Putting the Genie Back in the Bottle: On How to Correct a Widely Distributed Error on the Internet

A blog post recently appeared (http://arc-medieval.blogspot.com/2015/03/getting-words-out-and-back-in-what-to.html, 1 March 2015) summarizing an effort to correct the identification of a medieval image that had become widely distributed on the Internet. The image, showing a miniature from a medieval manuscript held by the British Library (BL) and distributed by the BL's own "Images Online" site, was mislabeled by the BL as an image depicting victims of the Black Death (i.e., plague). In fact, the image had nothing to do with plague, a fact abundantly apparent from the Latin text that surrounded the image in its original manuscript context. Rather, the image was meant to depict sufferers from leprosy, a chronic condition at the heart of the text's discussion of what interventions should take place when a cleric was chronically ill and could no longer fulfill the functions of his office.
The error was described in detail in a study that appeared in December 2014 (https://www.academia.edu/9657724/_Diagnosis_of_a_Plague_Image_A_Digital_Cautionary_Tale_Th...). The recent blog post, authored by Lori Jones, a PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa, discusses the follow-up that she and Richard Nevell, an editor of Wikipedia, pursued to change the usage of the image--which had appeared on the "Black Death" page on Wikipedia since 2006--by various Internet users. Jones's blog shows that in fact it is possible to get the genie back in the bottle. While Nevell corrected (or removed) the image's labelling on various Wikipedia sites, Jones notified various entities that had used the mislabeled image of the error. Jones documents in this blog posting a remarkable level of success, in less than 3 months, in getting people to take the image down or, at the very least, acknowledge that the episode could work as a valuable "teachable moment."
There are no doubt many other instances of mislabeled images relating to science and medicine that are now floating on the Internet free of any context that might correct or preclude misinterpretation. This blog posting can serve as an excellent resource in the classroom to educate students about the effects of the Internet on scholarship, but also the Internet's plasticity (if its inner workings are understood properly) in correcting its errors.
The BL, by the way, corrected its own labeling of the image in December and tweeted an announcement to its followers in January 2015.
Monica Green
Professor of History
School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies
Box 874302
975 S Myrtle Ave
Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ  85287-4302
"Genetics as a Historicist Discipline: A New Player in Disease History” - http://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/december-20...
Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World:  Rethinking the Black Death - inaugural issue of The Medieval Globe (published 21 November 2014), http://scholarworks.wmich.edu/medieval_globe/1/