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The Clippings File: Checking Into Fact Checking

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Friday, Oct 12, 2007
Evaluating the veracity of knowledge found on the Internet.
PHotograph by Mamabrarian

PHotograph by Mamabrarian


The Need for Skepticism When Evaluating Information Online


The Sydney Morning Herald has published today, in its Opinion section, a transcript of a speech by computer and internet pioneer, Howard Rheingold who talks about the way that the internet has “changed certainty about authority.” He said his daughter had begun writing research papers at the time that Alta Vista became available in the mid-1990’s.


Unlike with the majority of library books, when you enter a term into a search engine there is no guarantee that what you will find is authoritative, accurate or even vaguely true. The locus of responsibility for determining the accuracy of texts shifted from the publisher to the reader when one of the functions of libraries shifted to search engines. That meant my daughter had to learn to ask questions about everything she finds in one of those searches. Who is the author? What do others say about the author? What are the author’s sources? Can any truth claims be tested independently? What sources does the author cite, and what do others say about those sources?


Wikipedia Creates Breaking News


A New York Times story by Jonathan Dee in July points to a new use of Wikipedia, instant definition of breaking events that comes to shape the story as it is unfolding.


Wikipedia, as nearly everyone knows by now, is a six-year-old global online encyclopedia in 250 languages that can be added to or edited by anyone. (“Wiki,” a programming term long in use both as noun and adjective, derives from the Hawaiian word meaning “quick.”) Wikipedia’s goal is to make the sum of human knowledge available to everyone on the planet at no cost. Depending on your lights, it is either one of the noblest experiments of the Internet age or a nightmare embodiment of relativism and the withering of intellectual standards. Love it or hate it, though, its success is past denying — 6.8 million registered users worldwide, at last count, and 1.8 million separate articles in the English-language Wikipedia alone — and that success has borne an interesting side effect. Just as the Internet has accelerated most incarnations of what we mean by the word “information,” so it has sped up what we mean when we employ the very term “encyclopedia.” For centuries, an encyclopedia was synonymous with a fixed, archival idea about the retrievability of information from the past. But Wikipedia’s notion of the past has enlarged to include things that haven’t even stopped happening yet. Increasingly, it has become a go-to source not just for reference material but for real-time breaking news — to the point where, following the mass murder at Virginia Tech, one newspaper in Virginia praised Wikipedia as a crucial source of detailed information.


The Algorithm as Oracle


A New York Times article by George Johnson describes how an alogorithm aggregates and selects files on the web:


How do you categorize Wikipedia, a constantly buzzing mechanism with replaceable human parts? Submit an article or change one and a swarm of warm- and sometimes hot-blooded proofreading routines go to work making corrections and corrections to the corrections. Or maybe the mercurial encyclopedia is more like an organism with an immune system of human leukocytes guarding its integrity. (Biology too is algorithmic, beginning with the genetic code.) When the objectivity of Wikipedia was threatened by tweaking from special interests—a kind of autoimmune disease—another level of protection evolved: a Web site called WikiScanner that reports the Internet address of the offender. Someone at PepsiCo, for example, removed references about the health effects of its flagship soft drink. With enough computing power the monitoring could be semiautomated—scanning the database constantly and flagging suspicious edits for humans to inspect.



A History Defined by Things Not Ideas


The International Herald Tribune reviews an exhibition called “Making History: Antiquaries In Britain, 1707-2007” at the Royal Academy in London.


At distant intervals, crucial decisions give a new twist to the cultural history of a nation. When the Society of Antiquaries held its second meeting only one week after its foundation on Dec. 5, 1707, the members decided that its purpose was to seek out “such things as may Illustrate and Relate to the History of Great Britain.” By “things” they meant “Antient Coins, books, sepulchres or other Remains of Antient Worship.” So it was that at one stroke of the pen, the newly founded society laid the foundations of history as understood today, giving precedence to material evidence over the a priori theories, largely mythical, that had prevailed until then about the British past.
Souren Melikian. “Reshaping the way history is recorded.” International Herald Tribune. October 12, 2007


Wordpress Blogging Forum Adds Link-Definition Tool


The Wordpress blogging platform keeps adding editorial features and tools to its publishing platform.


We’ve added a feature today that makes it easy for you to link words in your posts to definition pages on Answers.com. For example let’s say you mentioned someone like Artie Shaw or something like Turmeric in a post. If you click the AnswerLink “A” in your editor. AnswerLinks will find words in your post that might benefit from a definition and ask you if you’d like to turn them into links like Artie Shaw and Turmeric. Easy as that! Answers.com gets their definition data from places like Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, and the American Heritage Dictionary. They are the default definition link that shows up whenever you do a Google search.



The Espionage World Gets Smart With an Online Spookapedia


Intellipeida, the Wikipedia for spies:


In December, officials say, the agencies will introduce A-Space, a top-secret variant of the social networking Web sites MySpace and Facebook. The “A” stands for “analyst,” and where Facebook users swap snapshots, homework tips and gossip, intelligence analysts will be able to compare notes on satellite photos of North Korean nuclear sites, Iraqi insurgents and Chinese missiles. A-Space will join Intellipedia, the spooks’ Wikipedia, where intelligence officers from all 16 American spy agencies pool their knowledge. Sixteen months after its creation, officials say, the top-secret version of Intellipedia has 29,255 articles, with an average of 114 new articles and more than 4,800 edits to articles added each workday. A separate online Library of National Intelligence is to include all official intelligence reports sent out by each agency, offering Amazon.com-style suggestions: if you liked that piece on Venezuela’s oil reserves, how about this one on Russia’s? And blogs, accessible only to other spies, are proliferating behind the security fences.


Scott Shane. New York Times. September 2, 2007


The MarthaPedia


In July Martha Stewart told Wired Magazine: “I’m working on Marthapedia right now, which is my version of Wikipedia. If you know how to take red wine out of a white cloth napkin better than I do, that’s good to know. We’ll be editing user content, and it won’t be as freewheeling as Wikipedia. Because a lot of this — you have to really monitor it.”


 


 


 


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