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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 […]

Durova on August 7, 2007 at 8:51 am
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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.

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.

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.

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 this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.



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Durova

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