Wikipedia Criticized After Years of Using the Wrong Man’s Picture to Depict a Serial Killer

Andreas Kolbe is a former co-editor-in-chief of The Signpost, an online newspaper for (English-language) Wikipedia that’s been published online since 2005 with contributions from Wikipedia editors. Kolbe has been contributing to it since 2006.

Last week he returned to the Signpost to share a cautionary tale. Its title? “A photo on Wikipedia can ruin your life.”

Also a long-time Slashdot reader, Andreas Kolbe shares this summary with us: For more than two years, Wikipedia illustrated its article on New York serial killer Nathaniel White with the police photo of an African-American man from Florida who happened to have the same name. A Wikipedia user said he had found the picture on, a “true crime” site associated with the Discovery Channel, which also used the same photo in a TV broadcast on the serial killer.

During the two-and-a-half years the Wikipedia article showed the picture of the wrong man, it was viewed over 125,000 times, including nearly 12,000 times on the day the TV program ran. The man whose picture was used said he received threats to his person from people who assumed he really was the killer, and took to dressing incognito.

His picture is now all over Google when people search for the serial killer.
“Friends and family contacted Plaintiff concerning the broadcast and asking Plaintiff if he actually murdered people in the state of New York,” adds a legal complaint the man eventually filed against the Wikimedia Foundation. “Plaintiff assured these friends and family that even though he acknowledged his criminal past, he never murdered anyone nor has he ever been to the state of New York….”

Last month the legal director of the Wikimedia Foundation and a Legal Fellow co-authored a blog post pointing out the lawsuit “was filed months after Wikipedia editors proactively corrected the error at issue in September 2020.” The blog post celebrates a judge’s dismissal of the suit as “a victory for free knowledge,” and acknowledges the protections afforded by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. “Our ability to maintain and grow the world’s largest repository of free knowledge depends on robust legal immunity…. The Wikimedia Foundation applauds this ruling and remains committed to protecting global exchange of knowledge and freedom of expression across the internet.”

But the blog post also argued that “the many members of our volunteer community are very effective at identifying and removing these inaccuracies when they do occur.” Andreas Kolbe disagrees. “The photo was in the article for over two years,” Kolbe writes on Signpost. “For a man to have his face presented to the world as that of a serial killer on a top-20 website, for such a significant amount of time, can hardly be described as indicative of ‘very effective’ quality control on the part of the community.”
The picture was only removed after a press report pointed out that Wikipedia had the wrong picture. This means the deletion was in all likelihood reactive rather than “proactive”…

The wrong photograph appears to have been removed by an unknown member of the public, an IP address that had never edited before and has not edited since. The volunteer community seems to have been completely unaware of the problem throughout…

It would seem more appropriate –

– to acknowledge that community processes failed Mr. White to a quite egregious degree, and
– to alert the community to the fact that its quality control processes are in need of improvement….

Surely Wikipedia’s guidelines, policies and community practices for sourcing images, in particular images used to imply responsibility for specific crimes, would benefit from some strengthening, to ensure they actually depict the correct individual.
Pondering the dismissal of the lawsuit, Kolbe ultimately asks if there’s a deeper moral question in a world where a man was “defamed on our global top-20 website with absolute impunity, without his having any realistic hope of redress for what happened to him.” While to the best of my belief the error did not originate in Wikipedia, but was imported into Wikipedia from an unreliable external site, for more than two years any vigilante Googling Nathaniel White serial killer would have seen Mr. White’s color picture prominently displayed in Google’s knowledge graph panel (multiple copies of it still appear there at the time of writing). And along with it they would have found a prominent link to the serial killer’s Wikipedia biography, again featuring Mr. White’s image — providing what looked like encyclopedic confirmation that Mr. White of Florida was indeed guilty of sickening crimes…

On the very day the picture was removed from the article here, a video about the serial killer was uploaded to YouTube — complete with Mr. White’s picture, citing Wikipedia. At the time of writing, the video’s title page with Mr. White’s color picture is the top Google image result in searches for the serial killer. All in all, seven of Google’s top-fifteen image search results for Nathaniel White serial killer today feature Mr. White’s image. Only two black-and-white photos show what seems to have been the real killer.
A comment on the Wikimedia Foundation blog adds, “What I’d much rather see is an acknowledgement that the community process failed Mr White to an extreme degree and that steps will be taken to prevent recurrence of such cases.”