Wikipedia Research a Reminder of How Low the Digital Publishing Bar Has Become

By Neil Brady

15th August 2022

Wikipedia's digital publishing process is held in high regard by some, but the truth is that it is the orginal purveyor of what is often now termed 'misinformation'.

Wikipedia Research a Reminder of How Low the Digital Publishing Bar Has Become

In an age of misinformation and virtual immunity from liability for digital publication of defamation and hate speech, Wikipedia’s digital publishing philosophy is often cited as an exemplar of high standards. 

This philosophy was well articulated in a Washington Post article published last year, entitled ‘On its 20th birthday, Wikipedia might be the safest place online’. In it, Wikipedia’s (now former) Chief Executive Officer, Katharine Maher explained, “Wikipedia is very open about that fact that we’re not a reliable source…we are a great place to start. We just want people to have the ability to read the content on Wikipedia with a critical eye.” 

Now that approach has been put under the microscope by a joint research project between MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), Cornell and Maynooth University in Ireland, to examine what effect such an unreliable source can have on public discourse and decisions. To do this, the researchers entered 150 new Wikipedia entries on Irish Supreme Court decisions, half of which went online and half of which were kept offline. They then examined which cases were more likely to be cited as precedent and whether “the argumentation in court judgments echoed the linguistic content of the new Wikipedia pages.”

The paper, published in The Cambridge Handbook of Experimental Jurisprudence at the start of this month, showed that the presence of a Wikipedia article increased a case’s citations by more than 20%, raising doubts that a “critical eye” is a sufficiently effective counterbalance to that relative openness. 

“It's difficult to quantify the risk this poses”, says Dr. Brian Flanagan, co-author and Associate Professor at Maynooth School of Law, “but a well-resourced litigant could encourage his legal team to anonymously integrate their own analysis. Given the relative openness of Wikipedia's content to general internet users, it is possible to imagine [such] scenarios.”

The report further notes that the pattern probably holds in other common law jurisdictions, including The United Kingdom and The United States.

“The Irish legal system proved the perfect testbed, as it shares a key similarity with other national legal systems such as the UK…a pattern in how Irish judges perform core functions may be expected to emerge in the performance of such functions in other common law jurisdictions”, notes Dr. Flanagan. 

So how can these dangers be averted, while at the same time the benefits of the ‘open web’ be preserved?

Dr. Flanagan suggests there are measures, around quality control and standards, that could be taken, including the recruitment of “legal professionals as supervising editors to certify page quality” (not unlike lesser known Wikipedia predecessor, Nupedia), as well as helping Wikipedia volunteers secure more “freely-available legal content on alternative, more authoritative sites.”

While Wikipedia is a qualitatively different kind of platform to Facebook or Twitter, both in terms of its provenance - it began as a for-profit, financially supported by a softcore porn search engine, also founded by Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales, called Bomis - and the fact that it is a non-profit, like both of those companies it is highly dependent upon immunity from liability for third party publication, provided for in the European Union under the e-Commerce Directive of 2001 and in the US under Section 230, The Communications Decency Act of 1996.

Wales, an oft-perceived digital publishing expert, has been clear in his belief that such immunity is core to Wikipedia’s existence, noting in 2020 that “without [Section 230] Wikipedia couldn’t exist. It’s completely impossible.” 

Measures such as those outlined by Dr. Flanagan, as well as digital tools to assist all parties involved in the publishing process, be they editors or commenters, moderators or platforms users, can have an impact. Taxonomies of clearly defined harmful content are also a vital, unavoidable part of the solution.

Fundamentally however, the question of whether to preserve immunity from liability is key, and central to any incentivisation structure, as any good journalist will attest. 

In the EU, The Digital Services Act (DSA) will technically preserve the principle of intermediary liability but the legislation will introduce an extensive range of transparency and auditing obligations that will amount to, in essence, the imposition of a ‘duty of care’. 

In the US, despite being one of the few issues to command bipartisan support for reform, and President Biden’s calling for Section 230’s revocation on the 2019 campaign trail, the path here remains unclear. Speaking at Stanford last April, President Obama echoed his successor’s earlier comments, acknowledging a “need to consider reforms to Section 230...including whether platforms should be required to have a higher standard of care."

It is unlikely, though not impossible, that like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) before it, the DSA’s approach will become the new global standard. As the Indian government’s current crackdown on social media serves to remind, a balance must be struck in all of this and the DSA is to be greatly commended in this regard. 

But, also like the GDPR, it may fall short of expectations in practice. Everything will depend upon effective enforcement, and only time will tell. 

As policymakers in the US and elsewhere grapple with these issues, they could do worse than remind themselves of the insidious nature of the contemporary digital publishing dynamic by refreshing their memory of one of Wikipedia’s early forays into misinformation. 

In 2005, an unregistered Wikipedia user created a biographical entry about USA Today Founder and former assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, John Seigenthaler. The entry included a false and defamatory statement that Seigenthaler “was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven.” 

Seigenthaler contacted Wales, and after 132 days, the defamatory and false content was removed. Writing in USA Today soon afterward he said, “and so we live in a universe of new media with phenomenal opportunities for worldwide communications and research – but populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects. Congress has enabled them and protects them."

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