Paul Revere and the Reliability of Wikipedia

June 13th, 2011

Recently, a certain politician recalled the ride of Paul Revere that didn’t quite ring a bell with a number of historians. The Times recounts a mad dash to Wikipedia by her followers to update the page for Paul Revere to reflect that history.

Defenders of Ms. Palin’s version first took to the Wikipedia page June 5. By the middle of the week, they had added well-sourced sentences about how under the “alarm and muster” system that Revere’s ride was part of, citizens used “bells, drums, alarm guns, bonfires and a trumpet” to allow “for rapid communication from town to town.” There was also a footnoted paragraph that mentioned how Revere, when captured by British troops, warned the troops that the rebels in Lexington and Concord were massing against them.

One editor persistently added the fact that the colonists on the eve of revolution were themselves British. As the article explains: “Revere did not shout the phrase later attributed to him (‘The British are coming!’). His mission depended on secrecy, the countryside was filled with British army patrols, and the Massachusetts colonists still considered themselves British.”

With its well-explored tangents, supported by footnotes, and a bit of pretzel logic, the latest version of Wikipedia’s Paul Revere article can be seen as a useful example of the modern predicament of the Internet user — too much information, not enough judgment. It’s a bit like reading in depth about Kafka’s work as an insurance-claims adjuster.

So how valuable is Wikipedia if people can simply change it whenever an entry needs changing? It seems that all of the entires were indeed fact based, even if some historians disagreed.

During the developing debate on Wikipedia, there were some harsh words, mockery and acts of vandalism. People were called liars, Ms. Palin was called names. But over all, the debate remained surprisingly fact based.

And that is the wrinkle of the tale of the Paul Revere article at Wikipedia: After all the attention and arguments, the article is much longer (more than 3,600 words) and much better sourced (more than 90 footnotes) than it was before Ms. Palin’s comments. But you might also say that the process has shifted the article’s focus, as editors seemingly have searched for, and added, factual material that backs the Palin vision of Revere’s ride.

Is this evidence of bias?

But another user wondered what the fuss was about: “With few exceptions, I don’t see a significant bias in the large number of recent edits. The media attention has brought many eyes here. Let’s take advantage of that attention — while it’s here — to improve this page, eh?”

Mr. Schneider, writing in an e-mail, agreed that the attention had been good: “I know there were some editors who tried to add Palin’s side of the story, but as in the case of my initial removal — that information can quickly be removed on the basis that it is not backed by a reliable source.”

Or, as I’ve argued elsewhere, historians even tend to disagree among themselves (particularly in legal scenarios).

I’ve noted that Courts have cited Wikipedia before, and this presents certain risks:

The fact that Wikipedia can be easily edited is both a positive, and negative for purposes of accurate citations. On the negative side, a page can be edited to reflect the biased opinion of a party, thus making the citation less credible. On the other hand, any changes are recorded,and one can see whether an edit was made,and when it was made. I discussed the use of malleable sources like Wikipedia in This Lemon Comes as a Lemon. The Lemon Test and the Pursuit of a Statute’s Secular Purpose.