Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The disinformation highway

The disinformation highway

Is the internet a haven for chancers, spoofers and liars, as a new book claims? Or is it a truly democratic work-in-progress? Damian Corless reports

Tuesday July 31 2007

Last month I got a phone call from my bank. They'd spotted an "irregular" transaction on my credit card and they wanted to check if I'd splurged €4,500 on a diamond from an online jewellery store.

I assured them I hadn't and they told me not to worry, as the bank (meaning their customers) would absorb the cost of the internet fraud.

Last week the sinister side of the internet resurfaced again when a new form of extortion reached Ireland from cyberspace.

A number of people reported to gardai that they'd received emails from a man claiming to be a “sniper” demanding their money or their life.

The “assassin” claimed that he'd been hired to kill the recipient of the email.

However, having tailed the intended victim, he'd satisfied himself that they didn't deserve to die, and he'd call off the hit in return for a large pay-off.

The scam sounds so preposterous as to be comical, but the capacity to inflict terror on a gullible recipient is clear.

A host of related episodes are gathered in The Cult Of The Amateur, a new book by English author Andrew Keen which makes a sweeping attack on the culture of the internet.

Keen, who is based in California, hits the usual soft targets from pornography to online poker, but his main thrust is that the web is dumbing itself down by replacing the authorative knowledge of experts with the flawed “wisdom of the crowd”.

He selects as a prime culprit the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, which relies upon volunteer editors and contributors. Wikipedia gets far more traffic than the website run by Encyclopedia Britannica, which relies upon experts and scholars.

The problem is that the interactive format employed by Wikipedia opens it to postings that are inaccurate, unverified and even downright fraudulent. It recently emerged that a contributor using the name Essjay, who had edited thousands of Wikipedia articles and had been given the authority to arbitrate disputes between writers, was a 24-year-old chancer named Ryan Jordan, and not the eminent professor he claimed to be.

So, on balance, is the internet to be embraced warts and all, or treated with the greatest suspicion?


Any information gleaned from the internet must be treated with suspicion. Wikipedia is simply the best-known knowledge bank but it's open to abuse, distortion, disinformation and the input of idiots.

The distinguished White House aide, John Seigenthaler, was infamously slandered in a malicious Wikipedia biography which named him as a Kremlin spy and implicated him in the murders of both JFK and Bobby Kennedy. In The Cult Of The Amateur, Andrew Keen points out that the most popular search engine, Google, answers “search queries not with what is most true or most reliable, but merely what is most popular”.

Search results can be manipulated by “Google bombing” which “involves simply linking a large number of sites to a certain page to raise the ranking of any given site in Google's search results”. The Irish have proved very adept at warping the web.

In 1999 Time magazine conducted an internet poll to find the Person Of The Century. A lobby group from Ireland got to work with the result that footballer Ronnie O'Brien, a former supermarket shelf-stacker from Bray, shot to the top of the ratings, overtaking such luminaries as Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King.

When the magazine bumped O'Brien off the list, he was swiftly replaced by Dustin The Turkey who polled over 1,000 votes more than Adolf Hitler.

The same distorting effect came into play in 2002 when a version of A Nation Once Again by the Wolfe Tones beat John Lennon's Imagine when it was named “the world's most popular song” in an online poll run by the BBC World Service.

Back in 1968, when the internet was in its infancy and still in the hands of the US military, Senator Ted Kennedy heard that a local Massachusetts company had won the contract for an ”interface message processor”.

He sent off a telegram congratulating the firm for their ecumenical spirit in developing their “interfaith message processor”.

Four decades on, ecumenical is possibly the last word we'd use about an invention which has become synonymous with Islamofacist beheadings and bomb-making sites, Christian fundamentalist intolerance and hatred, Nazi memorabilia stores, child porn exchanges, and mindless idiots filming themselves doing mindlessly idiotic things for posting on YouTube.

It is the rise of YouTube, MySpace, Wikipedia and the other do-it-yourself newcomers that remain the cause of perhaps the most concern, as they steal ad revenue away from the conventional media which pays journalists, scholars and researchers to ensure that the information they impart is based on fact, and is more than the hodge-podge of half-baked opinions, prejudices and half-grasped factoids that increasingly pass for knowledge on the web.

Be careful out there.


Andrew Keen rails against a future where knowledge has become a debased currency and where we will “live to see the bulk of our music coming from amateur garage bands, our movies and television from glorified YouTubes, and our news made up of hyperactive celebrity gossip, served up as mere dressing for advertising”.

This is what happens, he insists, “when ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule”.

Well I've got news for Andrew Keen. That world is already here without switching on your computer. Turn on your TV or radio and you'll find that Bruce Springsteen's prediction of 20 years ago has come to pass where there's “57 channels and nothing on”.

Keen argues that “what the web revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgement”.

He's absolutely correct. The information we download from the web is not to be taken as Gospel truth. It's worth remembering that the four Gospels were carefully selected by the early Church from a raft of conflicting stories in order to convey a certain slant. Nothing much has changed.

The internet is a wondrous resource which has revolutionised how we work, how we communicate, how we shop and how we tap into ideas which were previously closed off to us because of distance, culture or censorship.

The internet is a work in progress and it is challenging existing standards, in numerous ways barely imaginable 15 or 20 years ago. At its worst, it is indeed a place “where ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule”.

It's also the miracle of the age, the uncorked genie that can't be put back. It's a great boon, but handle with care.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Wikipedia - Can Teenagers Write An Encyclopedia?

Wikipedia - Can Teenagers Write An Encyclopedia?
Sam Vaknin, Ph.D. - 7/22/2007
The vast majority of Wikipedia contributors and editors are under the age of 25. Many of the administrators (senior editors) are in their teens. This has been established by a survey conducted in 2003 and in various interviews with Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of the enterprise.

The truth is that teenagers cannot do the referencing and research that are the prerequisite to serious scholarship - unless you stretch these words to an absurd limit. Research is not about hoarding facts. It is about identifying and applying context and about possessing a synoptic view of ostensibly unrelated data.

Moreover, teenagers can't tell hype from fact and fad from fixture. They lack the perspectives that life and learning -structured, frontal, hierarchical learning - bring with them.

Knowledge is not another democratic institution. It is hierarchical for good reason and the hierarchy is built on merit and the merit is founded on learning.

It is not surprising that the Wikipedia emerged in the USA whose "culture" consists of truncated attention spans, snippets and soundbites, shortcuts and cliff notes. The Wikipedia is a pernicious counter-cultural phenomenon. It does not elevate or celebrate knowledge. The Wikipedia degrades knowledge by commoditizing it and by removing the filters and the barriers to entry that have proven so essential hitherto.

Wikipdians boast that the articles in their "encyclopedia" are replete with citations and references. But citations from which sources and references to which works and authors? Absent the relevant credentials and education, how can an editor tell the difference between information and disinformation, fact and hearsay, truth and confabulation?

Knowledge is not comprised of lists of facts, "facts", factoids, and rumors, the bread and butter of the Wikipedia. Real facts have to be verified, classified, and arranged within a historical and cultural context. Wikipedia articles read like laundry lists of information gleaned from secondary sources and invariably lack context and deep, true understanding of their subject matter.

A recent (late 2006) study by Heather Hopkins from Hitwise demonstrates the existence of a pernicious feedback loop between Google, Wikipedia, MySpace, and Blogspot. Wikipedia gets 54% of its traffic from Google search results. The majority of Wikipedia visitors then proceed to MySpace or Blogspot, both of which use Google as their search service and serve Google-generated advertisements.

Google has changed its search algorithm in late 2005-early 2006. I have been monitoring 154 keywords on Google since 1999. Of these, the number one (#1) search result in 128 keywords is now a Wikipedia article. More than a quarter (38 out of 128) of these "articles" are what the Wikipedia calls "stubs" (one or two sentences to be expanded by Wikipedians in the future). Between 7 and 10 of the articles that made it to the much-coveted number one spot are ... empty pages, placeholders, yet to be written! (These results were obtained in early 2007).

This is Google's policy now: Wikipedia articles regardless of their length or quality or even mere existence are placed by Google's algorithm high up in the search results. Google even makes a Wikipedia search engine available to Webmasters for their Websites. The relationship between Google and Wikipedia is clearly intimate and mutually-reinforcing.

Google's new algorithm, codenamed Big Daddy, still calculates the popularity of Websites by counting incoming links. An incoming link is a link to a given Website placed on an unrelated page somewhere on the Web. The more numerous such links - the higher the placement in Google's search results pages. To avoid spamming and link farms, Google now rates the quality of "good and bad Internet neighborhoods". Not all incoming links are treated equally. Some Internet properties are shunned. Links from such "bad" Websites actually contribute negatively to the overall score.

The top results in all 154 keywords I have been diligently monitoring since 1999 have changed dramatically since April 2006. The only common thread in all these upheavals is one: the more incoming links from MySpace, Digg, Tehnorati and similar Internet properties a Website has - the higher it is placed in the search results.

In other words: if Website A has 700 incoming links from 700 different Websites and website B has 700 incoming links, all of them from various pages on MySpace, Website B is ranked (much) higher in the search results. This holds true even when both Websites A and B sport the same PageRank. This holds true even if the bulk of Website A's incoming links come from "good properties" in "good Internet neighborhoods". Incoming links from MySpace trump every other category of incoming links.

An unsettling pattern emerges:

Wikipedia, the "encyclopedia" whose "editors" are mostly unqualified teenagers and young adults is touted by Google as an authoritative source of information. In search results, it is placed well ahead of sources of veritable information such as universities, government institutions, the home pages of recognized experts, the online full-text content of peer-reviewed professional and scholarly publications, real encyclopedias (such as the Encarta), and so on.

MySpace whose 110 million users are predominantly prepubescent and adolescents now dictates what Websites will occupy the first search results in Google's search results pages. It is very easy to spam MySpace. It is considered by some experts to be a vast storehouse of link farms masquerading as "social networks".

Google has vested, though unofficial and unannounced and, therefore, undisclosed interests in both Wikipedia and MySpace. Wikipedia visitors end up on various properties whose search and ad placement technologies are Google's and Wikipedia would have shriveled into insignificance had it not been to Google's relentless promotion of its content.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Wikipedia disrespects experts says co-founder

Wikipedia disrespects experts says co-founder

16.07.2007 - Larry Sanger, who founded Wikipedia in 2001 with Jimmy Wales only to leave shortly afterwards, said that even as far back as 2001 the Wikipedia community “had no respect for experts”.

Sanger said he told Jimmy Wales that unless he did something about the fact that no special role was provided for experts to reign in the various abusive elements like vandalism of articles, he was going to distance himself from the project permanently.

Years later Sanger went on to launch his own collaborative, community-based online encyclopedia called Citizendium.

As far back as 2001 Sanger noted that complaints were beginning to pour into the online community encyclopedia about the authenticity of contributions and edits.

The difference, he says, is that Citizendium has expert editors that nominate articles for approval and constables that essentially police the site, and make sure it runs well.

He hopes that Citizendium will become a credible competitor to Wikipedia but with the same expert reliability as a traditional print encyclopedia.

“Wikipedia, to put it plainly, lacks the sort of credibility and reliability that traditionally edited resources have.

“Experts are needed in the approval process, not necessarily in the process of creating the content. They are needed to make an efficient judgment that the article captures what is known about a subject, “ he said.

Although Wikipedia is not for profit and is now very anti-advertising, Sanger pointed out that before the dotcom crash, Wikipedia did have advertising income, but following the drying up of money from that source it then became what it is today.

Sanger believes that such portals can be monetised while maintaining a professional presence as a resource tool. He is currently in the process of looking at ways to incorporate advertising in a non-intrusive way into Citizendium.

Apart from advertising, Sanger and co-founder Wales also disagree about who actually founded Wikipedia in the first place. Wales has previously claimed to be the sole founder of the online collaborative encyclopedia.

Maybe he should check his facts on Wikipedia which says that both men were identified as co-founders in 2001.

By Marie Boran

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Wikipedia censors want to kill Fudzilla

Wikipedia censors want to kill Fudzilla
To be banished to join the Everywhere Girl
By Nick Farrell: Tuesday 10 July 2007, 15:54
THE CENSORS at Wikipedia apparently continue their witchhunt against the INQUIRER, even pursuing our writers long after they have left us.

You might remember that long-term INQ hack Fuad Abazovic had gone off to form an online magazine called Fudzilla based in Midge Ure's favourite hang out, Vienna.

The magazine has done quite well for its first few months, with Fudo getting a fair number of hits and a bit of advertising on his site. And so one of his fans in the Far East stuck up a fairly dull entry in Wikipedia.

But then Wikipedia assassins started to grind their axes.

First, they replaced a lot of the text with some fairly nasty bile that they had clearly been storing up since the days when Fudo wrote for us.

And now the whole entry is up for deletion, the main reason being, it seems, because the Wiki experts "think" Fudo put the entry up for advertising purposes. No evidence is offered, but that must certainly be what Fudo did, if the Wikipedia experts "think" he must have done.

The fonts of all knowledge "think" that means they can now claim his magazine does not exist.

Fudo tells us he didn't write the entry but points out that the person nominating his magazine for Wiki-deletion is "an adamant Dailytech reader" who seems to have been a bit upset by the Rydermark series of stories wot he penned. Fudo has had a few problems with some Daily Tech readers who he told to get a life.
Obviously these readers took up Wikipedia censorship as a hobby and have ignored his sage advice completely.

Of course if "Dailytech reader's" logic was applied throughout Wikipedia then no magazines or newspapers would have an entry, other than Dailytech of course. Neither would Wikipedia allow entries relating to companies such as Microsoft and Intel which could also be seen as advertising.

Logic seems to escape the Wikipedia experts particularly when they have a grudge on. An encyclopaedia written by the people is all very well so long as the people aren't a lynch mob grinding axes.

More here.

See Also
I got whacked by Wikipedia twice
Wikipedia deletes Vole as Microsoft term
Wikipedia "broken beyond repair", co-founder says
Everywhere Girl: You're deleted