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Citogenesis and Trusting the Internet

In the age of the internet where anyone and everyone can and will say anything, knowing that information is trustworthy is becoming more and more of an issue. One resource whose trustworthiness has long been debated is Wikipedia. While there are valid arguments on both sides of the issue, one fact that is certain is that Wikipedia suffers from citogenesis.

The term citogenesis was coined by cartoonist Randall Munroe. It describes how certain Wikipedia citations are created, and how that leads to the spread of incorrect information. The process is as follows. First, a user comes up with an unsupported fact and submits it to Wikipedia. Next, a careless writer reads the Wikipedia page and uses the unfounded information in their article. Thirdly, readers see the unsupported fact on Wikipedia and flag it for review. However, since there is now an article that uses that very fact, the article is cited as a credible source. Finally, other writers see that the fact is cited and feel safe repeating the fact, all the while not knowing that they are proliferating false information.

In the article above, we see an instance of citogenesis unfolding and even influencing a newspaper columnist to make claims about the history of health economics that were completely false. The incorrect information, unsurprisingly, originated from Wikipedia. This phenomenon closely relates to the concept of information cascades discussed in class. In this case, readers are trying to decide whether information is trustworthy or not. When they see many writers repeating the information and a Wikiepdia article citing those writers, they are inclined to believe that it is true for two types of reasons. Firstly, they believe for “info-based” reasons. In other words, they trust that the writers have information to verify their claims that they the readers do not. Secondly, they believe for “direct-benefit” reasons. If many people claim that something is true, it is socially beneficial to agree with them in order to be included. Disagreeing would simply lead to tension.  In this way, much false information from the internet is being treated as credible.


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November 2014