Art Plus Feminism’s edit-a-thon organizers assert that their intentions are good. In a message sent to Kraut and Tea after he began research for his article and videos about their endeavor, a representative of the organization wrote to him that no bias is included in the edit-a-thon’s goals.
They claim that articles added during the event will be free of ideological leaning, and they cite Wikipedia’s editing and oversight process as insurance against stray partisanship. Why would a group claiming to be impartial need to also promise that the site’s rules would protect it from biased editing? Perhaps it’s because the ideological dogmatism Kraut uncovered is not so easy to abandon that a fail-safe to prevent the promotion of ideals on the site is unneeded. After all, this is a group that doesn’t see rating the notability of individuals based on gender and skin color as a bias. Can they be expected to oversee themselves?
There’s one other problem with their promise. Wikipedia’s claim to neutrality relies heavily on the assumption that well-intentioned editors will outnumber those with ulterior motives, and that an editor’s most prominent good intention will involve neutrality rather than spreading an ideology he or she considers benevolent. The site’s history contradicts that, showing that its editing process is quite vulnerable to the very issues we’re being promised Art Plus Feminism’s initiative won’t have.
Rules governing the selection and use of sources are expected to protect against ideological preferences. Unfortunately, some of Wikipedia’s own standards provide excuses for including and preserving not just an occasional slant, but outright falsehoods. One example of this is the question of Due and undue weight, which mandates excluding information, even if it is verifiable, if belief in it is sparse. The standard purports to exist to exclude false information. However, it can be used to exclude information which has been proved, but is not widely known, by labeling the information a viewpoint and treating popularity as evidence in favor of it.
A 2010 Chronicle.com article by Timothy Messer-Kruse, titled “The ‘undue weight’ of truth on Wikipedia” brought this issue to light. In the article, Professor Messer-Kruse detailed his experience attempting to correct a falsehood included in the Chicago Haymarket riot and trial of 1886, as a published expert on the subject. For his attempt at replacing a widely held misconception about the trial with documented facts, he was contradicted, referred to policy, and rudely scolded by gate-keeping editors citing the “undue weight” policy.
Another policy which can affect the effort to correct misinformation contained in wikipedia articles is the No Original Research standard. This standard determines that an editor can’t use self-directed research, such as self-published material or blog posts (except for the blogs of mainstream media outlets.) This policy can be used to eliminate factual information which does not suit the mainstream media’s bias enough to get published. Interestingly, there is no admonition to refrain from using mainstream media sources which cite original research as their only source.
Untested claims from a blog post can be made credible to wikipedia’s system by publishing them in a mainstream media article. A book published by an established house can cite research conclusions which are not credible due to bad methodology, but which has been rubber-stamped by sympathetic peers and be considered a more reliable source than a self-published book based on research with iron-clad methodology and verified replication. An opinion expressed in an editorial article about an individual could be considered a more credible source of information about the person’s beliefs than his or her own statements of belief. This can make editing a confusing and contentious process. For example, who stole Christina Hoff Sommers’s right to self-identify?
This standard is tantamount to another logical fallacy; Ad Verecundiam, aka argument from authority, or appeal to authority, and a lousy one at that, as it does not even appeal to expertise or experience, but merely establishment as a successful marketer of packaged information.
To make matters worse, a reliance on consensus to handle disputes over whether an article is in compliance with or violation of Wikipedia’s rules undermines their effectiveness. The consensus rule allows ideological cliques among the site’s editors to, using their own interpretation of its rules on determining source reliability, exclude any information which conflicts with their own viewpoint. Arbitration by higher ranking editors can be requested, but this, too, is fraught with potential for bias.
This process is so popularity and tenure-driven that Encyclopedia Dramatica ridicules it by likening it to a massive multiplayer online role playing game in which editors progress to higher levels by trolling each other with article vandalism, drama creation, policy lawyering, and social climbing. A look at how attitudes displayed by those involved in the discipline process where rule-breaking and disputes are concerned can destroy an editor’s ability to cooperate with the process shows this to be more accurate than humorous.
Messer-Kruse’s ordeal is revisited in a BGSU News article, Wikipedia article sparks national debate, in which he is quoted describing Wikipedia editors’ gatekeeping behavior:
“It’s interesting how Wikipedia is starting to understand more about academic culture,” Messer-Kruse explained. “The editors were faulting me for not being persistent enough in making the changes. But when I first started trying, I got into a bit of an argument with the editor to the point where he considered my changes vandalism, so I was deterred. In the academic world you are peer-reviewed and then move on; in their world they expected me to keep bashing my head against a wall. It was a real eye-opener.”
It was not until the professor and chair of ethnic studies wrote his article for Chronicle.com, and it was picked up and shared by additional outlets, that Wikipedia’s editors began updating the article. While that is in line with Wikipedia’s Ad Populum school of analyzing credibility, its implications are disturbing.
If it takes that degree of public exposure to force gatekeepers on the site to replace a common misconception with proven facts presented by a credentialed expert, what happens when an editor without such a public platform has to face them?
A 2012 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Collective Intelligence and Neutral Point of VIew: The Case of Wikipedia, found that out of ten years of U.S. political articles analyzed by researchers, most were biased in one direction or the other. Their findings contradicted the claim on Wikipedia’s Oversight and Control page that “group learning” among a large number of well-intentioned editors protects the site against widespread bias. The report states that bias exists in these articles “partly from a vintage effect, partly from the skewed attention of contributors, and partly because of the topic.” This bias isn’t as well handled by the site’s oversight process, either, as the report explains: “The majority of articles receive little attention, and most articles change only mildly from their initial slant.
Various sites have noted the Wikipedia’s political leaning, one of the most critical being Conservapedia, a site created to counter liberal bias on Wikipedia, though it is admittedly (by its own name) biased in the opposite direction.
Conservapedia has compiled a long, heavily sourced list of Wikipedia articles with a purported liberal slant.
Another site, Wikipediabias.com, tracks instances not necessarily limited to a left-leaning slant.
Subscribers to reddit.com’s /r/KotakuInAction noted unique bias on Wikipedia’s Gamergate controversy article, much of which was in violation of the site’s own editing oversight policies.
The Independent noted in 2007 that numerous organizations have, in the past, sought out and exploited site vulnerabilities to editing bias.
After the introduction of software which discovered that behavior, The Register noted in its own article on issues with the site that a flaw in the software limited its usefulness to only catching edits by contributors using an IP address instead of a registered account.
In a published response to a dispute over a correction request by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, christian news site World News Daily demonstrated somewhat greater ability to fact check than he expected. She cited a wikipedia article that backed her claim, eliciting an admission from Mr. Wales that there are errors on the site. It’s kind of sad when the site’s founder has to point out errors in the site’s articles about his own endeavors in order to defend himself against criticism.
Wikipedia’s combination of vulnerabilities are a perfect formula for a credibility disaster. The site is purported to be a source for verified information. However, these issues can easily turn it into a propaganda machine run by whichever group is most willing to dedicate itself to taking it over. In a way, doing so rather like a blunt-force attack, except instead of stealing passwords, it’s about stealing control of the oversight and arbitration processes, thereby becoming content gatekeepers. Since that starts with building an editing history, any mass-editing initiative is suspect. One led by people so entrenched in their ideology that the cannot even acknowledge their own bias is even more so.
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