LiteratEye #23: Did Wikipedia Call You Names and Pull Your Pigtails? Too Bad.

Filed under: Literary Hoaxes, Media Literacy

Here’s the twenty third installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.

LiteratEye #23: Did Wikipedia Call You Names and Pull Your Pigtails? Too Bad.
By W.J. Elvin III
July 24, 2009

wwlogo2-200So, you’ve become famous and you’re ego-tripping along, checking out all the fascinating write-ups on various web sites regarding your marvelousness. You come to the Wikipedia biography. What the heck?

It says you were raised by rainforest monkeys, did a prison stretch for bilking your grandma out of her life savings, and your favorite pastime involves unspeakable activities in some exotic foreign sin-city. And, let’s say, there’s not much truth to that. What do you do?

Apparently, not much. Wikipedia’s policy appears to be that you are an unreliable source for information regarding yourself. So you can’t correct an entry about you.

Well, you could sue. But, sue who? The Wikipedia Foundation slips off the hook almost instantly by claiming malicious or mischievous entries are acts of “vandalism.”

Most often, it appears, the suits go against whoever posted the slanderous, libelous or otherwise objectionable entry. Quite recently a story broke about two Michigan State University students facing a $25,000 suit for defaming a local politician. One of the posts provided an incorrect sexual orientation while another claimed the guy had been convicted of sexually abusing children and included a quote: “OK – I’m weird. Vote for me anyway.”

The students were tracked through the IP addresses of the computers they allegedly used. And how do you find the IP address of the offending computer?

A search tool called Wikipedia Scanner, developed by Virgil Griffith, won’t tell you exactly who is making changes in a Wikipedia entry but it will tell you where the action comes from, meaning its IP address. When I checked, a new version of the tool was about to be released.

Anyone can use the Scanner to try to track any changed entry. Some weird stuff comes up. Like, someone at the CIA making changes in song lyrics in a Buffy and the Vampire episode? Go figure.

Some changes are done in the name of scientific research, a cover for a great many sins in this world. Sociology student Shane Fitzgerald, writing in the Irish Times earlier this year, tells of inserting a fake quote in the Wikipedia biography of French composer Maurice Jarre, who had just died.

The quote included the line “When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head and that only I can hear.” Top newspapers in America, Australia, England and India, couldn’t resist that one and used it without further checking.

Fitzgerald believes his actions were justified because, to paraphrase his more lofty explanation, he wanted to demonstrate that journalists are a swarm of smarmy hacks who would rather be first than factual.

At least he provided another example of Wikipedia’s unreliability. I found dozens of “You can’t trust Wikipedia” comments by experts in various fields – womens’ studies, mathematics, pharmacology, you name it – and I don’t doubt hundreds exist.

I got into all this because, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I was disappointed and outraged to read the Wikipedia entry on my friend, Danny Casolaro, whose death remains an unresolved mystery.

The bio said Danny “dabbled” in journalism. I could go on for pages refuting that but I’ll just mention one reason it’s bullshit. I know Danny was a genuine, authentic, remarkably creative, astonishingly productive reporter because I fired him from his first reporting job. Why? Because he couldn’t be bossed, he believed he knew his job better than I did. And he was right.

Well, anyway. To be fair, I have to add that I often use Wikipedia as a starting point in my research. And the section revealing the discussions of volunteer editors regarding the pros and cons of various entries was extraordinarily helpful when I was looking into the literary shenanigans of Stephen R. Pastore in a couple of earlier columns.

You remember the stuff about Pastore? He planted glowing reviews of his books under fake names, that kind of thing, plus he was behind a god-awful book of poetry attributed to the legendary James Dean. I never was successful in tracking him down for comment. Now, so I hear, he’s sold his home and left the country.

But back to our topic. The London Review of Books has an excellent piece on Wikipedia for those who want an overview. It’s a lengthy article but I, for one, felt seriously informed about Wikipedia for having read it.

And for those who want an even lengthier look at the roots and inner workings, there’s Andrew Lih’s new book, apparently an uncritical insider sort of thing, Wikipedia Revolution, The: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia. I haven’t read it and don’t intend to.

By the way, even if you convince the Wikipedia vigilance committee to get rid of injurious remarks in your bio, chasing down sites where it has been quoted can keep you busier than, as they say, a one-legged man in a rat-stomping contest.

One victim of my acquaintance has earned a multitude of enemies, some of them popular bloggers. It was with enormous glee that these folks scooped up and posted the offensive comments before they were scrubbed.

So the sliming of the poor wretch continues, and it will undoubtedly continue for archived Internet eternity, on numerous blogs scattered here and there throughout the electronic cosmos.

But is the situation really so dreadful? After all, as P.J. O’Rourke has astutely observed: “You can’t shame or humiliate modern celebrities. What used to be called shame and humiliation is now called publicity.”


(Copyright 2009 WJE, exclusive to The Art of the Prank, for reprint rights contact

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