Commentary: The problem with Wikipedia

March 17, 2013

Occasionally, we publish blog posts, transcripts and other commentaries of interest to the Washington business community. Here is an excerpt from a post by an executive at the District public relations agency Qorvis Communications.

Don’t get me wrong — Wikipedia is a wonderful innovation. (In fact, I was an early donor.) The Web site provides a vast encyclopedia, including previously unavailable information.

But, it has a weakness. The site does not allow corporations, individuals or organizations to defend themselves transparently or submit information on their own behalf. This is a serious flaw and a real challenge for a site that has become a fundamental source for so many around the world. This policy results in many articles on the site that are inaccurate or even blatantly false.

The Qorvis Communications article on Wikipedia can be a real yarn. The entry contains silly conspiracy theories, competitor-fed information and false data from opponents of our clients. At various points in time, the article has stated that Qorvis retains robots, hires hundreds of Wikipedia editors, and that our chief executive is known as “The Super Gypsy” among the Washington elite. These statements are quite obviously false — and damaging to our company, clients and the public.

I decided to provide a resource to the Wikipedia editors and help them get the story straight. I signed up as a Wikipedia editor under the name QorvisEditor. Under this handle, my goal was not to edit client or Qorvis pages, but to become a direct source from which established Wikipedia editors could ask questions about our company and work.

Within minutes of signing up, I was blocked by established editors for personally representing the interests of the firm — not for editing anything incorrectly, mind you. This action prevented me from having any direct interaction with any editor in the future, and thus prevented me from providing any first-hand information to any editor. This action also prevents any other Wikipedia editor from having a direct dialogue with the firm.

This inane policy would violate the basic tenets of even the most partisan of small-town newspapers or the most crooked court rooms. This dangerous policy violates the fundamental rules of reporting, of debate and of discussion. Oddly, Wikipedia admits this, stating in its own terms that it is a “privilege to edit this privately owned Web site. Any legal right you may have to freedom of speech does not prevent us from enacting and enforcing our own policies and guidelines.”

I suppose Wikipedia is allowed to do whatever it wants. Yet, the problem is that Wikipedia has become the go-to encyclopedia. Wikipedia articles are at the top of Internet search results. Wikipedia articles are used by children to write school papers. Wikipedia articles have even been cited by newspapers. Wikipedia thus has a responsibility to find an avenue for living subjects to contribute directly to articles. It is a disservice to not allow direct, transparent contributions by primary sources — especially since these sources often hide their identities in an effort to have their arguments heard.

Though Wikipedia has such potential, it makes me long for the days of Encyclopedia Britannica’s fact checkers.

Matt J. Lauer is the president of Qorvis Geopolitical Solutions and a partner of Qorvis Communications.

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