Man’s name added to scandal by Wikipedia user: A cautionary tale of verification
Ben Koo of Awful Announcing did some great detective work to clear the name of Joe Streater, whose name had been dragged into the history of the Boston College point-shaving scandal of 1978-79, despite Streater never having been implicated. In fact, as Koo points out, Streater wasn’t even a member of the 1978-79 BC team.
In Guilt By Wikipedia: How Joe Streater became falsely attached to the Boston College point shaving scandal, Koo shows how an anonymous user added Streater’s name to the Wikipedia entry about the scandal:
There is no mention of Streater that we can find as being involved the scandal before 2008. In May of 2007, a Wikipedia article had been created and can be found in its original incarnation here.
On August 12th, 2008 an anonymous Wikipedia user for all intents and purposes then rewrote history. We don’t know why or who, but on that day 43 characters were added to the page. The bulk of these edits were the addition of Streater’s name five times into the article. The changes to the article on that day can be found here. From that day in 2008 up until yesterday, Streater’s name was never confirmed, challenged, or deleted. He was now part of the scandal.
That’s a problem, but here’s the real problem: Koo writes that a variety of media outlets, including Sports Illustrated, the Associated Press and SB Nation, have included Streater’s name in pieces about the BC scandal over the years.
A Bleacher Report story, now corrected, named Streater. And of course, the AP story, reprinted countless times in outlets across the country, became a major distributor of the incorrect information.
This “snowball effect,” as Koo calls it, is a particularly dangerous enemy of the truth. It’s easy to cast Koo’s story as a lesson in why we shouldn’t trust Wikipedia. But it goes beyond that. You needn’t have trusted Wikipedia to name Streater in this case. There was his name on all sorts of other trusted sites. Heck, Sports Illustrated, one of those that named Streater, published the original first-person account by mobster Henry Hill—one in which Hill named three BC basketball players he says he bribed, none of whom was Joe Streater.
We talked about this effect recently on this blog, after someone confessed about a Wikipedia hoax they’d manufactured, inserting a false fact about a children’s literature character. From that post:
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.
In this case, Koo notes that while the Wikipedia page had citations before Streater’s name appeared, those citations have disappeared. The entry now carries a warning at the top that reads, “This article does not cite any references or sources.”
The other places where Streater’s name has shown up, including Bleacher Report, did not cite any sources for that information. That makes sense: There was no source for the information. It wasn’t true.
That’s the very difficult takeaway. Not just “don’t blindly trust Wikipedia,” but “don’t blindly trust anyone, including any major media organization you consider trustworthy.” If you’re going to use a piece of information, dig down until you find the source of it. If you can’t find that source, don’t use it.
That’s a tough call to make, but it’s one that prevents things like what happened here: it becoming accepted fact that an innocent man was part of a conspiracy. It also would have prevented the media-wide embarrassment of the Mante Te’o-Lennay Kekua story.
More B/R Blog posts on Verification.