Can Wikipedia Handle Stephen Colbert’s Truthiness?

Online encyclopedia sees spike of inaccurate entries after 'Colbert Report' piece.

In his continuing quest for truthiness, Stephen Colbert may very well have incurred the wrath of the world’s largest online sorta-encyclopedia.

Then again, maybe he didn’t.

Confused? Well, so is pretty much everyone involved in this rather sordid case of Internet vandalism/ social experimentation, but in the spirit of, well, more truthiness, we’ll try to explain.

“The Colbert Report” is the tongue-in-cheek Comedy Central news show that features the titular humorist spouting off on a variety of political topics in a highly stylized, Bill O’Reilly-esque manner. On Monday’s episode, Colbert praised Wikipedia, the online resource that can be read and edited by anyone with access to a computer, for promoting what he termed “Wikiality” — a sort of pseudo-reality that exists when you make something up and enough people agree with you.

“I’m no fan of reality, and I’m no fan of encyclopedias,” Colbert opined. “I’ve said it before: Who is [Encyclopaedia] Britannica to tell me George Washington had slaves? If I want to say George Washington didn’t have slaves, that’s my right. And now, thanks to Wikipedia, it’s also a fact.”

While he was speaking, Colbert was also typing away on a laptop computer, apparently editing the Wikipedia entry on George Washington to read, “In conclusion, George Washington did not own slaves.”

He also apparently edited the Wiki entry on his own program, replacing a lengthy section on his reference to Oregon as both “the Canada of California” and “Washington’s Mexico” with “Oregon is Idaho’s Portugal” — an example, he said, of Wikiality.

“[On Wikipedia], any user can change any entry,” he said. “Now ‘Oregon is Idaho’s Portugal’ is the opinion I have always held. You can look it up.”

The thing is, Colbert was actually making the changes — or, at least, someone with the username StephenColbert was. The edits are seen on Wikipedia.com here and here, and they were both made around 6:35 p.m. ET, when “The Colbert Report” tapes in New York.

After making his changes, Colbert encouraged his viewers to spread his concept of Wikiality by changing the site’s entries on elephants to reflect the fact that the elephant population in Africa “has tripled in the last six months” — a way, he joked, to disarm environmentalists worldwide.

“What we’re doing is bringing democracy to knowledge,” he said. “It’s time we use the power of our numbers for a real Internet revolution. We’re going to stampede across the Web like that giant horde of elephants in Africa. Together we can create a reality we can all agree on — the reality we just agreed on.”

All was well and good until “The Colbert Report” aired on Comedy Central at 11:30 p.m., when Wikipedia administrators saw his bit and immediately blocked StephenColbert from editing any more entries on the site.

A spokesperson for Comedy Central said neither Colbert nor anyone from his show had any comment on the matter, and at press time, several articles on Wikipedia — including entries about “The Colbert Report” and elephants — remained locked, barring the resolution of erroneous edits.

According to Wikipedia’s founder, Jim Wales, they have no way to prove that the user going by the name StephenColbert was actually Colbert (or anyone who works with his show), though they could trace the IP address to see if it were coming from Comedy Central’s New York headquarters. The point is, he doesn’t really want to.

“It’s fine,” Wales told MTV News. “We have a sense of humor, and if we wanted to, we could figure out if it was really him making the changes. But why bother? We banned the user because of his or her behavior, because they were messing around with some articles and encouraging other people to mess with several articles about elephants.”

Wales wasn’t worried that Colbert’s humorous jabs at Wikipedia — or his coining of the term “Wikiality” — will undermine the site’s goal of one day creating a free, verifiable, worldwide information source. And he said he’d be more than willing to have his administrators unblock the StephenColbert username if the host would just apologize on air.

“We try as hard as we can to make sure every piece of information on the site is backed up by verifiable sources, and if something is under dispute, we remove it until people can provide us with sources,” he said. “Also, I’ve met Stephen, and I know how he is. He likes to have a joke. The one time we met, he told me that we had to fix the article about him on our site, because it said he was married. I said to him, ‘But I thought you were married.’ And he replied, ‘Well, I am, but it disappoints my female fans.’ ”