Sunday, December 11, 2005

A Little Sleuthing Unmasks Writer of Wikipedia Prank - New York Times (fwd)

The New York Times

December 11, 2005

A Little Sleuthing Unmasks Writer of
Wikipedia Prank


It started as a joke and ended up as a shot heard round the Internet, with
the joker losing his job and Wikipedia, the
online encyclopedia, suffering a blow to its credibility.

A man in Nashville has admitted that, in trying to shock a colleague with
a joke, he put false information into a
Wikipedia entry about John Seigenthaler Sr., a former editor of The
Tennessean in Nashville.

Brian Chase, 38, who until Friday was an operations manager at a small
delivery company, told Mr. Seigenthaler on Friday
that he had written the material suggesting that Mr. Seigenthaler had been
involved in the assassinations of John and
Robert Kennedy. Wikipedia, a nonprofit venture that is the world's biggest
encyclopedia, is written and edited by
thousands of volunteers.

Mr. Seigenthaler discovered the false entry only recently and wrote about it
in an op-ed article in USA Today, saying he
was especially annoyed that he could not track down the perpetrator because
of Internet privacy laws. His plight touched
off a debate about the reliability of information on Wikipedia - and by
extension the entire Internet - and the
difficulty in holding Web sites and their users accountable, even when
someone is defamed.

In a confessional letter to Mr. Seigenthaler, Mr. Chase said he thought
Wikipedia was a "gag" Web site and that he had
written the assassination tale to shock a co-worker, who knew of the
Seigenthaler family and its illustrious history in

"It had the intended effect," Mr. Chase said of his prank in an interview.
But Mr. Chase said that once he became aware
last week through news accounts of the damage he had done to Mr.
Seigenthaler, he was remorseful and also a little scared
of what might happen to him.

Mr. Chase also found that he was slowly being cornered in cyberspace, thanks
to the sleuthing efforts of Daniel Brandt,
57, of San Antonio, who makes his living as a book indexer. Mr. Brandt has
been a frequent critic of Wikipedia and
started an anti-Wikipedia Web site ( in September
after reading what he said was a false entry
about himself.

Using information in Mr. Seigenthaler's article and some online tools, Mr.
Brandt traced the computer used to make the
Wikipedia entry to the delivery company in Nashville. Mr. Brandt called the
company and told employees there about the
Wikipedia problem but was not able to learn anything definitive.

Mr. Brandt then sent an e-mail message to the company, asking for
information about its courier services. A response bore
the same Internet Protocol address that was left by the creator of the
Wikipedia entry, offering further evidence of a

A call by a New York Times reporter to the delivery company on Thursday made
employees nervous, Mr. Chase later told Mr.
Seigenthaler. On Friday, Mr. Chase hand-delivered a letter to Mr.
Seigenthaler's office, confessing what he had done, and
later they talked at length.

Mr. Chase told him that the Seigenthaler name had come up at work and that
he had popped it into a search engine and was
led to Wikipedia, where, he said, he was surprised that anyone could make an

Mr. Chase wrote: "I am truly sorry to have offended you, sir. Whatever fame
comes to me from this will be ill-gotten

Mr. Seigenthaler said Mr. Brandt was "a genius" for tracking down Mr. Chase.
He said he "was not after a pound of flesh"
and would not take Mr. Chase to court.

Mr. Chase resigned from his job because, he said, he did not want to cause
problems for his company. Mr. Seigenthaler
urged Mr. Chase's boss to rehire him, but Mr. Chase said that, so far, this
had not happened.

Mr. Chase said that as Mr. Brandt and the news media were closing in
and he realized how much he had hurt Mr.
Seigenthaler, he decided that stepping forward was "the right thing to do."

Mr. Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center, said that as a
longtime advocate of free speech, he found it
awkward to be tracking down someone who had exercised that right.

"I still believe in free expression," he said. "What I want is

Jimmy Wales, who founded Wikipedia, said that the site would make more
information about users available to make it
easier to lodge complaints. But he portrayed the error as something that
fell through the cracks, not a sign of a
systemic problem. "We have to continually evaluate whether our controls are
enough," he said.

* Copyright 2005The New York Times Company

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