The Problem with Wikipedia

Don’t get me wrong—Wikipedia is a wonderful innovation. (In fact, I was an early donor.) The website provides a vast encyclopedia, including previously unavailable information.

But, it has a weakness. The site does not allow corporations, individuals, or organizations to defend themselves transparently or submit information on their own behalf. This is a serious flaw and a real challenge for a site that has become a fundamental source for so many around the world.  This policy results in many articles on the site that are inaccurate or even blatantly false.

The Qorvis Communications article on Wikipedia can be a real yarn. The entry contains silly conspiracy theories, competitor-fed information, and false data from opponents of our clients. At various points in time, the article has stated that Qorvis retains robots, hires hundreds of Wikipedia editors, and that our CEO is known as “The Super Gypsy” among the Washington elite. These statements are quite obviously false—and damaging to our company, clients, and the public. 

I decided to provide a resource to the Wikipedia editors and help them get the story straight. I signed up as a Wikipedia editor under the name QorvisEditor. Under this handle, my goal was not to edit client or Qorvis pages, but to become a direct source from which established Wikipedia editors could ask questions about our company and work. 

Within minutes of signing up, I was blocked by established editors for personally representing the interests of the firm—not for editing anything incorrectly, mind you. This action prevented me from having any direct interaction with any editor in the future, and thus prevented me from providing any first-hand information to any editor. This action also prevents any other Wikipedia editor from having a direct dialogue with the firm.

This inane policy would violate the basic tenets of even the most partisan of small-town newspapers or the most crooked court rooms. This dangerous policy violates the fundamental rules of reporting, of debate, and of discussion. Oddly, Wikipedia admits this, stating in its own terms that it is a “privilege to edit this privately owned website. Any legal right you may have to freedom of speech does not prevent us from enacting and enforcing our own policies and guidelines.”

I suppose Wikipedia is allowed to do whatever it wants. Yet, the problem is that Wikipedia has become the go-to encyclopedia. Wikipedia articles are at the top of internet search results. Wikipedia articles are used by children to write school papers. Wikipedia articles have even been cited by newspapers, such as the Seattle Times or Arizona Republic. Wikipedia thus has a responsibility to find an avenue for living subjects to contribute directly to the articles. It is a disservice to the public to not allow direct, transparent contributions by primary sources—especially since these sources often hide their identities in an effort to have their arguments heard.

Qorvis is certainly not alone in this battle for truth. According to Wikipedia entries of the past, soccer star David Beckham was not a contemporary British soccer player, but a “Chinese goalkeeper in the 18th century.” Actor Gary Oldman was listed as a giraffe for some time. Singer Robbie Williams was cited as eating his pet hamsters. Osama bin Laden was characterized as a “chronic masturbator.”

The well-known author Philip Roth had a rather comical interaction recently with Wikipedia editors when they claimed they, and NOT THE AUTHOR, were the only credible source on his inspiration for his novel The Human Stain.  You can read more at The New Yorker at http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/09/an-open-letter-to-wikipedia.html#ixzz2M9b4mI2L

Though Wikipedia has such potential, it makes me long for the days of Encyclopedia Britannica’s fact checkers.  Many Wikipedians do a wonderful job— but we must get beyond the rumors of Twitter, and newsrooms in the basements of too many 40-year-old stay-at-home sons for Wikipedia to become a first-rate dependable reference site.

Matt J. Lauer is the president of Qorvis Geopolitical Solutions and a partner of Qorvis Communications, LLC.

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