Wikipedia and defamation: How a false report about a basketball scandal spread through the Internet

Libel is lousy. As converged communicators with experience in MMC3200 (Law and Ethics in Communication) know, libel is the written half of the two-headed monster of defamation. Whole chapters of the text cover what defamation is, how it’s defined, and how to avoid it. In today’s communication landscape, many factors make it easier than ever for false and even malicious statements to spread online – crowdsourced information, lazy journalism, instant links, and so forth. It’s a cautionary tale that shows how an online lie can spread rapidly, with effects that can’t easily be erased.

In this blog post, Awful Announcing’s Ben Koo shows how an act of Wikipedia vandalism soon spread across major news organizations like the Associated Press and Sports Illustrated. Many people in sports are aware of the 1978 Boston College basketball scandal, in which three players took payments from organized crime figures in an effort to guarantee specific results for gamblers. However, an unknown Wikipedia editor added the name of a fourth player to the list, which was subsequently repeated in news articles around the nation. The result was that an innocent man was publicly linked to organized crime and a major sports scandal. Yes, that’s potentially defamatory. For news organizations, the moral of the story is to double-check all facts (especially those that could potentially cause harm) before publishing them. For everyone else, the moral is that online sources like Wikipedia are tempting but far from infallible. And there’s a warning: Converged communication technologies enable the rapid spread of ideas of all types, whether true or false.

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