Controversy and Wikipedia

This is the fourth in my series of posts about Wikipedia. I began with an overview and introduction, then wrote about Wikipedia and expertise. In my last post I discussed Wikipedia and universities.

Today I’ll look at some criticisms of the site. Some of the entries are themselves controversial: this PDF offers a “multilingual and geographical” analysis of the most disputed entries by looking at “edit wars,” situations in which editors change and revert each other’s edits to express different opinions on a topic. And because any one can edit it, the site is open to wiki-vandalism, a topic Nicholson Baker humorously discussed in NYRB. These site-specific disputes is interesting, but not the kind of controversy I mean.

Instead, I want to call attention to some ways in which Wikipedia has clashed with broad cultural values. An entire organization — Wikipediocracy — exists to, their website claims,

shine the light of scrutiny into the dark crevices of Wikipedia and its related projects; to examine the corruption there, along with its structural flaws; and to inoculate the unsuspecting public against the torrent of misinformation, defamation, and general nonsense that issues forth from one of the world’s most frequently visited websites.

It’s that last adjectival phrase, “word’s most frequently visited,” that causes all the fuss. Because Wikipedia is popular, it draws criticism from a range of directions. In this post I’ll discuss the site’s gender bias, the problems with entries about living persons (including “revenge editing” and fake identities) and whether a blog counts as evidence. Though I mention some instances from a few years ago, most of these “clashes” are from the last six months or so (a lot happened in April and May 2013).

As always, feedback is welcome: if you know of something even tangentially related to Wikipedia, especially if it would be of interest to undergraduates, please let me know!

Wikipedia’s Gender Bias

In April 2013, novelist Amanda Filipacchi published an op ed in the New York Times after she noticed that the Wikipedia page for “American Novelists” was being purged of all the women writers, who were being migrated to a separate (but of course not equal) page, “American Women Novelists.” The event sparked something of a firestorm, as it brought attention to a particularly egregious example of Wikipedia’s gender bias. This wasn’t the first time this bias was mentioned, or even the first time the New York Times had written about it. Back in 2011 Noam Cohen wrote about a survey showing only 13% of Wikipedia contributors are women. Things actually got worse by 2012, when 9 out of 10 Wikipedians continued to be male.

One could provide any number of discrepancies in coverage that result from this gender divide: Cohen gives the example of Mexican feminist writers (a category with 5 entries when he wrote; 8 as of 8/1/2013) vs. 45 pages about characters from The Simpsons. Nathalie Collida and Andreas Kolbe wrote a comprehensive response to the Filipacchi incident for Wikipediocracy, providing even more examples. And Claire Potter, in a well-titled Chronicle article, Prikipedia? Or, Looking for the Women on Wikipedia, puts the encyclopedia in the context of other online happenings, like facebook (women Facebook Gender Discriminationovertook men in 2009) or Twitter (more women, as of 2012) or Digital Humanities (roughly equally split), and wonders why Wikipedia hasn’t caught up.

Potter mentions Sarah Stierch, who in 2012 organized “She blinded me with science”, a Wikipedia meet-up to improve the coverage of women scientists. Following Filipacchi’s op-ed a number of people mobilized to put together similar events. At HASTAC Adrianne Wadewitz wrote about the need for academics to address the gender gap, and edit-a-thons were organized under Twitter hashtags like #tooFEW and #GWWI (Global Women Wikipedia Write-In), and promoted in the Chronicle. These projects are continuing.

Wikipedia and Living Persons

One thing that distinguishes Wikipedia from other encyclopedias is its coverage of living persons. It has the advantage of speed: in February I posted about the speed at which Daniel Day-Lewis’s page was updated after he won the Best Picture Oscar. But there are costs. Back in 2005, retired journalist John Seigenthaler complained in USA Today that his Wikipedia page erroneously linked him to the Kennedy assassinations. Presumably this was somebody’s idea of a joke, but the “fact” was up there for several months. And in 2012 Philip Roth wrote an open letter to Wikipedia in the New Yorker, in which he chronicled his experience trying to correct an error in his Wikipedia page: because the site requires “secondary sources” and prohibits people from editing their own page, Roth needed a citable source to clear things up (hence the letter).

The Seigenthaler affair notwithstanding, these are minor events, perhaps even humorous. Ira Matetsky, a New York City lawyer who’s also a Wikipedia administrator and member of the arbitration committee, explores more troubling terrain in a series of posts for The Volokh Conspiracy, a group blog written mostly by law professors. Matetsky writes insightfully about the “biography problem,” especially as it relates to the privacy of non-public persons. He gives the example of a 13-year old boy who had been kidnapped and tortured: Wikipedia briefly included personal details in an entry about the victim (whose name still appears in a Wikipedia entry about the criminal). This is a particularly disturbing example, but it’s not without precedent. It’s not the very public figures who have to worry about their Wikipedia pages — people like Barack Obama and George W. Bush have Wikipedians from all sides continually watching their pages. It’s the “somewhat notable,” whose pages might be visited only rarely, who should worry, since errors (or slander, or just unwanted invasions of privacy) are less likely to be noticed and fixed. Matetsky discusses some of the Wikipedia policies implemented to fight such battles, including flagged and protected or semi-protected articles.

Revenge Editing

Closely related to these issues is a practice for which Wikipedia has its own lingo: “revenge editing,” the altering of another person’s entry just out of spite. This practice got national press after Amanda Filipacchi’s Wikipedia page was vandalized following her New York 085-RevengeTimes article (see above). Andrew Leonard responded, claiming that Wikipedia’s lust for revenge was maybe even a bigger problem than it’s sexism. If you’ve got some time, read Leonard’s follow-up Salon article about this practice, and especially about the Wikipedia editor “Qworty,” who is probably novelist Robert Clark Young. Leonard gets some help from Wikipediocracy, and the story he tells really is wonderful, and raises some serious questions about how the real world interacts with Wikipedia. In its publicity, the “Qworty” episode recalls an earlier Wikipedia controversy, which gained public attention after Stacy Schiff’s 2006 New Yorker article. A user calling himself “Essjay” claimed in his Wikipedia profile to be tenured professor of religion. He rose high in the Wikipedia ranks, becoming a member of the arbitration committee and a paid employee of Wikia. He turned out to be a 24-year old community college dropout with no qualifications. Whether claims about credentials matter to an encyclopedia anyone can edit depends a lot on your point of view (see my previous post about expertise), but it certainly raised questions of honesty and integrity. An editor’s note was added to Schiff’s article (in the print version, it appeared in the section The Mail), the fallout was covered in the New York Times, and Wikipedia devotes a rather detailed entry to the whole affair.

What Counts as Evidence?

In June 2012, Benjamin Wittes and Stephanie Leutert, who maintain the Lawfare blog, tried improving the Wikipedia entry for “lawfare.” They cited the blog, but their edits were removed within minutes. The editors claimed that an unedited blog was not a reliable source, a claim which may or may not be consistent with Wikipedia’s guidelines. These anonymous Wikipedians maintained that if Wittes and Leutert’s entries were so important, they would be published somewhere else, not just on a blog. On the face of it this is not an unreasonable assumption, but Wittes and Leutert argue that such a policy seems increasingly outdated and, ironically, inimical to our current digital, global environment — the very environment that allows for Wikipedia in the first place. They conclude their article in Harvard Law School’s National Security Journal,

Wikipedia, an experiment in new media that has succeeded beyond anyone’s imagination, is so prejudiced against new media … As publication outlets proliferate in an era of rapidly-developing communications technology, these policies—to the extent they are followed—all but guarantee that Wikipedia will fall behind the conversation.

As an intentional final twist, they made the same edits to Wikipedia’s “lawfare” page that they’d made before, but this time cited their own article in the Harvard journal. Other than a sentence in the lead paragraph (which gets its own section in the talk page, referring to Wittes and Leutert as “jilted bloggers”) the edits seem mostly removed.

The “lawfare” incident brings me full circle, to Mark Bernstein’s comments, which I mentioned in my first post. Bernstein begins with the Filipacchi affair, and laments the problem of revenge editing. But like Wittes and Leutert, he ultimately concludes that the major problem is structural, rather than purely cultural. And he’s pessimistic about the site’s future:

I think Wikipedia’s about over. To say, “some of this book’s footnotes are just links to Wikipedia articles” is universally understood to be withering. We don’t edit Wikipedia anymore. We don’t consult it for things that matter. It’s merely a good resource for finding odd facts no one cares much about.

This fall I’m teaching a course about Wikipedia, so I obviously care about it. But I’m an academic, and my scholarly interests are historical. Will Wikipedia perish, or survive merely as a relic of the first decade of the 21st century? Or will it continue to be one of the most important sites on the Internet?

What do you think?


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