Lying to Wikipedia

I have a confession: I intentionally lied to Wikipedia.

Worse than that: I told my students — about 45 of them — to lie to Wikipedia, too.

I feel no guilt about this. In fact, I’m in good company. T. Mills Kelly, a history professor at George Mason, taught an entire class about historical hoaxes, and his students created a hoax of their own, including a fake Wikipedia entry (see his syllabus here, or read about the second iteration of the class in The Atlantic).

If you read my series of posts in late August (1 2 3 4), you know I’m currently teaching a writing course, for which the theme is “Wikipedia.” Students (and, let’s face it, faculty) use Wikipedia every day. Few, however, know much about how the site works, or when to trust it: they’ve been told not to cite it, but can’t always articulate why not. And so many keep doing it. By the end of the semester my students will know much more about what goes on behind the site. They will be better informed users, and maybe they’ll even start contributing to some of the ongoing projects that postcolonial and feminist scholars have started. But to begin, I had to lift the curtain.

Lying to the online encyclopedia was the first thing I asked students to do, and the assignment had a simple pedagogical goal: show students that it’s possible to lie to Wikipedia, and what happens if they do.

So what does happen? If lots of people “vandalize” the site from the same IP address (as was the case), it will get blocked. The college has a few IP addresses, several of which were blocked following my and my students’ lies. You can see the conversation in this screenshot of one of the Talk Pages. As you can see, the chastisement from Wikipedians gets progressively less civil, building from Blocked IP screenshot“your edit appears unconstructive” to “please refrain from making unconstructive edits” to “please stop your disruptive editing” to the red stop sign and “this is your last warning.” This is Wikipedia’s system at work, as users come to the rescue when it appears that a particular user or IP address is disrupting things.

I had anticipated the IP address getting temporarily blocked, and the boilerplate comments provided a great lesson about conveying tone in writing. (I hadn’t anticipate the block preventing students from creating accounts, a hiccup that, luckily, we should be able to overcome.) We were adding things that were pretty obviously “unconstructive,” and our first lesson was about Wikipedia’s ability to control such blatant vandalism. But I had also asked students to tell me the lies they put up on Wikipedia. A few got past the editors. One of my students put himself as an inventor, and as of today — September 10th, two full weeks later — his claim still stands. (In the interest of the student’s privacy, I won’t say what he claimed to invent, and I have now reverted the edit).

This was our second lesson: while obvious vandalism is quickly caught, some changes (especially changes to pages that aren’t often read) can go unnoticed.

We’ve now covered Wikipedia’s 5 Pillars, and students will write their first paper about the Talk Page for an article they’re interested in. They won’t (I hope) blatantly lie to Wikipedia again, but they’ve seen how it works. And over the course of the semester, they’ll become better, more knowledgeable users of Wikipedia.

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11 Responses to Lying to Wikipedia

  1. I was inspired by the sanctimonious James and the belligerent Anonymous to compose a Petrarchan sonnet glorifying Wikipediocracy. You should make it required reading for all your students. Here: http://eyeamross.com/2013/09/14/wikipediocracy/

  2. I think you are doing your students and the world a great service, PC Fleming. People do need to understand what kind of encyclopaedia it is. As you say, even scholars use it casually. Yes they tell themselves that it might not be reliable but what value is such caution when they don’t follow up with other research? A constant barrage of casual views by all kinds of readers every minute of every day makes Wikipedia a significant influence in shaping world opinion. It has the potential to be a force for change and many Wikipedians use it for that purpose. It is more like a news service than an encyclopaedia and, like any news service, it can interfere with the events it is meant to be reporting on. I wouldn’t feel so alarmed about its insidious potential if it presented itself accurately. It is not an encylopaedia. It is a set of eye witness accounts by anonymous correspondents under very limited editorial control. I notice the clumsy threat made by Anonymous. That’s a sign of the future, I believe. Does the world need another tyrant? How many people are already afraid to speak up against Wikipedia? Once again, good on you!

  3. Anonymous says:

    If you’re going to tell students to do this (and it’s hardly necessary given the body of knowledge already out there), then you really shouldn’t blog about it. Blocking the odd IP address is how Wikipedia deals with what it thinks are one off violations from single accounts. If someone at Wikipedia finds out that there is a concerted effort to vandalise the site from a whole class, as they surely do now you’ve blogged about it, then it’s not unknown for it to react by blocking the entire institution from editting, permanently. It’s not even unknown for some Wikipedian’s to get so angry about this sort of deliberate effort to damage the integrity of the site, that they will start emailing the institution complaining about the academic, calling into question his ethics etc. So rather than getting yourself into all that, isn’t it much better to simply direct your students to the existing body of knowledge, and just impress on your students the moral virtue of respecting internet sites Terms of Use (which in Wikipedia’s case you’ve already broken it seems)?

  4. PC Fleming says:

    I understand your point: this was the criticism Mills Kelly received, and I did consider it beforehand. I also, though I neglected to mention it above, required that students NOT edit the page of a living person.

    Here is how I decided to go forward with this idea: in quantitative terms, these few changes (more like 20, since less than half were able to edit before the IP was blocked) are minor: Wikipedia is vandalized a lot, whether a handful of college students do so for a class or not. And, as the semester progresses, students will contribute — in good faith, and with proper citation — a substantial amount to the site. I weighed the pedagogical benefits and the anticipated contributions against the minor vandalisms, and decided in favor. Users need to learn how Wikipedia works, and actively interacting with it is the best way to do that.

    So, I don’t consider this “spreading misinformation,” nor do I think the lesson students will take away is that it’s OK to violate the site.

  5. Sadads says:

    Though I understand the pedagogical impulse to demonstrate problems on Wikipedia through vandalizing, I would like to ask you how ethical your choice is: your students probably contributed changes to high profile pages that receive thousands of views a month. Are you suggesting that the education of 45 is more important then spreading misinformation (no matter how minor) to thousands of people? Eventually, even subtle vandalism gets revised by someone more knowledgable; the whole point of Wikipedia is that it’s a work in progress (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Work_in_progress ). However, it seems that by deliberately teaching your students that violations of good faith are okay when they are justified, that opens up questionable practices for them in the future of their academic careers.

    • PC Fleming says:

      Oops, I posted the reply above (excuse the formatting mistake, on my own blog no less)

      • James says:

        I’ll point out that you not only violate the site but you also violated the terms of use (and the law) in your actions. Yes, I’m sure you mean well in your idea of trying to teach them a valuable lesson or something but the most valuable lesson should be trying to always do what’s best.

        There are plenty of examples of vandalism that you could have taught about without adding more. To be honest you (and sadly in the end, you students) don’t really deserve to have the ability to edit for a while. We assume good faith but you have actively and intentionally vandalized and encouraged others to. You have a lot to do to earn any kind of trust back. (I should point out that the community as a whole is likely to slightly more forgiving then me, you will be increasingly carefully watched though and the IPs may not be fully unblocked for quite a while )

        There is no doubt that Wikipedia should always be taken with a grain of salt, community members won’t tell you otherwise. The benefit is the breadth and the fact that unlike a normal encyclopedia or newssite it generally tells you WHERE it got its information. If it doesn’t have a source you should be questioning it, you should question ANYTHING without knowledge of its source. One thing we’ve learnt nowadays is that the source shows us the bias. WP helps is both learn and follow the bias.

        • James says:

          Well fat finger typing from phone but I think you get the gist. :)

        • PC Fleming says:

          I’ll look forward to the careful watching. The assignment won’t be repeated, and I’m confident my students’ contributions will be worth it. This being a writing class, evidence and sources are just what they’ll be focusing on (something Wikipedia’s guidelines indeed stress, even if they’re not always followed in practice).

          As for the IP address … we’ll be editing from accounts, which we’ve created. Regretfully, this assignment inconvenienced another teacher (the only part I regret, and the main reason I won’t repeat it), so unnecessarily extending the block will only prevent good faith contributions from other college citizens. But if the point is to punish, then I guess I’ve brought it on.

          • No you haven’t brought it on yourself. You clearly indicated that it was an experiment and you would reverse the vandalism. Wikipedia should be happy for such a free test of its quality control mechanisms. The fact that they blocked you suggests they have much to hide. I suggest next time you and your students establish yourself as a gang secretly and try reverting some of the real vandalism that has been posted and defended there by more sinister gangs than you and your little class of students. That is how things work there. Trouble is of course, being honest, you will always come clean, and that’s how Wikipedia ends up in the hands of the guys who won’t come clean. Anyway thanks for trying despite the usual outcome. Score: Wikipedia 1, Accountability 0.

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