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"Wikipedia Hoax Shames Major Publishers"

Freelance writers and journalists discover fairly early in their careers Wikipedia is generally great for the volume of information it provides, but somewhat lacking in quality and credibility. As with any other endeavor to which the general public can contribute, especially anonymously, Wikipedia is bound to have inaccuracies and exaggerations, to say the least. Politics notwithstanding, President Obama’s Wikipedia entry looks more like a campaign poster than an encyclopedic passage. It is clear his people took advantage of the common license nature of the site to be able to provide background and biographical information which would cast the President in the best light.

In his article, “Wikipedia Hoax Shames Major Publishers” (, May 3, 2009), J. Mark Lytle relates how facile it is to disseminate any kind of information, and how “viral” information on the Internet can be. He describes how a “social experiment” formulated by a young man studying economics and sociology at University College in Dublin exposes how simple it is to spread false information, and how difficult it is for researchers to know what is accurate (or not). Although the story lacks the dramatic flair of fourteen year-olds hacking into classified files in the Pentagon, it still bears witness to the distubing assertation that nothing is what it seems. When twenty-two year old Shane Fitzgerald submitted a wordy, exotically eloquent quote supposedly proclaimed by Maurice Jarre upon his death in March of 2009, he had no idea what kind of controversy he would be creating in the traditionally quiet little writing niche. Jarre was a very well-known composer of music including scores for Dr. Zhivago and Dead Poets Society. Fitzgerald was flabbergasted as he watched his “social experiment” go viral almost instantaneously and infect the writing of some of the world’s foremost researchers and wordsmiths. Journalists around the world immediately picked up on the strategically false quote, many using it in their own stories of the composer’s life. Within a short time, the quote was suddenly historical fact. The tale was heard ’round the world, going as far as India and Australia. Fitzgerald points out if it was that easy for him to spread a lie so quickly, with so many authoritative minds latching on to the idea, then what other mis-information could be circulating?

Let’s remember, for instance, the now-infamous urban legend that former Vice-President Al Gore had said once at a speaking engagement that he invented the Internet. While the rumor has long-since been dispelled, it has become a joke and part of our culture’s iconic history. However, take into regard the fact such a ludicrous statement could be taken out of the context of its actual meaning and made into a historical moment. It further proves Fitzgerald’s proposition there could be countless bits of false information circulating.

As with most rumors, it all came out in the wash. The story about the sonorous quote from the legendary composer was quelled. The farce was quickly exposed, and many a red-faced reporter had to retract their own version of the story. The moral of the story is as old as rumor itself. Good researchers check their sources. One of the proponent points regarding the Internet is its ability to quickly broadcast information to the world. However, with so many Internet users having virtual carte blanche to say whatever they want to on the Internet, it is up to the viewer to check their sources. Why would anyone want to lie about the late Mr. Jarre? If for no other reason than to prove a point, obviously. With that in mind, those who write and research must take it upon themselves to go that extra mile to confirm their facts. Pandora’s box is open. As of yet, there is no popularly known way to control what is produced onthe Internet, so it is up to the inquisitor to discern what is credible and accurate.

While one could quickly start allowing their imagination to run the gamut of conspiracy theories and half-crocked ideas, let’s remind ourselves it is common knowledge the majority of media outlets are primarily for entertainment purposes. With that in mind, anyone with the intellect of a researcher would surely agree one must know the media does not always tell its viewers/listeners/readers the truth. As adults we all know that we must take all new information with a grain of salt. That is why we have two of the foremost important characteristics of good writers and researchers, intelligence and the powers of discernment.

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