Can you trust Wikipedia?

The Wikipedia online encyclopedia is often celebrated for its uniqueness: every internet user can create new articles and edit entries.

Since the website’s launch on January 15 2001, “Wikipedians” have contributed or edited more than three million articles in 205 different languages. The largest language areas are English, German, French, Japanese and Polish.

Wikipedia’s popularity is shown by the fact that it records 1 000 page views per second, with about 100 servers to handle the traffic. 

However, the quality of entries is uneven; sometimes entries are even factually incorrect. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales admits on the website that “on any given day, [the quality of] any entry might be up or down”.

The Mail & Guardian Online asked experts to comment on some entries about South African subjects and assign marks out of 10.

  • Professor Yvonne Sliep is a lecturer at the school of psychology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She is an expert on traditional healers and looked at the Wikipedia entry on sangomas.

    Her comment: I would like to add this at the end of the article, after the negative description of enemas [the entry refers to muti used in enema form that leads to gastrointestinal problems]: “On a more positive side, the sangomas function as the social workers and psychologists in their community. They know the local dynamics and can counsel appropriately with this background knowledge.

    “In the past, the formal health sector was interested in the role of sangomas, especially in terms of mental illness and mobilising community support. In the past decade, the role of all types of traditional healers have become important in the fighting the impact of HIV/Aids.”

    It needs to be placed within a bigger conceptual framework of traditional healers and the current roles need to described.

    Overall mark: 6/10

  • Anton Harber, professor of journalism and media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, looked at the entry on the media in South Africa.

    His comments: I am a great fan of Wikipedia and think the concept is brilliant. One has to be careful to acknowledge that a wiki entry develops over time, and the entry on the media in South Africa is clearly a first, very loose shot at the subject.

    Having said that, the entry is both inaccurate and inadequate. Inaccuracies include the statement that the South African Broadcasting Corporation is licence-funded. Inadequacies are rife: it does not even mention radio, our biggest medium; it ignores newspapers not in English or Afrikaans; it says some papers criticised apartheid, but does not mention the censorship we had.

    Disappointing, I would say.

    Overall mark: 2/10

  • Andy Capostagno, sports commentator at Supersport and rugby commentator for the M&G, read the entries on the South Africa national rugby league team and the South Africa national rugby union team.

    His comments: Sorry to say that the rugby sites are A1. If I were to be hyper-critical, I might say that they are a little too up to date and don’t care enough for history, but that merely reflects the audience, I would suggest. This is what the internet was intended to be: a non-pejorative, apolitical take on everyday life.

    Overall mark: 10/10

  • Political analyst Steven Friedman, who works for the Centre for Policy Studies in Johannesburg, looked at the African National Congress entry.

    His comments: I can only find one clear factual error: the ANC did not fight the 1994 provincial elections in coalition with the IFP [Inkatha Freedom Party].

    For the rest, there is a certain selectivity in the choice of facts—why a grant to the ANC by the Saudis merits special mention is unclear—and some selectivity: Anton Lembede and AP Mda, the two Africanists who formed the ANC Youth League, are ignored and it is also unclear why John Dube should be listed as the founder of the ANC when Pixley Seme and Sol Plaatje were at least as significant.

    Choices of significant figures are also highly subjective and I would wonder why Robert Sobukwe is mentioned as a key ANC figure rather than as founder of the PAC [Pan Africanist Congress] or why Sydney Mufamadi is listed as a key figure after 1994 when most analysts would choose many other ANC politicians ahead of him.

    That said, the entry was surprisingly accurate (perhaps I have low expectations): one clear factual error only is less than I would have expected.

    Overall mark: 7/10

  • De Waal Davis, the author of Braai Buddy and Bakgat Braai, read the entries on braai and braaivleis and boerewors.

    His comments: I feel it [the braai and braaivleis entry] could be a more in-depth description incorporating favourite dishes from various areas.

    Boerewors in itself does not keep well. I think the author assumes that droëwors is dried boerewors. It is not, as droëwors has a different recipe.

    Boerewors was not invented by the boers.

    A very similar type of sausage is made in France today, in the Latour Valley—the only difference being that the French do not use coriander or vinegar. They use a dry red wine called a claret instead of the vinegar. It is also a far milder sausage as far as spices go, but the texture is the same.

    Overall mark, braai and braaivleis entry: 8/10

    Overall mark, boerewors entry: 6/10

  • Abel J Esterhuyse is a lecturer at the military strategy department of the faculty of military science at the University of Stellenbosch (South African Military Academy). He commented on the South African National Defence Force entry.

    His comments: I found the encyclopedia very useful and, surprisingly, factually very correct. There is also an absence of emotional opinions in the presentation of the [historical] facts—something that you don’t always find in South Africa these days.

    Overall mark: 7/10

  • Economist Stephen Gelb, executive director of The Edge Institute in Johannesburg, read the entry on the economy of South Africa.

    His comments: This entry contains a lot of information about the current state of the South African economy and economic policy, but provides little context and is poorly organised. It would be difficult for a reader unfamiliar with South Africa to get a clear sense of the economy’s past or future.

    There is no explanation of the economic damage caused by apartheid. The policy discussion focuses solely on macroeconomic, trade and industrial policies, with no discussion of social and labour policies and their problems since 1994. Foreign direct investment is not mentioned, yet a whole paragraph is devoted to rather obscure official United States schemes to support capital inflows.

    The statistical data provided is rather erratic; for example, production, consumption and trade data for five years is provided for electricity, but value of aggregate trade is given for only one year, with no data as to the composition of trade. The annual average rand:dollar exchange rate is given for the past 15 years, but there is almost no historical data on GDP [gross domestic product] growth, and nothing on other important macroeconomic variables such as investment, international capital flows etc.

    Very little data on socio-economic indicators is provided. Overall, the entry reads far more like a brochure aimed at potential investors than a source of understanding for students and the general public.

    Overall mark: 6/10

  • Telkom has its own entry but would not comment on it. Lulu Letlape, head of communications for Telkom, said: “Telkom has its own website that includes all relevant information regarding Telkom as a company. With respect to the information contained at Wikipedia, as it is a free site, information is collected from a range of ‘sources” and it is not Telkom policy to track the world wide web with regard to information published about it.”

    Wikipedia is built on the belief that collaboration among users will improve articles over time, says Wales. His ultimate dream is “to create and distribute a free encyclopedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language”.

    Though Wikipedia did not respond to the M&G Online‘s queries, on an entry named “Wikipedia and criticism”, one of the most striking comments has to do with the quality of the entries.

    It says that “certain users monitor editing to prevent false information and spam, so false changes are quickly removed”.

    Some critics on the site argue, however, that the small number of users who monitor editing erases diversity. If editors argue about an entry, Wales is the one who makes the final judgement.

    Wikipedia’s plans for the next three years involve expanding the range of contributors in different fields and growing its offline audience by, for example, distributing Wikipedia on CD.

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