A new day, a new thing

My goal to learn something new every day

Day 44: Wikipedia will stop people editing a page if it’s a matter of life or death

Wikipedia

Anyone who as undertaken any form of academic study in the last 10 years or so will know about the perils of using Wikipedia for research. While it can be a good starting point, the fact that anyone can edit it obviously means that it is often unreliable.

Wikipedia likes to advertise itself as online resources that is completely open for anyone to edit. The Wikipedia about page says this:

Anyone with Internet access can write and make changes to Wikipedia articles, except in limited cases where editing is restricted to prevent disruption or vandalism.

Today’s post is about something that I found out today from a news article published in 2009. While Wikipedia will attempt to stop people from editing pages if people are vandalising them, it appears that the foundation will also block access to editing, and make changes when someone’s life is at stake. The story in question is about an American journalist, David Rhode, who was kidnapped by the Taliban in 2008. I’ll let you read the whole story on the New York Times website, should you wish to do so, but will briefly summarise it below.

Rhode was a reporter for the New York Times, who was in Afghanistan doing research for a book. In November 2008, he, along with his driver and interpreter were kidnapped by the Taliban. Immediately after his kidnap, a handful of media outlets reported on the incident, but the New York Times made a request to media outlets not to publish the story. Most complied. The rationale was that if the Taliban searched for Rhode’s name, they wouldn’t find much information on him, and he wouldn’t appear to be such a high profile target. This in turn would reduce the ransom and even possibly prevent his death. Getting the media to avoid publishing a story is known as a media blackout and is perhaps more common than people think. However, Wikipedia is a whole different matter, with anyone being able to edit the site. Indeed a number of people did try to edit Rhode’s page during the seven months he was held captive. But every time, a senior editor would remove the edits and sometimes even restrict access to the page for a limited amount of time. The New York Times also approached the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales. Wales agreed to help out and requested that trusted administrators keep an eye on the page.

Perhaps the most interesting thing that this story brings up is the role that Wales plays in Wikipedia. Is he just like a traditional newspaper editor? Wales justified his actions by saying that because of the media blackout, there were no reliable news sources, and he therefore felt that it did not violate any of Wikipedia’s policies. Wales told the New York Times: “We were really helped by the fact that it hadn’t appeared in a place we would regard as a reliable source, I would have had a really hard time with it if it had.”

You can read more about Wikipedia’s role on this Wikipedia page. This article from the Christian Science Monitor, an organization for which Mr Rhodes used to work, also discusses whether Wikipedia was right to do what it did.

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This entry was posted on February 13, 2015 by in Tech and tagged .

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