It’s true that news of Osama bin Laden’s death was first reported and disseminated over Twitter. But between the first mention of Osama bin Laden at 10:30 p.m. and President Obama’s televised address at 11:30 p.m., Twitter feeds were packed with as much inaccurate information as they were with true facts.
Wikipedia, meanwhile, responded within seconds; users could literally watch the Wikipedia site be updated as new information became available. And, like Twitter, Wikipedia beat The New York Times and major network news outlets.
Wikipedia, which does not allow first-person reporting, was able to distill instant updates from thousands of news sources with a single, authoritative and constantly edited story. Twitter also has thousands of users generating up-to-the-minute content, but with zero checks and balances.
When world news breaks, Wikipedia places the related pages into what’s called a “protection mode,” which it did last night with Osama bin Laden’s page and a newly created page called Death of Osama bin Laden. This means only registered Wikipedia users with a track record of no vandalism are able to make changes to the page. The Death of Osama bin Laden page, which has undergone 1,033 edits since it was created last night, remains in protection mode, according to Jay Walsh, spokesperson for the Wikimedia Foundation.
Protection mode doesn’t slow down the pace a Wikipedia page can be edited, Walsh said. During breaking news events like last night’s announcement, Wikipedia users congregate on a page’s accompanying “discussion page” to debate the quality of information before adding it to a page. All of this happens instantaneously, making Wikipedia a more accurate hybrid between Twitter’s crowd-sourced chaos and the mainstream news outlets slower-moving fact checking processes.
Walsh said that of Wikipedia’s 4 million-plus English language pages, only around 1,000 have ever been placed into protection mode.
Wikipedia, which has been declared as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica, has bounced back from several infamous gaffes over the years—declaring Senator Ted Kennedy dead months before his actual death and declaring Ken Lay’s heart attack a suicide are two prominent examples, both of which occurred before Wikipedia introduced its registered user requirement for pages in protection mode.