Spin Doctor

Kelly RheaThe integrity of your institutional wiki now depends on who wields the editorial pen.

In August, Wired magazine reported on WikiScanner, a search tool that analyzes anonymous Wikipedia edits by IP address. The resulting data have exposed efforts by corporations and other organizations (ranging from Microsoft and the CIA, to the Dutch royal family!) to secretly "spin" their own entries by changing negative information.

Something as simple as editing Wikipedia may sound innocuous, but examples of the act cited by Wired bring to mind revisionist history. Someone with an IP address from electronic voting machine vendor Diebold, for instance, was found to have deleted passages questioning the integrity of the company's voting devices. Nobody enjoys bad PR, yet the reliability of voting systems is certainly an issue that should not be swept under the rug. Perhaps we also ought to scrutinize the Wikipedia entry for "US presidential election, 2000," which seems ripe for manipulation.

Wikipedia "airbrushing" is so rampant that even Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales was caught editing his own bio on the site. In a subsequent Wired interview he sighed, "I wish I hadn't done it. [But] if you see a blatant error or misconception about yourself, you really want to set it straight". Ironically, the controversy is now part of his Wikipedia bio.

The problem is that the line between setting the facts straight, and revising history in your favor, is thin. This vulnerability to bias is one reason why many institutions discourage students from using Wikipedia as a research source.

For higher ed, though, the question should not be whether Wikipedia can be trusted, but: How can colleges and universities maintain the credibility of their institutional wikis? After all, a university administration maintaining its own wiki is somewhat like Wales editing his own bio; self-interest cannot be far out of mind. Corralling one's inner spin doctor can be a challenge, especially, say, if a disgruntled student or employee writes something negative on a university wiki. The temptation may be strong for school administrators to excise the passage. Yet that act, perceived as biased, could damage the university's reputation as well as draw more attention to the nasty comments. And the coming generation of Web 2.0-savvy students, armed with tools like WikiScanner, stands ready to expose such editorial spin.

One solution: Rely on your students to maintain the college wiki themselves. They are a built-in community of experts who have a vested interest in keeping their school's wiki in check. While you may end up with a few more articles about fraternity party schedules and critiques of food quality in the dining hall, you'll also gain the checks and balances you need to give your wiki truly encyclopedic authority.

--Rhea Kelly, Managing Editor
What have you seen and heard? Send to: kgrayson@1105media.com.

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