Seigenthaler incident

Seigenthaler incident

In the history of Wikipedia, the Seigenthaler incident refers to a series of events that began in May 2005 when Brian Chase [Not to be confused with a musician or a basketball player of the same name.] anonymously posted a hoax article in Wikipedia about
John Seigenthaler, Sr., a well-known writer and journalist. The post was not discovered and corrected until more than four months later. The incident raised questions about the reliability of Wikipedia and other online sites that lack the accountability of traditional news sites. [ [ The State of the News Media 2006] ] After the incident, Jimmy Wales stated that Wikipedia had barred unregistered users from creating new articles and taken other unspecified steps to prevent a recurrence.


Brian Chase was an operations manager of Rush Delivery, a delivery service company in Nashville, Tennessee. As a prank on a colleague, Chase created a Wikipedia biography on Seigenthaler which suggested that Seigenthaler may have had a role in the assassinations of both John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. On May 26, 2005, Chase added a new article that contained, in its entirety, the following false text:

Detection and correction

In September, Victor S. Johnson, Jr., a friend of Seigenthaler's, discovered the entry. After Johnson alerted him to the article, Seigenthaler e-mailed friends and colleagues about it. On September 23, 2005, colleague Eric Newton copied and pasted Seigenthaler's official biography into Wikipedia from the Freedom Forum web site. The following day, this bio was recognized by a Wikipedian editor as a copyright policy violation, and it was replaced with a short original biography. [ [ Log entry] of the rewriting of the official biography.] Newton informed Seigenthaler of his action when he ran into Seigenthaler in November in New York at the Committee to Protect Journalists dinner.

In October 2005, Seigenthaler contacted the then-Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation, Jimmy Wales, who took the then-unusual step of having the affected versions of the article history hidden from public view in the Wikipedia version logs, in effect removing them from all but Wikipedia administrators' view. [ [ Two deletion log entries] of the article.] Some "mirror" websites not controlled by Wikipedia continued to display the older and inaccurate article for several more weeks until this new version of the article was propagated to these other websites.

Anonymous editor identified

Seigenthaler wrote an op-ed article describing the particulars of the incident, which appeared in "USA Today", of which he had been the founding editorial director. The article was published on November 29, 2005. In the article, he included a verbatim reposting of the false statements and called Wikipedia a "flawed and irresponsible research tool." An expanded version was published several days later in "The Tennessean" where Seigenthaler was editor-in-chief in the 1970s. In the article, Seigenthaler detailed his own failed attempts to identify the anonymous person who posted the inaccurate biography. He reported that he had asked the poster's Internet service provider, BellSouth, to identify its user from the user's IP address. BellSouth refused to identify the user without a court order, suggesting that Seigenthaler file a John Doe lawsuit against the user, which Seigenthaler declined to do.

Daniel Brandt, a San Antonio activist who had started the anti-Wikipedia site "Wikipedia Watch" in response to problems he had with his eponymous article, looked up the IP address in Seigenthaler's article, and found that it related to "Rush Delivery", a company in Nashville. He contacted Seigenthaler and the media, and posted this information on his website. [cite web | last = Terdiman | first = Daniel | title = In search of the Wikipedia prankster | publisher = CNET | date = 2005-12-15 | url = ]

On December 9, Chase admitted he had placed the false information in Seigenthaler's Wikipedia biography.Buchanan, Brian J. (November 17, 2006). [ Founder shares cautionary tale of libel in cyberspace.] via First Amendment Center. Retrieved November 18, 2006.] After confessing, Chase resigned from his job at Rush Delivery. Seigenthaler received a hand-written apology and spoke with Chase on the phone. Seigenthaler confirmed —as he had previously stated— that he would not file a lawsuit in relation to the incident, and urged Rush Delivery to rehire Chase, which they did. Seigenthaler commented: "I'm glad this aspect of it is over." He stated that he was concerned that "every biography on Wikipedia is going to be hit by this stuff—think what they'd do to Tom DeLay and Hillary Clinton, to mention two. My fear is that we're going to get government regulation of the Internet as a result." [Page, Susan (December 11, 2005). [ Author apologizes for fake Wikipedia biography] ]

eigenthaler's public reaction

On December 5, 2005, Seigenthaler and Wales appeared jointly on CNN to discuss the matter. On December 6, 2005, the two were interviewed on National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation" radio program. Wales described a new policy that he implemented in order to prevent unregistered users from creating new articles on the English-language Wikipedia, though their ability to edit existing articles was retained.

In the CNN interview, Seigenthaler also raised the spectre of increased government regulation of the Web:

Seigenthaler criticized Congress for passing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act which protects ISPs and web sites from being held legally responsible for disseminating content provided by their customers and users, "unlike print and broadcast companies."

In the December 6 joint NPR interview, Seigenthaler said that he did not want to have anything to do with Wikipedia because he disapproved of its basic assumptions. He also pointed out that the false information had been online for several months before he was aware of it, and that he had not been able to edit the article to correct it, when he did not even know of the article's existence. Editing Wikipedia, he suggested, would lend it his sanction or approval, and stated his belief that editing the article was not enough and instead he wanted to expose "incurable flaws" in the Wikipedia process and ethos.

On December 9, Seigenthaler appeared on C-SPAN's "Washington Journal" with Brian Lamb hosting. He said he was concerned that other pranksters would try to spoof members of Congress or other powerful figures in government, which may then prompt a backlash and turn back First Amendment rights on the Web.

In the June 2007 issue of "Reason" magazine, Seigenthaler also expressed concern about the lack of transparency underlined by Wales' removal of the hoax pages from the article's history page. He has also stated that many of the comments left by users in the edit summaries are things he would not want his nine-year-old grandson to see. [Mangu-Ward, Katherine; "Reason" magazine; June 2007; Pages 20 - 29.]

Other reactions

In reaction to the controversy, "The New York Times" business editor Larry Ingrassia sent out a memo to his entire staff commenting on the reliability of Wikipedia and writing, "We shouldn't be using it to check any information that goes into the newspaper." [The New York Times Business editor Larry Ingrassia's memo [ Wiki-whatdia?] ] Several other publications commented on the incident, often criticizing Wikipedia and its open editing model as unreliable, citing the Seigenthaler incident as evidence.

The scientific journal "Nature" published a (not peer-reviewed) study comparing the accuracy of Wikipedia and the "Encyclopædia Britannica" in 42 hard sciences related articles in December 2005. The Wikipedia articles studied were found to contain four serious errors and 162 factual errors, while the Encyclopædia Britannica also contained four serious errors and 123 factual errors. [Giles, Jim " [ Internet encyclopaedias go head to head] ". "Nature," 438 (15 December 2005), 900–901. ("To read this story in full you will need to login or make a payment".)] From this, the journal drew the conclusion "that such high-profile examples (like the Seigenthaler and Curry situations) are the exception rather than the rule."

Wikimedia Foundation reaction

In an interview with "BusinessWeek" on 13 December 2005, Wales discussed the reasons the hoax had gone undetected and steps being taken to address them.cite news | title=Wikipedia: A work in progress | date=14 December 2005 | author = Helm, Burt | publisher=BusinessWeek | url=] He stated that one problem was that Wikipedia's use had grown faster than its self-monitoring system could comfortably handle, and that therefore new page creation would be deliberately restricted to account-holders only, addressing one of Seigenthaler's main criticisms.

He also gave his opinion that encyclopedias as a whole (whether print or online) were not usually appropriate for primary sources and should not be relied upon as authoritative (as some were doing), but that nonetheless Wikipedia was more reliable as "background reading" on subjects than most online sources. He stated that Wikipedia was a "work in progress."

A variety of changes were also made to Wikipedia's software and working practices, to address some of the issues arising. A new guideline, ',' was created on 17 December 2005; editorial restrictions were introduced on the creation of new Wikipedia articles; and new tracking categories for the biographies of living people were implemented. [ Wikipedia Signpost December 2005]

The Foundation added a new level of "oversight" features to the MediaWiki software, [ [ New revision-hiding feature added] ] accessible as of 2006 to around 20 experienced editors nominated by Wales. This originally allowed for specific historical versions to be hidden from everyone (including Oversight editors), which then become unable to be viewed by anyone except developers via manual intervention, though the feature was later changed so that other Oversights could view these revisions to monitor the tool's use. Currently such procedures are standardized by the " policy which states: “Sometimes the Wikimedia Foundation may have to delete, protect or blank a page without going through the normal site/community process(es) to do so. These edits are temporary measures to prevent legal trouble or personal harm and should not be undone by any user“.

ee also



External links

* [ Seigenthaler and Wikipedia – Lessons and Questions: A Case Study on the Veracity of the Wiki concept]
* [ Is an Online Encyclopedia, Such as Wikipedia, Immune From Libel Suits?] by Prof. Anita Ramasastry on Writ

News articles

*, interview with John Seigenthaler and Jimmy Wales.
*, "Talk of the Nation" story summary and radio broadcast.
*cite news| url=| title= There's no Wikipedia entry for 'moral responsibility'| publisher=The Register (UK)| date= 12 December 2005| first=Andrew| last= Orlowski
* [ Danah Boyd's take on the Seigenthaler incident] ,, 17 December 2005

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