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College professor Timothy Messer-Kruse didn’t think that something as small as making a tiny edit to a Wikipedia page would spark national headlines, but it has. After finding proof that a historical event, the Haymarket Square riot, did not quite happen the way historians have long believed, Messer-Kruse decided to update the Wikipedia page of the event to reflect his findings. What he found was that it was going to be an uphill battle to make that change.
The Haymarket Square riot took place in Chicago in 1886. The riot stemmed from what was supposed to be a peaceful protest over worker’s rights, namely that they wanted 8-hour work days, rather than the typical 10-12 hour work day that was demanded of them. The peaceful rally turned deadly when an unknown protester threw a bomb at police, killing seven officers and four protest attendees. Many others were wounded, and the eight men accused of being involved were all found guilty.
For years the commonly held belief was that the prosecution failed to provide evidence linking any of the men to the bombing. This version of events was how Messer-Kruse, like many others, taught the events to his students up until a few years ago, when a single question by a student sparked his curiosity. The student asked why, if no evidence was presented, the trial lasted a full 6 weeks. Not having an answer to that, Messer-Kruse began researching this question and eventually landed upon the actual transcripts from the trial. What he found is that evidence was indeed introduced by the prosecution, and that part of the story had been misrepresented in college texts and classrooms for over 100 years.
In 2009 Messer-Kruse attempted to correct this issue on the Wikipedia page for the Haymarket affair, aiming to simply remove one line that was contrary to the actual court documents. After removing the line he entered an explanation in the Wikipedia editing log that detailed his research and published works on the topic, including testimony from the actual trial which he transcribed verbatim. According to Messer-Kruse, a mere few minutes later, Wikipedia switched his edit back to the original version explaining that, in order to make a change to an article, reliable sources must be provided.
Messer-Kruse learned that this came down to Wikipedia’s “undue weight” policy, which states that “articles should not give minority views as much or as detailed a description as more popular views.” So in other words, as long as the masses believe it to be true, than according to Wikipedia, it is true. Regardless as to whether or not the article is factual.
Two years later, after Messer-Kruse published a book about the trial, he again tried editing that entry. He recounted that, not five minutes later, his edits were again switched, with him receiving the same explanation from Wikipedia that he had previously received. Says Messer-Kruse, “I clearly touched a nerve with a lot of people. It has exposed some of the real cultural challenges between academics and Wikipedians. Academics don’t want students to trust Wikipedia as a scholarly source, while Wikipedia sees itself as a more democratic and open option. This essay has brought a lot of those issues to the forefront for discussion.”
Today, the Wikipedia page on the Haymarket affair has received several updates, including the line about lack of trial evidence having been finally removed. But that still leaves a concern regarding Wikipedia’s approach to how their pages are updated. People can be incorrect about historical events for years before someone finally comes forward with proof that things were not as they appeared. Wikipedia’s truth is based on whether or not a lot of people believe it, not in how events actually transpired. And how vehemently will Wikipedia stick to their guns? Says Messer-Kruse, “It’s interesting how Wikipedia is starting to understand more about academic culture. The editors were faulting me for not being persistent enough in making the changes. But when I first started trying, I got into a bit of an argument with the editor to the point where he considered my changes vandalism, so I was deterred. In the academic world you are peer-reviewed and then move on; in their world they expected me to keep bashing my head against a wall. It was a real eye-opener.”
For Messer-Kruse, this has been a battle that ended with accuracy finally prevailing, but that leaves the question: how many more of those Wikipedia pages are merely illusions of the masses?