In 2005, the The Irish Supreme Court ruled in favor of a woman who sued a landowner for damages in 1997 after she lost her footing while watching the sunset and tumbled over a cliff edge, breaking several bones in the process.
The ruling, which has since been cited in numerous other legal decisions in Ireland, is nicely summarized in the Wikipedia article Geraldine-Weir-Rodgers vs SF Trust. But that post wasn’t created by an amateur legal buff. It was written as part of an experiment designed to test how the crowdsourced encyclopedia might influence litigation.
Edits made to Wikipedia pages can, it turns out, affect some legal decisions.
A team of researchers from Maynooth University in Ireland, MIT and Cornell University conducted a controlled experiment by creating more than 150 new Wikipedia articles covering Irish Supreme Court decisions, and they randomly selected half of them to post to the site. Like the American or British legal system, Irish courts have a hierarchical structure, where decisions made in higher courts bind decisions made further down. There were also relatively few Wikipedia articles on Irish Supreme Court decisions at the beginning of the experiment.
The team found that the published Wikipedia articles increased the number of citations of a given legal decision by 20 percent. The citations came most often when they supported the argument a judge made in a decision. They also used computational techniques to compare the language of judges’ rulings and found patterns that suggested judges had borrowed from the text of the Wikipedia pages they read.
“You have judges deciding what should happen to people – very serious things – and we expect them to use expertise when they do it,” says Brian Flanagan, associate professor at Maynooth University. In the worst case, he says, the editor of an article may even have an interest in a case. “The authorship of the Wikipedia articles is actually opaque,” he adds.
Neil Thompsona researcher in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory involved in the work has previously looked at how edits to Wikipedia affect citations in scholarly journal articles. He says it’s worrying that expert knowledge and critical decisions can be affected by edits of dubious origin. “As you get more specialized knowledge, it becomes more and more important to have someone who really has a deep understanding,” says Thompson.
Wikipedia may no longer inspire derision for the reliability of its content — but that’s mostly because the rest of the Internet has become such an almighty information cesspool. The site is still prone to impressive representations, such as the recently discovered case of a woman who spent years writing bogus articles on Russian history on the Chinese language version of the website without being detected. Wikipedia also maintains an impressive level of influence, ranking as seventh most visited website on the planet with about 6.5 million articles that are updated at a rate of about two edits per second.