The Right Way To Fix Inaccurate Wikipedia Articles

Suppose your company, boss or political candidate discovers that their Wikipedia article is wrong, or has subtle inaccuracies that nonetheless paint them in an unfavorable light? Most people unfamiliar with how Wikipedia works consider only two solutions: edit the article or sit on their hands. Unfortunately, neither approach typically results in the optimal outcome: a factually accurate profile containing trustworthy information.

Search marketers and reputation management professionals should know that there are legitimate ways to correct errors in Wikipedia. Knowing the right way to fix things is even more important now that Wikipedia results frequently appear in the top listings of Google search results. The good news is that Wikipedia actually offers a broad range of options for correcting inaccurate or negative entries, and even better, all are easy to use and take little time to implement.

My last column looked at examples of inappropriate editing originating from a United States Congress IP address—meaning one politician’s staff was attempting to use Wikipedia for less than ethical purposes. This time we’ll confront the opposite problem: an anonymous vandal inserted false information to the biography of United States Congressman Steve LaTourette of Ohio. For four months, Congressman LaTourette’s staffers were aware of the falsehoods but did nothing to fix them because, as spokeswoman Deborah Setliff told the Plain Dealer of Cleveland, they feared a PR backlash if they edited the page.

The most serious problem occurred in the second paragraph. According to the Plain Dealer story:

“LaTourette’s anonymously authored biography on one of the world’s most visited Web sites claims he once disrupted a law school assembly honoring England’s Prince of Wales.”

The exact text as it appeared in Wikipedia was:

“A graduate of the University of Michigan, LaTourette studied law at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and had the dubious distinction there of disrupting a school assembly honoring Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales. LaTourette was roughly removed by the Secret Service.”

The really damaging aspect of that allegation is how it bears a tangential resemblance to the truth. There actually had been a student disturbance when Prince Charles visited that law school. LaTourette was enrolled at the time but had nothing to do with the incident.

steve-latourette-diff.jpg

Wikipedia and its volunteers do care about edit vandalism and the Biographies of Living Persons policy makes this problem a special priority. LaTourette’s staff could have e-mailed the Wikimedia Foundation, either directly or via the Open Ticket Request System (OTRS) that creates a tracking number for each query.

As a Wikipedia administrator I see the opportunity to go deeper than OTRS and fix the underlying problem: this article obviously wasn’t being watchlisted. Watchlists alert active editors of changes to particular pages. These are among the most powerful tools for combating vandalism. To solicit more volunteer watchlisting, LaTourette’s staff could have contacted two projects that are interested in the article: WikiProject Biography and WikiProject U.S. Congress. Most article talk pages contain links to one or more WikiProjects. A good general contact point is Wikipedia’s Counter-Vandalism Unit. Inappropriate edits usually vanish within minutes when enough editors watch a page. Best of all, the site’s volunteers will solve future problems while you sleep.

Wikipedia also maintains noticeboards to address specific issues. Here’s a short list that every search marketer or reputation management professional should keep for reference.

Site administrators insist on reports that include page diffs like the one displayed above for the vandalizing edit. These are accessible through the tab at the top of each article. Here’s the history of the Steve LaTourette article.

steve-latourette-history.jpg

Each date-stamped line provides a (last) option at the second column from left. Selecting that leads to a visual display of the difference between that page version and the previous one. That, in Wikipedia jargon, is the diff. It shows exactly what happened, which account or IP performed the edit, and when the change occurred. Cut and paste the relevant diff URL whenever you need to present evidence. Standard wikimarkup is to enclose URLs in single brackets.

Now here’s where this knowledge becomes especially valuable: a little wikisleuthing sometimes turns up other interesting information that a reputation management professional can put to creative use. From the diff of the vandalizing edit I get a full list of this IP address’s contributions.

steve-latourette-vandal-edit-history.jpg

That shows a pattern of gossipy edits to biographies, mostly of Ohio politicians. Some Wikipedia vandals exhibit a pattern of ideological or profit-motivated edits. If I had noticed this IP during its spree of March 6 and March 7 I would have blocked it from editing for a while. Any editor can issue warnings for clear policy violations. A word of caution: no matter what your opinion about a user’s conduct, keep the legal angle offsite. Wikipedia doesn’t mind if you actually take someone to court, but threats of a suit have a stifling effect on discussion and could end your site editing privileges. Other strategies may yield swifter and more satisfying resolutions.

Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth of South Dakota got an unexpected boost to her reelection campaign last year after an anonymous vandal attacked her Wikipedia biography. Several strange claims entered the article including a baseless charge that she was pregnant by a nonexistent staffer. It’s uncertain whether the opposing campaign coordinated the vandalism, but shortly afterward its campaign manager sent an e-mail to several of the state’s bloggers that cited the vandalized Wikipedia biography and added an accusation that Herseth was a “home-wrecker.” Rather than damaging Herseth’s reputation, the tactic backfired on challenger Bruce Whalen to such an extent that the Rapid City Journal editorial board called for a public apology from the Whalen campaign. Herseth won the election.

Durova is a Wikipedia administrator who confronts some of the site’s most disruptive editors. She uses a pen name to avoid harassment in real life. After graduating Columbia College, Durova attended film school and also served in the US Navy.The Let’s Get Social column appears Tuesdays at Search Engine Land.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Social | Search & Social | Search Engines: Wikipedia | Social Media Marketing

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About The Author: is the pen name for Lise Broer, a Wikipedia administrator who confronts some of the site's most disruptive editors. After graduating Columbia College, Lise attended film school and also served in the US Navy.

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  • http://www.freetube.us.tc live television

    Interesting but generally vandalization is easier to spot when it’s spam or when it’s external links or just gibberish text.

  • doug

    That’s a bit ridiculous. You’re basically saying only admins can edit pages. Go through their “notice boards” and ask them for permission to change information.

    I agree that’s actually the best strategy to get something done on Wikipedia, but it’s a sad state, and very difficult from how Wikipedia is advertised as being open and editable by anyone.

    A few hundred active admins (most of whom are completely anonymous and unaccountable and unqualified) control the entire site.

  • http://www.jehochman.com JEHochman

    To clarify, the problem is editing an article about yourself or your company. For third party articles, you can have at it. There’s no need for permission or review when you are independent from the subject.

    Doug, have we met online somewhere?

  • Durova

    Actually I have no problem with people clearing up obvious vandalism. The question professionals need to ask is, could an opponent put political spin on innocuous edits at campaign time? Jimbo Wales edited his own biography a couple of times and came under harsh criticism for it, even though he was only clearing out inaccuracies.

    For the most part there’s no need to do that kind of editing yourself. A lot of the site’s volunteers (not just sysops) will be glad to do it for you, which frees up your time for other things.

    Yet it’s a good idea to check in on the history files of your client’s article from time to time. If a competitor made a black hat attack on the page – even if it only stayed live for one minute – that’s something you may be able to leverage to your client’s advantage.

  • http://www.keepaustincorporate.com DJFelix

    I think the point here is that if you are worried about drawing scrutiny for editing your own article, you have options other than doing nothing. That’s what I took away from the article.

    It makes complete sense that you would reach-out for help through an established non-partisan channel to correct an article of political nature. This works out best for everyone involved. The politician has plausible deniability for the changes made, and the Wiki gets a more accurate article, or at a minimum, a more balanced point-of-view.

  • Durova

    Whether or not you need to be quite so circumspect, there’s a huge advantage to having 10 or 20 Wikipedians assist you in watching a page. A minimum number of downloads will receive a degraded version because most of the time the volunteers clear out the junk edits before you even see the problem.

  • http://www.cumbrowski.com Carsten Cumbrowski

    Hi Durova,

    It is always good to educate people about how to use Wikipedia and to let them know what to do and what not. It helps to correct misconceptions and hopefully also helps to make people become less prejudges about what Wikipedia.

    I put up some resources for newbies and less experienced editors on a separate page at Wikipedia. Let me know what you think of them.

    Thanks for helping Jonathan with his admin training. He is a good guy. Cheers!

    Carsten aka Roy/SAC.

  • http://www.wikipediareview.com Disillusioned Lackey

    Message: “We Libeled You? JOIN US and Work for Free. Apology not Included.”

    Why does Durova (continue to) embarass herself with such hypocrisy. She’s libeled people on and off Wikipedia. Do a Google. She’s famous. Usually she does it under the guise of some “complex investigation”, that is so special that she’s not allowed to show the evidence. Yeah, right.

    We’ve tried to figure out what “complex investigations” means, and we all figured out that it means that she has a complex.

    Then she has the gall to come to SEO sites and tell people who don’t edit Wikipedia, who’ve been badmouthed on Wikipedia, to JOIN WIKIPEDIA, and continues her audaciousness by assuming they’d think this a wonderful idea, and procedes to tell them how to follow the rules to perfection.

    Anyone who finds this logical progression probably has square eyes from staring at computer screens for too long, and suffers from a lack of good fresh clean air and sunshine.

    In the real world, when people libel you, they get sued. Fuzzy Zoller didn’t respond to the people who libeled him by “joining Wikipedia, and putting his bio on a watchlist”. He took legal action against the people who libeled him, seeking damages. That’s a normal reaction.

    Asking people who’ve been people who’ve been libeled to join Wikipedia and act as watchdogs for articles that concern them is a scary sign that Durova has lost touch with reality.

    Imagine if an editor of a newspaper that libeled you didn’t apologize, but just asked you to come to work at the paper for free, and then you could erase the typeface as benefit, to clear your good name.

    That’s not a rational solution, of course, and neither are any of Durova’s suggestions cogent to “image professionals”. Clearly Wikipedia has problems, and it is not the responsibility of innocent third parties to clean up the dog poop Wikipedia has tossed on their lawn.

    As for the author, I refer you onwards to Ross Dunn’s recent penning of “Is Wikipedia Corrupt?” with Durova as his principal protagonist demonstrating Wikipedia corruption. http://news.stepforth.com/blog/2007/08/is-wikipedia-corrupt.php

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Community_sanction_noticeboard/Archive3#Unblock_of_Thekohser.3F thekohser

    So good to see Durova is back, advising businesses and individuals on how they can restore their good name by begging the appropriate leaders of Wikipedia to help them out of libelous treachery.

    That’s funny. I have a libel against me on Wikipedia. Here is the diff that you requested:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Community_sanction_noticeboard/Archive3#Unblock_of_Thekohser.3F

    Well, what do you know — it comes from an administrator NAMED “Durova”! She said that I have “given misleading information to journalists that was published in the mainstream press”. When I asked her politely on the “Talk pages”, as I am prescribed to do, to demonstrate the proven facts behind her amazing claim, she replied, “I’d have to double check for the exact instance, but it was linked through the Wikipedia Signpost in mid- to late- January.”

    After I demonstrated very clearly that the Wikipedia Signpost never made any such claim that I lie to journalists, I simply asked Durova to send to me what she viewed as her evidence that I misled any journalists. Durova attempted another response:

    “I have forwarded my correspondence with Brian Bergstein [the AP writer in question] to a checkuser clerk so that the appropriate personnel may review both it and my analysis.”

    So, her “correspondence” that may or may not prove that I’ve lied to journalists is privy to Wikipedia’s elite administrators, but is not to be shared with the defamed person being libeled on Wikipedia?

    Does that sound fair to everyone?

    So, I had little choice but to e-mail Brian Bergstein himself, and ask, “Brian, do you feel that I lied to you for your January 25th article about me; and, did someone named ‘Durova’ send you some evidence that proved me to be a liar?”

    Mr. Bergstein replied:

    “…it’s not so much that I decided she [Durova] was right or wrong, but it’s more that I didn’t care one way or another. I would have come back to you and grilled you about it had I at all cared. As I’m sure you know, my story was not meant to carry water for you, personally, but instead was meant to explore the issue you raised about payments and Wikipedia and how it played out in your experience. There was no point in trying to assess whether she had opened up some new revelations about your character. It wasn’t relevant to the story.”

    So, there you have it.

    An anonymous Wikipedia admin says that I “gave misleading information to journalists”. The journalist says “it wasn’t relevant to the story”. I made four different statements to try to assure Durova that I didn’t intend to file a legal action against her. Durova’s reaction was to seek the advice of counsel at the Wikimedia Foundation (counsel whom soon thereafter quit the post, probably because he was sick of defending pseudonymous nuts who talk peace and love out of one side of their mouth, all while typing libelous treachery about real-named people on their WiKeyboards).

    P.S. Durova mentioned how good “watchlists” are in tracking vandalism in articles. I guarantee that there’s an article very important to her somewhere on Wikipedia that has outrageous defamatory vandalism in it, that’s been sitting there for over three months. And I’ll bet the article’s even in her watchlist. If Durova herself, Queen of the Complex Investigation, can’t even police the months-old vandalism in one of her favorite articles, how is a corporation supposed to rely on teenaged volunteers to keep tabs on their own articles?

  • http://www.jehochman.com JEHochman

    This article was made popular in Digg, 762 Diggs at last count. Check it here. Of course we love Sphinn much more.

  • thekohser

    Above “Wikipedia Review” should have read “Wikipedia Signpost”.

  • http://searchengineland.com Danny Sullivan

    Folks, I’m going to delete a few comments here and will explain more why in a moment.

  • http://searchengineland.com Danny Sullivan

    Right, thekosher, you raised some points about the procedures that are perfect relevant to raise in the context of this article. JE, he’s not a troll for doing that. I’ve wiped out the troll reference and then the entire debate over that which followed.

    As it’s also the weekend, and I’m not going to spend my weekend watching over this story to see if we get another back and forth war erupt again, I’m closing comments. Points contrasting against Durova made. Thekosher, use the contact page, happy to talk to you about doing your own column on our experiences.

  • Nasser Mohammed
 

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