A Wikipedia horror story: How attribution and verification can (usually) save the day
Want to hear a scary story? This one makes “Friday the 13th” look like a sweet fairy tale.
That is, if your primal fear is … trusting Wikipedia.
In “I accidentally started a Wikipedia hoax” on The Daily Dot, EJ Dickson confesses that as a college sophomore in 2009, she and a friend named Evan had made up something and added it to a Wikipedia article.
As he recalled when I called him later that evening, “we were stoned out of our minds” and had just come from the McDonald’s drive-thru to get chicken selects when we decided to edit Wikipedia pages for various semi-obscure children’s book authors.
Here’s the scary part: The thing they’d made up? Five years later, it was …
The made-up thing was that the children’s character Amelia Bedelia was “based on a maid in Cameroon, where the author had spent some time during her formative years. Her vast collection of hats, notorious for their extensive plumage, inspired Parish to write an assortment of tales based on her experiences in North.”
Even the typo, the missing word “Africa,” survived for half a decade.
It was total bullshit: We knew nothing about Amelia Bedelia or the author of the series, Peggy Parish, let alone that she’d been a maid in Cameroon or collected many hats. It was the kind of ridiculous, vaguely humorous prank stoned college students pull, without any expectation that anyone would ever take it seriously.
But it was taken seriously, repeated many times over the years in the media, including, incredibly, by Peggy Parish’s nephew, Herman Parish, who had taken over from his aunt as the author of the Amelia Bedelia books.
Isn’t this what people fear about Wikipedia? Some prankster adds some jokey “fact,” and then someone repeats it, and someone else repeats it, and eventually someone respectable repeats it, like a relative of the person in question or a writer for a respected news organization, and then those plausible repetitions get repeated and the thing becomes a fact for real.
Dickson refers to Joseph Goebbels saying that if you repeat a lie often enough it becomes true and concludes that the old Nazi may have been a sociopath but there was something to that idea after all. I found myself reminded of the famous quote from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
But it doesn’t have to be that way, even after the “fact” has been live on Wikipedia for years. “Given the tone of the writing,” Dickson asks, “and the fact that Evan and I didn’t even cite a source, why would no one see any red flags?” She asks a Wikipedia editor, who doesn’t know but offers theories about how if the subject is obscure and not one of interest to the internet-savvy, and the falsehood not too outrageous, the lie can slip through the cracks.
But if you know your stuff about attribution and verification, you’ll see that red flag and be stopped by it. Whether it’s Wikipedia or that respectable news organization, if there’s no attribution, you keep digging till you find the origin of the fact. If you can’t find that origin, if you find yourself running in circles from reference to reference without finding a source, you shouldn’t use the fact, or you should be clear that you’re not sure about its provenance.
So: Feeling safe now? Reassured? Happy? You got a good scare and now you’re ready to get on with your life?
Here’s the part where the hand reaches up from the grave:
In this case, the current author of the books, the nephew of the woman who was the subject of the false “fact,” had taken to repeating the falsehood. It’s completely reasonable to assume that Herman Parish knew what he was talking about when he talked about his own aunt, that he hadn’t internalized a lie added to Wikipedia as a prank.
Sometimes, you can’t win. The horror …