Wikipedia Prankster Unveiled

Following up on a story from earlier in the week, a man has admitted that he put false information in a Wikipedia entry about John Seigenthaler Sr., as a prank. And what a prank it was. He’s now unemployed, and Wikipedia got whuped upside the head.

Brian Chase, 38, who until Friday was an operations manager at a small delivery company, told Seigenthaler on Friday that he had written the material suggesting that Seigenthaler had been involved in the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy. Wikipedia, a nonprofit venture that is the world’s biggest encyclopedia, is written and edited by thousands of volunteers.

Seigenthaler discovered the false entry only recently and wrote about it in an op-ed article in USA Today, saying he was especially annoyed that he could not track down the perpetrator because of Internet privacy laws. His plight touched off a debate about the reliability of information on Wikipedia–and by extension the entire Internet–and the difficulty in holding Web sites and their users accountable, even when someone is defamed.

In a confessional letter to Seigenthaler, Chase said he thought Wikipedia was a “gag” Web site and that he had written the assassination tale to shock a co-worker, who knew of the Seigenthaler family and its illustrious history in Nashville.

Ouch! Wikipedia, a “gag” website. I’m sure that makes the elitist wikigeeks feel good, especially after putting in 120 hours a week to police the online “gag” encyclopedia. Heh.

But Chase said that once he became aware last week through news accounts of the damage he had done to Seigenthaler, he was remorseful and also a little scared of what might happen to him.

Chase also found that he was slowly being cornered in cyberspace, thanks to the sleuthing efforts of Daniel Brandt, 57, of San Antonio, who makes his living as a book indexer. Brandt has been a frequent critic of Wikipedia and started an anti-Wikipedia Web site in September after reading what he said was a false entry about himself.

Using information in Seigenthaler’s article and some online tools, Brandt traced the computer used to make the Wikipedia entry to the delivery company in Nashville. Brandt called the company and told employees there about the Wikipedia problem but was not able to learn anything definitive.

Brandt then sent an e-mail message to the company, asking for information about its courier services. A response bore the same Internet Protocol address that was left by the creator of the Wikipedia entry, offering further evidence of a connection.

Whoa! Where was Brandt during Memogate?

Chase said that as Brandt and the news media were closing in and he realized how much he had hurt Seigenthaler, he decided that stepping forward was “the right thing to do.”

Meanwhile, the fate of Wikipedia remains in question.

Jimmy Wales, who founded Wikipedia, said that the site would make more information about users available to make it easier to lodge complaints. But he portrayed the error as something that fell through the cracks, not a sign of a systemic problem. “We have to continually evaluate whether our controls are enough,” he said.

Is Wikipedia ready for primetime? I’m still not convinced.

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