In the news
Hoaxes in France and at university, Wikipedia used in Indian court, Is Wikipedia a cult?, and more
French politician falls for Wikipedia hoax
A hoax article on the French Wikipedia made it into international news last week. According to a report in The Times, the article about "Léon-Robert de L'Astran", supposedly a traveller, scholar and shipowner born in 1767 in La Rochelle, stayed on the French Wikipedia for three years and duped many. The most notable victim was Ségolène Royal (the 2007 French presidential candidate for the Socialist Party), who on May 10, the national anti-slavery day, extolled de L'Astran's opposition against slavery in a comment on Facebook (which she removed after realising the hoax). As of June 14, tourists in La Rochelle were still offered to take La Route de L'Astran named after the nonexistent local hero.
The article (which did not cite any sources in the May 9 version that is still available from Google's cache) was based on an invention by a member of the Rotary Club of La Rochelle, according to Sud-Ouest . Outside France, the case was also covered by major newspapers in Austria and Italy.
Jimbo interviewed about use and abuse of Wikipedia in education
Jimmy Wales was interviewed on the June 9 episode of The Chronicle of Higher Education's "Tech Therapy" podcast, discussing among other things the use of Wikipedia in education and the importance to teach media competence. Wales described various successful and unsuccessful examples of Wikipedia assignments. At one point (starting around 4:20) he was asked about the Edward Owens hoax, an article that had been written in 2008 by a class at George Mason University at the instruction of history professor T. Mills Kelly, and was picked up by a USA Today blog and other media. (In the headline of an earlier article about the case, the Chronicle had summarized the professor's approach as "Teaching by Lying".) Wales said he had not been aware of the case, and that it was "disappointing [to] hear that it comes from a professor", questioning the ethics of Kelly's teaching method: "To ask students to deliberately hoax Wkipedia is a very bad thing ... If you are in a class to train security guards for banks, you don't send the class out to rob a bank. It could be a learning experience, yes, but it's probably better to say, here's a list of 50 cases of bank robberies that went wrong, let's go through each one ...". In a blog post titled Really? Really, Really?, T. Mills Kelly hit back at "Jimmy", advising him to read the earlier debates about the case (both on his blog and in the deletion discussion), arguing that they "quickly move away from the vandalism-is-annoying oversimplification".
Death hoax erroneously attributed to Wikipedia
Last week, false rumors about Russell Crowe's death spread on the Internet and briefly made their way into the Wikipedia article about the actor, too. This led RadarOnline , the Los Angeles Times , Austrian newspaper Der Standard  and several user-generated news sites to imply that the hoax had originated on Wikipedia. But according to other sources it had spread on Twitter and elsewhere long before the first such edit that is visible in the article's version history. According to one source, the "Celebrity Fake News Generator" at FakeAWish.com had been used to start the rumor.
Wikipedia cited in Indian court by government lawyer
According to a report in the Indian newspaper DNA, Wikipedia was recently quoted by a government lawyer before the Bombay High Court, adding to the long list of such usages internationally (see "Wikipedia as a court source").
Tarun Tahiliani is an acclaimed fashion designer in India. Earlier this year, he had claimed an exemption as an artist on his income tax for his design work under section 80 RR of the Indian Income Tax Act. "Artist" is not defined under the Income Tax Act. The income tax department rejected this on the grounds that it does not consider fashion design as a part of the fine arts; its lawyer submitted definitions of the terms "design", "art" and "artist" from Wikipedia to argue that it should instead be regarded as an applied art.
The matter finally went to the Bombay High Court, where judge DY Chandrachud asked, "How reliable is Wikipedia? Isn't it subject to user modification?" The opposing party cited definitions from Webster's dictionary and a Sanskrit text.
Interestingly, Wikipedia's article on fashion design currently defines it as "the art concerned with the application of design and aesthetics to clothing and accessories."
As reported by the Straits Times , the Hindustan Times  and AsiaOne , a Singaporean student of Indian origin has filed a complaint with the police after insulting remarks about himself and a fellow South Korean student were inserted into the Wikipedia article about his school, the Tampines Junior College, on June 11. The school's staff removed them from the article, which is presently semi-protected. The version history of the article lists several deleted revisions added between May 30 and June 11.
Is Wikipedia a cult?
In a June 7 InfoWorld article named The High Priests of Wikipedia, Wikipedia was described as one of "Six more tech cults" (the other five being the Slashdot, Singularitarianism, Drupal, OS/2 and open source communities). The article identified the page Wikipedia:FAQ as the cult's "[h]oly scriptures" and Jimmy Wales as its "[p]atron saint". The author Dan Tynan wrote that "[f]or internecine intrigue and power struggles, the Wikipedia makes the Vatican look like a coffee clatch", with administrators as "the Wikipedian equivalent of the College of Cardinals". Tynan cited from an interview he had conducted with writer Sam Vaknin, published recently in Global Politician under the title The Wikipedia Cult (which was also recommended by Larry Sanger, whom Vaknin refers to as "the Wikipedia's real visionary"):
- This is not an informal network: It is completely rigid with a hierarchy, titles, job descriptions, remits, and responsibilities.
Tynan introduced Vaknin as "author of Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited and other books about personality disorders." Snopes has noted that "Dr. Vaknin is careful to include a disclaimer on his web site stating that he is 'NOT a mental health professional' (his CV lists a doctorate in philosophy from the unaccredited Pacific Western University)".
In 2006, after an article about Vaknin had been deleted and User:Samvak had been blocked (for sockpuppet activities involving the article Narcissistic personality disorder and other topics related to Vaknin's work), Global Politician had published an earlier article by Vaknin that was critical of Wikipedia: The Six Sins of the Wikipedia (see also a rebuttal by Ta bu shi da yu). In 2007, Global Politician published Vaknin's article Wikipedia - Can Teenagers Write An Encyclopedia?. In a January 2010 article on the same website, titled Positioning the Encyclopedia Britannica (see Signpost coverage), Vaknin granted that although "the data are riddled with errors and do not amount to structured knowledge ... Wikipedia-like online efforts are more than adequate for the needs of the vast majority of users", advising Britannica to cooperate with Wikipedia and "to study and emulate" the model of Citizendium.
Tynan's recent article and interview quoted Vaknin as saying:
- By 2003, the Wikipedia had acquired all the hallmarks of a cult: hierarchy, arcane rules, paranoid insularity, intolerance of dissent, and a cosmic grandiose mission.
Wikipedia researcher Joseph Reagle called the criticism of Wikipedia as a cult "hyperbolic", pointing out that the project did not meet several criteria from cult checklists. He classified Vaknin's criticism as
- a wonderful example of the criticism of WP enthusiasm as a cult or religion, many earlier examples of which I describe in my dissertation.
In his 2008 NYU dissertation about Wikipedia,—to appear in book form later this year—Reagle had examined various kinds of Wikipedia criticism and placed them into a centuries old context of encyclopedia criticism, in a chapter called "encyclopedic anxiety"—also the title of a recent conference talk of his (Summary, slides, video; see also Signpost coverage).
Hours before the trial of the "Pending Changes" feature was to start at 11pm UTC Tuesday (see this week's News and notes), media coverage began with articles by the BBC (Wikipedia unlocks divisive pages for editing), the Daily Telegraph (Wikipedia rolls out 'pending changes'), V3.co.uk (Wikipedia modifies editing system for controversial pages) and Network World (Wikipedia to unlock frequently vandalized pages). At that time, it appeared that the Foundation had been relatively successful in its efforts to emphasize the feature's potential for easing existing page protection and to dispel assumptions that it represents a move towards tighter editorial control on Wikipedia (which had dominated media coverage of the proposed trial last August, see Signpost coverage: Misleading media storm over flagged revisions).