The Everyday Irishman

UCD student punks world’s media

Posted in The Origin Stuff by everydayirishman on May 19, 2009
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UCD student Shane Fitzgerald has been showing up the world’s media after placing a fake quote on a Wikipedia page:

The sociology major’s obituary-friendly quote — which he added to the Wikipedia page of Maurice Jarre hours after the French composer’s death March 28 — flew straight on to dozens of U.S. blogs and newspaper Web sites in Britain, Australia and India. They used the fabricated material, Fitzgerald said, even though administrators at the free online encyclopedia twice caught the quote’s lack of attribution and removed it.

A full month went by and nobody noticed the editorial fraud. So Fitzgerald told several media outlets they’d swallowed his baloney whole.

So far, The Guardian is the only publication to make a public mea culpa, while others have eliminated or amended their online obituaries without any reference to the original version — or in a few cases, still are citing Fitzgerald’s florid prose weeks after he pointed out its true origin.

Fitzgerald said one of his University College Dublin classes was exploring how quickly information was transmitted around the globe. His private concern was that, under pressure to produce news instantly, media outlets were increasingly relying on Internet sources — none more ubiquitous than the publicly edited Wikipedia.

When he saw British 24-hour news channels reporting the death of the triple Oscar-winning composer, Fitzgerald sensed what he called “a golden opportunity” for an experiment on media use of Wikipedia.

If anything, Fitzgerald said, he expected newspapers to avoid his quote because it had no link to a source — and even might trigger alarms as “too good to be true.” But many blogs and several newspapers used the quotes at the start or finish of their obituaries.

He said the Guardian was the only publication to respond to him in detail and with remorse at its own editorial failing. Others, he said, treated him as a vandal who was solely to blame for their cut-and-paste content.

And he warned that a truly malicious hoaxer could have evaded Wikipedia’s own informal policing by getting a newspaper to pick up a false piece of information — as happened when his quote made its first of three appearances — and then use those newspaper reports as a credible footnote for the bogus quote.

So – a lie appears on Wikipedia, a newspaper prints the lie as truth, and then the Wikipedia page cites the newspaper article as a credible source for its original lie: a nightmare scenario for future truth in journalism.

To paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, trust none of what you hear, and less of what you read.