There’s a college at Durham University named after campaigning feminist Josephine Butler, and so one afternoon I found myself on wikipedia looking her up. I was quite surprised to read the following ‘fact’
I happen to be from Southend. Royal Artillery way (or to give it it’s less fancy name, the A1159) is a short stretch of dual carriageway. I looked it up on google maps to check, no museum there. I googled it more broadly, no mention of the museum (except for the wikipedia page, and people who had cut and pasted it (a total of 77 hits!!). Most worryingly there is no link to any evidence for the museum’s existence on the wikipedia page, which is supposed to be one of the rules of wikipedia.
So after a bit of faff (the IP address of my office desktop was blocked) i managed to log in to wikipedia and try and find out when this misinformation was added. It was added on 20th October 2008, just shy of 5 years ago, and the original edit included some more information about the museum.
Now this is more obviously untrue, “lazers” is misspelt for a start, but a few weeks later somebody with a different account name, embellishes it further
This was obviously a step too far for somebody, and a couple of weeks later it was edited back to the ‘fact’ that I stumbled across (and have now deleted) nearly 5 years later.
I think this raises some interesting questions about wikipedia in general. Why did the original person only delete half the false fact and leave half? How did this unlikely fact last so long? Was it left alone because it sounded vaguely plausible once the more puerile stuff was deleted? How many other plausible untruths are there on wikipedia? And perhaps most importantly, why Southend? Any other town and I wouldn’t have checked and who knows how long that ‘fact’ would have lasted?