Dublin university student Shane Fitzgerald said it took him less than 15 minutes to “fabricate and place a poetic but phony quote” on Wikipedia, testing how our increasingly Internet-dependent media was “upholding accuracy and accountability in an age of instant news.”
Fitzgerald added an “obituary-friendly quote” to the Wikipedia page of Maurice Jarre only hours after the French composer’s death on March 28. It was then used by dozens of U.S. blogs and newspaper websites in Britain, Australia and India. “They used the fabricated material,” Fitzgerald said, “even though administrators at the free online encyclopedia twice caught the quote’s lack of attribution and removed it.”
“One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack,” Fitzgerald’s fake Jarre quote read. “Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head that only I can hear.”
“I am 100 percent convinced that if I hadn’t come forward, that quote would have gone down in history as something Maurice Jarre said, instead of something I made up,” he said. “It would have become another example where, once anything is printed enough times in the media without challenge, it becomes fact.”
In one of his University College Dublin classes, Fitzgerald had been exploring how quickly information was transmitted around the world. His concern was that media outlets are increasingly relying solely on Internet sources, even the publicly edited Wikipedia, because of added pressure to produce news almost instantly.
“The moral of this story is not that journalists should avoid Wikipedia, but that they shouldn’t use information they find there if it can’t be traced back to a reliable primary source,” said the readers’ editor at the Guardian, Siobhain Butterworth, in the May 4 column that revealed Fitzgerald as the quote author.