Saturday, Aug. 25, 2007 | 7:31 a.m.
Wikipedia is a strange phenomenon - anonymous people write and edit entries for the online encyclopedia and people flock to the site as if it were an authoritative source of information. At least two well-known Internet reference sites automatically pass along Wikipedia entries.
However, because users do the writing and editing, there are plenty of abuses and suspicious entries. The site's operator shrugs. The theory is that the site is a community of users and the community will correct anything that is wrong - eventually.
In the meantime, erroneous information - often intentionally skewed - remains. Corporations and others have been known to edit entries to suit their needs, as have people with axes to grind.
That is a lesson learned by John Seigenthaler Sr., a retired journalist and former editor of USA Today's editorial page. A Wikipedia entry on Seigenthaler, who was an aide to Robert Kennedy and a pallbearer at his funeral, said it was suspected he had been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations and lived in the Soviet Union for more than a decade.
Neither is true. It took weeks to get the false information taken down, and his attempts to unmask the culprit were largely frustrated by the anonymity of Wikipedia and the Internet. It turned out it was a Nashville, Tenn., man who said it was a practical joke on a co-worker who knew the Seigenthaler family.
As reported Wednesday in the Las Vegas Sun by Abigail Goldman, a new site called WikiScanner, created by a 24-year-old college student, allows people to see some information on the origin of changes to articles in Wikipedia. The site may provide some accountability for Wikipedia editors, which is good.
The issues with Wikipedia are a good analogy for the Internet. It is a wonderful tool, offering an unprecedented ability to exchange and access information. However, because it is wide open for what Seigenthaler called "volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects," it is ripe for trouble. This reminds us of a Latin phrase that long predates the Internet: Caveat emptor - let the buyer beware.