Seigenthaler and Wikipedia
A Case Study on the Veracity of the "Wiki" concept
John Seigenthaler called out Wikipedia in a USA Today Op-Ed published Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2005. The editorial chronicled Seigenthaler’s attempts to remove a false biography of his that the online encyclopedia carried for four months. Below is a more detailed account by Seigenthaler than appeared in USA Today.
“John Seigenthaler Sr. was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960’s. For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven…”
By John Seigenthaler
This is a highly personal story about internet character assassination. It could be your story.
I have no idea whose sick mind conceived the false, malicious “biography” that appeared under my name for 132 days on Wikipedia, the popular, on-line, free encyclopedia whose authors are unknown and virtually untraceable. There was more:
“John Seigenthaler moved to the Soviet Union in 1971 and returned to the United States in 1984. He started one of the country’s largest public relations firms shortly thereafter.”
At age 78, I thought I was beyond feeling surprise, anger or hurt at anything negative anybody wrote or said about me. I was wrong. It was infuriating to read that stuff under my name. It was mind-boggling when my son, John Seigenthaler, the weekend anchor for NBC News, phoned from New York to say he had discovered the same scurrilous text on two other collaborative websites, Reference.com and Answers.com. And, it was painful to realize that what had appeared might hurt two other people, my son, whose middle initial is M (mine is L), and my grandson, John B. Seigenthaler, called Jack.
There was but one factual sentence in the “biography”. I was Robert Kennedy’s administrative assistant in the early 1960’s. I was a pall bearer at his funeral, and each year I participate in the annual awards programs for both the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial and the John F. Kennedy Library.
At my request, executives of the three websites now have removed the false content. But, the operators of Wikipedia, Answers.com and Reference.com have no idea who wrote those toxic sentences and no way to find out.
In a telephone conversation with Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, I asked, “Do you, in fact, have any way to know who wrote that?”
“No, we don’t,” he said. Neither did representatives of Answers.com or Reference.com. Their computers are programmed to pick up material verbatim from Wikipedia. They don’t check on whether the copied information is true or false.
Searching cyberspace for the person responsible for posting spurious information can be frustrating and irritating. I traced the registered IP (Internet Protocol) number of my “biographer” –184.108.40.206– to BellSouth Internet Services. That meant BellSouth had a paying customer who had written the “biography”.
BellSouth Internet, however, has been unwilling even to discuss the matter. The company advertises a phone number to report “Abuse Issues”. An electronic voice told me all complaints were to be emailed. I sent my grievance on-line and requested the name of the person who had defamed me. The company promptly emailed back a Dear Sir or Madam form letter, signed Abuse Team. It promised an investigation but said BellSouth might not share the results with me. I shot off another email requesting the name of a BellSouth representative. Abuse Team replied with the same Dear Sir or Madam letter.
I had heard for weeks from friends – teachers, journalists and historians -- about “the wonderful world of Wikipedia,” where millions of people from around the world visit every day for quick reference information that can be composed and posted by anyone without special expertise or knowledge.
“Wikipedia is intellectual democracy,” a high school teacher told me. “My students love it. They can contribute articles and it can give them quick facts.”
It also can give them quick falsehoods. Erin MacAnally, a friend who is a student at the Asian Pacific Leadership Program at the University of Hawaii, found my “biography” while researching a class project. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” she said. She worried that fellow students would believe what Wikipedia told them.
I paid my first visit to the wonderful Wikipedia world in late September. An old Nashville friend, Victor Johnson, had suggested that if I Googled myself and clicked the Wikipedia link, I would discover some “disturbing and libelous material.” So, I Googled and clicked. It was hardly wonderful. “You should sue the s.o.b. who wrote it,” Johnson said.
As a journalist most of my adult life and an advocate for optimum, unregulated, free expression in a democratic society, I have no interest in suing anybody for libel.
I do have an interest in letting as many people as possible know that, while Wikipedia may provide a great deal of factual information, it also is a flawed and irresponsible research tool. What purports to be helpful fact may well be harmful fiction. And, there is no way to tell the difference.
I also have an interest in unmasking my “biographer” and confronting him or her. Others who are defamed may feel differently than I about suing for libel. They can forget it. Congress has creatively barred such suits against all internet service providers – Wikipedia, Reference.com, Answers.com and all major news media corporations –BellSouth, Adelphia, AOL, MCI, etc.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, specifically states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker”. That legalese means that, unlike print and broadcast companies, on-line “information providers” cannot be sued successfully for disseminating defamatory attacks on citizens.
While the law does not exempt the original author who posted the character assassination, the policy of internet companies not to disclose the names of customers who defame, effectively bars libel suits in cyberspace. After waiting three weeks to hear from the Abuse Team about its investigation, I phoned BellSouth corporate headquarters in Atlanta, and was told the company would not release the identity of the “biographer” without a subpoena.
Wales, the Wikipedia founder, alerted me during our phone conversation that BellSouth would respond negatively to my request for the writer’s identity. “In my experience, they won’t be very helpful,” he said. “What they probably will do is say [to the customer], ‘Well, your service is cancelled with us.’ That’s about all they would do about it.”
He added: “We have trouble with people posting abusive things over and over and over. We block their IP numbers, and they sneak in another way. So, we contact the service providers and…they are not very responsive about it. They get so many complaints…”
BellSouth, then, may have completed its investigation of my complaint, cancelled my “biographer’s” service and the abuser now may be a customer of another major on-line provider, free to defame someone else – or me.
The Wikipedia website warns that it is not legally responsible for inaccurate information appearing in its encyclopedia – but Wales insists that his website is “accountable” and corrects mistakes almost immediately.
In a revealing C-Span interview with Brian Lamb, Wales claimed that his internet community, made up of thousands of volunteer writers and editors and hundreds of administrators, provides constant monitoring and immediate editing to eliminate inaccurate information.
“Academic studies,” he said, have documented that “fairly obvious vandalism” is caught and corrected “within a median time of under five minutes.” More “disgusting” postings, “we revert…within a minute.”
My experience refutes that. The “biography” was posted at 2:29 p.m., May 26. On May 29, one of Wale’s volunteers, identified as SNlyer12, “edited” what had been written about me by correcting the misspelled word early.
Wikipedia continued to present me as a suspected assassin until Sept. 23, when some unknown customer of Adelphia posted my bio from The First Amendment Center website. The public still could view the false data by simply clicking Wikipedia’s “history panel” above my name. Wales erased it from his “history” on Oct. 5. The falsehoods remained visible on Records.com and Answers.com for another three weeks before I reached representatives of those two companies.
Wales told Lamb that Wikipedia is the 40th busiest website in the world with “millions” of daily global visitors who total more than the combined websites of USA Today, The New York Times and The Washington Post. He has only one paid employee, a software technician, he said. His volunteer community runs the operation.
According to Wales, who funds his website through a non-profit foundation, his 2006 budget will be “about a million dollars.” He said he receives funding support from Yahoo and is negotiating with Google. His list of contributors, posted on Wikipedia, includes Reference.com. When I first found my “biography” on Reference.com, there was a line beneath it telling visitors to “Donate to the Wikipedia Foundation.” I ignored the appeal.
And so, we live in a universe of new media with phenomenal, evolving opportunities for worldwide communications and research at our fingertips – but populated by anonymous, volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects. No one is immune to similar attacks by mean-spirited acquaintances, vicious pranksters or total strangers.
When I was a child, my mother once lectured me on the evils of “gossip.” She held a feather pillow in her hands and said, “If I tear this open, the feathers will fly to the four winds, and I never could get them back in the pillow. That’s how it is when you spread mean things about people.”
For me that pillow is a metaphor for Wikipedia.
John Seigenthaler, a retired journalist, founded The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. He is also a founding member of the Committee of Concerned Journalists.
Liars on Internet breed verbal vermin and may threaten freedom
[Warning: This column includes language that may offend your children — and perhaps even you.]
I had no idea when I recently criticized Wikipedia, the internationally popular online encyclopedia, as a "flawed and unreliable research tool" that the empire would strike back with such vengeance and vehemence.
Immediately after my negative depiction of the Web site appeared in a Nov. 30 opinion column in USA Today (a similar version ran in this newspaper Dec. 4), a sudden stream of invective — homophobic, anti-Semitic and racist — spilled, as if from a sewer, onto the Wikipedia page under my name.
It identified me as "a notorious homosexual nymphomaniac," a "Nazi," "fascist-oriented," "a little turd-gobbler," a rapist, a murderer and one who suffers from "paranoia … and a bad case of the jock itch."
There was more that won't make it past sensitive editors.
And there also was the profile picture of Adolf Hitler over the caption, "Press photo of Seigenthaler." The accompanying line: "He is secretly responsible for killing all the Jews."
This eruption of screed came from more than a dozen separate Wikipedia contributors, all of whom hid behind IP (Internet Protocol) numbers they believe are untraceable. The Web site's founder considers these writers "vandals." They think of themselves as Wikipedians.
The motive for the salacious stuff directed at me is reasonably obvious. "We all at Wikipedia think he (Seigenthaler) is a horrible, stupid p...k for complaining about small inaccuracies in his biography."
Small inaccuracies? A Wikipedia "biography" named me a suspect in the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and claimed that I had lived for 12 years afterward in the Soviet Union . Those falsehoods remained there for four months before I discovered them and complained.
My search to unmask and confront my "biographer" was aided immeasurably by Daniel Brandt, a San Antonio Internet guru who also had been hit with a Wikipedia biography he resented. Brandt discovered that my biographer's IP number served a Nashville company, Rush Delivery, operated by James White. Brandt then determined from a pretended exchange of "business" e-mails that Rush Delivery still retained the IP number.
The "assassin-suspect" biography had been written by Brian Chase, Rush Delivery's manager. On Nov. 9, as we peppered the courier company's telephone with inquiries about the Wikipedia connection, White instructed Chase to confess what he had done and resign his job. Chase did just that.
In a letter and a later phone conversation, Chase told me he had named me a suspected assassin as a "joke" on White. While angry, and by no means satisfied by Chase's explanation of his motive, I asked White to return him to his job. I hope he does.
Wikipedia was founded in 2001 by Jimmy Wales of St. Petersburg , Fla. , with the idea that an accurate, factual, reliable Internet encyclopedia could be created with on-line writers and editors, without regard to the contributors' knowledge — or lack of it.
The Web site has been phenomenally successful in attracting millions of daily visitors. In a September C-SPAN interview, Wales told Brian Lamb that his creation is both accountable and credible. Errors, he claimed, were caught and corrected within minutes by thousands of volunteer editors.
That certainly is so sometimes, as when Wales assigns around-the-clock monitoring of a Web site to specific intelligent and able Wikipedia editors — and the Web site has a number of them. I know that from regularly monitoring the new "neutral" biography created under my name. While it includes harmless errors, I won't correct them. Wales discourages people from correcting their own biographies — although he recently admitted he has edited his own numerous times.
Under Wales ' policies, his volunteer editors have no power to kill inappropriate material that is posted. Instead, they "revert" the material — which simply means that much obnoxious content, as in my case, simply is transferred to the Web site's "history" section. A schoolchild can click the "history" panel and gain access to outrageous vulgarisms. Most of the tasteless trash recited about me is readily accessible there, including the Hitler photograph and a series of bald statements that I was, in fact, the Kennedy assassin.
One would-be biographer repeated more than 20 times in one message: "He killed Kennedy" and closed with a double expletive.
I don't want that sleaze to appear about me anywhere in Wikipedia. Not under my name, not in my "history," not in the dozens of mirror Web sites that are programmed to copy Wikipedia's public pages.
Nor do I want it in Wikipedia's "archive" — the Web site's rarely used garbage dump, where it can be viewed only by Wales' 600-odd trusted "administrators" whose online names include Fuzheado, Isomoorphic, PZ Fun, Woggely, Zippy and Zocky. Wikipedia is a world of faux names and identities hidden by numbers. Wales ' Internet nickname is Jimbo. He also is known online as "god king."
Federal privacy laws that protect the identity of defamers online are unfair both to ordinary citizens and to public figures. Wikipedia's biographic histories of President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Kerry, U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay and Chief Justice John Roberts are stained with some of the same sort of cerebral excrement that can be found in mine. The president's includes a Hitler photograph.
Congress has decreed that all online service providers are immune to defamation lawsuits. In cyberspace, these profit and nonprofit entities are libel proof. As the founder of the First Amendment Center and a lifelong journalist, I do not favor additional laws that regulate free speech.
Most of the mass of Wikipedia's material has value. A fraction of it smells like a cesspool. That fraction endangers Wikipedia's future. Unless Jimmy Wales takes corrective steps to cure the stench, he is inviting unwanted regulation.
John Seigenthaler is the founder of the First Amendment Center and the chairman emeritus of The Tennessean.