Gossiping in the echo chamber 
More ruminations about the reliability of the wikipedia; cf. my earlier post Reliability on Wikipedia.

Meandering off-task this morning, I was browsing the wikipedia entry for Aldous Huxley. It claims that he wrote the original screenplay for Disney's Alice in Wonderland. The entry for Alice does not corroborate this, so I searched more broadly. About.com's encyclopedia makes a similar claim. Another website describes it as an uncredited contribution.

About.com's encyclopedia is covered by the GNU free document license. It is, for all appearances, a cut-and-paste from the wikipedia. So it repeats rather than corroborates.

The wikipedia seems to serve as a relay in this way: Someone, call them Alpha, says X on their webpage. Alpha or someone who has read Alpha's webpage writes X into a wikipedia entry. Other people read it and say X on the websites or in on-line discussions. Because the wikipedia is more often consulted than particular websites, this amplifies the usual echo chamber effect. Wikipedia also has an air of comprehensiveness and ubiquity that makes people less likely to acknowledge it specifically.

In my jargon, this makes sampling a less effective method than it would otherwise be.

Since this is simply a matter of curiosity for me, I could easily have accepted this without much scrutiny. If I had added it to my stock of beliefs, I could easily have done so without remembering where I had read it. If I recalled it later in some other context, I might rely on it because I believed it.

The worry about Huxley and Alice is just that the wikipedia can amplify ignorance or carelessness. Greater concerns arise when people start deliberately manipulating entries for their own ends. The defamation of John Seigenthaler seems to have been a practical joke, but more insidious manipulations are possible. Congress seems to be in on the act; congressional staffers are manipulating the entries on their bosses and their boss' adversaries [via ShortWoman].

UPDATE: Patrick Barkham has a clever piece in the Guardian about political spin of wikipedia entries.

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