The Peril of Citogenesis, Research Time, 12/02/2015

Last week, I came across an article on Slate by David Auerbach that I thought was blog-worthy because of what it implied about the field that communications professionals have to work in today. It’s another one of those new problems that I don’t think the curriculum in my program (or indeed, any communications curriculum, but I’d still have to see the evidence) has fully gripped.

Randall Munroe of xkcd called the problem citogenesis, how facts are established and develop a clear, easily traceable paper trail of citations without actually being true. Considered most abstractly, the process works like this. Some low-level Wikipedia editor types some stuff into an article that he hasn’t researched and isn’t actually true. It’s just his common knowledge, which like all common knowledge, heavily distorts or is outright false about what’s actually the case. 

Now, Wikipedia administrators and high level editors who take the crowdsourced encyclopedia seriously do scan through the articles looking for factual errors and correcting them. But there are only so many editors, their ranks of veterans shrink slowly all the time, and recruitment is virtually nil because the job requires expertise in a Kafka-esque body of rules and regulations before you can even start. 

So errors are only corrected as readers flag uncertainly cited information and editors eventually get around to checking them. In the intervening time, a blogger for a reasonably well-read site (maybe one of the underpaid whelps at Gawker, Huffpo, Buzzfeed, or Slate) is hurriedly researching one of the five articles and listicles they have to post per day. So she naturally does almost all of her research on Wikipedia.

She finds the untrue statement plainly available on the Wikipedia page and includes it in her article. That article gets picked up by a few other news blogs and aggregators, so four or five published articles in respectable media outlets have included this bullshit as a true fact. 

When the Wikipedia administrators get around to the fact check on the original edit that started this whole mess, their research finds those four or five articles. Wikipedia’s policy is that they’ll only include a fact if it can be traced back to some secondary material, and that the existence of a citation justifies including it in an entry.* The citations are enough to verify the original statement as true, even though the cited articles discovered the statement on Wikipedia before it was fact checked.

* Auerbach’s article mentions a seriously funny story about the novelist Philip Roth’s attempt to edit his own Wikipedia page. An administrator told him that it didn’t matter if he was correcting a fact about himself; he’d still have to include a citation to a secondary source for the edit to stand.

The case Auerbach discussed was a Wikipedia article about Wikipedia’s activity in the Gamergate affair. The article said that Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee had concluded a long case in which all editors who identified themselves as feminists were banned. This was reported in the Guardian newspaper despite the case not having concluded and nothing of this narrative being true. His article lays out the entire chain of events in their specifics. 

Communications people have an obligation of fidelity to the truth. Our professional code of ethics forbids us from outright lying.** At the least, we should be able to substantiate everything we say in our public activities on behalf of clients and employers. But citogenesis destabilizes what we can and can’t trust.

** For now, lay aside the fact that many of the biggest firms have often lied, or at least propagated untruths or half-truths on behalf of clients. I’m just talking about our professional ethical obligations, not our sometimes shady practices.

It becomes more difficult to know what is a trustworthy source because citation proliferation afflicts uncertainty across all sources. Citogenesis doesn’t make all sources equally unreliable either, but it spreads unreliability across sources. It’s immensely difficult to trace back the chronology of how a statement came to be accepted as true, and how the chain of citations was built. So it’s incredibly hard to distinguish an actual fact from a cited falsity.

How do you remain truthful if you can no longer track what is true and false?

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