A false Wikipedia 'biography'

by John Seigenthaler

John Seigenthaler wrote about Wikipedia in a USA Today  op-ed on November 30, 2005.
This is a more detailed version of the same piece. It was found at www.journalism.org.

"John Seigenthaler Sr. was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960's. For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven."   Wikipedia

This is a highly personal story about Internet character assassination. It could be your story.

I have no idea whose sick mind conceived the false, malicious "biography" that appeared under my name for 132 days on Wikipedia, the popular, online, free encyclopedia whose authors are unknown and virtually untraceable. There was more:

"John Seigenthaler moved to the Soviet Union in 1971, and returned to the United States in 1984. He started one of the country's largest public relations firms shortly thereafter."

At age 78, I thought I was beyond feeling surprise, anger or hurt at anything negative anybody wrote or said about me. I was wrong. It was infuriating to read that stuff under my name. It was mind-boggling when my son, John Seigenthaler, the weekend anchor for NBC News, phoned from New York to say he had discovered the same scurrilous text on two other collaborative websites, Reference.com and Answers.com. And, it was painful to realize that what had appeared might hurt two other people, my son, whose middle initial is M (mine is L), and my grandson, John B. Seigenthaler, called Jack.

There was but one factual sentence in the "biography". I was Robert Kennedy's administrative assistant in the early 1960's. I was a pall bearer at his funeral, and each year I participate in the annual awards programs for both the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial and the John F. Kennedy Library.

At my request, executives of the three websites now have removed the false content. But, the operators of Wikipedia, Answers.com and Reference.com have no idea who wrote those toxic sentences and no way to find out.

In a telephone conversation with Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's founder, I asked, "Do you, in fact, have any way to know who wrote that?"

"No, we don't," he said. Neither did representatives of Answers.com or Reference.com. Their computers are programmed to pick up material verbatim from Wikipedia. They don't check on whether the copied information is true or false.

Searching cyberspace for the person responsible for posting spurious information can be frustrating and irritating. I traced the registered IP (Internet Protocol) number of my "biographer" to BellSouth Internet Services. That meant BellSouth had a paying customer who had written the "biography".

BellSouth Internet, however, has been unwilling even to discuss the matter. The company advertises a phone number to report "Abuse Issues". An electronic voice told me all complaints were to be emailed. I sent my grievance on-line and requested the name of the person who had defamed me. The company promptly emailed back a Dear Sir or Madam form letter, signed Abuse Team. It promised an investigation but said BellSouth might not share the results with me. I shot off another email requesting the name of a BellSouth representative. Abuse Team replied with the same Dear Sir or Madam letter.

I had heard for weeks from friends teachers, journalists and historians about "the wonderful world of Wikipedia," where millions of people from around the world visit every day for quick reference information that can be composed and posted by anyone without special expertise or knowledge.

"Wikipedia is intellectual democracy," a high school teacher told me. "My students love it. They can contribute articles and it can give them quick facts."

It also can give them quick falsehoods. Erin MacAnally, a friend who is a student at the Asian Pacific Leadership Program at the University of Hawaii, found my "biography" while researching a class project. "I couldn't believe my eyes," she said. She worried that fellow students would believe what Wikipedia told them.

I paid my first visit to the wonderful Wikipedia world in late September. An old Nashville friend, Victor Johnson, had suggested that if I Googled myself and clicked the Wikipedia link, I would discover some "disturbing and libelous material." So, I Googled and clicked. It was hardly wonderful. "You should sue the s.o.b. who wrote it," Johnson said.

As a journalist most of my adult life and an advocate for optimum, unregulated, free expression in a democratic society, I have no interest in suing anybody for libel.

I do have an interest in letting as many people as possible know that, while Wikipedia may provide a great deal of factual information, it also is a flawed and irresponsible research tool. What purports to be helpful fact may well be harmful fiction. And, there is no way to tell the difference.

I also have an interest in unmasking my "biographer" and confronting him or her. Others who are defamed may feel differently than I about suing for libel. They can forget it. Congress has creatively barred such suits against all internet service providers Wikipedia, Reference.com, Answers.com and all major news media corporations BellSouth, Adelphia, AOL, MCI, etc.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, specifically states that "no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker." That legalese means that, unlike print and broadcast companies, on-line "information providers" cannot be sued successfully for disseminating defamatory attacks on citizens.

While the law does not exempt the original author who posted the character assassination, the policy of internet companies not to disclose the names of customers who defame, effectively bars libel suits in cyberspace. After waiting three weeks to hear from the Abuse Team about its investigation, I phoned BellSouth corporate headquarters in Atlanta, and was told the company would not release the identity of the "biographer" without a subpoena.

Wales, the Wikipedia founder, alerted me during our phone conversation that BellSouth would respond negatively to my request for the writer's identity. "In my experience, they won't be very helpful," he said. "What they probably will do is say [to the customer], 'Well, your service is cancelled with us.' That's about all they would do about it."

He added: "We have trouble with people posting abusive things over and over and over. We block their IP numbers, and they sneak in another way. So, we contact the service providers and ... they are not very responsive about it. They get so many complaints...."

BellSouth, then, may have completed its investigation of my complaint, cancelled my "biographer's" service and the abuser now may be a customer of another major on-line provider, free to defame someone else or me.

The Wikipedia website warns that it is not legally responsible for inaccurate information appearing in its encyclopedia but Wales insists that his website is "accountable" and corrects mistakes almost immediately.

In a revealing C-Span interview with Brian Lamb, Wales claimed that his internet community, made up of thousands of volunteer writers and editors and hundreds of administrators, provides constant monitoring and immediate editing to eliminate inaccurate information.

"Academic studies," he said, have documented that "fairly obvious vandalism" is caught and corrected "within a median time of under five minutes." More "disgusting" postings, "we revert ... within a minute."

My experience refutes that. The "biography" was posted at 2:29 p.m.(UTC), May 26. On May 29, one of Wale's volunteers, identified as SNIyer12, "edited" what had been written about me by correcting the misspelled word, "early."

Wikipedia continued to present me as a suspected assassin until Sept. 23, when some unknown customer of Adelphia posted my bio from The First Amendment Center website. The public still could view the false data by simply clicking Wikipedia's "history panel" above my name. Wales erased it from his "history" on Oct. 5. The falsehoods remained visible on Records.com and Answers.com for another three weeks before I reached representatives of those two companies.

Wales told Lamb that Wikipedia is the 40th busiest website in the world with "millions" of daily global visitors who total more than the combined websites of USA Today, The New York Times and The Washington Post. He has only one paid employee, a software technician, he said. His volunteer community runs the operation.

According to Wales, who funds his website through a non-profit foundation, his 2006 budget will be "about a million dollars." He said he receives funding support from Yahoo and is negotiating with Google. His list of contributors, posted on Wikipedia, includes Reference.com. When I first found my "biography" on Reference.com, there was a line beneath it telling visitors to "Donate to the Wikipedia Foundation." I ignored the appeal.

And so, we live in a universe of new media with phenomenal, evolving opportunities for worldwide communications and research at our fingertips but populated by anonymous, volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects. No one is immune to similar attacks by mean-spirited acquaintances, vicious pranksters or total strangers.

When I was a child, my mother once lectured me on the evils of "gossip." She held a feather pillow in her hands and said, "If I tear this open, the feathers will fly to the four winds, and I never could get them back in the pillow. That's how it is when you spread mean things about people."

For me that pillow is a metaphor for Wikipedia.

John Seigenthaler founded the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. He also is a former editorial page editor at USA Today and a founding member of the Committee of Concerned Journalists.

UPDATE: More wisdom from crowds

Despite being closely watched by Wikipedia's riot police,
Seigenthaler's biography continues to be plagued by vandals.

(A sampling of the best-surviving vandalisms)

"Many people say he killed President Kennedy but actually... he didn't. He killed his wife."

    Added 06:42, 8 June 2006 by Helllogo
    Deleted 10:35, 8 June 2006 by Kaldari    
(survived for 3 hours, 53 min)


"On May 5, 1976, Seigenthaler dismissed Jacque Srouji, a french cunt at The Tennessean, after finding that she had served as a hooker for the Federal Bureau of Condomation (FBC) for much of the previous decade. The controversy came to light after Poliouers testified before the Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, which was investigating nuclear safety."

    Added 09:35, 15 June 2006 by Helllogo
    Deleted 10:07, 15 June 2006 by Cyberjunkie    
(survived for 32 min)


"While working at The Testicular cancer fund, Seigenthaler took courses in literature at Peabody College, now part of Vanderbilt University. He also attended the American Press Institute for Restials at Columbia University."

"Seigenthaler took a one-year scrotum iserzion from The Tennessean in 1958 to participate in Harvard University's prestigious Nieman Fellowship program."

"Seigenthaler contacted Wikipedia in September, and the content was deleted. He later wrote an op-ed on the experience for USA Today on November 29, in which he wrote 'Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool. I know I really did kill President Kennedy but still they shouldn't have made it public.'"

    Added 09:59, 22 June 2006 by
    Deleted 12:42, 22 June 2006 by Shanes    
(survived for 2 hours, 43 min)


"Williams muttered 'I'll never forgive you' to Seigenthaler and tied to kill him once he heard John Seigenthaler killed President Kennedy."

    Added 09:10, 30 June 2006 by Helllogo
    Deleted 12:57, 30 June 2006 by Anger22    
(survived for 3 hours, 47 min)


"Seigenthaler, John (1979). How Communism Could Help America. ComIntern Publishers. ISBN 0876657677."

    Added 06:53, 5 July 2006 by
    Deleted 09:55, 5 July 2006 by Shanes    
(survived for 3 hours, 2 min)


"Seigenthaler used to be a background singer for the rock band Guns N' Roses. It's true, don't you dare remove my edit."

    Added 11:13, 24 July 2006 by
    Deleted 13:22, 24 July 2006 by Anger22    
(survived for 2 hours, 9 min)


"On November, 22nd, 1963, John Seigenthaler, Sr. killed and ate then-President John F. Kennedy."

    Added 19:34, 6 September 2006 by and RoughNeck2000, both located in New York)
    Deleted 02:24, 8 September 2006 by BigHaz    
(survived for 30 hours, 50 min)


And the winner is: 30 hours, 50 minutes

Why did this last edit survive longer? Here's how it was done:   1) Start a user account a month ahead and parade as a new and sincere user by making some minor edits;   2) While not logged in your IP address only is shown, which is termed an "anon" edit vandalize the article. Two edits are done simultaneously. The top one, above the fold, is a harmless edit that is unnecessary, while the one below the fold is the actual "killer" sentence;   3) Immediately afterwards, log in and revert the top edit, and scold the anon in your comment for making silly changes to the article. Since your IP address is not shown next to your username, no one knows that the username and the anon are the same person. The bottom edit is left where it is.

Any Wikipedia riot cop will tend to notice the top edit only, which has already been reverted by an aggressive, newbie editor trying to keep Wikipedia on the straight and narrow. The cop's assessment gives him the false confidence that he understands what's going on, so he fails to check below the fold for recent "killer" vandalisms. Meanwhile, the vandal from the wise crowd is adding more noise and reversions, in order to bury his smoking gun further down into the history page.

For the length of time that the killer sentence survives, an unknown number of bots, scrapers, and mirror sites are picking up the vandalized version of the article. Some of them will keep the bogus sentence on their site for months.

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