Wikipedia Article creates Circular references

A recent post on SlashDot quotes an IT professor saying:

People are unwittingly trusting the information they find on Wikipedia, yet experience has shown it can be wrong, incomplete, biased, or misleading

After reading this, I thought it was time to write about a something I found that backs this up. An anonymous user added information about Sacha Baron Cohen (known onscreen as Ali G.) to Wikipedia on November the 14th 2006. This entry added information about Baron Cohen working for investment bank Goldman Sachs prior to becoming famous as an actor.

Three days later, on November the 17th 2006 an article appeared in the Independent with the same information. The article included Baron Cohen’s career information almost as a footnote, at the end of the article – possibly using Wikipedia as the source of his “Goldman Sachs” career and other family information.

On November the 21st 2006 a second anonymous user added information to the Wikipedia entry on Baron Cohen that his early career included work at not only Goldman Sachs, but JP Morgan. Doing a lookup on this users IP address shows that it belongs to an address block allocated to JP Morgan Chase & Co! Someone at the company either new it to be true – or didn’t like the fact that he had been listed as working at a rival company; showing this addition as a potential one-upmanship entry.

A number of months later, a wikipedian actually did his homework, and on the 23rd February 2007 removed the bogus career information stating:

remove Goldman Sacks career as it is not mentioned in the Rolling Stone interview or anywhere else I can find

But it was too late. From 2007 onwards the Wikipedia entry detailing his career has been modified in an on again off again fashion. As of April 2008, the Independent and the Guardian are now used where still used (but have since been removed and discussed) as the source of the information – external references that exist outside Wikipedia – albeit written after the initial entry to Wikipedia. Since Wikipedia references used to referenced these articles as the source for this career move from investment banking to acting; it’s deemed permanent information.

The anonymous Wikipedia entries appear to have been “jokes”, or methods of associating famous people with a company – by financial industry insiders. Not only in the case of the initial change on 14 November, but also in the additional change by someone at JP Morgan on the 21st November, and subsequent additions, removals and swapping of big-time rival company names from Wikipedia.

The bottom line is that NO verifiable information existed anywhere on the internet that Baron Cohen worked for any investment banks (Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan) prior to the 14th November 2006. The only person that can tell us the truth now is Sacha Baron Cohen himself.

In February I wrote on the user talk page of the first “prankster” about this issue, but only recently has an another anonymous user commented over at SlashDot on this exact information of the same article – It could even be the same person who started this as they say:

It is now down to the rest of the world to prove that Sacha Baron Cohen DID NOT work for Goldman Sachs.

All of these thing show how easy is this to do. But how many other times has this been done? Is it the corporations, insiders or just people who work in related industries having a laugh. I’ll leave you with this (long) quote from anonymous@slashdot

The real Wiki-vandals are the companies, governments and lobby groups of all sorts that flood Wikipedia with their squeaky clean corporate profiles (yes, corporate governments), whipped straight from their websites … These entities are the true threat to the laudable goal of Wikipedia to provide a freely accessible forum for the production and storage of (hopefully well-referenced) articles for the masses and a forum that does not restrict the privilege of contribution to those that have jumped through the all the right hoops. … The printed word is no more reliable than the plasma. Lies may be propagated on Wikipedia, but not without debate. Politicians spouting their sludge find their propaganda sitting side-by-side with those that mock them… If knowing that anything in a Wikipedia article is as likely to be crap as correct, the average reader becomes more vigilant in clicking through to the supporting sources; then Wikipedia has served the purpose of bringing to the masses the healthy skepticism that is, after all, the cornerstone of all academic pursuits.
Dark eyes look down from ivory towers. Do they cheer or do they fear?

Update 20 April: since I wrote about this, and got slash-dotted, Wikipedian editors (and numerous slash-dotters) have discussed this entire issue; and the general consensus of the editors is that these two external sources are no longer valid. I think my point was understood. This may only be the tip of the iceberg and it is up to people checking their Wikipedia information to verify first, or remove – and be conscious of timelines!

6 thoughts on “Wikipedia Article creates Circular references”

  1. Pingback: Value and Veracity
  2. This ^^^.

    In December of 2005, I was involved in a discussion about Turducken, which soon turned ridiculous. I made the claim that an abomination named “turduckencorpheail” existed, posted a link to the wikipedia article on turducken, and then added the following:

    Variations
    “In addition to the aforementioned chuckey, some enthusiasts have taken it a step further, and come up with the turduckencorpheail. This is a standard turducken, which is then stuffed with a cornish game hen, which is then stuffed with a pheasant, and finally stuffed with a quail”

    I was seeking only a quick lul or two before my entry was deleted, but to my surprise, the “Variations” section continued to grow. Obviously, some understood the joke, and continued to expound on it. I occasionally looked at the talk page, and while some of the legitimacy of the more outlandish creations was questioned, mine stood for nearly 2 years, until recently when most of the “Variations” section was removed. A Google for the term “turduckencorpheail” currently turns up ~10 pages of references. The lesson: It pays to be a skeptic.

    On a related note, an acquaintance of mine works for Goldman Sachs, and according to the information that they had, it would appear that Sasha Baron Cohen has never been employed by Goldman. Of course, given my history, you may or may not choose to believe me….

  3. I’m glad I”ve been sceptical in this case then Harrison!
    I see your entry added in December 2005 as well!

    It looks like this is not the only case. I do think that Celebrities are a greater target for these sort of jokes and false information. I”ve even had to remove more blatantly false information from the same article I wrote about today.

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