I have to be honest. Despite my line of work, I still haven’t entirely quaffed the wiki kool-aid. Blogging is one thing, but something about a reference source that’s editable by anybody makes me a little wary. John Seigenthaler, Sr.’s story only reinforces that wariness.
“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.”
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, online, 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,” Wikipedia said. “He started one of the country’s largest public relations firms shortly thereafter.”
At age 78, I thought I was beyond surprise or hurt at anything negative said about me. I was wrong. One sentence in the biography was true. I was Robert Kennedy’s administrative assistant in the early 1960s. I also was his pallbearer. It was mind-boggling when my son, John Seigenthaler, journalist with NBC News, phoned later to say he found the same scurrilous text on Reference.com and Answers.com.
My experience was a bit different, and a bit less personal than Seigenthaler’s — I don’t have a Wikipedia entry, and given Seigenthaler’s experience I’m not sure I want one. I was simply using Wikipedia to look up information for a online calendar of important dates and people in the performing arts, so I could write 365 brief paragraphs on the people and the dates.
I quickly learned not to rely on Wikipedia alone. There were frequent discrepancies on important details like the birthdates of certain figures, or the facts on certain important works. I ended up having to cross reference information between Wikipedia and sites like AllMusic.Com, the Internet Movie Database, and the Internet Broadway Database (yes, there is one), as well as other online encyclopedias, like the one’s Seigenthaler mentions — that feature content from Wikipedia.
Eventually my employer bought a subscription to a reputable online encyclopedia just to ensure that we ended up with accurate information. Turns out the old truism really is true sometimes: you get what you pay for.
Seigenthaler goes on to detail the process of getting the false information in entries about him removed. Compared to actually finding out who posted the disinformation, getting it removed was the easy part. In the end, the wiki author who libeled Seigenthaler simply struck and slipped back in to the ether of the internet, with considerable legal protection. And while Seigenthaler was successful in getting the entries corrected, in some ways the damage was already done.
When I was a child, my mother lectured me on the evils of “gossip.” She held a feather pillow and said, “If I tear this open, the feathers will fly to the four winds, and I could never 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.
The most exciting thing about the new media age we live in is that almost anyone has access to the tools disseminate information on a global scale. The most frightening thing about the new media age we live in is that almost anyone has access to the tools to disseminate information on a global scale. A lot more people have the power of media at the fingertips than ever before, and not all of them use it for good.
The only defense is to become your own personal anti-defamation agency. The same advice that applies in the case of anyone who’s ever blogged, posted on an online forum, posted on Usenet, or even emailed: Google yourself once in a while. It’s a good way of knowing what others — from potential employers to students working on research papers — are reading about you. If you happen to have your own entry on Wikipedia check it out every once in a while. Register on Wikipedia, add your entry to your watchlist and correct it when you find inaccuracies. And if you have, as Seigenthaler does, it’s helpful a major media megaphone like USA Today at your disposal.
Seigenthaler’s story is certainly disturbing. Almost anyone would be shaken after seeing disinformation posted about them for all the world to see, and by an anonymous author who can’t be held accountable. And that’s just one wiki entry. Multiply it by the number of sites that post Wikipedia’s content, and the ever expanding number of blogs and online forums, and the personal anti-defamation tactics mentioned above can become a full-time job if you’re famous enough. Unfortunately, in an age when almost anyone is armed with the ability to spread information or disinformation far and wide, that kind of eternal vigilance will probably remain a necessity for the foreseeable future.