Not That There Is Anything Wrong With That

Simon Fodden’s recent tweet about Wikipedia deserves some greater scrutiny. The linked paper discusses how and when Wikipedia should be used in court, some of the controversies attached to it, and even citation guidelines.

The most recent controversy around Wikipedia, and there are plenty to come I’m sure, surrounds Ron Livingston, an actor in Office Space who starred briefly in Sex in the City. Well it’s Livingston’s sex, or rather his sexual orientation, that is at the center of a current dispute with Wikipedia.

Livingston married Rosmarie DeWitt last month, and yet his Wikipedia entry has been repeatedly vandalized to say that he is gay and living with a Lee Dennison. He also claims that the same individual made Facebook pages for himself and Dennison and showed the the two in a relationship together.

TMZ states,

Livingston is suing for libel, invasion of privacy and for using his name and likeness without his permission.

Unlike blogs, which go through minimal editing and scrutiny, Wikipedia has a vigorous review process which includes questioning sources and the neutrality of a point of view. The system seems to have worked, as the references to Livingston’s sexuality were repeatedly omitted. The problem is that the reference was repeatedly re-entered.

Wikipedia does have controls for this as well, including how to deal with vandals and locking pages that have repeat problems. We don’t know if this occurred yet, but Livingston could have contacted a Wikipedia editor to invoke these stronger protection mechanisms. Any court reviewing the case should closely scrutinize the options that were available.

Blogs face a more difficult challenge. We often try to ensure our accuracy by linking to our sources, and searching as best we can for conflicting opinions. But especially in the field of law, information does change with new legal development and judicial decisions. Posts are really only valid for the time-stamp when they are published.We do not benefit from the continuous and ongoing scrutiny of editors the way Wikipedia does.

For this reason, I rely on my readership to inform me when information needs to be updated. In fact bloggers often depend on that, and most of us are usually willing to make necessary changes. In case of litigation, we might find sanctuary under the evolving ‘public interest responsible journalism defence‘ described in the 2007 Ontario case of Cusson v. Ottawa Citizen and the 2006 House of Lord’s decision, Jameel v. Wall Street Journal Europe .

The wonderful thing about Wikipedia for the purposes of litigation is that everything is meticulously documented on the revision history and the talk page, including when and what changes were made, by whom, and the corresponding IP addresses. Issues surrounding the pending litigation are even raised on the talk page among the editors, including the location of the IP addresses making the changes, and news stories about the issue.

One of the IP addresses involved in the Livingston changes also made similar revisions on December 2, 2009 to the page of Sheikh Rashid bin Mohammed Al Maktoum of the royal family of Dubai, adding,

…as well as president for UAE LGBT conference as he is a known homosexual!.

Not that there is anything wrong with that. But there’s no need to add personal information to Wiki entries, especially if they cannot be substantiated with an independent source, and may cause the person involves some personal harm.

In cases where the control features described above do not work, it may be appropriate to pursue litigation, possibly including the site in order to compel them to provide further information.

But the best strategy for celebrities, corporations, politicians and professionals, as I told a group of marketing professionals at a seminar earlier this week, is to mitigate any adverse impact by establishing a social media strategy yourself.