CAMERA Column: The Wild West of Wikipedia

The following CAMERA column was published in several newspapers nationwide.

The Wild West of Wikipedia

“Part anarchy, part mob rule” might seem like a description of the American frontier in the days of the Wild West, but it’s actually a reference to today’s internet frontier. It’s how Larry Sanger describes Wikipedia, the hugely popular online encyclopedia that, to the dismay of teachers everywhere, is used as an educational tool by millions worldwide.

Sanger isn’t just a casual observer. He was a co-founder of Wikipedia, making him perhaps the best authority on the Web site and its shortcomings. He explains that in the world of Wikipedia, “the people with the most influence in the community are the ones who have the most time on their hands — not necessarily the most knowledgeable — and who manipulate Wikipedia’s eminently gameable system.” He eventually left the project, blaming its “poisonous social or political atmosphere.”

The theory underpinning Wikipedia, as most know, is that anyone can be an “editor,” and add to articles whatever information (or misinformation) they want. Less well-known is that contributors can make changes anonymously, thus shielding them from any real consequences. This acceptance — or even embrace — of anonymity makes Wikipedia wilder than the west ever was, and ensures that it will probably never be as reliable as mainstream news sources.

Anonymity and accountability are simply not compatible. Disgraced New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, who brazenly violated the ethical principles of journalism by fabricating stories, has been held accountable. He will never work for a newspaper again. Other journalists know this, and so even those less committed to the canons of journalism tend to follow the rules to avoid such a fate. Anonymous editors of Wikipedia articles have no such concerns. Their jobs and reputations are secure, regardless of how much inaccurate information they add to the encyclopedia or how much they skew an article.

Even less understood about Wikipedia are the contentious behind-the-scenes arguments that help determine what information ends up in a Wikipedia entry and what is excluded. Editors with the most time and allies often dominate these discussions and create the impression of “consensus,” which Wikipedia holds sacred as a way to reach decisions about an article.

Wikipedia entries about the Middle East are among those most affected by anarchy, mob rule, and back-room bickering. Indeed, it’s in this setting that I, and my colleagues at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (CAMERA), set off a firestorm of discussion, accusation and recrimination centered around how the encyclopedia works. Convinced that directing more well-intentioned individuals to participate in the Wikipedia experiment could help offset the site’s problems, we sent a notice to our members calling for volunteers to learn about and edit Wikipedia’s often-skewed entries about the Middle East.

Dozens of volunteers responded, as did, it turns out, a friend of the anti-Israel activist Web site Electronic Intifada, who subsequently charged a conspiracy was afoot to “rewrite Palestinian history.”

This faux exposé set some Wikipedia “editors,” a number of whom have a clear history of pro-Palestinian editing, on a rampage of denunciation. In a witch-hunt like atmosphere, they attacked anyone they thought was involved in the group — now referred to as a “cabal” — and Wikipedia “administrators” banned a number of editors. (Wikipedia has very little central authority, meaning administrators — people elected to a position of power on Wikipedia — are basically editors with friends. Also anonymous, they often edit as problematically as other editors, or worse.) Tellingly, it was later revealed that one of the Wikipedia editors who led the attack is actually an employee of Electronic Intifada.

Nonetheless, many editors who hoped to ensure accuracy and balance on Wikipedia are now banned. Partisan editors, meanwhile, continue to freely manipulate Wikipedia articles to their liking. To cite just one example: An article about the Second Intifada — the recent years of Palestinian suicide bombings and other attacks against Israeli men, women and children — tells readers that “most people of the world” regard the violence as a “war of national liberation against foreign occupation,” while the view of the Intifada as a terrorist war is held only by “many Israelis.” Never mind that Wikipedia’s shoddily-enforced “rules” bar such unverifiable and dubious speculation. And never mind that it’s not just many Israelis, but also the U.S., E.U., Canada and others, who label Hamas and other Intifada protagonists as terrorists.

Other articles similarly misinform — there is “some very, very bad stuff,” says a former editor in chief of Encyclopedia Britannica — because Wikipedia is, unfortunately, an anarchic battleground on which the only real casualties are unsuspecting readers looking for a credible encyclopedia.

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