Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Respected Wikipedian Lies to the Press

Stacy Schiff of The New Yorker wrote an article about Wikipedia that was first published online in July of 2006. One of Schiff's sources was a pseudonymous Wikipedian known as "Essjay" who lied to Schiff about virtually all of his biographical details:
" . . . [Essjay] was described in the piece as 'a tenured professor of religion at a private university' with 'a Ph.D. in theology and a degree in canon law.'

"Essjay was recommended to Ms. Schiff as a source by a member of Wikipedia's management team because of his respected position within the Wikipedia community. He was willing to describe his work as a Wikipedia administrator but would not identify himself other than by confirming the biographical details that appeared on his user page. . . . Essjay now says that his real name is Ryan Jordan, that he is twenty-four and holds no advanced degrees, and that he has never taught. He was recently hired by Wikia—a for-profit company affiliated with Wikipedia—as a 'community manager'; he continues to hold his Wikipedia positions. . . ."
While Daniel Brandt first broke this story quite some time ago, it's just now starting to get some traction in the blogosphere, and it took me quite a while to uncover the details. A good place to bring yourself up to speed is on Jimbo Wales Wikipedia User Page. However, the bottom line is that Essjay acknowledges no wrongdoing, claiming to be justified in perpetrating this fraud as a way of protecting himself from online stalkers.

While it's not a crime of moral turpitude, lying to a member of the press when the truth will do just as well is evidence of moral turpitude, not to mention just plain stupid when you lie about falsifiable facts, and Essjay's excuse of necessity just doesn't wash. To wit, in addition to lying to the press, Essjay used his counterfeit credentials to bolster his and Wikipedia's credibility in a letter that he gave to students who wanted to cite Wikipedia as a reference work. He didn't have to give the interview, he didn't need to write the letter, and he didn't need to lie to the press to protect himself from online stalkers.

I am no stranger to online stalkers. Shortly after I founded the XODP Yahoo! eGroup, a (now former) ODP meta editor set up, a hate site dedicated to persecuting me. And while said meta editor set up said hate site under an assumed name and a fake address, an investigative reporter uncovered his true identity by tracking down the credit card that said stalker used to pay for the site's domain registration. Eventually, this meta editor (a private investigator) was terminated for using sock puppets to promote his own websites on ODP and exclude his competitors.

I didn't need to talk to the investigative reporter who uncovered the truth about the person behind the website, but I did, and I took a huge risk in revealing to her in confidence all sorts of personal information about myself on deep background. Because Essjay was referred to The New Yorker by Wikipedia management, he was assumed to be trustworthy without providing that background information. Simply put, Essjay violated that trust.


Blogger Dr Zen said...

Once exposed, Essjay simply piled lie on lie. He invented the PhD to big himself up, not because of stalkers. His claims to receive ten death threats a week just don't jibe with reality. There just aren't enough nutters to go round at Wikipedia and he isn't known to be a "rogue". I know admins who are, and they don't get this level of attention from nutters. So why would Essjay? Neither were there any stalkers when he started lying: Danny Brandt's crusade to de-anonymise admins came later.

The truth is, one can remain anonymous without lying. There's no requirement to put your credentials on your userpage, and many, probably most, editors are anonymous without feeling the need to invent shadow personalities. He didn't need to say who he was! That's the thing: it's not "create a persona because if you use your real ID you'll be traced". You can just not use your real ID. Many very unpopular editors simply do not say who they are, and stalkers cannot find them because they are not traceable from their IDs on WP. In any case, those who do try to find out who people are analyse edits, trace IPs and look for more subtle clues. None of these things is affected by faking an ID.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007 11:52:00 PM  
Blogger Internet Esquire said...

In my original blog post, I stated that Daniel Brandt had broken the story about Essjay quite some time ago and pointed to a URL on Brandt's Wikipedia Watch that contained a screen shot of Essjay's Wikipedia User Page. A better reference to indicate Brandt's involvement with this story would be the ongoing discussion at The Wikipedia Review entitled Who is Essjay?

Thursday, March 01, 2007 8:53:00 AM  
Blogger Avrum. said...

1. The press itself lies so often that lying to them isn't such an awful sin.

2. Suppose that the guy is indeed a professor of theology. Would you trust him more? a professor of theology normally professes to believe in idotic superstitions that no person in his right mind can accept.

Thursday, March 01, 2007 11:27:00 PM  

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