By PJ Tabit and Dominic McDevitt-Parks
Christina Aguilera made international headlines in February for erroneously singing a line about halfway through her performance of the American national anthem. And while one could have foreseen the wave of criticism that would follow, some media reports included a surprising myth—that Christina Aguilera’s flawed lyrics originated on Wikipedia.
Wikipedia has become a very high-profile project, even a cultural phenomenon, and at this point an introduction to navigating its page history is probably in order. You may be familiar with the idea of Wikipedia—but you may not be as familiar with how it works in practice. Using this specific example, let us explore some features of Wikipedia that could be used to fact-check the claim about Wikipedia’s role in her mistake.
Conveniently, every change made to every Wikipedia article is archived and can easily be accessed by clicking the “View history” tab at the top of the article. You will notice a list of edits presented in chronological order and accompanied by name of the author. This allows us to establish a timeline of when an article was created, when edits were made, and how long they lasted until they were removed. A typical line from a page history looks like this:
The “cur” link will show you the difference between that past version and the article’s live version highlighted in red, while the “prev” link will show the changes made in that edit, by comparing the revision with the previous one. The radio buttons allow one to compare changes made across several edits at once. Clicking the timestamp will display the content of the page as it appeared after that edit. Next, we see the username of the editor, which links to their userpage, along with links to their talk page and the history of their contributions. Finally, the comment which follows the page’s size in bytes is an “edit summary,” an optional description an editor may include with their edit so that people looking at page histories can easily see what change they made.
So what about that story that Christina Aguilera’s bungling of the national anthem at the Super Bowl was due to an erroneous edit to the lyrics in Wikipedia? As she performed for a Super Bowl audience of over 100 million viewers, Aguilera’s Wikipedia article saw a predictable uptick in edits, especially vandalism. If we wade through the page history to the version of the article prior to the Super Bowl (which occurred on February 6) you’ll notice that the lyrics are correctly represented.
Let’s move forward in time. With just a little sleuthing you will notice that the offending edit was made at 23:51 UTC on February 6, 2011. This means the change occurred at 5:51 p.m. CST, after Christina Aguilera had sung the Anthem. In fact, the page history also reveals that a reference to her rendition had already been added to the article before the lyrics were ever changed, and then removed because the incident was so new that there were no news sources to use for citations. The vandalism to the lyrics managed to remain for eight minutes before being removed, which is not a very wide window in which Aguilera could have read it even if it had occurred sometime before the Super Bowl.
While the now-infamous mistake was not inspired by Wikipedia, the fact that Wikipedia was ever implicated is something of a comedy of errors. First, Christina Aguilera sang the wrong lyrics; then an anonymous editor, either in jest or believing Aguilera’s version was correct, changed the article to reflect the singer’s view for only a few minutes; and finally, a reporter stumbled upon—or was tipped off to—this old version of the article.
As a result, people unfamiliar with Wikipedia may now believe that the website is to blame for the Super Bowl performance. Of course, one erroneous story alone will hardly ruin Wikipedia’s reputation, but it does serve as a reminder that Wikipedia can often become news. With nearly 200,000 edits per day, and more than 100 per minute, many of which are short-lived, it would behoove us all to know just a little bit more about the inner-workings of Wikipedia—especially when knowing those details might mean breaking a story, or debunking a false report.
To find out more about using page histories, please see Wikipedia’s help page on the subject and the essay “How to read an article history”.
PJ Tabit is a graduate student at The George Washington University in Washington, DC pursuing a Master’s in Public Policy (MPP). In addition, he is a research associate in the Government and Finance Division of the Congressional Research Service and a Campus Ambassador to two classes at Georgetown University.
Dominic McDevitt-Parks is a Campus Ambassador for an undergraduate public relations course at Simmons College, where he is also a student in the dual-degree history & archives management master’s program. He is also an editor and administrator for Wikipedia and Wiktionary. He is a graduate of Reed College and is currently interning at the USS Constitution Museum.