When he posted a fake quote on Wikipedia and watched it leak into newspapers around the world, Shane Fitzgerald demonstrated the dangers of relying on the Internet for information.
Student Hoax Highlights the Power of User-Generated Content
Shane Fitzgerald, a sociology and economics student at University College Dublin, performed “an experiment when doing research on globalization,” according to The Irish Times. He posted a fake quote, falsely attributed to French composer Maurice Jarre who died in late March, on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. The quote was later published in newspaper obituaries around the globe. “[I] wanted to show how journalists use the internet as a primary source and how people are connected especially through the internet,” Fitzgerald was quoted as saying by The Times.
“One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head, that only I can hear,” read the quote.
Fitzgerald posted the quote on Jarre’s Wikipedia profile on the night of his death; it was taken down within minutes. But Fitzgerald posted it again, several times, “until it was finally left up on the site for more than 24 hours,” reported The Times.
The student was surprised by the results of his experiment. As he told the newspaper on Wednesday, “I didn’t expect it to go that far. I expected it to be in blogs and sites, but on mainstream quality papers? I was very surprised about.”
After the hoax went undiscovered for several days, Fitzgerald e-mailed some of the publications notifying them of the inaccuracy. The Guardian, a major British newspaper, printed a corrected obituary and published an article about the hoax, explaining that “We opened with a quotation which we are now advised had been invented as a hoax … These quotes appear to have originated as a deliberate insertion in the composer's Wikipedia entry in the wake of his death … and from there were duplicated on various internet sites.”
Although most major publications amended their mistake, the quote still remains intact on multiple blogs, Web sites and newspapers. In an article about the situation, Guardian readers' editor Siobhain Butterworth wrote, "The moral of this story is not that journalists should avoid Wikipedia, but that they shouldn't use information they find there if it can't be traced back to a reliable primary source."
Related Topics: Kurt Vonnegut’s MIT Commencement address; Wikipedia’s distortion of Kenneth Lay’s death
Sources in this Story
- The Irish Times: Student's Wikipedia hoax quote used worldwide in newspaper obituaries
- The Guardian: Maurice Jarre
- The Guardian: Open door: The readers' editor on ... web hoaxes and the pitfalls of quick journalism
- Snopes.com: Kurt Vonnegut
- The Washington Post: Death by Wikipedia: The Kenneth Lay Chronicles
The Internet has often been used to broadcast false or inaccurate information. For example, a widely circulated Internet text claims that Kurt Vonnegut gave the 1997 commencement speech at MIT. In the speech, Vonnegut allegedly advised graduates to “Wear sunscreen,” and that “the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.” Snopes.com identified the inaccuracy of this claim, explaining that Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations, delivered the commencement speech at MIT in 1997. Snopes also clarified that the speech falsely attributed to Vonnegut was actually a June 1, 1997 column written by Mary Schmich for the Chicago Tribune.
In July 2006, Wikipedia’s reliability was shaken by its initial distortion of the death of Kenneth Lay, former Enron Corp. executive. According to The Washington Post, Wikipedia’s coverage of Lay’s death “evolve[d] with alarming speed and wildly inaccurate reporting,” and reports of the cause for Lay’s death varied from “apparent suicide” to “apparent heart attack or suicide” to “yet to be determined.”
Reference: The potential flaws of Wikipedia
Due to the fact that Wikipedia can be edited by anyone with an Internet connection, it’s subject to changes by users who may falsify entries. Even though Wikipedia claims that peer reviewers and editors quickly delete entries that are not credited with a valid source, it has been shown that for less researched topics, false information can remain online for extended periods of time.