by Tracy R. Walsh
Eric Randall shares the story of a high-schooler whose joking edit to Wikipedia became an established truth:
In July of 2008, Dylan Breves, then a 17-year-old student from New York City, made a mundane edit to a Wikipedia entry on the coati. The coati, a member of the raccoon family, is “also known as … a Brazilian aardvark,” Breves wrote. He did not cite a source for this nickname, and with good reason: he had invented it. …
About a year later, Breves searched online for the phrase “Brazilian aardvark.” Not only was his edit still on Wikipedia, but his search brought up hundreds of other Web sites about coatis. References to the so-called “Brazilian aardvark” have since appeared in the Independent, the Daily Mail, and even in a book published by the University of Chicago. Breves’s role in all this seems clear: a Google search for “Brazilian aardvark” will return no mentions before Breves made the edit, in July, 2008. The claim that the coati is known as a Brazilian aardvark still remains on its Wikipedia entry, only now it cites a 2010 article in the Telegraph as evidence.
This kind of feedback loop – wherein an error that appears on Wikipedia then trickles to sources that Wikipedia considers authoritative, which are in turn used as evidence for the original falsehood—is a documented phenomenon. There’s even a Wikipedia article describing it.
(Photo of a baby South American coati by Alex Proimos)