How reliable is online information?

June 16, 2007 at 3:17 pm Leave a comment

How would our life change without Google (or any other search engine)? There is no discussion on how dramatically the internet has changed how we collect and (re)generate information. Anything from university courses to opinions about the latest blender are part of the public domain, free of charge, and quickly accessible. With increased user participation (think Web 2.0, UGC, XML, Digg…) the press and companies are no longer the main suppliers of news and information, it’s us.

The question is, how accurate is all of this newly generated information? Traditional resources have gatekeepers—proofreaders, fact checkers, peer reviewers and professional editors—to ensure that published information is accurate. But the Internet is different. In many cases, it has no gatekeepers: anyone can put up their own Web site—and appear to be an expert. Even this article is based mainly on internet resources, so is any of it really true?

Take Wikipedia, where inclusion depends on verifiability, not truth. So that means that what gets posted on line, isn’t necessarily true. It just has to be believed and stated by enough ‘reliable’ people. There have been several highly publicized cases where entries in Wikipedia have been vandalized by untrue information or where true but unflattering information has been deleted, like with John Seigenthaler.

Should we thereby condemn the whole online information movement?
The main criticism on Wikipedia and other such sources is that you have no way of knowing whether an article has been written by someone with a PhD in the subject or by some hallucinatory crank. But that turns out to be a risk for more than just Wikipedia. Just last month the prestigious journal Science which has a panel of subject matter experts scrutinize all articles before they are published, confessed that it had printed two papers by a South Korean researcher on cloning that were complete fabrications. The editorial board of Science didn’t catch the fabrications; perhaps one of the hundreds of thousands of contributors to Wikipedia would have.

So is Wikipedia actually any worse than the daily paper?
Incidents like the one with Wikipedia are inevitable in an “infant medium,’ says Paul Saffo of the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif. ‘Think about what the Gray Lady, The New York Times, was a hundred years ago — certainly less respectable than Wikipedia today.’ Wikipedia is currently taking measures to make its contributions more reliable. For other online content, check out these sites.

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Entry filed under: Internet.

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