Last night’s Colbert Report featured a THE WORD segment on Wikiality, a word they’ve coined for the phenomenon that beliefs can become “facts” if enough people believe in them. An example is the increase in the number of Americans who believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction during the last year from 36% to 50%, as shown by a recent Harris poll.
Back in the 1970’s, Norman Mailer coined the word factoid for the same purpose — to label a manufactured fact that becomes believed through prolonged public exposure.
Another example that Colbert gave is the idea that “Africa today has more elephants than it did ten years ago.” As far as I know, this factoid was invented just for the show. He suggested that his audience could make it so by editing Wikipedia articles. Which is just what some have done to the Wikipedia elephant page, at least until the Wikipedia Tawketbot noticed the unusual editing on 20 elephant related pages and administrators put them in protected status.
The intentional manipulation of consensus beliefs is not new — I’m sure it was discovered shortly after we developed language. I think that this suggests that the Web will help prevent the accidental or intentional creation of false beliefs. Wikipedia remains intact.