The Dangers of Trusting Wikipedia with Your Life
Journalist Michael Moynihan was inspired to start a newspaper in Prague—or so his Wikipedia entry states. Never mind that he’s never been there. He investigates the perils of trusting the online encyclopedia when you’re a nobody.
It came to me in Prague. Or possibly Copenhagen. But to minimize confusion, let’s agree upon Prague. I assume I was being unbearably pretentious, sitting beneath one of those baroque sculptures on Charles Bridge (or was it one of those other, less beautiful bridges spanning the Vltava River?), a tattered Tom Stoppard play stuffed in my back pocket (or possibly Kafka?), the Plastic People of the Universe on my headphones (could have been Dvořák). It was here, leafing through back issues of the Prague Post and Prognosis, that I was inspired to print 10,000 copies of a muckraking, nakedly ideological newspaper of my own. To be launched in Sweden. To be called the Spectator.
I must confess that these images of Prague—in all of its inspirational grandeur—are cribbed either from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being or INXS’s video for “Never Tear Us Apart.” Because despite what my Wikipedia entry tells me, I’ve never been to the Czech Republic.
It wasn’t there—or in Copenhagen, which Wikipedia also claims I had visited sometime before 2004—that the seeds of a 10,000 print-run newspaper germinated. Because although I did indeed start a modest political website in Sweden, I have never been the proprietor of a print newspaper. Nor did my Swedish girlfriend—now sentenced to be my wife—have any involvement in running the Spectator website. And I would never besmirch her reputation by suggesting that she had.
If anyone cared to read the entry closely—why would they?—it might seem odd to read that “the publication first began online” and, a few sentences later, that “the publication began with a circulation of 10,000 copies” (the first one is true, but we started and ended on the Internet). I was puzzled to find that I no longer served on the editorial board of a Swedish newspaper (which is actually a magazine; I’m still on the board) and that I “was a contributor to the Los Angeles Times in 2008” (a rather grand way of saying I participated in a single online debate about Russia).
It’s possible to quibble with or contest every second sentence in my encyclopedia entry, which quickly cratered my confidence in the website. But there are plenty of studies suggesting that Wikipedia is, despite its ability to be edited by anyone with excess free time and an Internet connection, about as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica. It also has the benefit of being up to the minute: when news breaks, when a public figure dies, details are added to Wikipedia almost immediately. A fact check of important subjects with multiple editors—Darwinism, Squeaky Fromme, the Boxer Rebellion—suggests that the website is broadly trustworthy, terrific at aggregating links, and a worthy springboard to better material.
But what of those entries covering the hopelessly insignificant, like me? I won’t bore you by cataloguing all the mistakes in my entry (I found about a dozen), but the results weren’t terribly impressive. I’m unsure how long it remained on the page, but according to Wikipedia’s edit log, my biography once claimed that I had a “vagina” and—pardon the language—“love the cock.” The only people who can refute the first point are, I hope, biased in my favor and wouldn’t be trusted by Wikipedia as “reliable sources.” The second point, also difficult to disprove, seems irrelevant to the job of polemicist.
I’m sure it’s true, as Wikipedia tells me, that someone once quoted something I wrote in a semi-obscure academic journal, though why is this more relevant than my regular gigs—book reviews for the Wall Street Journal, columnist for Tablet, regular slot on the television show Red Eye—which don’t merit mention? And what is the purpose of this mangled wreck of a sentence, added after I appeared during a roundtable discussion on MSNBC last year? “On the 11/3/2012 episode of Chris Hayes program Up with Chris Hayes on MSNBC he was criticized by Klaus Jacob (Columbia University) and other panelists [sic] for taking a Libertarian [sic] view on Hurricane Sandy cleanup that government (FEMA) shouldn’t be involved that [sic] the states who have been hit by the storm should be doing the clean up.”
I didn’t say that, but because a viewer was annoyed by what I did say, an incoherent recapitulation of it was appended to my online biography, where it remains today. In other words, one can trust the entry on Jimmy Carter, but not entries for unimportant schlubs like me.
But, alas, Wikipedia is often the first stop for inquiring minds and so one must vigilantly monitor one’s own entry. Just ask Taner Akçam, a Turkish historian domiciled in the United States, who in 2007 was briefly detained (PDF) by Canadian immigration officers on suspicion of being a terrorist. When he protested that he was an academic, the diligent border agents showed him a printout of his Wikipedia page, which had been defaced by his political enemies. Upon returning to the United States, Akçam was stopped by agents of the Department of Homeland Security who also inquired about his Wiki-reported terrorist connections.
I can’t compete with the humiliation visited upon Akçam, but as is often pointed out to me, if one searches Wikipedia for Michael Moynihan, you are confronted first with this page: “Michael Moynihan (journalist).” That’s my name. And I’m a journalist. And I’m from Massachusetts. But read further to discover that this Michael Moynihan, journalist, is a former member of the band “Blood Axis” and a fringe writer “frequently identified as a fascist or neo-fascist by some critics and fans” (Perhaps we shouldn’t trust Wikipedia on this point, but when even your supporters are identifying you as a fascist, it’s likely an accurate description).
Is it pompous to wonder why, as a working journalist, Wikipedia affords the other guy that title? Because of this identification, I find myself regularly assuring readers that I have never been a member of the Church of Satan and was not “visited … by agents of the United States Secret Service about an alleged plot to assassinate then President of the United States George H. W. Bush.”
That’s the other guy.
But the information—good, bad, and irrelevant—spreads; it’s what everyone who sees your byline and wonders “who is this clown?” will learn about you. I hadn’t paid my Wikipedia entry much mind, for much the same reason one doesn’t rush to open a letter from a debt collector. You would just rather not know. But once I discovered the errors and oddities it contained, I didn’t set about changing them, despite very much wanting to.
There are byzantine rules governing editing one’s own page, countless wars between unnamed editors who believe they know academic subjects better than academics, or who, because they can source lazy journalists saying lazy things, know your life better than you.
But just so we’re clear, Wikipedia: I’m not a fascist, I’ve never been to Prague, and I am currently an anatomically correct male. If any of this changes, I’ll find two corroborating, reputable sources and ask a friend to make the appropriate changes to my page.