Verification vanishing as data goes electronic


The difference between paper-based and online data is a chronic lack of checks and balances

SHANE FITZGERALD’S piece in The Irish Times(May 7th) detailing his “experiment” on Wikipedia raised a number of fascinating issues related to expectations of information found on the internet generally, and Wikipedia specifically.

Fitzgerald stated his amazement at the ease with which Wikipedia-sourced information was adopted as fact and passed around the world electronically in seconds. However, as librarians who are active in training our users in effective information sourcing in UCD Library – one of the largest university libraries in the country – we would not share his amazement.

A librarian is there to help people find and use credible information, highlight the risks of freely available sources such as Wikipedia, and emphasise the need to state clearly from where the information originates. Is “risk” the correct word to use in connection to access to a source such as Wikipedia? Yes; and the editing of Wikipedia entries has implications for all internet users, not just reporters. The internet has truly changed how we interact with each other – look at social networking options available to all of us via Bebo, Facebook and Twitter – but it has also altered how we make choices.

When searching for news updates or factual data, the availability of blogs, wikis, news websites with minute-by-minute updates and online (free) encyclopedias with entries on seemingly everything means that proven fact and subjective opinion are blurring into one.

Wikipedia represents all that is good and bad in internet information. Wikipedia enables collaborative editing and annotating of entries, thereby spawning new ideas, healthy debate and genuine engagement with issues. However, as Fitzgerald has shown, locating information on the internet via Google, Wikipedia or indeed any website is easy, but developing the critical thinking skills required to assess whether this information is accurate, unbiased, up-to-date or even credible is a continuing challenge not only for educators and librarians, but for employers, professionals, journalists, music fans – and indeed anyone who uses the internet as a source of news and information. Falsified entries on the website have become an occupational hazard – entries on Kevin Myers, Dickie Rock and Girvan Dempsey have all been “amended” with little regard to the effect false information involving a real person can have on that person’s life.

Using information gleaned from anonymous or unverified sites can lead to theft of ideas, and it is here that Wikipedia poses the greatest challenge. User-generated content may be necessary but it also comes with risk, as most internet users do not appear to use multiple sources to cross-check data.

The logical conclusion to this behaviour is evidenced by examples outside the realm of the internet. The case of journalist Jayson Blair and the New York Times (he falsified data used in articles in the newspaper), the Dow Chemicals website spoof (a group of activists spoofed the Dow Chemicals site and claimed that compensation for the Bhopal chemical disaster victims was imminent) and the loss, by Madonna, of a law suit concerned with plagiarism of song lyrics, demonstrates that falling victim to unverified and non-cited information can happen to anyone – not just journalists chasing deadlines.

The internet appears to give low-cost access to free, authoritative and easy-to-use sources of information. Yet, in the 15th century, the advent of the printing press meant that there was a first wave of low-cost access to books and the printed word which ultimately led to the Enlightenment, mass education and citizen journalism. But the difference between a paper-based world and the electronic, globally networked world of today is that previously information usually passed through a series of checks and balances before being “officially” published. Today, information available via the internet is not only free but appears “published” (ie verified and checked) and so is often assumed to be accurate and credible – especially for a generation who are more used to working in a primarily electronic environment.

Most of us use internet-sourced information in order to live in this global, electronic age. We communicate, share information, apply for jobs, do research, book holidays and listen to music – and the ability to handle this mass of information are vital skills we need to hone.

Looking critically at a source of information uses the same skills that are being used by anybody encountering political party representatives currently out canvassing. We question whether the information is backed up by facts, ask whether there is bias, and decide whether the source is trying to sell us something. So these skills are easily learned and are indeed inherent in all of us, but we continue to take information at face value. Doing this makes it far likelier to fall victim to every spoof, hoax and urban myth out there.

Valerie Kendlin and Ursula Byrne are librarians in UCD