On Campus

Student hoax puts egg on media's face

Mainstream media discovers error only after prankster steps forward

I love this story. An Irish university student decided to test whether or not the media are upholding accuracy in the Web 2.0 era. So he posted false information on Wikipedia to see what would happen.

On March 28, French composer Maurice Jarre passed away in Los Angeles. Within hours, Shane Fitzgerald posted a series of fake quotes on Jarre’s Wikipedia page. (See Fitzgerald’s edits here)

Over the next 48 hours, the false information was deleted by Wikipedia editors, only to be re-posted twice by Fitzgerald.

The student now claims he meant no harm and was simply “testing” the media. However, if this were the case, why did he anonymously vandalize the Wikipedia page three times?

One of the quotes falsely attributed to Jarre was:  “One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head and that only I can hear.”

Despite not being cited, this quote was picked up by media outlets around the world, including The Guardian. It was a golden quote. Here’s a man who just died talking about how he will be remembered. Every obituary writer should have known that the quote was too good to be true.

As any first-year university student knows, Wikipedia is not a source.  It is a resource. I use Wikipedia to assist with research and background information all the time. All accurate information on Wikipedia is cited. It is those citations that are the online encyclopedia’s greatest service: it makes it easier to find primary sources.

There are lessons in this story for both university students and the mainstream media. The obvious lesson is that one should always dig to find the true source of information. Wikipedia should never be consulted as a primary source (unless, of course, the research paper is on Wikipedia itself).

There are troubling questions raised by this incident. How many times has the mainstream media already been duped by false information on Wikipedia? Has this occurred before where information on Wikipedia was cited by the mainstream media and then the mainstream media failed to ensure that this false information was “true?”

(Before someone gets all philosophical on me, I know the very concept of truth is a matter of academic debate.)

Remember, it was not the mainstream media that caught the error. The error only came to light after Fitzgerald came forward and publicly declared the quote to be false. Fitzgerald himself, as he pointed out, could have easily used the mainstream media’s use of the quote to convince people that Jarre really made the statement. Nobody would’ve been the wiser and Fitzgerald would be remember for something he didn’t state.

We live in a brave new world. The Internet and Wikipedia are both a blessing and a curse. I know, after having read this story, I’m going to be more vigilant about information I get from Wikipedia, and the mainstream media.

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