“The Internet is just a world passing around notes in a classroom” - Jon Stewart
Wikipedia is a vast repository of knowledge and information that spans from the trivial to the practical, and includes everything in between. It contains an astonishing amount of information. But the fact that Wikipedia is user-generated, user-edited and a go-to source of information for many creates the potential for troubling and damaging inaccuracies. If the Internet is a classroom, when a note gets passed onto Wikipedia, every other kid in school gets an opportunity to see it. What is the best course of action to stop someone from using Wikipedia as a platform to make unfair, inaccurate, misleading or defamatory statements? The answer, of course, depends. In many cases, the best solution will be to attempt to resolve the problem through Wikipedia’s internal mechanisms, rather than through litigation.
Overview of Wikipedia’s Policies
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wikipedia itself is an excellent source of information about what to do when inaccurate statements are made on Wikipedia. Wikipedia has exhaustive and stringent standards, rules and policies for what should and should not be on the site. These articles are voluminous enough to impress even the most seasoned of lawyers; the explanation that follows is just a high-level summary of a complex topic.
Wikipedia has three core content policies: 1) all articles should have a neutral point of view; 2) all articles should be verifiable by a reliable source; and 3) Wikipedia does not publish original research that cannot be attributed: see http://bit.ly/emSba. The ”burden of evidence” for adding or restoring material rests with the person seeking to add or restore it. This burden is satisfied by providing a citation to a reliable source that directly supports the edit. Each Wikipedia article also has a useful “history” page, which allows anyone to see how it was edited over time.
Wikipedia also has a “biographies of living persons” policy, which applies a more stringent set of standards for material about any living person. This may include the recently deceased and some groups, but does not include corporations. This policy dictates that un-sourced, or poorly sourced, contentious material about a living person must be removed immediately.
Just Edit It.
Wikipedia is a “wiki” which means that anyone can edit an unprotected page. Unlike most other sites with user-generated content (for example, online message boards), persons other than the poster or a site administrator can alter or remove existing content. The quickest and best solution when someone is posting unfair statements on an article will often be to just change it back and monitor the article.
Such an edit can be justified if, say, the article contained an un-sourced personal attack, or if the cited source does not support the information. However, simple editing will not necessarily stop a determined user from re-posting defamatory content, nor will it necessarily be effective when the line between truth and fiction is not black and white. Wikipedia has internal mechanisms for dealing with these sorts of issues.
Using Wikipedia’s Internal Processes
Each article on Wikipedia has a “talk” page, which is a forum for users to post comments or concerns about the article. There also a public “noticeboard” concerning issues with the repeated adding of defamatory or libelous material to articles. These sorts of issues can also be reported privately by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wikipedia administrators also have a number of tools that can be used in more rare circumstances to prevent recurring problems, such as locking an article, requiring that additional revisions be flagged, and sanctioning (or temporarily banning) offending users. In cases where there is a legitimate dispute between two editors, lawyers will be pleased to know that Wikipedia has its own comprehensive internal dispute resolution process, which includes mediation, arbitration
The Difficulty of Pursuing Legal Action
In almost all cases it will be far cheaper, and almost certainly more effective, to remove damaging content or stop it from being posted onto a Wikipedia article by using the site’s internal dispute mechanisms, rather than pursuing legal action.
A difficulty with all online defamation suits is that the cost of finding out who the proper defendants are may outweigh the benefits of finding them. A person does not even need to provide an email address to sign up as a Wikipedia user. And while the IP address of a non-registered person who posts on Wikipedia is publicly visible, convincing a court to grant a Norwich Order that will compel Wikipedia or an ISP to reveal further information about a poster is not always easy. If a poster masked their information or used a public computer or network, it may be impossible to ascertain their identity.
There is also the “Streisand Effect”: an effort to hide, remove or censor a piece of information may have the unintended effect of publicizing it (see the Wikipedia entry). Often, the consequences of an intemperate or public response may exponentially increase the damage.
Wikipedia has a policy that “Wikipedia is not about winning”. Content is supposed to be driven by consensus. That being said, it may be possible to “win” an argument about the content of an article with time and persistence by simply putting forward the right argument about what should be in the article. Where a damaging, inaccurate or defamatory Wikipedia article is truly akin to a malicious note being passed around a classroom, unsupported by anything but gossip, exercising a ‘self-help’ remedy is likely going to be the quickest and easiest way to fix the problem.