A few years ago when I was teaching fifth grade, I discovered the risks in using Wikipedia for research.
Someone decided to play around with the Wikipedia entry for our small Massachusetts town. Some of it was hilarious, like the section that said that we were founded “after the battle of Funkytown.”
Some parts of the changes, called vandalism by Wiki editors, were not so appropriate for ten-year-olds. The entry was fixed, but we never did find out who made the changes in the first place.
We could have used the scanner app that WiseBread reported.
A young man named Virgil Griffith was thinking about Wikipedia a few years ago, according to the report. He heard that some members of Congress liked to sort of “clean up” their own Wikipedia pages. He wondered about who else was getting in there to change their entries.
Virgil is a hacker. He grew up cheating on video games and getting into trouble in school.
Naturally, he created a way to see who was editing Wikipedia. He created an app called WikiScanner. The scanner worked by cross referencing internet provider (IP) addresses with a list of IP address owners. This meant scanner users could find out who had taken embarrassing stuff off a page.
This obviously got Virgil into some trouble.
New personal best! I’ve received 6 legal threats within the past 5 days. Just copyright though );
— Virgil Griffith (@virgilgr) February 9, 2015
Wikipedia was designed to create open and free content that can be adapted and changed as needed. Nearly anyone who uses the site can edit the pages. The risk of that is the kind of shenanigans and vandalism that shocked my fifth-graders, but there is a more sinister risk as well.
Virgil quickly discovered that many public figures and businesses were whitewashing their public images by editing information on Wikipedia. A few examples of what he found are included here:
- On the 9/11 page, the National Rifle Association added that Iraq was involved in the attack.
- Exxon Mobile was editing information about environmental damage on oil spill pages.
- Walmart removed negative information about its low wages and about its outsourcing of jobs.
- Fox News took out all negative or controversial information from its page.
Virgil Griffith may have been trying, as he said:
“To create minor public-relations disasters for companies and organizations I dislike.”
He did more than that, though. He made this valuable, open source Wiki website more transparent and trustworthy. That’s absolutely vital for a site used by so many people from around the world.
Unfortunately, Virgil’s WikiScanner app is no longer available. It was apparently simply too expensive to host, which is a shame.
A newer site called WikiWatchdog keeps track of these sneaky edits. It lets you enter the web address of an organization or company (i.e., the U.S. Senate) and search for edits that were made my anonymous computers belonging to that organization.
Wikipedia can still check for vandalism, and fix it when it happens. Some key pages are locked, or “protected” and “semi-protected,” which results in editing being closed to the general public. Only Wikipedia administrators and other reputable editors with permission may make changes to these pages.
Additionally, Wikipedia’s “Recent Changes Patrol,” keeps an eye on every single edit made to Wikipedia via human beings who inspect every edit made. This includes edits made to old, already existing pages, and new pages going up. Human inspection ensures the reliability of the information provided.
Unfortunately, because humans monitor the edits, and because humans control the protected pages, vandalism may go unnoticed for some time before it’s fixed.
That’s why Virgil’s WikiScanner was, and WikiWatchdog is so important to the future of knowledge, and to Wikipedia.
We live in a brave new world where all the information we crave is right at our fingertips. It’s crucial to make sure that information is accurate.
Featured image A Screenshot of SmallBusinessNewz Video Via YouTube.