“The section title “Chemistry in cloud droplets” was changed to 'blowjobs”. Photo: Wikipedia.
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Wikipedia is corrupting science with blowjobs and elves, scientists warn

Wikipedia, with its network of citizen editors, can be vulnerable to inaccuracies – but is it really so much worse than peer-reviewed journals? 

Dr Gene E Likens is a pretty important American scientist. He was one of a small group of researchers who first brought acid rain to public attention back in the 1970s, and since then has won a slew of accolades, including a National Medal of Science. 

These days, though, Dr Likens is less concerned with science than he is with the anonymous editors who present science to the world on Wikipedia, the world's biggest online encyclopedia. Since 2003, Likens has closely (you might even say obsessively) monitored the Wikipedia page for acid rain. He noticed that there were “near daily edits” on the page, which, he claims, sometimes amounted to “egregious errors” and “distortion” of scientific fact. 

Now, along with co-author Adam M Wilson, Likens has released a paper which analyses a decade's worth of edits to seven scientific Wikipedia pages. The paper claims to show that politically controversial topics like evolution and climate change are subject to far more changes than other, less hot-button issues. The global warming page, for example, was edited around twice a day on average by around 100 words, while a page on particle physics was edited around 0.2 times a day, by around 10 words. 

The authors conclude that this “volatility” of the entries is dangerous and misleading, since it relies on other editors spotting the mistakes and changing them:

The high rate of change observed in these pages makes it difficult for experts to monitor accuracy and contribute time-consuming corrections, to the possible detriment of scientific accuracy. As our society turns to Wikipedia as a primary source of scientific information, it is vital we read it critically and with the understanding that the content is dynamic and vulnerable to vandalism and other shenanigans.

In the paper, the pair present a catalogue of the changes made to the acid rain page over the course of just a few days in November 2011, and their annoyance is palpable: 

...an anonymous editor removed the introductory paragraph which defined acid rain and replaced it with a statement calling acid rain “a load of bullshit.” This change was quickly reverted, but the next day the paragraph was again deleted and replaced by “Acid rain is a popular term referring to the deposition of wet poo and cats.” Five minutes later this edit was reverted and repeated again, and then reverted again... 

Another sentence was changed from “During the 1990s, research continued.” to “During the 1990s, research on elfs continued,” which remained for over seven hours. Later that day the sentence "AciD Rain [sic] killed bugs bunny” was briefly added. Fifteen minutes later the section title “Chemistry in cloud droplets” was changed to “Blowjobs.”

Yet while the insertion of elves and Bugs Bunny into your life's work is no doubt irritating, the paper fails to prove that any more serious edits, like long-term substitution of facts for believeable falsehoods, is actually taking place on Wikipedia. One commenter on the journal article notes that "the authors seem to falsely correlate the number of changes to an article and the veracity of those changes” – the researchers assume that all changes are, by their nature, inaccurate and negative. But the pages with more changes are also areas of constant research. It's understandable that as the field of climate change develops, its Wikipedia page would too. 

Wikipedia allows anyone, regardless of their training, to submit pages and changes, but this is both a weakness and strength, as any change you make will be seen by thousands of other readers within a few days, and the site's editing policy is structured to make sure that the "better" information, linked to a reliable source, should usually win out. The policy also notes that "libel, nonsense, hoaxes, and vandalism should be completely removed", which should cover every edit to the acid rain page quoted in Likens and Wilson's paper. Meanwhile, more contentious edits - like a bias in the article, or changes to major facts - result in the page being marked as "under discussion", so it's clear to readers that the content may not be totally reliable. Likens and Wilson's focus is on the edits, not on the fact that within a day or two, all were removed. 

The authors' division of topics into "political" and "non political" is also worth examining: the pages with more changes are also viewed by a lot more people than those which are changed less often. Global warming, for example, has around 15,000 views and an average of 1.9 edits per day. Heliocentrism (the model which claims that planets orbit the sun) has around 1,000 views and 0.2 edits a day. This correlation isn't examined in the paper, despite the fact it appeared in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. One gets the feeling that on Wikipedia - which is, in essence, an enormous peer-reviewed resource - other scientists or statisticians would have noticed this oversight and explored it further over time.

The Wikimedia Foundation (the nonprofit behind Wikipedia) has released a statement on the study on its blog. This is an excerpt: 

It didn’t surprise us to learn that articles considered to be controversial are frequently edited. The nature of controversy, after all, is that it generates discussion and public attention. For example, while the properties of water (H2O) have been well established, the causes of the Arctic sea ice decline are the subject of ongoing scientific inquiry and political debate.

Unfortunately, the study also jumped to conclusions about what this means for Wikipedia’s reliability, overstating findings and inferring facts not in evidence. Much of the press about the study has repeated the assertion that controversial articles are also more likely to be inaccurate, despite a lack of strong supporting evidence: the study only references a handful of anecdotal examples of inaccuracies. Instead, the study simply seems to confirm that the articles chosen as controversial are, in fact, controversial and thus frequently edited. "

The post also notes that other studies have found a correlation between the number of edits and the quality of the article, which suggests that, contrary to Likens and Wilson's findings, more edits lead to a more accurate piece. 

As a result, while pages on Wikipedia might be less wholly accurate in the moment, they evolve towards accuracy in a way that even prestigious scientific studies cannot. Wikipedia's editing policy notes that "even the best articles should never be considered complete". Perhaps scientists should acknowledge the same about their own fields of study. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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"It's just a prank, bro": inside YouTube’s most twisted genre

Despite endless headlines and media scrutiny, catchphrases such as "it was a social experiment" and "block the haters" have allowed YouTube's dangerous pranking culture to continue unregulated. 

A year and five months after the worst prank video ever was uploaded to the internet, its crown has been usurped. In November 2015, YouTuber Sam Pepper made headlines after he filmed a video entitled “KILLING BEST FRIEND PRANK”. In the video, Pepper kidnaps a man before forcing him to watch his friend be “murdered” by a masked figure. Rocking on the chair he has been tied to, the victim sobs and shouts: “We’re just kids”.

Last week, an actual child – aged nine – was victim to a similarly distressing “prank”. Michael and Heather Martin, of the YouTube channel DaddyOFive, poured disappearing ink on to their son Cody’s carpet before – in Heather’s words – “flipping out” on the child.

“What the fuck did you do,” yells Heather to summon Cody to his room. “I swear to God I didn’t do that,” screams and cries Cody as his parents verbally berate him. His face goes red; he falls to his knees.

You won’t find either of these videos on either of their creators’ channels today. After considerable backlash, Pepper deleted his video and DaddyOFive have now made all of their videos (bar one) private. The Martins have faced international scrutiny after being called out by prominent YouTuber Philip DeFranco, who collated a video of clips in which Cody is “pranked” by his family. In one, Cody appears to be pushed face-first into a bookcase by his father. In another, a visibly distressed Cody sobs while his father says: “It’s just a prank bro.”

These five words have been used to justify some of the most heinous pranks in YouTube history. Sam Pepper famously called a video in which he pinched the bottoms of unsuspecting women, a “social experiment”. Usually, though, creators’ excuses follow a pattern. “It was just a prank,” they say. Then, if the heat doesn't subside: “Actually, it was fake.”

Three months after his “KILLING BEST FRIEND” prank, Pepper claimed the video – and all of his other prank videos – were staged. In a video entitled “Family Destroyed Over False Aquisations [sic]” the Martins have now also claimed that their videos are scripted. “We act them out,” says Michael. It seems many on the internet remain sceptical. The Child Protection Services website for Maryland – where the Martins live – has crashed after Redditors encouraged one another to report the family. If the Martins’ videos are indeed staged, Cody is one of the shining child actors of our time.

Though the Martins might yet face severe consequences for their pranks, it wouldn’t be surprising if they didn’t.  The “Just a prank”/“No it’s fake” cycle means that despite multiple headline-grabbing backlashes, YouTube pranking culture continues to thrive. Boyfriends pretend to throw their girlfriend’s cats out windows; fathers pretend to mothers that their sons have died. YouTubers deliberately step on strangers' feet in order to provoke fights. Sometimes, yes, pranksters are arrested for faking robberies, but in the meantime their subscribers continue to grow in their millions.

At present, there is no regulatory body that examines YouTube. Pranksters who break the law are arrested, but children whose daily lives are filmed for the site are not protected by the same regulations that safeguard child actors from being overworked or exploited. Though the communications authority Ofcom has guidelines about wind-up calls and consent, it does not regulate YouTube. The BBC were famously fined £150,000 by the body after Russell Brand and Jonathon Ross prank called Andrew Sachs, yet internet pranks remain out of its jurisdiction.

Though YouTube removes videos that breach its “Community Guidelines”, it seems illogical that we trust the service to police itself. Since the invention of the radio, we have assumed that independent bodies are needed to scrutinise the media – so why you should the largest video-sharing platform on the planet be exempt? No one is truly looking out for either the pranking victims or the children of YouTube. God forbid, like Cody, if you are both.

It is also arguable that YouTube pranks need more regulation than those broadcast on TV. Britain’s favourite pranking shows revolve around humiliating comedians themselves – Trigger Happy TV, Balls of Steel, Jackass – or are very soft (think a man pretending to be both a mime and a policeman) in nature. When someone is outright humiliated on TV, it’s because they are seen to be “fair game”, such as in Comedy Central’s Fameless Prankers, where people desperate to be famous are forced into increasingly humiliating situations. On YouTube, there are no consent forms or waivers to ensure filming remains ethical, and YouTube pranksters often target more vulnerable people.

“There’s an element of power here with the parents and it seems this is very top-down,” says Jonathan Wynn, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts who has written on pranks in the past. Wynn explains that traditionally pranks mock status and hierarchy, such as when court jesters taunted kings. When pranks come from the top down, Wynn says they allow a group to bond emotionally – arguably something the Martins are attempting as a family. Nonetheless, Wynn notes this would work better if the children also pranked their parents equally. “In this case the status differential is quite high, when you have children and parents.”

Traditionally, the mainstream media has had little room for this type of content. In 2012, two radio DJs attempted to prank the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton by calling the hospital she was staying at, but instead tricked two nurses. When one of these nurses, Jacintha Saldanha, died by suicide days later, the episode seemed the ultimate illustration of the recklessness of pranks that “punch down”.

Conversely, status differentials are a large part of YouTube prank culture. Rather than attacking people in power, YouTube pranks are often played by those in power (the YouTube famous) on those who have lower social status. Frequently, boyfriends prank girlfriends, for example, and since 2014, white pranksters have filmed “in the hood” pranks provoking young black men. In “The N Word Prank!!” famous internet prankster Roman Atwood goes around saying “What’s up my neighbour” to people of colour, knowing that it will be misheard as a racial slur. In the context of this pranking culture, a parent pranking a child to the point of tears seems almost inevitable.

Perhaps, then, it is easy to understand why Michael and Heather Martin “prank” their children – it is harder to understand why anyone is watching. The DaddyOFive channel has over 750,000 subscribers, with over 7,000 of these subscribing after Philip DeFranco’s video accused the family of “abusing” their children. In order to defend themselves, the Martins initially employed another YouTube rhetoric, on top of “just a prank bro”. In a since deleted video, they invited their fans to “block the haters”.

This phrase is ingrained in online culture, and has allowed internet celebrities to dismiss criticism for years. By painting anyone who is critical as “jealous” or a “hater”, YouTubers can ensure their fans ignore their words and therefore stay loyal. In a video response to Philip DeFranco, the Martins riffed off a popular meme and placed spoons over their eyes to symbolise this mentality, and now fans as young as 12 are copying this action to show their support. When I search the hashtag used by the family’s supporters to see if anyone might be willing to explain why they still love the channel, I am faced with the reality that most of DaddyOFive’s fans are children. Though YouTube’s minimum sign-up age is 13, there is nothing really stopping children from watching – and normalising – harmful content, particularly when it is disguised as a “prank”.

In this context, it doesn’t matter in the slightest whether a prank is faked. Sam Pepper might have asked his friend's permission before he fake-kidnapped him, and perhaps Michael Martin was only pretending when he pushed his son into a bookcase. Neither of these facts will prevent children – 19 percent of whom have a desire to be famous – from copying these actions in order to promote their own YouTube channels. Even if a YouTuber is punished for a dangerous pranking video, there are thousands of other pranksters ready and willing to take their place. 

It remains to be seen whether the Martins will continue with their YouTube channel. At the end of their now infamous invisible ink prank, Michael asks Cody to “do the outro” – the concluding section of a YouTube video. Wiping his nose and still red in the face, Cody rattles off his script at alarming speed.“Thank you guys for watching this video if you like this video and want to see more videos like this one leave a comment down the section below and don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat… and don’t forget to… Like and Subscribe.” 

Since the backlash, Michael has added a new line into the “About” section of the DaddyOFive YouTube channel. After reiterating that the videos are fake, he writes: “no child was harmed in the making of our videos”. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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