It took the loss of a musical icon, but a 22-year-old Dublin student finally proved what just about everyone suspected. Wikipedia may not be the most accurate source of information available on the internet.
When famed composer Maurice Jarre died on March 29, 2009, the world was saddened by the loss of a talented and prolific composer and conductor. Born in Lyon, France in 1924, Jarre was responsible for scoring much-loved films such as Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and A Passage to India. For his work on these three films, Jarre was awarded three separate Oscars.
But as much as the musical community was reeling from the loss, they were at least left with some comforting words. “One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head, that only I can hear.”
These were viewed as the eloquent words of a talented man, and as such, they were placed in his obituary in The Guardian, The London Independent, and numerous other print publications.
The only problem was that these weren’t Jarre’s words. Rather, they were penned by Shane Fitzgerald, an undergraduate student at the University College Dublin. Studying economics and sociology, he placed these words on Wikipedia as a kind of social experiment regarding globalization and the perpetuation of information.
As such, Fitzgerald expected the quote to be picked up by a few minor blogs and articles. What he got was mainstream print publications falsely attributing his words to the deceased composer. The error went undiscovered until Fitzgerald called the various newspapers and explained the situation. Each paper printed a retraction and some even published a separate article on Fitzgerald’s experiment.
But what’s to be taken from this hoax? Bored Irish undergraduates shouldn’t have access to publicly edited forums? Sociology majors shouldn’t orchestrate social experiments until graduate school? No. If people are to take anything from this hoax, it should be more than the idea that Wikipedia can perpetuate false information (stop the presses!).
Instead, it should be increasingly apparent that even legitimate news writers are flocking to easily accessible online forums for information. It points to an environment where the news is generated not by print papers with wizened editors but by online updates, Twitter tweets, and breaking news caught on a camera phone.
Now all that’s left is to bring to these online forums the kind of editorial eye, journalistic integrity, and personal accountability that was once the hallmark of print publications.