Wikipedia information “undermining quality of judgments”

Wikipedia: Impact of false information could be significant in the law

The widespread use of online source Wikipedia by senior judges could mean fake information spreading, leading to bad judgments, an update of research first revealed last year has warned.

It was already having major effects on society, researchers said.

We reported last July that the academic study found that senior judges were relying on user-generated content, such as write-ups in Wikipedia, which were having an outsize influence on judicial reasoning.

Updated conclusions by the researchers at leading US and Irish universities, published last month, said: “Wikipedia and other frequently-accessed sources of user-generated content have profound effects on important social outcomes. Greater attention should therefore be paid to ensuring that they contain the highest quality of information.”

Although the research was conducted on rulings by the Irish Supreme Court, the same results were thought to be applicable to British and US courts .

The researchers believed only judges of the High Court, or their staff – rather than appeal or supreme courts – were using Wikipedia articles for their research. They highlighted pressure of work on High Court judges as a possible cause of the difference.

The use of freely-available internet sources “make it highly plausible that false information could spread via Wikipedia”, they continued. “This could be particularly serious in legal settings, where it could lead to incorrect judicial decisions, and other sensitive areas (e.g., medicine).”

Action was already being taken in other fields to address the issue, for example by the National Institute for Health Research, based in London. It has appointed a so-called ‘Wikimedian in Residence’, whose job it was to “disseminate medical research and increase the accuracy of medical content on Wikipedia”.

The academics encouraged policymakers to consider more such initiatives, including firms assigning experts to filter misleading information or having researchers double-check important claims and go back to primary sources.

However, they warned it was unclear this kind of measure would work, since it had proved ineffective in academia.

They recommended that future research should examine court legal filings, for instance, “to establish how much effect comes through lawyers”, and by “doing careful causal analysis of the effect of media on judicial decision-making”.

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