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Kennedy murder shames online cult

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On Tuesday afternoon, following a Washington luncheon celebrating the inauguration of President Barack Obama, longtime US Senators Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd kicked the proverbial bucket. At least, that's what happened in Wikiland. In our world, they're still among the living.

Ted Kennedy - diagnosed with a brain tumor last year - was rushed to the hospital on Tuesday, after suffering a seizure at Obama's post-inauguration lunch, and just before 3pm Eastern time, he turned up dead on "the encyclopedia anyone can edit" - the victim of an overzealous Wikifiddler.

Then, a few minutes later, 91-year-old Robert Byrd died his own Wikideath. He too left the luncheon early due to "a medical issue." But as with Kennedy, Wikireports of his death were greatly exaggerated.

This sort of Wikinonsense is nothing new. In recent months, the free encyclopedia murdered both Sinbad and Paul Reiser. But this time around, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy "Jimbo" Wales felt the need to take some action.

In the wake of the Kennedy-Byrd embarrassment, reported yesterday by The Washington Post, Jimbo ordered the site's IT staff to roll out a new Wikitool designed to mask encyclopedia "vandalism." With "Flagged Revisions," certain edits won't be shown to the public unless they're approved by "trusted editors."

Wikipedia admins already have the power to "protect" articles (i.e. lock them down to prevent edits entirely) and "semi-protect" them (prevent edits from editors without established accounts). But Wales sees Flagged Revisions as a more-nimble solution. "[The Kennedy-Byrd situation] would have been 100% prevented by Flagged Revisions," Wales wrote yesterday.

"It could also have been prevented by protection or semi-protection, but this is a prime example of why we don't want to protect or semi-protect articles - his was a breaking news story and we want people to be able to participate (so protection is out) and even to participate in good faith for the first time ever (so semi-protection is out)."

A Wikipoll recently approved Flagged Revisions, with 60 per cent of "the community" voting in favor of the new tool. Flags will make their debut on a trial basis, turning up on all articles that describe, yes, living persons.

Anyone can still edit these pages. But certain "trusted editors" will decide which edits are seen by the public at large. "The version shown to the public will not automatically be the most recent revision of the article," explains longtime admin David Yellope. "At least for some articles, only 'approved' revisions - those reviewed by administrators or trusted users - will be shown publicly."

This will spare Jimbo at least some embarrassment. But we all know that trusted Wikipedia editors can't always be trusted. "Yes, there's a chance that folks with a certain Point of View will use this to 'Flag' a revision that's pro their side," Yellope admits. But he says the Wikicommunity will quickly revoke flag rights if they're misused in any way.

So, if you're plotting a Wikikilling, you should get cracking. Flags will appear at any moment. ®

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