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by Stephen Logan on 29th June 2009
Wikipedia rarely escapes the ire of academics or journalists for its purporting of truth in a user-generated environment. Whilst the level of accuracy is usually reasonably good, there are occasional aberrations that highlight the potential misuse of the site.
Earlier in the week Michael Jackson fans became embroiled in a mad scramble to edit and update his status based upon the developing news story surrounding his death. Even before it was confirmed, the singer’s page announced he had passed away, moving some to change it in order to reflect this. Confusion reigned though when fans refused to accept the unofficial news and removed all references to it. This ultimately caused Wikipedia to halt all editing on Jackson’s page until the news could be verified.
Today though, stories have emerged of a far murkier scenario, whereby Wikipedia were asked to flagrantly hide the truth – removing all factual posts to the contrary in the process. The story concerns New York Times reporter David Rohde and his kidnapping in Afghanistan and subsequent seven months in captivity.
A media blackout was agreed between all of the major news sources in order to protect the journalist. It was assumed that heightened press attention would add value to his captivity and possibly endanger Mr. Rohde. Unfortunately though, whilst The New York Times and their counterparts adhered to this entente cordiale, the same wasn’t true of Wikipedia.
A number people caught the whiff of a story and promptly published news of the kidnapping on the online encyclopaedia. As soon as this was discovered the New York Times immediately went about ensuring that the information was quickly removed. Unfortunately, that was far from the end of it. Anonymous users continually attempted to include details of Rohde’s ordeal, without obviously realising the magnitude of the media blackout that had been put in place.
The good news is that David Rohde escaped his Taliban captors along with his translator, both with only minor injuries. But of course the most obvious question this does raise is whether or not news should be allowed to be suppressed? Whilst the motivation may have been noble in this case, many might question the perceived infringement on freedom of speech. Worse still, it may make some question what else there is that we aren’t being told.
The Internet has an enormous power for good, helping small companies reach large audience and providing a platform for the free exchange of ideas and opinions. Unfortunately this is counteracted with an equally imposing negative side. Was Wikipedia wrong to become involved in the reporting of the news in these two instances? Where should they draw the line? If they are claiming to represent a public resource for facts and are suppressing news, does that affect the credibility of the site?
Undoubtedly they will face a good number of questions along these lines in the coming weeks, as will The Times and their media comrades. But it will be interesting to see how people will perceive this news; particularly in light of our earlier post on the censorship of the Internet (Google Go on the Offensive Over State-led Internet Censorship). Wikipedia always has to be taken with a pinch of salt, just as with news stories emerging from individuals on any of the major social media sites.
The line between truth and hoax is becoming increasingly blurred thanks to anonymous user-based news. It is this that ultimately leads many media consumers to turn to the more reliable traditional outlets; those who stand to lose a good deal if found to be offering falsified reports, not hiding behind the near bullet-proof protection that publishing online affords.