially true, approaching truth, or wholly fabricated. At present, Wikipedia entries should be considered as reliable as a guy in a bar. He may be a master historian, a conspiracy theorist, or just a drunk blowhard. And you have to guess which it is, at the moment you decide to consult Wikipedia.

Read Wikipedia: it might just be true!
Wikipedia: almost 80% accurate, most days!
Wikipedia: Caution Bring your own breathalyzer
really don't seem like the best advertising tag lines.
What use is such an encyclopedia? Feh.