Accuracy On Planet Wiki
By Chippla Vandu
Bryan Wilhite of the rasx context recently drew my attention to the concept of Wikiality, following an article I had earlier written called The Wikipedia Effect.
In July 2006, Stephen Colbert, an American comedian, coined the word wikiality to mean "truth by consensus." Given that anybody, anywhere in the world, is allowed to write or modify Wikipedia articles, Colbert spoke of the birth of an era in which truth is driven by consensus rather than by fact:
"You see, any user can change any [Wikipedia] entry, and if enough other users agree with them, it becomes true...If only the entire body of human knowledge worked this way. And it can, thanks to tonight's word: Wikiality…Who is [Encyclopedia] Britannica to tell me that George Washington had slaves? If I want to say he didn't, that's my right. And now, thanks to Wikipedia, it's also a fact. We should apply these principles to all information. All we need to do is convince a majority of people that some factoid is true...What we're doing is bringing democracy to knowledge."
In The Wikipedia Effect, I complained of inherent biases and inaccuracies found in some Wikipedia articles, especially those revolving around social, economic and political issues. My argument was that the bulk of those who wrote for the English language Wikipedia resided in certain parts of the world (the United States and Western Europe), leading some entries to display glaring prejudices, stereotypes and factual errors, especially when the issues at hand relate to people, events or societies outside the United States and Western Europe.
Bryan Wilhite, who is probably an American, attests to being a frequent user of Wikipedia and states, like me, that wikiality is one of the patterns he has come across. In order to put wikiality to test, I decided to visit the Wikipedia page on one of the most controversial events of the past decade, and the 21st century—the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
On arriving at the Wikipedia page, I was met by the sign of a padlock, with the following information:
This page is currently protected from editing until disputes have been resolved. Please discuss changes on the talk page or request unprotection. Protection is not an endorsement of the current version.
The Wikipedia entry on the September 11, 2001 attacks could almost read for an official document from the United States government, which one could be certain, more than half of the world's population would disagree with. For instance, the article states:
"...The hijackers crashed two of the airliners (United Airlines Flight 175 and American Airlines Flight 11) into the World Trade Center in New York City, one plane into each tower (1 WTC and 2 WTC), resulting in the collapse of both buildings soon afterward..."
This article links the collapse of the World Trade Center (WTC) buildings to the simple fact that two hijacked airliners crashed into them. This is not only extremely controversial, but also contrary to logic, good engineering judgment and common sense, given that the airliners crashed into upper sections of the towers. Yet, the steel and concrete towers came tumbling down like a pack of cards in well under two hours.
But then, this is the era of democratic truth. If the Wikipedia majority believes the towers came down because of the airplanes, the minority might as well just go with the flow. Or should they?
Recently, a contributor to Wikipedia left a comment on the September 11, 2001 Wikipedia Talk Page in which he stated, concerning claims that an American Airlines Boeing 757 crashed into the Pentagon,—probably the most controversial event on September 11, 2001:
"Do we [at Wikipedia] really know, even with the sources that American Airlines Flight 77 actually crashed into the pentagon?…There has been much debate on what actually happened, and I don't think that we should display these events as fact if we're not almost certain that these events took place. I'm not unpatriotic or anything of the sort, but I think that we really don't know that these events occurred."
Unfortunately, Wikipedia does not currently allow any modifications to the article on the September 11, 2001 attacks. And, this is wikiality at its very best—truth as believed by the [American] majority.
Good enough though, for those who do not believe in or fully subscribe to the official United States government or the Wikipedia versions of September 11, 2001, there is a growing number of dissident voices out there (the so-called Conspiracy Theorists) that keeps asking loads of questions and presenting new facts.
The most interesting I have come across is a documentary put forward by some young Americans in their early twenties. Called Loose Change, and available for viewing on Google video, it asks tons of questions about the events of September 11, 2001 using documents available from mainstream media.
Wikiality should not prevent well-meaning individuals from making contributions to Wikipedia articles. After all, a study by the journal Nature recently showed that Wikipedia isn't that much inaccurate when compared to Encyclopedia Britannica.
But, one should always be cautious of the fact that the truths on Wikipedia (or Encyclopedia Britannica) are historical or scientific facts laden with views of the authors. With Wikipedia though, one could change what he knows to be absolutely wrong. With Britannica, one simply can't—at least, not instantly.
But then, at the end of the day, wikiality wins. Welcome to the world's most democratic source of information, which veers towards autocracy when topics become highly controversial.
Chippla Vandu is a writer and research scientist. He blogs as Chippla.
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