The case against Wikipedia

Don’t get me wrong. I think Wikipedia can be a great resource for fast information, like background on the Karbala shrine in Iraq or the name of Qaddafi’s son that you can’t remember. But when we check facts at FP, we deliberately exclude the community-built encyclopedia. There’s just too much room for error there, and ...

604390_wikipedia_logo_05.jpg
604390_wikipedia_logo_05.jpg

Don't get me wrong. I think Wikipedia can be a great resource for fast information, like background on the Karbala shrine in Iraq or the name of Qaddafi's son that you can't remember. But when we check facts at FP, we deliberately exclude the community-built encyclopedia. There's just too much room for error there, and we've all found inaccuracies at one point or another—some major and some minor, but enough to leave Wikipedia off the list of reliable first sources.

Which is why I'm slightly mortified that U.S. courts are using Wikipedia articles as the basis for decisions. The NYT did a simple search recently and uncovered more than 100 judicial rulings in the past few years that rely on Wikipedia, including more than a dozen in U.S. courts of appeal (the last step before the Supreme Court). The facts gleaned from Wikipedia range from the definition of "beverage," to the official language of the Republic of Guinea, to DHS threat levels (that last one in a case about illegal searches of anti-war protesters).

But the mere fact that Wikipedia can be unstable and continually edited (admittedly with an attribution trail, but a complicated one that's susceptible to manipulation) makes it terribly vulnerable to error. It just shouldn't be used in official decisions, particularly because, as legal scholar Cass Sunstein suggested to the NYT, articles could be deliberately edited in order to influence the outcome of cases. I'm all for the courts embracing the Information Age, and I've always believed that the Constitution is a living document. But Wikipedia is just a little too dynamic for the likes of Lady Justice.  

Don’t get me wrong. I think Wikipedia can be a great resource for fast information, like background on the Karbala shrine in Iraq or the name of Qaddafi’s son that you can’t remember. But when we check facts at FP, we deliberately exclude the community-built encyclopedia. There’s just too much room for error there, and we’ve all found inaccuracies at one point or another—some major and some minor, but enough to leave Wikipedia off the list of reliable first sources.

Which is why I’m slightly mortified that U.S. courts are using Wikipedia articles as the basis for decisions. The NYT did a simple search recently and uncovered more than 100 judicial rulings in the past few years that rely on Wikipedia, including more than a dozen in U.S. courts of appeal (the last step before the Supreme Court). The facts gleaned from Wikipedia range from the definition of “beverage,” to the official language of the Republic of Guinea, to DHS threat levels (that last one in a case about illegal searches of anti-war protesters).

But the mere fact that Wikipedia can be unstable and continually edited (admittedly with an attribution trail, but a complicated one that’s susceptible to manipulation) makes it terribly vulnerable to error. It just shouldn’t be used in official decisions, particularly because, as legal scholar Cass Sunstein suggested to the NYT, articles could be deliberately edited in order to influence the outcome of cases. I’m all for the courts embracing the Information Age, and I’ve always believed that the Constitution is a living document. But Wikipedia is just a little too dynamic for the likes of Lady Justice.  

Carolyn O'Hara is a senior editor at Foreign Policy.

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