In 2005, The Irish High Court has ruled in favor of a woman who sued a landowner for compensation in 1997 after she lost her feet while watching the sunset and tripped over the edge of a cliff, breaking several bones in the process.
The ruling, which has since been cited in several other legal decisions in Ireland, is neatly summarized in the Wikipedia article. Geraldine Ware Rodgers vs. SF Trust. But this entry was not created by a legal amateur. It was written as part of an experiment designed to test how crowdsourcing encyclopedia affects legal issues.
It turns out that modifications made to Wikipedia pages can affect some legal provisions.
A team of researchers from the University of Maynooth in Ireland, MIT and Cornell University conducted a controlled experiment by creating more than 150 new Wikipedia articles covering Irish Supreme Court decisions, and randomly selecting half of them to post on the site. Like the legal system in the United States or the United Kingdom, Irish courts have a hierarchical structure, with decisions being made in higher courts that are bound by lower judgments. There were also relatively few Wikipedia articles on Irish Supreme Court decisions at the start of the experiment.
The team found that published Wikipedia articles increased the number of citations for a particular legal provision by 20 percent. The citations most often came when they supported the argument the judge was making in the decision. They also used computational techniques to compare language in judges’ rulings, finding patterns that suggest judges borrowed from text on the Wikipedia pages they read.
“You have judges deciding what will happen to people — very serious things — and we expect them to use experience when they do that,” says Brian Flanagan, associate professor at Maynooth University. In a worst-case scenario, he says, the editor of an article might have an interest in an issue. “The authorship of Wikipedia articles is effectively opaque,” he adds.
Neil Thompson, a research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, who was involved in the work, had previously looked at how Wikipedia edits affected citations in scientific journal articles. He says it’s troubling that expert knowledge and critical decisions can be affected by modifications of questionable origin. “As you gain more specialized knowledge, it becomes more and more important to have someone with a deep understanding,” says Thompson.
Wikipedia may no longer make a mockery of the reliability of its content – but that’s mostly because the rest of the internet has become an information-garbage fire. The site is still subject to impressive slanders, such as the recently discovered case of a woman who spent years writing fake articles on Russian history on the site’s Chinese version undetected. Wikipedia also maintains an impressive level of influence, ranking as the seventh most visited site on the planet, with around 6.5 million articles updated at a rate of roughly two edits per second.
Wikipedia articles affect some legal provisions
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