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Wikipedia Seigenthaler biography incident

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The Wikipedia biography controversy, also known as the Seigenthaler incident, was a series of events that began in May 2005 with the anonymous posting of a hoax article in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia about John Seigenthaler, a well-known American journalist The article falsely stated that Seigenthaler had been a suspect in the assassinations of US President John F Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F Kennedy The then-78-year-old Seigenthaler, a friend and aide to Robert Kennedy, characterized the Wikipedia article about him as "Internet character assassination"

The hoax was not discovered and corrected until September of that year, after which Seigenthaler wrote about his experience in USA Today The incident raised questions about the reliability of Wikipedia and other websites with user-generated content that lack the legal accountability of traditional newspapers and published materials In a December 13 interview, co-founder Jimmy Wales expressed his undiminished support for Wikipedia policy allowing articles to be edited by anonymous users – describing the participation of editors in China and Iran in terms of privacy issues – but announced plans to roll back their article creation privileges as part of a vandalism-control strategy: "we've decided that we want to slow downso starting in January we're preventing unregistered users from creating new pages, because so often those have to be deleted"


  • 1 Hoax
  • 2 Detection and correction
  • 3 Anonymous editor identified
  • 4 Reactions
    • 41 Seigenthaler's public reaction
    • 42 Wikimedia Foundation reaction
    • 43 Other reactions
  • 5 See also
  • 6 References
    • 61 Notes
    • 62 Other sources
  • 7 External links


The author of the hoax article was later identified as Brian Chase, an operations manager of Rush Delivery, a delivery service company in Nashville, Tennessee On May 26, 2005, Chase added a new article that contained, in its entirety, the following text:

John Seigenthaler Sr was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960s For a short time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby Nothing was ever proven

John Seigenthaler moved to the Soviet Union in 1972, and returned to the United States in 1984

He started one of the country's largest public relations firms shortly thereafter

Detection and correction

In September, Victor S Johnson, Jr, a friend of Seigenthaler's, discovered the article After Johnson alerted him to the article, Seigenthaler e-mailed his friends and colleagues about it On September 23, 2005, colleague Eric Newton copied Seigenthaler's official biography from the Freedom Forum web site into Wikipedia The following day, this biography was removed by a Wikipedia editor due to copyright violation, and was replaced with a short original biography Newton informed Seigenthaler of his action when he ran into Seigenthaler in November in New York at the Committee to Protect Journalists dinner

In October 2005, Seigenthaler contacted the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation, Jimmy Wales, who hid affected versions of the article history from public view in the Wikipedia version logs, in effect removing them from all but Wikipedia administrators' view In 2013, the hoax article was undeleted and archived to Wikipedia:List of hoaxes on Wikipedia Some "mirror" websites not controlled by Wikipedia continued to display the older and inaccurate article for several weeks until the new version of the article was propagated to these other websites

Anonymous editor identified

Seigenthaler wrote an op-ed article describing the particulars of the incident, which appeared in USA Today, of which he had been the founding editorial director The article was published on November 29, 2005 In the article, he included a verbatim reposting of the false statements and called Wikipedia a "flawed and irresponsible research tool" An expanded version was published several days later in The Tennessean, a daily newspaper in Nashville, Tennessee, where Seigenthaler had served in various capacities from beat reporter to chairman In the article, Seigenthaler detailed his own failed attempts to identify the anonymous person who posted the inaccurate biography He reported that he had asked the poster's Internet service provider, BellSouth, to identify its user from the user's IP address BellSouth refused to identify the user without a court order, suggesting that Seigenthaler file a John Doe lawsuit against the user, which Seigenthaler declined to do

Daniel Brandt, a San Antonio activist who had started the anti-Wikipedia site "Wikipedia Watch" in response to objections he had to his eponymous article, looked up the IP address in Seigenthaler's article, and found that it related to "Rush Delivery", a company in Nashville He contacted Seigenthaler and the media, and posted this information on his website

On December 9, Brian Chase admitted he had posted the false biography to Wikipedia After confessing, Chase resigned from his job at Rush Delivery Seigenthaler received a hand-written apology and spoke with Chase on the phone Seigenthaler confirmed – as he had previously stated – that he would not file a lawsuit in relation to the incident, and urged Rush Delivery to rehire Chase, which it did Seigenthaler commented: "I'm glad this aspect of it is over" He stated that he was concerned that "every biography on Wikipedia is going to be hit by this stuff – think what they'd do to Tom DeLay and Hillary Clinton, to mention two My fear is that we're going to get government regulation of the Internet as a result"


Seigenthaler's public reaction

In his November 29, 2005, USA Today editorial, Seigenthaler criticized Congress for Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects ISPs and web sites from being held legally responsible for content posted by their customers and users:

Federal law also protects online corporations – BellSouth, AOL, MCI, Wikipedia, etc – from libel lawsuits Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, specifically states that "no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker" That legalese means that, unlike print and broadcast companies, online service providers cannot be sued for defaming attacks on citizens posted by others

And so we live in a universe of new media with phenomenal opportunities for worldwide communications and research – but populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects Congress has enabled them and protects them

On December 5, 2005, Seigenthaler and Wales appeared jointly on CNN to discuss the matter On December 6, 2005, the two were interviewed on National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation radio program Wales described a new policy that he had implemented in order to prevent unregistered users from creating new articles on the English-language Wikipedia, though their ability to edit existing articles was retained

In the CNN interview, Seigenthaler also raised the spectre of increased government regulation of the Web:

Can I just say where I'm worried about this leading Next year we go into an election year Every politician is going to find himself or herself subjected to the same sort of outrageous commentary that hit me, and hits others I'm afraid we're going to get regulated media as a result of that And I tell you, I think if you can't fix it, both fix the history as well as the biography pages, I think it's going to be in real trouble, and we're going to have to be fighting to keep the government from regulating you

In the December 6 joint NPR interview, Seigenthaler said that he did not want to have anything to do with Wikipedia because he disapproved of its basic assumptions In an article Seigenthaler wrote for USA Today in late 2005, he said, "I am interested in letting many people know that Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool" He also pointed out that the false information had been online for over four months before he was aware of it, and that he had not been able to edit the article to correct it After speaking with Wikipedia co-founder, Jimmy Wales, Seigenthaler said: "My 'biography' was posted May 26 On May 29, one of Wales' volunteers 'edited' it only by correcting the misspelling of the word 'early' For four months, Wikipedia depicted me as a suspected assassin before I erased it from the website's history Oct 5 The falsehoods remained on Answerscom and Referencecom for three more weeks" Editing Wikipedia, he suggested, would lend it his sanction or approval, and he stated his belief that editing the article was not enough and instead he wanted to expose "incurable flaws" in the Wikipedia process and ethos

On December 9, Seigenthaler appeared on C-SPAN's Washington Journal with Brian Lamb hosting He said he was concerned that other pranksters would try to spoof members of Congress or other powerful figures in government, which may then prompt a backlash and turn back First Amendment rights on the Web

In the June 2007 issue of Reason magazine, Seigenthaler also expressed concern about the lack of transparency underlined by Wales' removal of the hoax pages from the article's history page He has also stated that many of the comments left by users in the edit summaries are things he would not want his nine-year-old grandson to see

Wikimedia Foundation reaction

In an interview with BusinessWeek on December 13, 2005, Wales discussed the reasons the hoax had gone undetected and steps being taken to address them He stated that one problem was that Wikipedia's use had grown faster than its self-monitoring system could comfortably handle, and that therefore new page creation would be deliberately restricted to account-holders only, addressing one of Seigenthaler's main criticisms

He also gave his opinion that encyclopedias as a whole whether print or online were not usually appropriate for primary sources and should not be relied upon as authoritative as some were doing, but that nonetheless Wikipedia was more reliable as "background reading" on subjects than most online sources He stated that Wikipedia was a "work in progress"

A variety of changes were also made to Wikipedia's software and working practices, to address some of the issues arising A new policy, 'biographies of living persons', was created on December 17, 2005; editorial restrictions, including reference requirements, were introduced on the creation of new Wikipedia articles; and new tracking categories for the biographies of living people were implemented

The Foundation added a new level of "oversight" features to the MediaWiki software, accessible as of May 16, 2012 to around 37 experienced editors and Wikimedia staff members nominated by either Wales or the Arbitration Committee This originally allowed for specific historical versions to be hidden from everyone including Oversight editors, which then become unable to be viewed by anyone except developers via manual intervention, though the feature was later changed so that other Oversighters could view these revisions to monitor the tool's use Currently such procedures are standardized by the 'Office actions' policy which states: "Sometimes the Wikimedia Foundation has to delete, protect or blank a page without going through the normal site/community processes These edits are temporary measures to prevent legal trouble or personal harm and should not be undone by any user"

Other reactions

In reaction to the controversy, The New York Times business editor Larry Ingrassia sent out a memo to his entire staff commenting on the reliability of Wikipedia and writing, "We shouldn't be using it to check any information that goes into the newspaper" Several other publications commented on the incident, often criticizing Wikipedia and its open editing model as unreliable, citing the Seigenthaler incident as evidence

The scientific journal Nature conducted a study comparing the accuracy of Wikipedia and the Encyclopædia Britannica in 42 hard sciences related articles in December 2005 The Wikipedia articles studied were found to contain four serious errors and 162 factual errors, omissions or misleading statements, while the Encyclopædia Britannica also contained four serious errors and 123 factual errors, omissions or misleading statements Referring to the Seigenthaler incident and several other controversies, the authors wrote that the study "suggests that such high-profile examples are the exception rather than the rule"

See also

  • Bertrand Meyer



  1. ^ Cohen, Noam August 24, 2009 "Wikipedia to Limit Changes to Articles on People" The New York Times Retrieved April 7, 2012 
  2. ^ a b c d e Seigenthaler, John November 29, 2005 "A false Wikipedia 'biography'" USA Today Retrieved October 27, 2013 
  3. ^ "The State of the News Media 2006" The Project for Excellence in Journalism Retrieved on September 14, 2009
  4. ^ a b c d Helm, Burt "Wikipedia: "A Work in Progress"" BusinessWeek Online Bloomberg Businessweek Retrieved October 16, 2013 
  5. ^ "The wiki principle" Economist April 20, 2006 
  6. ^ Carney, John I February 13, 2006 "Seigenthaler battles online encyclopedia" Shelbyville Times-Gazette Retrieved September 30, 2014 
  7. ^ Archived version of the rewriting of the official biography
  8. ^ Two deletion log entries of the article
  9. ^ Dalby, Andrew 2009 The World and Wikipedia: How we are editing reality Somerset: Siduri p 59 ISBN 978-0-9562052-0-9 
  10. ^ Terdiman, Daniel December 15, 2005 "In search of the Wikipedia prankster" CNET Newscom 
  11. ^ Buchanan, Brian J November 17, 2006 "Founder shares cautionary tale of libel in cyberspace" First Amendment Center Archived from the original on February 12, 2007 Retrieved October 4, 2011 
  12. ^ "Author apologizes for fake Wikipedia biography" USA Today December 11, 2005 Retrieved October 27, 2013 
  13. ^ Mangu-Ward, Katherine June 2007 "Wikipedia and Beyond: Jimmy Wales' sprawling vision" Reason Magazine: 20–29 Retrieved March 8, 2016 
  14. ^ Restricted editing Wikipedia Signpost December 2005
  15. ^ Ral315 June 5, 2006 "New revision-hiding feature added" Wikipedia Signpost 
  16. ^ "Office actions" Wikipedia Wikimedia Foundation Retrieved October 12, 2010 
  17. ^ "The New York Times Business editor Larry Ingrassia's memo "Wiki-whatdia"" December 7, 2005 Archived from the original on March 8, 2006 
  18. ^ Giles, Jim December 15, 2005 "Special Report: Internet encyclopaedias go head to head" Nature 438 7070: 900–901 Bibcode:2005Natur438900G doi:101038/438900a PMID 16355180 Retrieved October 27, 2013 

Other sources

  • Boyd, Danah December 17, 2005 "Wikipedia, academia and Seigenthaler" Corantecom 
  • Cooper, Charles December 2, 2005 "Wikipedia and the nature of truth" Newscom 
  • Lamb, Brian December 9, 2005 "Interview with John Seigenthaler" C-SPAN Washington Journal 
  • Mielczarek, Natalia December 11, 2005 "Fake online biography created as 'joke'" The Tennessean 
  • Orlowski, Andrew December 12, 2005 "There's no Wikipedia entry for 'moral responsibility'" The Register UK 
  • Phillips, Kyra December 5, 2005 "Live From Transcript" CNN , interview with John Seigenthaler and Jimmy Wales
  • NPR December 12, 2005 "Wikipedia joker eats humble pie" BBC News 
  • NPR December 6, 2005 "Wikipedia to Require Contributors to Register" National Public Radio , Talk of the Nation story summary and radio broadcast
  • Seigenthaler, John December 4, 2005 "Truth can be at risk in the world of the web" The Tennessean 
  • Terdiman, Daniel December 5, 2005 "Growing pains for Wikipedia" Newscom 
  • Terdiman, Daniel December 7, 2005 "Is Wikipedia safe from libel liability" Newscom 

External links

  • Is an Online Encyclopedia, Such as Wikipedia, Immune From Libel Suits by Prof Anita Ramasastry on Writ
  • John Seigenthaler, "Wikipedia, WikiLeaks, and Wiccans" 49-minute presentation at Vanderbilt University, October 21, 2011, C-Span Video Library
  • "Snared in the Web of a Wikipedia Liar" by Katharine Q Seelye of The New York Times

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