The original Stephen Colbert made Stephen Colbert’s job that much harder

Erstwhile right-wing pundit Stephen Colbert famously introduced us to the concept of Wikiality coming up on ten years ago. On the now-defunct The Colbert Report, he explained that — under the rules of Wikipedia — in order for something to be considered true,

all we need to do is convince a majority of people that some factoid is true. For instance: that Africa has more elephants today than it did ten years ago. Now, I don’t know if that’s actually true. . . The “Blame Ignorance First” crowd is going to say that something is either true or it isn’t, and it doesn’t matter how many people agree [but] if you go against what the majority of people perceive to be reality, you’re the one who’s crazy!

But not content to simply critique the nature of truth/iness on crowd-sourced sites like Wikipedia, Colbert took things one step farther when he exhorted Colbert Nation to

find the page on elephants on Wikipedia and create an entry that says the number of elephants has tripled in the last six months. It’s the least we can do to save this noble beast; together we can create a reality we all agree on: the reality we just agreed on.

Unsurprisingly, his viewers responded with some enthusiasm. Indeed, they not only edited the Wikipedia page on elephants, but the ones discussing “‘Loxodonta’, ‘African Forest Elephant’, ‘African Bush Elephant’, ‘Pachydermata’, ‘Babar the Elephant’, ‘White elephant (pachyderm)’, ‘Elephant’, Dumbo, ‘Oregon’, ‘Portugal’, ‘Idaho’, ‘George Washington’, ‘Latchkey kid’, ‘Serial killer’, ‘The Colbert Report’, ‘Stephen Colbert’, and ‘Stephen Colbert (character)’”, as well. Though — to be fair — that list may not be accurate, since I cribbed it from Wikipedia.

Except that, nowadays, if it’s on Wikipedia, it more than likely is. And there’s no better illustration of this shift than a brief segment that appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert just last Wednesday. Colbert opened his show by discussing the Ringling Brothers’ decision to remove elephants from under their big top:

Now, getting rid of elephants ends a  tradition that goes back a hundred and fifty years. Here’s what happened: There were a lot of surplus elephants after the Civil War. General Lee, of course, famously used them to cross the Smoky Mountains and surprise McClellan at the second battle of Bull Run. Check your history books.

And then write in what I just said.

At the risk of stating the obvious, history books are peanuts compared to Wikipedia. Sure, their authors — or, more accurately, the Texas Board of Education — can print whatever they want, but scribbled changes thereafter tend to be somewhat conspicuous. Colbert’s new instructions would do little more than reduce the resale value of some textbook.

But that was it. On to the next subject. Yes, Colbert made up some stuff about elephants — well-trampled territory for him. But the contrast with his first foray into editing history is striking: No invocation of Wikiality. Not even passing mention of Wikipedia. Colbert seems to have moved on entirely from his former target.

And the reason for this shift is partly Colbert’s own doing. You see, sparked in part by his original elephantine prank ten years ago, Wikipedia was forced to make some changes:

In the end, [Colbert’s] wonderfully clever piece of participatory social commentary sparked a response from Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s co-founder and figurehead-in-chief. At the 2006 Wikimania[, he] signaled a shift in the site’s priorities, saying the community would put a greater emphasis on the quality of its articles, as opposed to the quantity. . . The site’s administrators redoubled efforts to stop site vandalism, to prevent the kind of “truthiness” Colbert had satirized. . . Volunteers policed pages with a greater vigor and, generally speaking, became more wary of anyone who wasn’t already a part of the community. The article on elephants is still “protected” from unknown editors.

Trying to sneak more ele’facts’ past Wikipedia’s now-vigilant editors is a losing effort. In short, Colbert had a small trunk in shaping history — just not the arbiter of history upon whom he originally unleashed his minions. And so modern-day Colbert, deprived of the easy target by his very own alter ego, was left with two real options. He could ignore the steps Wikipedia took to clean up its operation, and — all Wikiality-like — pretend it remains just as susceptible to falsification as ever. Or he could poke at the soft underbelly of factual transmission with a pointy spear. The former option is certainly more interesting, but to his credit, the latter (and more honest) path is the one Colbert ultimately chose.

He may not have explicitly credited himself where it’s due, and the latter-day segment may have felt superficial compared to his treatment of the subject nearly a full decade ago, but Colbert’s decision to pick on dusty textbooks this time around spoke volumes.

There actually is a mildly interesting history of elephants during the American Civil War, which you are welcome to read about here, provided you note Abraham Lincoln was wrong that “our political jurisdiction, however, does not reach a latitude so low as to favor the multiplication of the elephant.” Though extinct by the age of Lincoln, elephants (and several dozen other species of large mammal) actually flourished in North America in the recent past, and some seek to one day restore their herds to the Great Plains.


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