Fake Biographies on Wikipedia

Wikipedia.jpgMost of us would be quite flattered to find an entry about us on the Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia where anybody can create or edit an entry. Not so for John Seigenthaler. His Wikipedia bio said:

John Seigenthaler Sr. was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960’s. For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven.

In a USA Today editorial Seigenthaler begins by quoting the false bio and then writes:

I have no idea whose sick mind conceived the false, malicious “biography” that appeared under my name for 132 days on Wikipedia, the popular, online, free encyclopedia whose authors are unknown and virtually untraceable. . . .

At age 78, I thought I was beyond surprise or hurt at anything negative said about me. I was wrong. One sentence in the biography was true. I was Robert Kennedy’s administrative assistant in the early 1960s. I also was his pallbearer. It was mind-boggling when my son, John Seigenthaler, journalist with NBC News, phoned later to say he found the same scurrilous text on Reference.com and Answers.com.

Seigenthaler explains how he tried to track down the person who posted the information:

I phoned Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder and asked, “Do you … have any way to know who wrote that?”

“No, we don’t,” he said. Representatives of the other two websites said their computers are programmed to copy data verbatim from Wikipedia, never checking whether it is false or factual.

He then tried to locate the defamer’s identity by contacting his or her ISP:

Naturally, I want to unmask my “biographer.” And, I am interested in letting many people know that Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool.

But searching cyberspace for the identity of people who post spurious information can be frustrating. I found on Wikipedia the registered IP (Internet Protocol) number of my “biographer”- 65-81-97-208. I traced it to a customer of BellSouth Internet. That company advertises a phone number to report “Abuse Issues.” An electronic voice said all complaints must be e-mailed. My two e-mails were answered by identical form letters, advising me that the company would conduct an investigation but might not tell me the results. It was signed “Abuse Team.”

Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, told me that BellSouth would not be helpful. “We have trouble with people posting abusive things over and over and over,” he said. “We block their IP numbers, and they sneak in another way. So we contact the service providers, and they are not very responsive.”

After three weeks, hearing nothing further about the Abuse Team investigation, I phoned BellSouth’s Atlanta corporate headquarters, which led to conversations between my lawyer and BellSouth’s counsel. My only remote chance of getting the name, I learned, was to file a “John or Jane Doe” lawsuit against my “biographer.” Major communications Internet companies are bound by federal privacy laws that protect the identity of their customers, even those who defame online. Only if a lawsuit resulted in a court subpoena would BellSouth give up the name.

Eventually the information was taken down from Wikipedia:

My “biography” was posted May 26. On May 29, one of Wales’ volunteers “edited” it only by correcting the misspelling of the word “early.” For four months, Wikipedia depicted me as a suspected assassin before Wales erased it from his website’s history Oct. 5. The falsehoods remained on Answers.com and Reference.com for three more weeks.

I certainly am sympathetic to Seigenthaler’s plight, but his essay demonstrates how he attempted to take the wrong approach. First, the minute he found the false information on Wikipedia, he could have corrected it himself or had a friend do it. However, I don’t know what process is available on Reference.com or Answers.com for making corrections. Second, if he wanted to sue the author of the entry for defamation, he could have done so by first filing a John Doe lawsuit in court. Courts provide special protection for anonymous speech, but that protection isn’t absolute. For example, if Seigenthaler can establish a case sufficient enough to withstand a summary judgment motion, he will be able to unmask his defamer.

Related Posts:


1. Solove, Suing Wikipedia

2. Solove, Wiki Your Papers?

3. Hoffman, Wex

4. Wenger, Wikimania


1. Solove, A Victory for Anonymous Blogging

2. Solove, Is Anonymous Blogging Possible?

3. Solove, Using Lawsuits to Unmask Anonymous Bloggers

4. Solove, Article III Groupie Disrobed: Thoughts on Blogging and Anonymity

5. Solove, The Blog Impersonators

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10 Responses

  1. Will Baude says:

    I confess that I am confused. What part of the quoted text does Seigenthaler think was false? Is his claim that nobody anywhere anytime ever suspected him of involvement in the Kennedy assassination?

  2. Bruce says:

    Interesting post, Dan. This is another illustration of how the Internet makes the harms of privacy disputes sharply discontinuous. For most people, there is no harm at all, because there is a uniform lack of interest in doing the average individual any harm. So for most people, the Internet is causing them near zero in terms of actual harm. But all it takes is one dedicated person with low scruples, a grudge, and a little extra time on their hands, and the harms skyrocket. You correctly note that Seigenthaler could have corrected his Wikipedia entry; but I suspect his antagonist has far more time to devote to that sort of battle of the edits than Seigenthaler does, so that’s not a viable long-term strategy. Litigation also has serious drawbacks, chief among them the cost of bringing such an action. Seigenthaler will have to accompany his complaint with a motion for expedited discovery, which will probably more than double the cost of preparing the papers, and will likely require an appearance before the judge. All of that entails significant legal fees. Furthermore, there are some who have suggested on this blog on obtaining Doe’s identity, Seigenthaler could not simply drop the suit and resort to extralegal measures, such as public shame. Some have argued that mere identification is an “improper purpose” under Rule 11. If a court accepted that theory, then Seigenthaler would have to press the litigation all the way to its conclusion, or risk sanctions.

    If Seigenthaler did press on, he would next have to re-file the complaint under Doe’s actual name, and most likely have to change venue, unless he got lucky in predicting where the defendant is located (he could try to assert the Calder “effects” test for personal jurisdiction, but courts have been giving that test a narrow application, generally for good reason). And he would then have to finish litigating the suit in what is likely to be a distant location, possibly requiring a change of counsel. Seigenthaler may be able to afford all this, but for most people, this amount of legal wrangling simply to stop a defamer is going to be cost-prohibitive.

  3. pst314 says:

    Let’s suppose that joe the homeless guy who hears voices believes that Will Baude is a serial murderer. Would that justify publishing it in an encyclopedia entry that reads “Will Baude is believed to be…”?

  4. Dave! says:

    Reference.com and Answers.com get their text directly from Wikipedia. Correcting the Wikipedia entry would have corrected both of those other sites as well. (I’m not sure if there is a lag from a cache on those sites or if they use a direct API but the end result is the same.)

  5. Will Baude says:

    PST314, No of course it wouldn’t “justify” publishing that entry, but the entry wouldn’t actually be false, would it?

    I mean, I’m not saying that the entry was any good, clearly it wasn’t, I’m just trying to pin down what the problem with it is. That it said some people believed things which in fact people believed, but were also so obviously silly that they didn’t bear repeating?

  6. Beware the Wrath of Bloggers III: Wikipedia Hoax Causes Seigenthaler Pranskter to Lose Job

    Some of you may have been following the saga of John Seigenthaler, Sr., former aide and friend of the late Robert F. Kennedy, and founder of the First Amendment Center, who claimed that he was defamed by the on-line Encyclopedia,

  7. Update on the Seigenthaler Wikipedia Defamation Case

    Paul Secunda over at Workplace Prof Blog brings news about an update to the Seigenthaler Wikipedia defamation case I blogged about recently. In the case, an anonymous individual wrote in Seigenthaler’s Wikipedia entry that Seigenthaler was involved in …

  8. dan says:

    There’s no “t” in Seigenthaler as Daniel Solove seems to think.

  9. Bob says:

    What Seigenthaler and likely many others don’t realize is that the success of wikipedia, and the sites that scrap it, doesn’t mean that these errors should be considered history, rather, it should be considered the death of history.

    Wikipedia contains articles referring to past peoples, events, places, and things. Things that took place in the past, seems like a safe definition for history? Now, we must also agree, that for history to be, it must be recorded in some way, even if that way is only in the memory and handed down word of mouth. Setting aside the argument of what is or is not “historically accurate” for a moment, consider that if this is what history is, then wikipedia contains a type of “history” which is not history at all! In this case, all the facts surrounding what history is and is not are editable in real time- meaning that history is editable in real time- making history something that is happening! History is a real time event taking place on a global scale! The irony here, is that Seigenthaler has no control over how history views him, either way. It is likely that Seigenthaler is compelled, as many are, to preserve some image of themselves throughout time, and good for him if he can die knowing that he is happy with the way a website, or textbook has portrayed him. The sad truth of the matter is, however, that these things are just as subject to change for the “worse” as the are change for the “better.” It has been said that “history will be written by those in power.” It seems amazing and wonderful, that a politician, journalist, and someone with so much influence, should find himself no more powerful than a humble worker. No “expert” has an even more accurate opinion of what happened just because they were or were not involved- no matter what, it is a fluid experience. “What took place.” We will all come to consensus, as we have over time, only we can now do so continuously and rapidly rather than providing text books that hand down the same thing for 30 years, only to have them changed when new text books are ordered. Our only question now is are we infinitely powerful to write our history or infinitely powerless? This is the Democracy of truth.