Web of Lies  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    FIRST AMENDMENT WATCH    
From AJR,   February/March 2006

Web of Lies   

A vicious Wikipedia entry underscores the difficulty of holding anyone responsible for misinformation on the Internet.

By Jane Kirtley
Jane Kirtley (kirtl001@tc.umn.edu) is the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communications.     


It's hard to imagine anyone with better First Amendment credentials than John Seigenthaler. The 78-year-old former assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, ex-editor of Nashville's Tennessean and founder of the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center has long been an uncompromising advocate for freedom of speech and of the press.

But Seigenthaler's principles were tested when he discovered that his "biography," posted on Wikipedia, "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit," included the statement that he "was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven."

Wikipedia's mission, according to its Web site, is "documenting all of human knowledge." It invites contributions on any subject from anyone who cares to post them. Significantly, the Web site includes the statement that "Wikipedia cannot guarantee the validity of the information found here."

It may seem curious that a Web site purporting to document human knowledge would disavow any responsibility for factual errors. But that's what happens when you create an "open-content collaborative" encyclopedia. Wikipedia's founder, Jimmy Wales, claimed in media reports that readers and volunteer editors will correct mistakes eventually but acknowledges that despite some new safeguards, he's still at the mercy of posters who abuse the service.

After Seigenthaler complained, Wikipedia removed the entry from the site and gave him the IP (Internet Protocol) number which identifies a computer on the Internet for the person who had posted it. But federal law prohibits Internet Service Providers from disclosing the identity of their subscribers unless served with a subpoena. To get one, Seigenthaler would have to file a libel suit against the unidentified "John Doe."

In the meantime, a book indexer in San Antonio tracked down the poster, Brian Chase, who said he wrote the false biography as a joke. Seigenthaler told the Tennessean and the New York Times that he has no plans to sue. But even if had wanted to, there would have been no guarantee of success, as Patrick Cahill, a city councilman in Smyrna, Delaware, found out.

Cahill was the subject of two commentaries posted on a Web site called the Smyrna/Clayton Issues Blog by an individual using the moniker "Proud Citizen." One denounced him as a "prime example of failed leadership," opining that anyone who knew him "would be keenly aware of..an obvious mental deterioration." In the second, "Proud Citizen" observed that "Gahill [sic] is as paranoid as everyone in town thinks he is."

Cahill asked the blog's owner for Proud Citizen's IP number and obtained a court order to compel the ISP to disclose his identity. But first the subscriber filed a motion to block the subpoena. A trial judge ruled against him, but the Delaware Supreme Court unanimously reversed that decision in October.

Chief Justice Myron T. Steele, quoting from the U.S. Supreme Court's 1995 opinion in McIntyre vs. Ohio Elections Commission, wrote that "anonymous pamphleteering is not a pernicious, fraudulent practice, but an honorable tradition of advocacy and dissent." Steele said citizens have a First Amendment right to criticize government officials without being forced to identify themselves.

The challenge, Steele wrote, is to balance the interests in preserving anonymous debate while protecting those who have legitimate grounds to sue. To discourage frivolous suits, the Delaware high court ruled that a plaintiff must try to notify the poster that he intends to seek an order disclosing the poster's identity and give him a chance to oppose it. Then the plaintiff would have to plead the elements of a libel case, exposing "silly or trivial" suits, which the court would promptly dismiss.

In this case, the court found that no reasonable person could have read the commentary about Cahill's mental health as making statements of fact, given "the normally (and inherently) unreliable nature of assertions posted in chat rooms and on blogs." But the court made clear it wasn't creating wholesale immunity for Internet speech. Theoretically, bloggers can still be sued if they publish defamatory falsehoods.

In the name of promoting robust commentary, Congress passed laws not only protecting the identity of Internet speakers but also insulating providers or users of interactive computer services like Wikipedia from being sued for content provided by someone else. But it's hard to defend an anonymous poster who uploads a damaging falsehood about someone on a Web site that purports to provide facts from a "neutral point of view."

Bloggers and other "citizen journalists" may bristle at the implication that their speech is less credible than that of the mainstream media, whose accuracy they constantly challenge. Yet some of Wikipedia's fans argue that false statements aren't a big deal, and Seigenthaler should either post his own rebuttal or just shrug it off.

They can't have it both ways. Either accuracy matters, or it doesn't. If the denizens of cyberspace want to be taken seriously, they might want to try being responsible for what they produce.

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