Wikipedia has been hit by controversy after the disclosure that a prominent editor had assumed a false identity complete with fake PhD. The editor, known as Essjay, had described himself as a professor of religion at a private university, but was actually Ryan Jordan, 24, a college student from Kentucky who used texts such as Catholicism for Dummies to help him edit Wikipedia articles.
In his user profile, he said he taught both undergraduate and graduate theology, and in an interview with the New Yorker in July 2006, was described as a “tenured professor of religion.” Jordan's real identity came to light last week when the magazine added an editorial note to the piece highlighting the deception, stating, “At the time of publication, neither we nor Wikipedia knew Essjay's real name.” Essjay told them he hid his identity because “he feared personal retribution from those he had ruled against online,” the newspaper's note said.
Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, wrote on the website that Mr Jordan was apologetic, but that Wikipedia was “based on twin pillars of trust and tolerance.” Jordan has retired from the site, and his authority to edit had been cancelled. “I hope others will refocus the energy they have spent the past few days in defending and denouncing me to make, something here at Wikipedia better,” he said.
This recent news goes to show the trickiness involved with collaborative journalism and information found on the Internet, for we frequently depend on the reputation or pedigree of an individual in trying to assess the accuracy of the information placed before us. It also questions the value of being able to operate anonymously on the Internet and creating false profiles or bolstering your education or reputation—it is easy to get away with, and easy to assume different identities. Aside from the feeling that Jordan's actions were wrong because it violated the inherent trust-based system of something like Wikipedia, what else bothers else? The last thirty years has experienced a massive explosion in empirical studies and ready access to information, meaning that complex arguments and massive amounts of information given to us from a supposedly reputable source (of which a PhD will help quite a bit), makes it very difficult for to evaluate. However, while Jordan gleaned information from sources like Catholicism for Dummies, who is to say that some of the information isn't accurate? What also bothers us is that his false profile as a professor with a PhD also gave him the ability to moderate, regulate, and arbitrate other Wikipedia claims. It gave him power to evaluate the other information people provided, but that authority was not well grounded—nor was he in a necessary better position than some of the people who posted disputed information to determine if the information was accurate or reliable.