truth in numbers

In a 2006 episode of the satirical news show ‘The Colbert Report,’ Stephen Colbert announced the neologism ‘Wikiality‘ (a portmanteau of the words ‘Wiki’ and ‘reality’) defined as ‘truth by consensus’ (rather than fact), modeled after the approval-by-consensus format of Wikipedia. He ironically praised Wikipedia for following his philosophy of ‘truthiness,’ in which intuition and consensus is a better reflection of reality than fact:

‘You see, any user can change any entry, and if enough other users agree with them, it becomes true. … If only the entire body of human knowledge worked this way. And it can, thanks to tonight’s word: ‘Wikiality.’ Now, folks, I’m no fan of reality, and I’m no fan of encyclopedias. I’ve said it before. Who is Britannica to tell me that George Washington had slaves? If I want to say he didn’t, that’s my right. And now, thanks to Wikipedia, it’s also a fact. We should apply these principles to all information. All we need to do is convince a majority of people that some factoid is true. … What we’re doing is bringing democracy to knowledge.’

According to Colbert, together ‘we can all create a reality that we all can agree on; the reality that we just agreed on.’ During the segment, he joked: ‘I love Wikipedia… any site that’s got a longer entry on ‘truthiness’ than on ‘Lutherans’ has its priorities straight.’ Colbert also used the segment to satirize the more general issue of whether the repetition of statements in the media leads people to believe they are true. The piece was introduced with the tagline ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Verified,’ referencing the lack of objective verification seen in some articles.

Colbert suggested that viewers change the wikipedia page for ‘elephant’ to state that the number of African elephants has tripled in the last six months. The suggestion resulted in numerous incorrect changes to Wikipedia articles related to elephants and Africa. Wikipedia administrators subsequently restricted edits to the pages by anonymous and newly created user accounts. Colbert went on to type on a laptop facing away from the camera, claiming to be making the edits to the pages himself. In addition, initial edits to Wikipedia corresponding to these claimed ‘facts’ were made by a user named ‘Stephencolbert.’ Thus, many believe Colbert himself vandalized several Wikipedia pages at the time he was encouraging other users to do the same. The account, whether it was Stephen Colbert himself or someone posing as him, has been blocked from Wikipedia indefinitely. Wikipedia blocked the account not for the vandalism (as believed), but for violating its username policies, which state that using the names of celebrities as login names without permission is inappropriate.

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