Information Inaccuracy Spells Trouble for User-Generated Websites

Article ImageDuring the inauguration of President Barack Obama, people across the country put down their political boxing gloves long enough to celebrate the historic event, but behind the scenes a debate was brewing. It started when it was reported on Wikipedia, a web-based, free-content encyclopedia project, that Sens. Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd had died during the inauguration luncheon. Both men were still alive, and within a few moments Wikipedia editors had erased the inaccurate post, but the damage was done. This latest snafu ignited talk of Wikipedia possibly changing its information verification process, angering Wikipedia users and adding more fuel to the information accuracy fire.

Wikipedia encourages user collaboration, allowing anyone to post information to its website. As with any wiki-based system, the potential is there for both accurate and inaccurate information to appear, as well as the potential for malicious user activity. For Wikipedia, the possible positive outcomes far outweigh the negative ones. As Dan Rosenthal, U.S. press contact for the Wikimedia Foundation, explains, "We have no plans to limit which users can contribute information. There is a process called ‘flagged revisions’ that is under discussion by the community that will allow for greater protections against vandalism; however, it is unclear at this time if our editing community will choose to enable this process." This flagged revision process, which has been used by the German Wikipedia with positive results, allows for inaccurate information to be flagged by users and thus brought to the attention of Wikipedia editors. "Generally [the flagged revision process] has worked well; however, there have been some problems involving delays in how long it takes for edits to be flagged," Rosenthal says.

The question still remains as to whether or not this process will carry over to other Wikipedia applications. The most prominent concern thus far is keeping the wiki structure of open collaboration intact. As Rosenthal explains, "The community is exploring options as to which methods will be most effective while still maintaining the ‘wiki way.’"

Though Wikipedia remains adamant about retaining its open structure, other websites, such as Encyclopaedia Britannica online, are combining user-generated content with strict information accuracy guidelines. In late January, Britannica online launched multiple features that facilitate user contributions, such as a "Suggest Edit" button that allows users to suggest edits or additions to the information provided by the online encyclopedia. With this system, users can only suggest edits, which Britannica editors then verify for accuracy. Though the final decision is still in the hands of Britannica editors, the user is always involved in the process. Dale Hoiberg, editor-in-chief of Encyclopaedia Britannica, explains that upon acceptance of a suggested edit, "An immediate email is sent to the contributor, and then often a couple other responses are sent to the person—one to say review has taken place [and] one when the material is live online." Britannica has not seen any vandalism on the site thus far and hopes to keep it that way. "We’ve always welcomed comments from users. It is part of the interactivity of the internet," say Hoiberg.

With differing goals for each site, it is clear that there is no simple verification method that will work for everyone. As Ned May, director and lead analyst at Outsell, explains, Britannica’s method is a "fantastic model for [a] top-down edited unit. They are maintaining their core value, which is authority. I don’t think it could work for Wikipedia." He continues, "Sites can get in trouble quickly if they start editing the content or they start to weigh in. It creates significant problems around liability."

While website creators and editors often take the heat for inaccurate information finding its way on to sites, May explains, "I do not think it is so much an issue of information accuracy as it is mal intent." However the misleading information finds its way to the internet, the balance between providing open access and accurate information will grow more precarious as user-generated content proliferates on sites that hope to maintain a reputation for reliability.