Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Defacing Wikipedia

We've all seen good examples of defacement or vandalism that are actually funny. People often come up with genuinely amusing and clever jokes as part of defacing something. Because of the humor, we regularly give this sort of vandalism a pass or are softer on it, compared to standard vandalism such as graffiti tagging or malicious website defacement. At the other end of the spectrum, we tend to come down extra hard on defacement that is offensive or inciting.

Recently an example of Wikipedia defacement was being passed around on social media that was fairly amusing. Someone had defaced a page about invertebrates and added a politician onto it, in reference to behavior seen as spineless by many. It's a fairly simple and funny enough joke, all things considered.

What bothered me, though, was the applauding of the defacement and sharing it around as a good thing. Because it was funny and people didn't like the politician, they were happy to cheer it on as legitimate political satire rather than try to discourage it as vandalism.

Wikipedia is far from a perfect resource. People frequently say that you should never trust it as accurate. However, given the noble project of collecting information for everyone to freely access, and allowing anyone to contribute, they do a remarkably good job of removing disinformation. When vandalism or gross misrepresentation of facts occurs, the moderators are normally very quick to restore the information. And of course they generally provide ample links to sources so readers can verify content via third party sources.

So while it might be true that when accuracy is vital, Wikipedia shouldn't be used as a definitive resource, it makes an excellent first point of research for many things, and provides plenty of information to help readers jump off from there to validate details as needed. And for many things where general background information is needed, any minor issues of accuracy are probably not really an issue. This is of course why it is such a popular resource used by so many. Anyone old enough to have had to research information the hard way without the internet should appreciate just how lucky we are to have a resource like that.

The price of this, though, is that we need to show some collective responsibility and not make the task of maintaining accuracy harder than it already is for the Wikipedia staff. In the case of obvious political satire, no one is going to be fooled into thinking it's legitimate. But when we reward vandalism of the site with attention and kudos, we encourage others to do more of the same. And because Wikipedia is normally pretty good at restoring pages quickly, this also encourages people to make more subtle changes that are harder to spot, in order to have them stay up longer for greater bragging rights. And, of course, it helps to create more of a general air of acceptance that defacing websites is okay.

There are so many places you can go on the internet to share and consume humor and political satire. Let's not ruin useful public resources just so we can have a 10 second chuckle when looking at our news feeds. It's hard enough to get reliable, true information on the internet these days. Let's not make it impossible.