[Air-l] Wikipedia and defamation

Alex Halavais halavais at gmail.com
Tue Dec 6 06:05:46 PST 2005


The kind of "sit-ins" of information on Wikipedia are basic to its
strength and its design. You could generalize the "defamation"
critique by saying that Wikipedia does not support minority
information. Indeed, that has been at the basis of other critiques of
the system, most pointedly Larry Sanger's. That is, sometimes elites
(and other minorities) are right.

Defamation swings both ways. I challenge you to find within
traditional reference works balanced articles on Scientology,
something that Wikipedia (though not without some
knock-down-drag-outs) has managed. On the other hand, it isn't hard to
find areas in which the "popular wisdom" is not very wise, and
Wikipedia doesn't do as well in these areas. In sum, it relies on a
different kind of authority, and should be judged on that. Authority
based (as is *most* peer review) on the certification of existing,
established educational institutions also has flaws.

While I understand the defamation concern, I don't think it is
particularly compelling. When a newspaper repeats the lies found on
Wikipedia, we have a problem: but that problem rests not in Wikipedia
but in newspaper practices and the power of the press. Again, it is
clear to any informed visitor to Wikipedia that it may be changed by
any anonymous, interested visitor. To consider it to be disinterested,
or not consider the process by which it is formed, is dumb. Caveat
lector.

As to Barry's worry: name a well known slander case. Sure, there are
great examples of libel cases, because traditional mass media
concentrate control of the message. One of the easiest ways of
escaping a libel case (in the US, where libel law is weaker, anyway)
is to print a correction. Anyone can print their own correction on
Wikipedia. Yes, it may be overwritten, but they have the ability to
voice their own defense.

Really, this feeds into larger questions of the value of anonymity.
Yes, anonymity encourages behavior that is detrimental. But it also
provides spaces for truth--especially truth contrary to structures of
power--truths that are difficult to otherwise voice. Governments,
large corporations, and (cf above) large churches have made use of
defamation law to stifle criticism. Anonymity provides an antidote to
this, though with certain costs.

Finally, there is a way of correcting this material swiftly: by
publishing your own information on or off Wikipedia. The solution is
"more speech." I believe that over time people will be more critical
of Wikipedia, as is appropriate. But I would be much more interested
in strengthening defamation law with regard to the mass media, where
the message is controlled by an extreme minority, than I would be in
extending within public forums. Existing journalists will continue to
find anecdotal evidence that shows weaknesses in Wikipedia, and will
spend far more time on this than they will on investigating their own
lack of accuracy. I don't see calls to restrict Fox News as a
secondary source, or the New York Times, despite some pretty obvious
recent flaws in both.

Alex



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