Wikipedia–what’s happening to you?

Wikipedia is/was a great idea–a crowdsourced encyclopedia, growing and changing with the times.  It’s central enough to the internet culture that if you Google “searchterm wiki” you go straight to the appropriate Wikipedia entry.

Incomplete?  …maybe.  Reliable?  …of course!

My first personal hint that this assessment is incorrect was about a half-decade ago.  One of my MBA students suggested for a project I was supervising that we could improve our client’s reputation by crafting what amounts to a Wikipedia infomercial.  By avoiding being too blatantly commercial, we could write an article that would stake a claim to industry expertise for our client, endorsing him as the de facto “go to” source of information/opinion about his industry.  At the very least, this would improve his Google search positioning.


Since that time, professional reputation “enhancement” services have done further damage to Wikipedia’s reliability, as well as to the usefulness of Google searches in finding out about past shady activities of prominent personalities.

This development came home to me forcefully when I decided to write about Michael Milken, whom I consider to be on a par with Bernie Madoff in the annals of financial wrongdoing.  Googling his name to make sure I had my dates and places correct, I was surprised to find that the top-positioned Google entry heralded Milken as a philanthropist–and said nothing about his criminal past.

To some degree, the press is giving an assist to this Orwellian enterprise of rewriting history.  Many newspaper archives are either only open to paying subscribers or have–for cost reasons, I assume–been truncated to include only stories from, say, the past ten years.  So reputation “defenders” have free rein to reshape the facts for prior periods.

Yes, many of the financial criminals of the past have been barred from direct participation in the securities industry.  And most of the reinventess have resurfaced merely as personalities on cable TV shows or on Yahoo, so in one sense they’re less of a threat to our financial well-being than they used to be.

On the other hand, it;s a little disheartening to find that as altruistic an information source as Wikipedia must also now be taken with a hefty dose of salt.

3 responses

  1. I just looked at the wikipedia entry for Michael Milken and his conviction was feature prominently. Did you change it?

    • No, I didn’t change the Milken entry. I’ve reread the Wikipedia article on Mllken and, as one who lived through the junk bond saga, I continue to think that he comes off relatively favorably.
      For example, there’s little/no discussion of the role of Executive Life or of investment partnerships like MacPherson in the Milken world. This New York Times article about former Fidelity junk bond fund manager Patricia Ostrander gives a somewhat different angle.

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