Wikipedia has brought a wealth of knowledge to the online world, enabled by its crowdsourcing approach that permits anyone to add and edit articles on any subject. But a by-product of opening such a system to the public is that Wikipedia has also been blighted by so-called “vandalism” since its inception.
According to Wikipedia’s own entry on the subject, Wikipedia vandalism is:
…any addition, removal, or change of content, in a deliberate attempt to damage Wikipedia.
Examples of typical vandalism are adding irrelevant obscenities and crude humor to a page, illegitimately blanking pages, and inserting obvious nonsense into a page. Abusive creation or usage of user accounts and IP addresses may also constitute vandalism.
Wikipedia history is littered with many such examples, some humorous and harmless, others defamatory and damaging. While there are countless debates to be had around the subject of vandalism on the online encyclopedia, what constantly surprises me is that the practice seems to grab mainstream headlines.
Just a couple of months back, a mischievous soccer fan edited the Wikipedia listing for Manchester City F.C.’s stadium after the team was defeated by Liverpool F.C. Numerous edits were made, such as:
As of 22/11/2015, it has been renamed as Liverpool FC U19 Training Ground in honor [sic] of the utter humiliation suffered by the Manchester City first team at the hands of the Liverpool FC first team.
The incident garnered a significant amount of media attention, including from esteemed publications such as the Guardian. And last July, when controversial entrepreneur and would-be politician Donald Trump had the entire text from his Wikipedia entry deleted — the mainstream media was on hand to report it.
What the media seems to forget in its reporting of such incidents is how easy it is for anyone to temporarily tamper with a Wikipedia article. Literally anybody with a computer and the smallest amount of technological nous can log in and edit just about anything on Wikipedia. Heck, a journalist could even change some articles anonymously, grab a few screenshots, and then report on it themselves.
So why does such digital vandalism become news?
The most logical conclusion is that such incidents serve as easy wins for the online media. Whether an edit is humorous or controversial, the fact is that the incident happened, and reporters can get easy clicks and bump up their page views off the back of it.
As a side point, there are many instances of false Wikipedia entries that do deserve to be reported. The online encyclopedia faces constant criticism and scrutiny over biased editing. Back in September, the Wikimedia Foundation reported it had blocked 400 “sockpuppet” user accounts on the grounds of undisclosed paid advocacy. Instances where politicians or corporations promote a certain agenda is an entirely separate issue from the kind of vandalism we’re talking about here.
Jeff Elder, digital communications manager at the Wikimedia Foundation (the parent organization behind Wikipedia), has published some observations on the practice of Wikipedia vandalism and the media’s role in reporting it. In particular, Elder points to Wikipedia’s built-in mechanisms designed to combat spurious activity. These include the ability to easily revert articles to a prior state and to “protect” them from further edits for a set period of time.
Referring to the Manchester City / Liverpool incident, Elder said:
The Guardian‘s story was published at 11:28 a.m. GMT, and shared on social media 4,498 times.
Yet before the story ever appeared online, the vandalism reported by The Guardian was reverted. Within an hour of publication, the Wikipedia article was “protected,” or closed to anonymous edits.
The speed of the reversion could not chase down online reporting of the vandalism. Few actually saw the bad edits—yet according to Google News, 1,541 articles reported the vandalism, including The Mirror and BBC News Online.
Anybody who has made an occasional Wikipedia edit will know how quick the wider Wikipedia community is to make corrections or to question the veracity of an update. That is the power of the crowd. And any dubious changes made to a high-profile Wikipedia profile, such as those belonging to famous people or sports teams, will nearly always be reversed before any serious damage is done. The fact that media outlets report on the incidents, regardless, supports the notion that reporters want an easy story and a few LOLs, even though there is no real news to report.
There is another good reason why the media should think twice before reporting on the activity of Wikipedia vandals. Elder makes an apt comparison to sports games exhibitionists, such as streakers who run onto fields, whose stunts cause games to stop and police / stewards to intervene. Traditionally, viewers at home would never get a chance to see those incidents in real time, because TV networks don’t want to encourage such behavior. If they did broadcast it, we would likely see more attention-seeking activity at sports games.
And this is perhaps what we’re seeing in the online world. It’s all too easy for any prankster to tamper with a Wikipedia article, and if the fruits of Mr. Anon’s handiwork will end up as a story in the Guardian or Washington Post, then that may be too hard to resist.
As we approach another U.S. presidential election, we will likely see many more examples of tampering, tinkering, and general chicanery in the world of Wikipedia. I just hope the world’s media can learn to ignore it.