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December 13, 2005
Dear Kyra Phillips and CNN,
As someone who, for the past half year, has participated in an extensive run-in with Wikipedia and its administrators, I would like to make some remarks concerning the "Live From" segment of December 5th featuring an exchange between the journalist John Seigenthaler and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. A number of pronouncements made by Wales in the course of this exchange beg correction.
First of all, it should be noted that what befell Seigenthaler - that a Wikipedia article about him contained misinformation, disinformation, and gratuitous libel - is not an unusual occurrence, but happens on Wikipedia day in and day out. This is hardly surprising in an online venue whose very essence is that it permits anybody to make any statement he or she wants, and to gain for this statement an instant seal of "encyclopedic knowledge" and an automatic replication by hundreds, if not thousands, of online "mirror sites" hungry for word-rich texts that will increase their search-engine exposure. The standard argument among Wikipedia administrators is that misinformation is not a real problem, because anybody who spots any misinformation in the Wikipedia can simply correct it. This is perhaps a fine argument when it concerns unintentional errors made by contributors willing to accept corrections. It completely breaks down, however, in cases of ill-will, falsehoods that are being spread intentionally, topics that arouse strong controversy or outright hostility, etc. In such cases, attempts at factual correction tend to be quickly undone, the correcting contributor finds himself or herself in an "edit war", and the issue is decided purely on the basis of how persistent each side is and how much time and effort it is willing to waste on trying to keep the article, at least part of the time, in an accurate state.
Indeed, what is unusual about the Seigenthaler case is that Seigenthaler was able to get Wales to acknowledge that something was wrong and intervene by ordering the deletion of the offending article. This has to be attributed solely to the fact that Seigenthaler is a public figure who can command media attention. Thousands of other falsehoods, small and large, are published in Wikipedia daily and peddled as "encyclopedic knowledge", and Wales does not lift a finger to do anything about it. In fact, Wales doesn't acknowledge any responsibility on his part or on the part of the Wikipedia administration for what gets published, and distributed as "knowledge", on Wikipedia. This irresponsibility was manifested in the posture he assumed during the "Live From" program:
[...] And -- and, Jimmy, when you got this call from John, I -- I am assuming
it's not the first time you have had someone call you with concerns about
information that's on this site. What did you say to him about this information,
because, obviously, it wasn't true?
JIMMY WALES: Oh, yes.
Well, our response was immediately to delete it and start looking into it, and delete all the old revisions that had that information in it. We are just as upset as he is and feel that there's a -- there's a big problem with people, Internet service providers who aren't accountable. They -- they won't -- they won't do anything about malicious customers who abuse our service. So, we're left to defend ourselves as best we can.
The suggestion that "Internet service providers" should be accountable for the misinformation published by Wikipedia seems, at first blush, analogous to holding the postal service or the telephone companies accountable for falsehoods printed by the New York Times, because the Times originally received the false information via mail or telephone. Ah, but there is a difference. The difference is precisely that the New York Times admits to being a publisher, takes responsibility for what it prints, and can be held accountable for it, whereas Wales wants to present Wikipedia as merely the provider of a certain collection of means and tools that can be used for publishing.
This is probably the first time in history that we have an enterprise that portrays itself as an encyclopedia, a provider of knowledge - and cashes in on that image by getting moneys and other grants from educational institutions such as the Kennisnet Foundation, the Lounsbery Foundation or the John and Frances Beck Foundation, or from corporations like Yahoo that boost up their public image by donating to Wikipedia's ostensive "charitable cause" of spreading "knowledge" to the underprivileged - while, at the same time, it obtains its content (for free) through a tantalizing scheme whereby everybody with a modem and a computer, irrespective of competence, can come and publish - a scheme which permits this very same encyclopedia to portray itself as as a "public service" that may get "abused" by "malicious customers", but is not accountable for its own errors, falsehoods, manipulation of facts and intended misinformation. We can thus have a "knowledge-provider" who is not held responsible for reasonably protecting this knowledge from falsehood and abuse, and a provider of a free-for-all writing venue who gets away - and famously - with portraying itself as an "encyclopedia" - assuming the lofty airs of a noble disseminator of free knowledge to underprivileged humanity. Wales makes it sound as if Wikipedia was, in these respects, no different from other media or educational enterprises (one is tempted to ask: if Wikipedia is no different from Britannica or the New York Times, then who is responsible for Wikipedia's published features that appear unsigned, or signed by a pseudonym, other than the Editorial Board or its equivalent?):
PHILLIPS: Now, you do have a general disclaimer on the site. It says:
"Wikipedia cannot guarantee the validity of the information found here. None
of the authors, contributors, or anyone else connected with Wikipedia in
any way whatsoever can be responsible for the appearance of any inaccurate
or libelous information."
Now, you know, you see the word Wikipedia, so you think encyclopedia, and you think, "Oh, OK, this is valid, good information." But yet if you look at what happened to John, that's not the case. What are you doing to make sure this doesn't happen to people like John Seigenthaler, who has an incredible reputation and was far from associated to any type of assassination attempt on JFK?
WALES: Yes, John, he's really a hero to us, too, because he's done a lot of work for the First Amendment over the years, and that's one of the things that's so upsetting about this.
First of all, our disclaimer is really patterned after the disclaimers that you'll find on any Web site. If you go to Britannica and read their disclaimer, or "The New York Times" and read their disclaimer, it's a very standard type of disclaimer that you have on any Web site.
would like to hereby challenge Wales to point me to the actual page in the
Encyclopedia Britannica in which the Britannica explicitly disclaims responsibility
for its contents, or the page in the New York Times in which the Times disclaims
responsibility for printing libelous information.
And I would also like to challenge Wales on what he says next:
But what we're doing is, we're -- we've just today, we've actually changed
the site a little bit so that anonymous contributors aren't able to start
To those of your viewers who are unfamiliar with Wikipedia parlance and procedure, I would like to note that this is complete eyewash. In Wikipedia, the only difference between an "anonymous contributor" and a "non-anonymous" one is that the "non-anonymous" one logs in with a UserID and a password. But there is nothing non-anonymous about a Wikipedia UserID. Anybody can immediately get, and then use, any not-yet-taken ID they fancy, without providing any personal information that would make this ID traceable to a person. What is the supposed improvement between having contributors appear in the articles' history as "Evil Monkey" or "Grizzly", and having them appear under the IP number through which they were connected, such as 249.43.56.8? In fact, the "249.43.56.8" designation supplies considerably more information.
SEIGENTHALER: [...] What I do worry deeply about is the fact that during those five days, some vandals came online, contributed to that biography of encyclopedia, that biography of me, and it was -- I'll tell you, it was salacious, homophobic. It even took me from the position of being a suspected murder to being a murderer. And all of that can be found by any school child that knows how to work Wikipedia in the history today. It there. And you know...
PHILLIPS: ... Jimmy it sounds like such an abuse of power. I mean, where do you get the -- why not screen the individuals that contribute to this, or have some sort of controls of how this information is put together?
WALES: Well, what we do is, we lock pages that are particularly prominent. So we've got his page in particular, is on the watch list now, of dozens of really good editors.
because it's the page on Seigenthaler, and Seigenthaler wrote about it in
USA Today, which resulted in Wales instructing his editors to make sure that this particular page does not provoke any more ire on Seigenthaler's part. But there are many other pages whose falsehoods these "really good editors" don't care to correct or don't even notice - or, still worse, pages which they put on their watch lists solely in order to protect their own biased view of the topic from being corrected. Rampant abuse perpetrated by Wikipedia's administrators is a persistent topic of conversation both within Wikipedia and without. Amongst the administrators - who both nominate and vote for each other - it's considered a highly amusing joke.
The revisions he's concerned about have already been removed from the site.
They're not even in the history anymore. And of course the article is protected
right now since we're on television. Lots people would log on and try to
do some pranks at the moment. But generally we find most people out there
on the Internet are good. I mean, it's one of the wonderful humanitarian
discoveries in Wikipedia, is that most people only want to help us and bill
[build?] this free nonprofit, charitable
resource. And so the problems we have are relatively minor. And so locking
the entire site down doesn't seem like a solution.
Perhaps it will seem a bit pedantic to pick on this heart-warming declaration straight from the heart of Jimmy the Philantropist - after all, one is not supposed to count the teeth of a gift-horse, and Wales does present Wikipedia as a gift to humanity. But I can't help wondering about the exact details of Wales' "humanitarian discovery", and what relevance it has to the business of producing an encyclopedia. I wonder, for example: What percentage of the people on the Internet would Wales say are "good"? And what does he mean by "good"? There are obviously significant differences in the understanding of "good" between, say, Roman Catholics, Aryan Nation militiamen, animal-rights activists, and Seventh-Day Adventists. But I also wonder, more relevantly, of what exact good the "goodness" of this supposed majority is to the task of producing a decent encyclopedia. Is Wales saying that the majority of the "people out there on the Internet" contribute only to topics they actually are knowledgeable about, and do it with the kind of care and responsibility one would, perhaps in old fashion, associate with the editorial process of an encyclopedia? If he is, then I must say that my editorial experience in Wikipedia goes quite contrary to such a claim. In my experience, "most people out there" have no compunction about wantonly editing random articles with very little regard to facts, basic facts, let alone meaning or accuracy; moreover, even though "most" may not engage in such edits with persistence and an actual agenda, the number of those who do is sufficient to ultimately wear down any contributor who starts out wanting to create an accurate, cogent, informative, well-crafted entry. So I also have to disagree with Wales when he says:
WALES: Well, I mean, I think the real key is that the site matures over time, the -- all of the articles are edited over and over and over, and improved.
Yes, they may very well be edited over and over, but that does not necessarily imply they get improved. In fact, in my own experience, and in the experience of many commentators on the quality of Wikipedia articles, unless someone guards them like a hawk, and is always ready to jump in and perform repairs, the real tendency is not improvement but progressive deterioration. In a recent co-authored publication, I have argued that the degradation of information is systemic to the structure of Wikipedia.
WALES: Anyone's free to contribute. You're free to go and contribute. And we are very, very responsive to complaints and concerns.
Again, those whose name is not Seigenthaler have found anything but responsiveness to complaints and concerns.
WALES: All you have to do is click on the discussion page and add a note saying: hey, this isn't right, can you fix it? And a group of editors will look at it and make a change. I don't think that's something you can say for most public Internet forums.
I am sorry, but Wales is simply making this up. Yes, this is what happens in cases where someone has made a completely off-topic or obviously crazy edit. But it certainly does not happen in cases where the edit is motivated by an agenda that is shared, or viewed with approval, by at least some of the Wikipedia regulars and administrators. When I say "agenda", this may be anything from a linguistic idiosyncrasy, to a widely-shared misconception, to an all-out bias and ill-will toward the given topic. Whatever it is, one can discuss it till one is blue in the face, edit the article over and over again, try for days on end to "negotiate" a stable version (the very idea of a "negotiated" encyclopedia entry!), and even when it finally looks like a stable entry may have been achieved - in comes another would-be contributor, with or without an agenda, with or without a clue (more often without), and the whole merry "editorial process" begins again! It is demented as a process. And it is useless as an encyclopedia.
The Seigenthaler libel, of course, was a scandal with a certain dynamic that made it suitable as a media event; whereas the overall crudiness of Wikipedia, the corrupt nature of its very principles, the cynicism of its hype - the scandal behind the scandal, so to speak - does not, in its everydayness, have the same kind of mediatic appeal. I hope, however, that this letter will at least provide a grain of salt with which to take Wales' bargain-basement populist rhetoric.
Malgosia Askanas, Ph.D.