Wikipedia correction: do something or let it go?
September 23, 2023 5:51 PM   Subscribe

So my best friend died a few years ago, and she wasn't capital-F Famous but she was known in her industry, and there's a Wikipedia page for her. Today I glanced at it and someone has added a weird amount of totally wrong information -- like, factually wrong, not opinion-level stuff -- connected to her illness, her treatment while she was ill, and her cause of death. I'm incredibly grossed out by it, and I know she'd be highly offended by it. Should I try to change it or let it go?

I don't want to betray her privacy or my own so I won't link to it, but basically it says things that are factually incorrect: the date she was diagnosed with cancer (!); the type of cancer she had (!!); a surgical treatment she did not have (!!!); the number of radiation treatments she went through (!!!!); and even her ultimate cause of death. ALL of those things are factually incorrect. They're also not footnoted on the page.

I'm so angry and sad about this. I'm still angry and sad about her getting cancer in the first place. I'm still angry and sad that she went through five years of full-time cancer treatment and then died. Fuck cancer.

But also: she was an intensely private person. She worked HARD -- we all did! -- to help her keep her treatment secret while she was going through it, so she could keep working. She would be appalled to see this information be posted, and for it to be wrong to boot! Her husband and child haven't seen this yet. If they do, they'll be panicking about it.

I want to change it. Can I change it? Can I do that without compromising my privacy?

Also, how do I prove those details wrong when it's impossible to prove a negative? Even a link to her obituary and news stories about her death won't necessarily help, because they just say "cancer" as opposed to a specific type of cancer. And they certainly don't talk about her treatment protocols. There are no published sources about her specific cancer/treatment/surgeries/radiation/etc. because that was all kept private. My only proof is "I was her best friend and I was there for every second of it."

Yikes, and help please.
posted by BlahLaLa to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Also, how do I prove those details wrong when it's impossible to prove a negative?

You answered your own question. Wikipedia does not allow original research - true or not. Wikipedia does not use "truth" or "falsehood" as a metric for articles - instead, they go off of verifiability. As you've said, those statements are not verifiable.

I would simply remove the incorrect statements with a note in the edit that you are removing original research that is not verifiable. It's possible someone will revert your edit, so you would probably want to watch the page for a few weeks/months periodically. You do not need to edit with your real name - in fact, very few people do.

You are overthinking this. Edit the page and be done with it.
posted by saeculorum at 6:02 PM on September 23 [60 favorites]

Just remove it because it lack citation. I am very sorry for your loss.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:04 PM on September 23 [22 favorites]

Best answer: It may sound petty but I would love if my friends got into moral "someone is wrong on the internet" battles on my behalf after I was gone. What a tribute to my memory.

You're being a good friend. Remove the incorrect statements.
posted by phunniemee at 7:10 PM on September 23 [41 favorites]

So on Wikipedia, deletions perceived as aggressive or hasty are often reverted. When the deleter is seen as a newcomer and the restorer has a long established rep (even as a loose canon inclusionist) , it's really hard to win this kind of edit war. Even when you are right and they are wrong. And an easy compromise "solution" like adding a "citation needed" or "dubious" tag may appease the group, but it won't help you or your friend.

Having some hands-on experience with Wikipedia editing and contentious edits, I suggest you move more cautiously than rushing in and deleting the bad content.

I suggest you read WP:BIODD, WP:Verify, WP:hearsay, WP:NOR. At least skim MOS:BIO. (These are all Wikipedia shortcuts you can type into the Wikipedia search bar to get to the pages. Wikipedians also talk using these shortcuts as lingo and it will help you to learn it).

Look at the edit history and see how long the bad content has been there. Using WP:Blame will help if it's not clear. Be ready for that user to show up and fight to keep the bad content.

Then post on the article's talk page. Say that you know this content is bad and ask for guidance. Say that you have flagged the content for removal and will be doing so, and that you are telegraphing your edit as part of WP:AGF. In short act as though you are holding some space for the idea that WP:RS could be found, even though you know it can't. Then ideally you don't hear much and you make the deletion a few days later. But if someone decides to balk, you'll be far better off having done this step first.

Probably best to read WP:RFC and maybe WP:CRD for how to escalate to solve this if someone decides to dig in and push back.

Basically, I think you should not be taking advice from people who don't have direct experience with this sort of thing on WP. I don't have a ton, but I have enough to be suspicious of anyone who thinks "just delete spurious bad info" is a simple way for a new user to easily and permanently remove bad info from Wikipedia. Perhaps I'm being paranoid, but I feel like you probably want err on the side of doing it right, and without seeing the page, nobody can give you a good read on whether a simple deletion by a new user would be likely to stand or or not.

I am not that active there now, but I've had an account for over a decade and if you want some support over on that side, memail me and I'll show up there to help as I can.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:27 PM on September 23 [71 favorites]

I'll just point to this relevant bit of info from the Wikipedia Biographies of living persons page:
Wikipedia must get the article right. Be very firm about the use of high-quality sources. All quotations and any material challenged or likely to be challenged must be supported by an inline citation to a reliable, published source. Contentious material about living persons (or, in some cases, recently deceased) that is unsourced or poorly sourced—whether the material is negative, positive, neutral, or just questionable—must be removed immediately and without waiting for discussion. Users who persistently or egregiously violate this policy may be blocked from editing. . . .

When writing about a person noteworthy only for one or two events, including every detail can lead to problems—even when the material is well sourced. When in doubt, biographies should be pared back to a version that is completely sourced, neutral, and on-topic. . . .

If an allegation or incident is noteworthy, relevant, and well documented, it belongs in the article—even if it is negative and the subject dislikes all mention of it. If you cannot find multiple reliable third-party sources documenting the allegation or incident, leave it out. . . .

Many Wikipedia articles contain material on people who are not well known, regardless of whether they are notable enough for their own article. In such cases, exercise restraint and include only material relevant to the person's notability, focusing on high-quality secondary sources.
Your person is no longer a "living person" of course, but as this page points out, biographies of recently deceased people are in the same category for the same reason. (However, further down it points out this recently deceased status can be extended until about 2 years at the outside. So this isn't going to be directly applicable to your case, unfortunately, if you get into it with a persnickety editor. Still, the spirit seems to apply.)

I would be inclined to proceed much as SaltySalticid suggests. First add some tags and make a note in the talk page that outlines why the new content is problematic, putting it in terms of wikipedia's own rules - in particular, this is unsourced/original research, AND even if sourced, private information completely irrelevant to an article about a person who is relatively not very famous. Details of the illness are not relevant to the person's area of noteworthiness. The illness itself - and particularly the exact details of it, including diagnoses and treatment - are private information that is and was not noteworthy or newsworthy.

Wait a couple of weeks and see if there is any response. If not, then delete away. Put another note in place saying that you made the objections, no one was able to provide a remedy for them, so you have removed the material. If anyone wants to edit the removed material so as to address the problems you noted and re-insert it, then you'll be happy to take a look at it again, etc etc., but in the meanwhile since the material is blatantly violating policies X Y & Z and deals with a recently deceased person, it seems best to take it down.

Chances are, only you and the person who posted the material are going to care. That can be a good thing or a bad thing.

Also, if you have an existing, long-standing wikipedia account that doesn't somehow betray your identity in a way that you don't want, that would definitely be the best account to use. Or perhaps you have a friend with such and account, or who has done a bit of WP editing?

Otherwise, establish a new account, but then use that new account in dealing with this matter, and any other wikipedia matters you might happen to want to deal with from now on. In fact, just doing a few non-controversial wikipedia edits every week for a while wouldn't be a bad idea. It is both a small helpful thing you can do for the benefit of wikipedia and also establishes some small degree of credibility for that account. An account that just flies in and edits one article only, then disappears, isn't going to have any credibility at all.

(On that note: If the account that made the edits you note is anonymous or an "IP address" account I would be quite a bit more inclined to deleted sooner than later. Still make the notes, still document the reasons, still give it some time before deleting. But if the account is a long-established wikipedia editor with zillions of edits to their name, that is one thing. If it is a IP address with that single edit to its name, that's something quite different - and more akin to vandalism.)
posted by flug at 7:57 PM on September 23 [3 favorites]

Long-established editor here. If you feel comfortable messaging me a link to the entry, I would be happy to remove unsourced and irrelevant crud from a bio.
posted by zippy at 9:54 PM on September 23 [69 favorites]

First, I'm sorry for your loss, and that this crappy thing happened on Wikipedia.

I agree with earlier posters that this stuff should be reverted, and that there's no need for you to actively disprove anything before it can be done (as they are just unsourced assertions, which are always fair game for removal).

However, I disagree that you should be the one to do it. That would be a conflict of interest (as Wikipedia's guidelines describe the term), and "COI editing is strongly discouraged on Wikipedia".

There is an exception, given in that same page's "Writing about yourself, family, friends" section: "if the article contains defamation or a serious error that needs to be corrected quickly". However, while I again stress that I'm sorry for your loss and that I agree that this is crappy, I'm having a hard time bringing myself to believe that it "needs to be corrected quickly" (I think that would be more along the lines of "No, my nephew is not a convicted cannibal-pedophile-murderer and in any case his home address should not be published here").

It should be fairly easy for you to get it fixed, though:

First, edit the article's "talk page" (not the article's page itself) to add that all of this stuff is unsourced, and less importantly (from the point of view of Wikipedia), false. Add that you are in a conflict of interest situation (you don't have to explain how), so you would appreciate if someone else would revert all these unsourced claims.

Second, post something on the help desk saying essentially the same stuff, and linking to the article in question. Mention that you've added this same request on the article's talk page, but that you are hoping to get help and resolution faster than you'd likely get from there alone.

Finally, I'll admit that if you were to just go ahead and do it yourself, you'd probably not run into anyone who would figure out that you, frankly, shouldn't have. But... you shouldn't.
posted by Flunkie at 9:58 PM on September 23 [3 favorites]

Another fairly active editor here who would be happy to help if you want to MeMail. I'm sorry, this must have been upsetting.
posted by paduasoy at 12:37 AM on September 24 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Came back to add some context in case that is helpful to you. This is the sort of thing I remove all the time from biographies on Wikipedia, and I know other editors do too. If it's not sourced, it definitely shouldn't be there. Even if it is, it's very often not relevant to the Wikipedia article about them - it's not what makes them notable. The type of cancer they had might be if it led to stuff like activism; medical treatments are very unlikely to be. My anecdotal experience is that medical information is more likely to show up on biographies of women, because of the way we tend to treat women's bodies. If you carry out the deletion yourself, it should be uncontroversial and unlikely to be challenged (depending on who added the info and whether they are still active on Wikipedia - you can see the former in the article history if you want to look). I would say, if you do delete it yourself, a fairly neutral edit summary such as "unsourced health info" is less likely than something more heated to attract attention from editors who might want to reverse your changes.

For something like this, you could also email Wikipedia volunteers here.
posted by paduasoy at 1:19 AM on September 24 [3 favorites]

ALL of those things are factually incorrect. They're also not footnoted on the page.

Going to echo others in saying that removing uncited material from a BIPOC should be pretty straightforward and nothing anyone should be challenging. Policy is pretty clear here.
posted by Artw at 8:26 AM on September 24

Response by poster: I truly appreciate all the answers. Last night, after the first two answers were posted, I did make myself an account and do a simple edit. The gist:

Before: "She was diagnosed with X cancer on Specific Date, she had Y surgery, she had Z rounds of radiation over Q timespan, she kept working, and then died of X cancer on Specific Date."

After: "She was diagnosed with cancer in Year, she kept working, and then died of cancer on Specific Date."

I do wish I had waited a hair longer for the later answers to come in, because now I've learned about the problematic issues -- I did make a brand-new account, I am personally connected to the subject, and the person who had added this information does have a longstanding account. I'll keep an eye on the page, and if it becomes a back-and-forth argument I'll follow the directions in later answers, and/or reach out to the experienced editors who volunteered to assist.

This is all fraught with a lot of emotion for me, which does cloud my mind. But it still stands out as so weird to begin with. This unsourced and untrue information... Why does someone add that? What is their purpose??

Thank you all.
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:08 AM on September 24 [7 favorites]

Honestly I think this is a case where that is fully acceptable and okay to be above board about. If there dies end up being some kind of issue please keep us updated here.
posted by Artw at 9:11 AM on September 24 [1 favorite]

Yeah, don't worry too much about having made the change yourself (to be clear, I'm the person who said you shouldn't do so). Probably no one will notice, and if anyone does, it probably won't be anything resembling a big "people are pissed off at me now" thing. It's not a horrible thing, it's just an understandably broken guideline that can easily be resolved amicably if anyone even wants to bother "resolving" it at all.

Your new contingency plan for a back-and-forth argument is fine, though if it were me, I would probably also (in the case where I was somehow discovered) add a small mea culpa, noting that I was at the time a newbie to editing Wikipedia, and didn't know about these guidelines, but that I understand them now and will try to heed them in any future editing.

I mean, it's possible that some jerk will be jerky about it; jerks gonna jerk, there are jerks everywhere, and Wikipedia is no exception to that. But in my experience, it would be much, much more likely for people to react with understanding, and by welcoming you to the ranks of Wikipedia editors, than to freak out.
posted by Flunkie at 11:26 AM on September 24

Is there an online obituary? It might be good to grab the relevant info from there and then cite it as a source. That way, if this ever becomes an editing battle, you'll have a source you can point to and the other person won't. For what it's worth, the person who wrote that stuff is probably an acquaintance or fan of your friend, they heard some info they believed to be true, and now they think they're doing the right thing by passing it along. I doubt they're being disrespectful on purpose.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:10 PM on September 24

Response by poster: FWIW, the page already has 7 cited references, and 3 of them are obits in major US media. (None of which include the wrong info.) I checked the other references as well, and they're pre-death links to her work.

So I feel pretty optimistic that nobody will argue this, and if they do, I feel optimistic that I can prevail.
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:22 PM on September 24 [4 favorites]

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