When Rush Limbaugh went into the hospital with serious chest pains last week, some joker updated the Wikipedia entry on Limbaugh to say that he had died. Within a couple hours, the false information had been caught and fixed, but Radar Online reported that Wikipedia “pronounced him dead” shortly after the news of his hospitalization broke. World Net Daily made a similar statement last July, announcing in a headline that “Wikipedia says Obama born in Kenya” and that “online encyclopedia can’t make up its mind on president’s birthplace” when the entry was corrected shortly thereafter.
A lot of people do not understand how Wikipedia works, so allow me to explain. Wikipedia is an open source encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Anyone can set up an account free of charge and then start posting updates to various entries on the site. Wikipedia is not CNN.com or MSNBC.com or the New York Times, all of which have paid staff that actually represent the site or newspaper, and filters to make sure the information presented is accurate. Wikipedia should not be confused with the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Anyone who has a Wikipedia account could update the entry on President Barack Obama, claiming that he was a concentration camp guard in World War II, and then use Wikipedia as a “source” to back up that claim. Of course, we know this is simply not possible, because President Obama was not even born until more than 15 years after the end of the World War II.
World Net Daily should have known better last summer, when they citied the Wikipedia edits to push the conspiracy theories about Obama’s birth certificate back to the front page. After all, WND was one of the earliest conservative e-zines and the editors should be familiar with how sites like Wikipedia work. Stating that Wikipedia “can’t make up its mind” when users are posting conflicting information was at best ignorant and at worst dishonest. The latter is much more likely than the former.
Now, in fairness to Wikipedia, the users and administrators do a pretty good job of making sure the claims made on the site are well vetted and sourced with footnotes. For casual research on a topic, Wikipedia is a good source to use and I it quite frequently to look something up. But because of the nature of the site, I would never use it as a source for an article I am writing, and I would certainly never use it in an academic setting. Most college professors would not accept Wikipedia as a source for a paper, and any student who uses it would likely see his grade suffer as a result.
The point, though, is that Wikipedia itself does not make mistakes. Wikipedia’s users make mistakes and sometimes intentionally post false information. Wikipedia is like any other site where people can register an account and post as they please, including Facebook, MySpace and various discussion forums scattered throughout cyberspace. The information provided is only as good as the footnotes, the credibility of the users posting the edits and the research skills of those users.