Wikipedia Handles Colbert Elephant Prank

Comedian Stephen Colbert instructed the audience of his popular Comedy Central program “The Colbert Report” to challenge Wikipedia’s “truthiness” by pulling a little stunt. It didn’t work.

In an attempt to prove that Wikipedia’s version of truth is flexible, Colbert recently told viewers to alter the Wikipedia page on “elephant” to state that the population of African elephants had tripled in the last decade. This is, of course, untrue. But as Colbert stated, if enough people alter the page on Wikipedia, it’s fact.

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There was just one problem with the prank: Colbert was ultimately proven wrong. Although the servers were tested, soon after Colbert began ranting about wikiality on his show, the encyclopedia had locked down the page on elephants and Colbert’s biography. The pages of the entire site are vigilantly guarded by dozens of self-appointed moderators. And as of this printing, no changes or inaccurate information about the current population of the elephant can be seen.

In the days since the furor began, hundreds of users have contributed nearly 20,000 heated words about how the “elephant” page should read. The debate has ranged from whether “wikiality” should be discussed, to anger over Colbert’s joke, to abstracts of studies examining the population rate of elephants in South Africa.

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More than 100,000 active volunteer contributors governing 1.2 million articles on Wikipedia. The average article is edited about 34 times. Each edit is documented and debated.

While Wikipedia has all manner of theoretical problems, the fact of the matter is that the concept has worked better than any could have reasonably hoped. Recent studies have shown that its accuracy is comparable to that of Encyclopedia Britannica, long touted as the gold standard.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.