William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for the ‘Edit wars’ Category

Making the Sausage: Dariusz Jemielniak on How to Think About Edit Wars

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on October 10, 2014 at 9:53 am

Only a handful of serious books about Wikipedia exist; one of the first, and arguably the only essential one, is Andrew Lih’s “The Wikipedia Revolution”—though it was published in 2009 and could surely use an update. Another one I liked is Andrew Dalby’s “The World and Wikipedia”, published the same year. To this short list, and far more current, let’s add Dariusz Jemielniak’s “Common Knowledge? An Ethnography of Wikipedia” published in May of this year.

Like the above authors, Jemielniak is well-positioned to write on this subject, being an academic and a longtime Wikipedia contributor (especially to the Polish language edition). I have to acknowledge that work and travel has conspired to keep me from reviewing this book for some months after Mr. Jemielniak’s publicist kindly sent me a copy for review, and that I am writing this post without having read it cover to cover. (But really, does anyone? How did Michiko Kakutani review Bill Clinton’s 1,000-page memoir in 24 hours? The same way I’m doing with this one!)

"Common Knowledge" by Dariusz JemielniakThat said, I chose one chapter that seemed especially interesting and relevant to me, chapter three’s “Conflict on Wikipedia: Why Die for Danzig?” Wikipedia veterans will instantly recognize this is going to be, in part, a retelling of the infamous Gdansk–Danzig edit war, considered the longest content dispute in Wikipedia’s history. It’s territory that Lih covered as well in his book, although he dispenses with most of the details in a handful of pages—Jemielniak gives it nearly 20.

It’s debatable how many readers want that, but I think I speak for many longtime Wikipedians in saying that it’s a story worth telling in a bit more depth. Here it is well told, and used to illustrate how Wikipedia resolves issues that lie beyond the letter of policy: painfully, in isolation from other topics, often at great length, and not always definitively.

To me it’s especially relevant, having recently written about the (as yet ongoing) fight over whether it should be noted on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Wikipedia article that he used anecdotes that proved to be, at best, misinterpreted. Or in a case that I only tweeted about, where I personally got involved in a debate over the alleged non-neutrality of the barely stub-length Apple Watch article. In either case, it can be a frustrating experience, to play a part in this process. This may all be part of the process, and eventually Wikipedia will get it right, but I can attest it is also absolutely no fun to be one of the gear-cogs grinding out the sausage.

Jemielniak doesn’t avoid the emotional side of this process entirely: the Prologue is about a wrenching debate he held with other editors, one which turned personal, and in which Jemielniak found himself writing more passionately and carelessly than even he would have liked. This is not a rare occurrence on Wikipedia.

In this chapter he eschews any personal view of the issues, taking the disinterested, academic view that one might expect, and creates a table called “Typology of conflict trajectories” that reads like a kind of a mirror-image Prisoner’s dilemma, accounting for whether disputants are confrontational or not, and whether or not they have an equal commitment to the rules. It’s a useful way to think about how these disagreements reach conclusion (or don’t) even if it’s difficult to see theory in practice. (Not his fault: you try parsing 50,000 words of argument over a single topic.)

If this reads as a criticism, it shouldn’t really. I would rather more Wikipedians took an observational, Sherlock-pipe-thoughtfully-in-hand approach to the “dirty work” (as one combatant recently described the process to me) of writing and debating Wikipedia content. Of course, as Jemielniak allows, even he found that very difficult. So long as humans are the principal actor in debates over Wikipedia, the emotional factor is going to play a significant role.

Jemielniak’s view, if I am not misrepresenting it, is that these processes generally work over time. My own view has grown somewhat more skeptical, and I find suitable outcomes to be increasingly topic-dependent—although I acknowledge that this is based on highly personal, anecdotal evidence. Because seriously, I am going to rewrite that Apple Watch “Reception” section just as soon as I find a free moment.

Briefly, the rest of the book focuses on Wikipedia (and Wikimedia) governance in theory and practice, some of which I’ve done a Kakutani “skip and skim” and seemed on point, on this pointillist basis. To the casual reader, I would probably still recommend Andrew Lih’s book, simply for being a more accessible entry point, albeit with a huge caveat that it is best read as history, not a current depiction of the Wikipedia community.

For those seriously interested in how Wikipedia works (or maybe doesn’t) and for anyone who wants an up-to-date view of the community, however, I’d certainly recommend it. In fact, I’ll recommend that I keep it on my own end table, and browse further when work and travel are next paused.

The Federalist Pages: What Neil deGrasse Tyson and Conservative Bloggers Tell Us About Wikipedia and US Politics

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on September 30, 2014 at 11:33 am

You might be surprised to learn that Wikipedia has a formal policy called “Wikipedia is not a battleground”. Not that anyone seems to have got the memo: although Wikipedia’s rules kindly suggest that its editors not use articles to advance ideological or partisan interests, in practice there’s no reason to think that it can work like that. And should we really want it to be otherwise?

This brings us to the latest partisan battle to make its way from the political blogosphere (if we still call it that?) to the pages of Wikipedia: Tyson-gate (or: Tyson-ghazi?). Earlier this month, a new-ish right-of-center web magazine called The Federalist (whose contributors, I should say, include several friends) started publishing a series of articles pointing out inaccuracies—or possibly fabrications—by the celebrated scientist, media personality and Colbert Report regular Neil deGrasse Tyson.

640px-Bill_Nye,_Barack_Obama_and_Neil_deGrasse_Tyson_selfie_2014Federalist co-founder Sean Davis made a pretty strong case that a quote Tyson attributed to former President George W. Bush did not in fact exist; Tyson eventually acknowledged the error, though it wasn’t quickly forthcoming. While subsequent events have made it clear that Davis had the goods on Tyson, his rhetorical style leaves much to be desired: Davis insists on words like “fabricated” implying an insight into the nature of Tyson’s error that he really can’t know. Davis isn’t alone in this; on the left, Media Matters routinely uses the unforgiving phrase “falsely claims” to describe conservative opinions all the time. This puts me in mind of another Wikipedia policy inconsistently observed: “Comment on content, not the contributor” Remember this point, because I’m going to come back to it.

Anyway, of course the battle made its way to the front lines of the war of ideas, Wikipedia. What happened over the last week was simple enough: one person added a lengthy summary of Davis’ allegations to Tyson’s Wikipedia bio; someone else reverted it very quickly, claiming that it went too far; another editor tried a shorter version; yet another editor removed it again for being “original research”; around and around it went like this from September 16 to 21. When I started compiling links on Tuesday the 29th, a fairly short, but also short-on-context version of this passage read:

Tyson has claimed that, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then-President George W. Bush said, “Our God is the God who named the stars,” in order to “distinguish we from they (Muslims)”.[59] Tom Jackson of the Tampa Tribune called it “… a vicious, gratuitous slander.”[60]

But then a longer version which appeared later in the day seemed like too much:

Tyson had claimed that, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then-President George W. Bush said, “Our God is the God who named the stars,” in order to “distinguish we from they (Muslims)”.[58] Neil Tyson has confirmed that he was actually referring to President Bush’s February 2003 speech on the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster and that he “transposed one disaster with another (both occurring within 18 months of one another) in my assigning his quote.” [59] In that speech then-President George W. Bush quotes Isaiah when he said “He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name.”[60] Then George W. Bush said, “The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today.” [61]

As of this writing, all mention of the controversy has been removed, and the article has been temporarily locked to prevent further edit warring. Meanwhile, the debate on the Neil deGrasse Tyson discussion page has run to some 50,000 (!) words since mid-September, comprising at least one Request for Comment where the only real conclusion so far is: “This has become unproductive.”

Meanwhile, someone put The Federalist’s own Wikipedia article up for deletion, possibly out of spite, but also possibly because it seemed like a borderline eligibility case based on included sources at the time. Nevertheless, it seems likely that a very short version of the article will be kept once the arguing here is through. (And as more than one contributor has noted, the more attention this gets in the political media, the more “Notable” The Federalist likely becomes.)

Throughout this debate, Davis and The Federalist haven’t been doing themselves any favors. Sean Davis of course is as much reporting on his own fight with Tyson as he is reporting on Tyson, including multiple articles about the debate on Wikipedia.
This included an initial summary on September 18 that continued blithely pushing the “fabrication” claim and proudly quoted an unnamed Wikipedian saying “no version of this event will be allowed into the article” as if this unnamed editor spoke for all of Wikipedia. Worse still was a follow-up by Davis called “9 Absurd Edit Justifications By Wikipedia’s Neil Tyson Truthers” that pointed to fairly standard considerations for inclusion or exclusion of controversial material as if it was patent nonsense. For instance, these two comments:

It doesn’t matter if we can demonstrate it happened or not, many things happen in many people lives, we don’t write each of them into every persons biography. …

[T]his is being kept off because Wikipedia is deeply conservative in the non-political meaning of the word.

Davis may not like these answers, but they are anything but unreasonable points to make in a content dispute, especially about a living person whose reputation is (to some degree) at stake. Indeed, the same policy that points out Wikipedia is not a battleground also points out: “[N]ot all verifiable events are suitable for inclusion in Wikipedia.”

The problem is not that Davis is wrong; in fact, some of the objections to the topic’s inclusion were possibly mistaken, arrived at prematurely, or later invalidated by the emergence of new sources. The problem is not even that Davis is treating Wikipedia as a battleground—after all, Wikipedia is where we go to argue about such things. If Wikipedia is to be the “sum of human knowledge”, that very much includes contentious material related to political and ideological battles.

The problem is actually one of good faith—and here we come to a policy that is also frequently ignored on Wikipedia, but would it be followed better, we could have all been saved a few weeks and tens of thousands of words: “Assume good faith”. And as problems go, it is one that exists on both sides, although it tends to be the case that one side usually goes further—which either produces a decisive political victory or defeat. Davis has this territory pretty well staked out with this column that doesn’t accomplish anything but to “falsely claim” Wikipedia is a single entity entirely comprising lying liars of the left.

The political blogosphere was a source of fascination for me in the early part of my career, in particular writing about it in a sadly departed column called The Blogometer for National Journal’s Hotline. Starting in the late 2000s, I turned my focus more to Wikipedia, in particular writing about it on this blog. There are numerous parallels, but the least savory is the tendency of both to bog down in bitter recrimination. Witness also the fight over the Chelsea Manning Wikipedia entry from late last year.

Part of me thinks that Wikipedia shouldn’t worry about these fights, only about whether or not they continue to occur at Wikipedia; even an ugly debate is better than none at all, right? But considering the voluminous anecdotal evidence that Wikipedia’s eroding editor base and absurd gender gap owe something to its tolerance for incivility—despite the existence of a policy stating otherwise and a speech by Jimmy Wales at Wikimania this year calling for a renewed emphasis upon it—this is something the Wikipedia community had better take seriously.

Of course, this doesn’t exist in a vacuum: Sean Davis, The Federalist, left-leaning Wikipedia editors, and even Neil deGrasse Tyson with his bullshit political anecdotes (I am using Harry Frankfurt’s precise definition) aren’t quite the problem; they are merely avatars of it. Everything that’s wrong with US politics—where to start!—eventually finds its way to Wikipedia.

But there remains one important difference between the blogosphere and Wikipedia: rules. The blogosphere does not have them; Wikipedia does, and these rules shape the debate that occurs on its talk pages. Without these rules, it would just be endless edit wars of attrition. The problem with Wikipedia, then, is not its rules but how it enforces them. Wikipedia’s community should be asking itself: what kind of battleground do we want to be?

Photo via the White House / Flickr.

The Other Senkaku Islands Dispute

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on February 5, 2013 at 2:52 pm

My friend and colleague Pete Hunt writes in Foreign Policy today about the dispute on Wikipedia about the Senkaku Islands, and how they parallel the real world. An excerpt:

Regular editing dust-ups might suggest that the Senkaku Islands article and its “dispute” offshoot are dubious resources of little value. In fact, both articles nicely summarize the controversy and provide a long list of citations and references that can advance further research. While news accounts of the islands focus on recent diplomatic incidents and their international implications, these Wikipedia articles provide historical context and a more detailed explanation of the arguments underlying each side’s claims to the territory. The vitriol exchanged by editors might be ugly, but it’s also evidence of a transparent and ongoing screening process.

Actually, now that I think about it, the Wikipedia dispute may be going better than the one in real life.

Verifiability and Truth: What John Siracusa Doesn’t Get About Wikipedia

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on February 2, 2012 at 6:50 pm

One of my favorite podcasts is Hypercritical, co-hosted by and principally featuring the thoughtful criticisms of John Siracusa, a sometime columnist for Ars Technica and Internet-famous Apple pundit. The show’s tagline calls it: “A weekly talk show ruminating on exactly what is wrong in the world of Apple and related technologies and businesses. Nothing is so perfect that it can’t be complained about.” Last week’s edition—“Marked for Deletion”—was about something far from perfect, but of great interest to this blog: Wikipedia.

If you want to listen for yourself, jump to about 1:11:55 (yes, more than an hour into the show) where Siracusa and co-host Dan Benjamin turn the discussion to Wikipedia. And a warning: this is going to be long. Consider it homage.

♦     ♦     ♦

Promisingly, Siracusa begins by asking his co-host to answer, if he can, “what Wikipedia is”. The answer is pretty good for an outsider: it’s a place for sharing information and collaboratively building a resource for (hopefully) accurate information on almost any topic. In general, this will do. But it’s not quite right, as Siracusa explains by recounting his personal experience of trying, in vain, to defend an article from deletion. With five years to reflect on it, Siracusa describes his efforts as a “prototypical example of someone who does not understand what Wikipedia is, proving that he does not understand what Wikipedia is.”

All of this is a way of getting to Siracusa’s fascination—one might say morbid fascination—with Wikipedia’s policy of “Verifiability”. The first paragraph of the policy says:

Verifiability on Wikipedia is the ability to cite reliable sources that directly support the information in an article. All information in Wikipedia must be verifiable, but because other policies and guidelines also influence content, verifiability does not guarantee inclusion. The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth—whether readers can check that material in Wikipedia has already been published by a reliable source, not whether editors think unsourced material is true.

Or as Siracusa summarizes it: “Something can be as true as you want it to be, if it is not verifiable, it doesn’t go in.” Well said.

He also discusses the related policy of “No original research”. This includes a good explication of the different types of sources that may or may not be used on Wikipedia: primary sources (original documents and first-hand accounts), secondary sources (news articles interpreting primary sources) and tertiary sources (encyclopedias and academic articles summarizing the former). This is advanced stuff, and for a longtime Wikipedian, it’s no small thrill to hear a smart outsider explain why secondary sources are preferred, and work through the fundamental policies of Wikipedia. Siracusa correctly observes: “Wikipedia is not a place where you write down stuff that you know. … Wikipedia writes about other people writing about things.”

Except here’s the thing: Siracusa understands Wikipedia’s core content policies. He just doesn’t like them.

In his particular example, a former standalone article called FTFF (here’s what it used to look like) didn’t survive the process not because it wasn’t true, but (he says) because it contained material that wasn’t verifiable, and constituted original research. This is partly true, but it owes more to a guideline that got only passing mention on the show (and, frankly, in the deletion debate): “Notability”, and specifically the “General notability guideline”. It’s closely tied in with WP:VERIFY and WP:ORIGINAL, and basically says that a topic must have sufficient coverage in secondary sources to be given its own standalone page. FTFF was not, and the result of the debate was to merge the topic to Finder_(software)#Criticism.

Anyway, this pedantry about WP:NOTE and WP:GNG doesn’t affect Siracusa’s main point: If something is true but unverifiable, he would like to see it included in Wikipedia anyway. Nor does it affect his corollary argument, that Wikipedia’s complex rules discourage many would-be participants.

He’s undoubtedly right about the second point: many people try to get involved with Wikipedia who have no idea what it’s really about, and they tend to have a really bad experience. Wikipedia struggles to explain itself to outsiders, and it probably always will.

As to the former, the problem is that he fails to grapple with the implications of the Wikipedia he describes, and this is disappointing. By privileging “truth” above “verifiability”, one gets the impression he’s describing a Rashomon-like Wikipedia where all possible viewpoints are explored, and somehow eventually Wikipedia just makes the right call. This assumes a lot, not least that contentious topics wouldn’t simply devolve into edit wars of unchecked aggression. In a world where Wikipedia aims for truth but eschews verifiability, there are no footholds upon which to steady an argument. There is no way to know what should be considered credible or otherwise.

At times it actually sounds like he’s advocating something that already exists: reliance on “Consensus” for determining how Wikipedia will address the topics it covers. Wikipedia policies and guidelines don’t cover everything, and this is where consensus steps in, however imperfectly. If you’ve ever wondered why there is sometimes an observable discrepancy in the depth or quality of coverage between topics, consensus is the big reason why, and moreso the self-selection that shapes consensus. The current, real-world Wikipedia refers to outside authorities as well as consensus among editors; Siracusa’s Bizarro World Wikipedia would jettison the former and rely solely on the latter.

Meanwhile, Siracusa ascribes Wikipedia’s Byzantine rule structure to Wikipedians’ desire for approval from educators and academics, which he thinks is holding back Wikipedia from what it could become. He repeatedly says “Wikipedia should be something different” and refers to “what’s different about online” but he never gets prescriptive and never actually says why the old methods are outmoded. He does say his Wikipedia would seek to “arrive at truth using every tool necessary” and would, for example, allow original research… but what then is the mechanism for (dare I say) verifying it?

At one point, Siracusa compares the popular, widely-viewed Ars Technica forums to a hypothetical low-circulation print magazine, and complains that the widely-read former site is an invalid source while the unpopular latter publication is acceptable. It’s true that Wikipedia does not necessarily take a populist approach to evaluating sources, but he’s far off the mark in his attempt to explain this: “They’re not cool with the old librarians, because they’re not paper.”

I hope that he was just being lazy and doesn’t actually think that Wikipedia editors prefer paper (if anything they actually prefer online sources, which are easier to check) but he completely misses a key dynamic that ties back to verifiability: the paper magazine with poor circulation at least will have editors who are presumed to care about fact-checking and accuracy. A web forum, however popular it may be, may have moderators, but that’s not the same thing as having an editor. A discussion group is not an editorial operation, period. The forum is a primary source, and so should only be used to support reliable sources.

There are, however, reliable web sources. One of them is the editorial side of Ars Technica; no less an authority than John Siracusa has been cited in approximately 150 different Wikipedia articles about the Macintosh and other technology subjects.

♦     ♦     ♦

I’m sorry to say this, but in the show’s last fifteen minutes, Siracusa pretty much descends into total incoherence. Here’s his summary statement, close to verbatim:

[There are] many flaws in verifiability and reliability of sources. It’s built on a foundation of sand. Notability, what’s a reliable source, those things become so key to making Wikipedia crappy or good, and those sands are constantly always shifting, you know? And so if Wikipedia was centered on truth and that was its final goal, yeah, it would have to include citations and verifiability and stuff like that, but there would never be any argument when the two are in conflict. You know, if you could prove that a series of events happened here, then you could say, well, it’s verifiable, it appeared in a reliable source, but it’s not the truth. And so therefore we should expunge that. Because the final goal of Wikipedia is truth. But the final goal of Wikipedia is not truth, it’s verifiability.

There would “never be any argument” about what is the truth? In the parlance of Wikipedia: [citation needed].

Look, this is an epistemological issue, one much larger than just Wikipedia. The reason Wikipedia’s goal is verifiability, not truth, is because verifiability is an achievable goal. In fact, verifiability is a necessary step toward establishing truth, as Siracusa at this point seems to acknowledge in his imagined alternate, truth-seeking Wikipedia.

It’s not that Wikipedia is actively hostile to the truth: it’s just agnostic as to what it might be. Wikipedia articles are like road signs; truth itself may be unknowable, and we may never arrive at our destination, but Wikipedia can point in the right direction. Wikipedia’s policies and guidelines are designed to make sure that its content does that, although it’s fair to acknowledge that it’s not guaranteed. But what is? And what is truth?

Anyway, there’s a user essay on Wikipedia called “Verifiability, not truth” that says this better than I am going to. Here’s the key point:

That we have rules for the inclusion of material does not mean Wikipedians have no respect for truth and accuracy, just as a court’s reliance on rules of evidence does not mean the court does not respect truth. Wikipedia values accuracy, but it requires verifiability. Unlike some encyclopedias, Wikipedia does not try to impose “the truth” on its readers, and does not ask that they trust something just because they read it in Wikipedia. We empower our readers. We don’t ask for their blind trust.

If you want to upset the old system and do something new, you actually do need to think through what should replace it. Siracusa never does.

If he thinks Wikipedia’s adherence to “old world” rules is driving away contributors, he should consider what the free-for-all alternative would look like. It isn’t a Wikipedia I would spend any time with, it’s not one that Google would be eager to rank so highly, and it wouldn’t be the most important reference site on the Internet.

Rick Santorum’s Wikipedia Problem and its Discontents

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on August 10, 2011 at 9:16 am

When former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum started gearing up to launch his presidential campaign earlier this year, there was one question he could not avoid. It had to do with the matter of alt-weekly editor and advice columnist Dan Savage, who has for years positioned himself as Santorum’s most prominent critic. Many politicians have fierce opponents, but few did what Savage did in 2003, and that was hold a contest to give an alternate meaning to the word “santorum”. I hope you’ll forgive me for declining to quote the winning definition, but you can find it here, and suffice to say that it has stuck. So much so, in fact, that eight years later Savage’s term has come to dominate the web search results for Rick Santorum’s name.

In news stories this year it was mostly described—by ABC News, Roll Call, Slate, and Huffington Post, among others—as Santorum’s “Google problem”. Indeed, one of the top three results for Santorum’s name is Dan Savage’s website promoting the campaign. But Google and Wikipedia are often joined at the hip, and one of the top results has been a Wikipedia article, not about Rick Santorum per se, but in fact about the campaign against him… or about the word itself… it hasn’t always been clear. And by mid-summer 2011, the article—then called Santorum (neologism)—had grown to several thousand words, and had itself become the focus of controversy among Wikipedians.

This blog post traces the history of the article’s evolution in some detail—not exhaustive, but getting there—because it’s an interesting window into how Wikipedia deals with controversial topics. Wikipedians can’t always agree, and in fact the article in question still remains a matter of dispute. But after 200,000 words and numerous debates in various forums around Wikipedia, the community has arrived at something approaching a satisfactory conclusion. Below, I aim to show how things got out of control, and how the Wikipedia community worked it out.

·     ·     ·

August 2006—To start from the beginning, let’s start from the beginning. The first version of this article was created five years ago this week, simply as Santorum.

(I should take a moment here to point out that—spoiler alert—because the article today is called Campaign for “santorum” neologism that is what appears at the top of all historical versions of the article; generally speaking, for each version I’ll link here, I will boldface article’s name at the time upon each reference.)

At this point the article was just a few paragraphs, outlining the circumstances that led to Savage’s coinage and a few examples of the term’s usage in the U.S. media. Prior to becoming its own article, most of the relevant material had been contained in a sub-section of the article about Savage’s sex advice column: Savage Love#Santorum.

It didn’t take very long at all before editors questioned the article’s suitability for a standalone article—what Wikipedia calls “notability”. In fact, the same day the article was first created, it was nominated for deletion. The reason for the nomination is one that would be echoed many times over the next half-decade:

The neologism referred to, created by Savage Love, does not have any evidence of real currency as a neologism. It should be treated as a political act by Savage Love, and described under that article.

The nomination failed and the article remained, as it certainly had received some media attention, but it was decided a renaming was in order. The suggestion was made that it be called Santorum (neologism), or possibly Santorum (sexual slang). Recent followers of this controversy might assume that the former was selected, because that was the name of the article for a long while. However, it was the latter, with a large reason being that Wikipedia has an explicit policy against creating articles about neologisms.

But that hardly settled the matter; the next issue concerned which Wikipedia page readers should find when they search for the word “santorum”, which now was considered to have—and here you could say that Savage had already won—two legitimate meanings. So the question was taken to a “straw poll”. For now, the article was still called Santorum, but what would the average Internet user be looking for when they looked up that term? How should the ambiguity be handled—in Wikipedia terminology, “disambiguated”? And what exactly should they call the article about the coinage?

Related to the word “Santorum”, the options included, and I quote:

  • Santorum should be an article about Savage’s attempt to define the word “santorum”
  • Santorum should be a disambiguation page, with its “traditional” content
  • Santorum should be a disambiguation page, with some other content (explain)
  • Santorum should be a redirect to Rick Santorum, and Rick Santorum should have a dablink…
  • Santorum should be a redirect to Rick Santorum, with no reference to the Savage neologism in the Rick Santorum article

Related to the article about Savage’s coinage, the options included, and I quote:

  • The article on the Savage neologism should be titled Santorum (neologism)
  • The article on the Savage neologism should be titled Santorum (sexual slang)
  • The Savage neologism needs no article; sufficiently covered at Savage Love#Santorum

And the result was… inconclusive. Nevertheless, a proposal was made, and subsequently accepted, to keep Rick Santorum as it always was, to call the Savage Love-inspired article Santorum (neologism), and to make Santorum a disambiguation page with links to relevant pages, among other details. The best summary of the considerations involved was stated by User:Dpbsmith, a veteran and still-active editor, who wrote:

Frankly I’ll support anything meeting these criterion:
A user who types in “santorum” as the Go word intending to find information about the Senator can find it very easily.
A user who types in “santorum” as the Go word intending to find information about the neologism can find it easily.
A user who types in “santorum” as the Go word is not presented immediately with the details of the neologism, but must click on a link, and the link must have some kind of label that communicates that fact that they are about to read about a political attack on the the [sic] Senator.
There should be no implication that Wikipedia endorses the neologism as somehow being “the real meaning” of the word.

Oh, did I mention there was also then a page called Santorum controversy, which is now called Santorum controversy regarding homosexuality, that also came up in the discussion? Well, now I have. Just wanted to be clear about that.

·     ·     ·

Late 2006-Early 2007—Although the matter seemed to have been handled appropriately, that didn’t stop editors from raising objections—even the very same objections—in the months following. In fact, someone had changed the article’s title back to Santorum (sexual slang) by the time the article came up for a second deletion debate in December 2006. The nominator focused on the fact that the media hits for the article were trivial—sure, The Daily Show and The Economist had used it, but neither had focused on it as a topic—while several less well-known sources appeared to be joining Savage’s campaign to popularize the term. Meanwhile, the nominator’s first argument was that the primary information was already covered in the Santorum controversy article (now you see why I mentioned it). Following a week’s worth of debate involving approximately two dozen Wikipedians and several thousand words…

The result was hopeless, hopeless lack of consensus.

(Emphasis in the original.) Lack of consensus to delete an article always means that it stays, and so it did. Some editors had suggested moving the article’s content to Wiktionary, Wikipedia’s dictionary sister project, where in fact the term had registered its own entry (without controversy) several months ahead of Wikipedia.

Later in December, one of the editors involved in the previous debate suggested moving the article from Santorum (sexual slang) to the oddly-titled Santorum (sexual slang activism), though the article stayed put. In January, a suggestion was made to merge the article back into the Savage Love entry, but that didn’t happen either.

·     ·     ·

Late 2007—Debate continued. In September, someone renamed it to Santorum (fluid)—ugh—and it was returned to Santorum (neologism), as it was then called. By this point, the article had grown substantially, was attracting the efforts of serious Wikipedians, and was… well, it was actually getting pretty good. In September 2007, the article was nominated for “Good article” (GA) status, and it looked like this. Later that day, the reviewing editor failed the article for including unsourced and “poorly sourced” material—The Onion in particular was singled out, although it was really an interview with Savage in the sister publication, AV Club—and for being a “BLP liability”.

That is to say, the article skirted the line of Wikipedia’s Biographies of living persons (BLP) policy, which aims to keep out scurrilous and weakly-sourced material about living persons that could be damaging to a living person’s reputation. As you might imagine, that had long been an issue; one couldn’t write about this topic without it being an issue. One could argue that Savage’s campaign was all about damaging Santorum’s reputation—I presume Dan Savage would agree to that—and yet it was nonetheless notable. Many editors then, and to this day, wished it would simply go away. And yet some wanted to make it as “good” as possible.

·     ·     ·

2008-2010—We can skip ahead, because after October 2007, fewer than 160 edits occurred in the three years intervening, and it was not changed substantially in that time. Santorum had lost his re-election bid in late 2006, re-entered private life in January 2007, and ceased to make headlines. In December 2007, the article looked like this. In January 2011, it looked like this. It was the same old back-and-forth, and not much happened.

·     ·     ·

Early 2011—As Santorum started making moves to run for president, activity picked up. In mid-February, Roll Call was first to write about Santorum’s “Google problem”, and this was dutifully added. The article continued to draw attention (including from vandals) through the end of February, until it was put under temporary “semi-protection”. When Stephen Colbert mentioned the controversy on his show, a not-so-brief summary was added, then removed, with the point made that “not everything Colbert says needs to be repeated in Wikipedia”. (Imagine that!) March and April were months of relative calm before the proverbial storm: nearly 1,000 direct edits, from May to this writing, lay just ahead.

·     ·     ·

May 2011—In early May, a very active and respected editor-administrator, User:Cirt, began a series of more than 300 edits to the article, starting with a long-overdue link to Wiktionary. By this point, the article contained some 1,600 words, excluding links and references. Cirt announced his intention to add “some research in additional secondary sources”, and four days later he had expanded the article to some 4,300 words. On the discussion page, one editor objected:

Expanding an article about a vile attack on a living person – it’s twice the size now and refs have gone from 33 to 95 – has got to be against the spirit of least of our BLP policy. My proposal, and my intention, stated right now, is to return this article to the content it had on May 9th.

This kicked off the first sustained debate in years—one that has arguably not yet come to a close. A proposal was made to “stub” the article, meaning to reduce the article’s length to a mere stub of an entry; the argument went, because the arguably unfair subject obviously met Wikipedia’s previously-determined standards for inclusion, a possible solution was to reduce it to the shortest possible version. This proposal quickly failed, with Cirt himself citing an earlier comment by veteran Wikipedian (and current Wikimedia Foundation fellow) Steven Walling:

The BLP policy is not a blank check for deleting anything negative related to a living individual. Criticism, commentary, and even base mockery of a public figure like a Senator is protected free speech in the United States. While it would be ridiculous for anyone to try and make Wikipedia a platform for creating the kind of meme Savage did, it is perfectly prudent for Wikipedia to neutrally report on the overwhelming amount of coverage given to the topic.

Remember that part about using Wikipedia as a platform—it will come up later. Meanwhile, Cirt continued to add significant information about media usage and analysis of the term and events surrounding Savage’s campaign, all backed up with acceptable references. In particular, he focused on adding uses of “santorum”, in slang dictionaries and even erotica, to support the article’s focus as legitimately about the neologism, and not Savage’s campaign per se.

For those who did not wish for Wikipedia to contribute to the so-called problem of making Savage’s campaign seem more important than it arguably was, it must have been more frustrating still to observe that the article was quite well-written and scrupulously followed Wikipedia’s style and sourcing guidelines. Cirt was nothing if not sophisticated. Many had the impression that the article itself was now an attack on Santorum, although that conclusion was only in the eye of the beholder. Cirt knew what he was doing and, for lack of a better phrase, Cirt knew exactly what he was doing. One editor objected:

I realize you will defend this bloated attack piece with all your skills (that is actually what I find most disturbing) but you have to realize or at least have noticed that many experienced editors disagree with your massive expansion of it and at some point it will require wider input and a community RFC.

By the end of May, the article had grown to more than five times the length of the article Santorum controversy regarding homosexuality and more than two-thirds the length of the primary Rick Santorum biographical article. Discrepancies of this sort have been well observed, most significantly on the Internet forum Something Awful, but no Wikipedia policy exists to require proportionality among articles.

At its greatest length, on May 31, the article surpassed 5,500 words, including headers but excluding photo captions, links and references—a total of over 77,000 bytes of data.

·     ·     ·

June 2011-Present— Were I to adequately summarize the debates and discussions that occurred beginning in late May and continuing sustainedly—with most debate occurring in June—this blog post could be three times its already considerable length. Instead I will attempt to summarize, although “considerable length” is unavoidable still.

From early June, Cirt pretty much stopped editing the article. To a significant extent, he’d become part of the issue, not just regarding this article but others as well, as can be seen on the discussion page for Cirt’s user account.

Among the many solutions offered around this time, one focused not on the article content itself, but rather its visibility on search engine results pages (SERPs). The editor offered, even if just for the sake of argument:

While I don’t really like the precedent, there’s nothing to say that every article needs to be indexed by search engines. … The majority of the concerns here seem to be focused on how people are coming across this article (via Google bombing, etc.), not necessarily that the article exists. … Both sides have legitimate points in their favor, so a compromise might be best here.

Other editors agreed it would set a bad precedent, and the suggestion did not go any further.

By now the topic had come to involve some of Wikipedia’s most influential editors, and a lengthy debate opened on Jimmy Wales’ discussion page. Wales’ take was as follows:

My only thought about the whole thing is that WP:COATRACK applies in spades. There is zero reason for this page to exist. It is arguable whether this nonsense even belongs in his biography at all, but at a bare minimum, a merger to his main article seems appropriate.

The “Coatrack” argument—one of many analogies Wikipedians have created over the years to illustrate key concepts—is not a policy or a guideline, but an informal essay, yet one with much currency. It states:

A coatrack article is a Wikipedia article that ostensibly discusses the nominal subject, but in reality is a cover for a tangentially related biased subject. The nominal subject is used as an empty coat-rack, which ends up being mostly obscured by the “coats”. The existence of a “hook” in a given article is not a good reason to “hang” irrelevant and biased material there.

In retrospect, it’s a little surprising that the “Coatrack” issue hadn’t been raised in any significant way before—and Wales is neither considered infallible nor is he always that involved in day-to-day Wikipedia issues—but this may yet have been a turning point. The next day, the highly respected User:SlimVirgin opened an RfC (Request for Comment) called “Proposal to rename, redirect, and merge content”. This led to the article being renamed, for a time, Santorum Google problem. Later, it was pointed out that “Google is not the only search engine in the world”, and so the search (as it were) continued.

The argument that the “neologism” had not evolved organically, but was the result of an organized campaign by Savage and his allies, had begun to exert some influence. For one thing, it was now quite clear that the majority of sources focused on the political campaign to bring relevance to the term, as opposed to the term’s relevance itself. In this way, one might say that Savage’s campaign had become a little too successful. Yes, the term was notable, but the controversy itself had become even more so.

Prior to the renaming mentioned above, editors in an adjacent thread had discussed several alternative names for the article. These included:

  • Santorum neologism controversy
  • Dan Savage santorum neologism controversy
  • Dan Savage santorum neologism campaign
  • Santorum neologism campaign
  • Spreading santorum (the name of Savage’s website)

Here one can start to see where the article’s current title would eventually emerge. Meanwhile, the article faced two more AfD (Articles for deletion) nominations, the first under its old name and the second under its current one. These were the fourth and fifth nominations overall, and surely the most futile.

As part of the ongoing RfC discussion in June, it had been strongly suggested that the article needed to be condensed, especially as Cirt’s expansion had contributed so significantly to the controversy. Besides the article expansion, in mid-May Cirt had created a new “footer” template, Template:Sexual slang, which further linked Rick Santorum’s name to dozens of NSFW topics. That template still exists, but on June 11 the link to Santorum (neologism) was removed. Again, it’s hard to say if this was another turning point, but a discussion about this template on Wales’ discussion page supports the notion that a consensus was coming into view: the article in its present form had itself become part of the campaign—that Wikipedia was being used as a platform for the campaign in the manner Walling had suggested.

A day later, a request for arbitration (RfAr)—a petition to the Arbitration Committee, Wikipedia’s equivalent of the Supreme Court—was opened against Cirt on the basis that his concerted efforts on the subject constituted “political activism”. On June 18 the request was rejected, but not before several dozen editors had contributed more than 28,000 words of opinion. One committee member wrote:

Decline for now, I’m inclined to think that this is more of a content dispute, and the community is able to cope with it.

On June 17, the community finally hit on a name that stuck: Campaign for “santorum” neologism. Initially, this was only intended as an interim move while further discussion took place. Among the names considered at this time, not all were serious, but most were:

  • Dan Savage santorum campaign
  • Dan Savage campaign
  • Dan Savage’s verbal attack on Rick Santorum
  • Santorum (sexual slang)
  • Santorum neologism campaign
  • Santorum neologism campaign
  • Santorum neologism controversy
  • Rick Santorum and homosexuality
  • Rick Santorum homosexuality controversy
  • Savage Santorum campaign
  • Dan Savage santorum neologism controversy
  • Dan Savage santorum neologism campaign
  • Spreading Santorum
  • Rick Santorum’s Google problem
  • Rick Santorum’s “Google problem”
  • Santorum Google problem
  • Rick Santorum Google problem
  • ‘Spreading santorum’ campaign
  • Campaign for “santorum” neologism
  • Dan Savage campaign for “santorum” neologism
  • Savage–Santorum affair (a reply: “Oh Please God No.”)
  • Savage–Santorum controversy
  • santorum (neologism)
  • The problem Rick Santorum is facing because every search engine in the world’s top search results says santorum is an anal sex by-product
  • Santorum (googlebomb)
  • SEO Campaign for “santorum” neologism
  • Santorum (cyberattack)
  • Santorum (cyberbullying)
  • Santorm (SEO attack)
  • Dan Savage’s “spreading santorum” campaign against Rick Santorum’s anti-gay stance
  • Santorum Google ranking problem
  • Dan Savage Google-bomb Attack on Rick Santorum
  • Campaign to attack Santorum’s name
  • Campaign to create ‘santorum’ neologism
  • Campaign to associate Santorum to neologism

In the end, inertia and the current title’s inherent virtues won out. Of the eventual “winner”—Campaign for “santorum” neologism—a veteran Wikipedian commented:

This one is growing on me – neutral, correct, to-the-point, and succinctly informative to readers both familiar and unfamiliar with the subject as to what the article will be about.

All that was left was to whittle the article down from its extreme length to a shape that covered the topic adequately, balancing relevance with discretion. While many edits were to follow, the key edit was made on June 21, when SlimVirgin replaced a 4,800-word version of the article (minus links and references) with a 1,400-word version. This is substantially the version of the article that remains in place today.

·     ·     ·

Comparing the late May version of the article, at its longest point, to the trimmed-down and refocused current version, here’s what we find:

  • The earlier version focused on the term in and of itself, with the opening sentence including a definition and describing its use. The current version focuses on the events, explaining the aim of Savage’s campaign—though the definition remains.
  • Excluding the lead section, references and external links, there are only three sections in the current version, compared with seven in the earlier (not including “See also” and “Further reading”, which were also removed).
  • The content of the “Background” section was almost entirely removed, leaving just the key facts about Rick Santorum’s statements in the 2003 Associated Press interview.
  • The section about the website “Spreading Santorum” was removed, details added into the “Campaign by Dan Savage” section.
  • Almost all of the “Recognition and usage” section was removed.
  • “Media analysis” and “Political impact” were combined into one, shorter, summarized section, focusing on the reception of the campaign in the media and its political impact.
  • Santorum’s response to the controversy was kept in the current article, however condensed.

Up to the present day, in the Talk page discussions alone (including the RfC discussion), more than 200,000 words have been written about the article. That is probably well short of the true number.

Perhaps surprisingly, the impact on Rick Santorum’s Wikipedia article was not that great—the article had long summarized the events in a short final paragraph concluding a heading relating to his statements about homosexuality—83 words at this count.

Meanwhile, Santorum’s “Google” problem continues. Conduct a logged-out search today, and here are the top three results:

And let’s not imagine the argument is completely over on Campaign for “santorum” neologism. Visit today, and one will find at the very top:

Images courtesy Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons. Additional research and analysis provided by Rhiannon Ruff.

Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin and the Boring Truth About Wikipedia Vandalism

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on June 29, 2011 at 10:02 am

The Wikipedian was traveling for most of this past month, and so I’ve missed out on a few interesting Wikipedia-related stories of late. None was more frustrating (and entertaining) than the case of Sarah Palin’s supporters’ edits to and arguments about Paul Revere’s famous ride. In case you missed it (or, as it is so often abbreviated in campaign e-mail blasts, “ICYMI”) Palin stated in early June that Revere had warned the British—not the American revolutionaries—and a few of her supporters attempted to change the Paul Revere article to more closely reflect her version of events.

Yes, I missed that one, but maybe I’m not too late: according to nearly back-to-back posts by left-wing bloggers at ThinkProgress and Raw Story, the same thing is happening to various Wikipedia articles following erroneous statements by newly-declared Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann. At issue:

  • During her campaign announcement speech, Bachmann referred to the late film actor John Wayne’s hometown as Waterloo, Iowa, when in fact it was Winterset, Iowa. As an aside, I seriously doubt, as widely asserted, that she was thinking of John Wayne Gacy (who is most closely associated with Chicago) and, for what it’s worth, Bachmann later pointed out that Wayne’s parents met in Waterloo.
  • Later, interviewed by ABC News, Bachmann referred to John Quincy Adams as a “founding father” although the U.S. president was only a child during the American revolution (he was, of course, the son of founding father John Adams). The last I heard, she was sticking to her guns on this one, as little sense as that makes.

As reported by ThinkProgress and Raw Story, the Wikipedia articles about John Wayne and John Quincy Adams were undoubtedly changed, more than once, to reflect Bachmann’s erroneous statements. I’ll tell you what, though: upon closer inspection, I think this hardly rises to the same level as the Palin-Revere controversy, and really says more about the partisan / ideological online media than it does about Michele Bachmann or her political supporters—let alone Wikipedia.

To wit: On Monday, an IP editor (meaning one who has not registered for an account and so is represented by their IP address) from Pennsylvania changed John Wayne’s birthplace to “Waterloo” from “Winterset”. It was changed back pretty quickly. On the discussion page, there was little actual debate of the issue—and it started anyway with a sarcastic post by someone clearly not a Bachmann fan.

The next day, on the John Quincy Adams page, an IP editor (using the IP address, associated with UC-Irvine) added “a founding father” as a subordinate clause in the very first sentence. This too was removed, and a brief, detached conversation occurred on that discussion page as well.

I decided to look at the edit history of the IP editors responsible for the above edits. It turned out the editor responsible for the Wayne edit had made no prior edits and has made none since. The editor responsible for the JQA edit has possibly edited a few times before (IP addresses can be shared, so identity is difficult to establish). On the discussion page associated with the IP address, an established editor politely suggested that the individual create an account, whereupon the IP editor replied:

Are you joking? It was obviously vandalism, so why try to act like I was acting in good faith?

Yeah, that’s about right. You won’t hear it from ThinkProgress or Raw Story, but the Palin-Revere controversy was a much bigger deal, kicking up a much more heated debate, lasting more than a week and encompassing several related discussion threads. And whereas actual Sarah Palin fans seem to have become involved there, there is no reason to think that actual Bachmann supporters are involved here. The best take on it comes from an editor, BusterD, who wrote on the JQA discussion page:

Up to this point, what is reported is not actually happening. A few ip editors have been injecting the phrase “founding father”, sometimes as a clear jest and sometimes modifying the father who is considered one of the founders, but most of what’s going on is normal ip vandalism which occurs when an historical figure gets mentioned in the media. Semi-protection is now in force; nobody has been editing the page in any but the most minor ways. Sure would be a good time to get cites on everything and tighten the page up some.

That’s exactly right. Activity on Wikipedia articles, whether helpful or unhelpful, is often driven by what’s in the news, and this case seems to be no different. General mischief on Wikipedia is an everyday fact of life, and the idle hands motivated to cause such trouble frequently draw inspiration from the headlines. Wikipedia’s Recent changes patrol (and a few automated scripts) keep the most obvious at bay; most of it is caught within minutes. Politically motivated edits are usually much more subtle and focused on specific politicians rather than general topics momentarily associated with them. It seems clear that the Bachmann-related edits were not done to make a point but simply for the lulz.

Whether these incidents say anything about the respective supporters of Michele Bachmann vs. those of Sarah Palin, I pass no judgment. As to the blog-first-ask-questions-later nature of the political mediasphere, well, I think this post speaks for itself.

Banned from Wikipedia… Almost

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on October 20, 2010 at 10:29 am

I presume that a fair number of Wikipedia’s casual readers and participants are at least vaguely aware of the fact that bad behavior can get one banned from the site — of course I mean from editing it, not from reading it. But what I’ll bet is less known is that there is another type of punishment which is less extreme, but probably is no more fun to the punished: topic banning. Wikipedia defines this as follows:

The user is prohibited from editing either (1) making any edits in relation to a particular topic, (2) particular pages that are specified in the ban; and/or, (2) any page relating to a particular topic. Such a ban may include or exclude corresponding talk pages. Users who violate such bans may be blocked.

Wikipedia has other editing restrictions — article bans, requirements to discuss changes — but topic banning is the most common. At present, Wikipedia bars more than 100 editors from making certain types of edits.

And there is a pattern to topic bans as well, one that mirrors Wikipedia’s most controversial topics: balkanized Eastern Europe, disputed Israel and Palestinian territories, ever disputatious Scientology, and other topics also found on Wikipedia’s internal List of controversial issues.

It comes as no surprise that climate change is one of them, and it’s on that particular topic that Wikipedia has just topic-banned a long-time contributor. The person in question is William Connolley, a British writer, Scienceblogs contributor and former climate researcher. Unusual for most Wikipedia editors, Connolley is himself the subject of a Wikipedia article himself. As an aside, I’m not sure that Connolley is strictly “notable“, but he was featured briefly (and sympathetically) in a 2006 New Yorker article about Wikipedia.

Most of the commentary on Connolley comes from the political right, even to the point of inspiring his own watchdog site and the occasional newspaper column. However, the most consistent (persistent?) coverage of Connolley’s Wikipedia editing has undoubtedly been provided by Anthony Watts of the blog Watts Up With That? Watts’ take on Connolley’s banning is here.

I’m not particularly familiar with Connolley’s activity or the controversies extending therefrom, but more than a few dedicated Wikipedians certainly are. He is among the most carefully-scrutinized Wikipedia editors — the discussion page associated with his account is the 11th-most “watchlisted” Talk page, following only a couple of technical pages and those belonging to Wikipedia’s best-known contributors.

Getting to the bottom of this all is no simple matter, and I confess that I’m going to punt: Wikipedia’s arbitration committee took nearly two months and some 36,000 words to arrive at the decision. You can read the whole thing, or just the section where members of the committee voted to restrict his editing activity. If I understand it correctly, the ultimate reason for the actions taken was not the material he sought to introduce but the attitude he showed toward editors who disagreed with his point of view. For Connolley’s point of view, his commentary on the decision can be found on his own Talk page, and in a post at Scienceblogs.

If I’ve missed anything important, please add it in the comments.

Charted Territory: When Good Infographics Go Bad

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on August 12, 2010 at 8:32 pm

I will be blunt: the new infographic from David McCandless (Information is Beautiful), called “Articles of War: Wikipedia’s lamest edit wars“, is so lazy as to be misleading, glib as to be condescending, and generally unhelpful that I’m inclined to say that it sets back the public understanding of how Wikipedia works all by itself.

Up front: I respect McCandless and like what he does, which includes some interesting and thoughtful work, especially his print of Left vs. Right (U.S. and Rest of the World editions) that is better than most professional political analysts could produce. Separately, I am collaborating with friends on a Wikipedia visualization project of our own, so call me an interested observer, but note also that I’ve been thinking about this kind of thing lately.

I have reproduced only the top section of “Articles of War” below, for the purposes of commentary (click through to see the full thing on McCandless’ site):

Articles of War (excerpt)

The first thing to know about “Articles of War” is that it was based on an essay to be found in the recesses of Wikipedia called “Lamest edit wars” that is specifically kept in the site’s intra-wiki space because, as it states at the top: “This page contains material that is kept because it is considered humorous.” McCandless & Co. do give credit where it is due, but that Wikipedia page surely does not and never did intend to be definitive — it’s just a series of cheekily-written paragraphs about various arguments occurring over time, so there is nothing like meaningful numbers to be gleaned from it.

Instead, McCandless and his researchers decided to generate data to visualize these edit wars by counting the total number of edits over each article’s lifetime, counting not just the edits specifically related to that particular dispute (a difficult and time-consuming thing to research, it goes without saying) but every single edit, ever, thereby giving a grossly distorted view of each article’s history. I’ll give them the fact that if one looks to the legend in the top lefthand corner, it indicates that the number listed (and I presume the size of each box) relates to the “Total no. of edits” but even if readers do notice that, it is at best confusing.

Likewise, the articles’ relative position on the chart accords to their creation, not when the described dispute took place. If you think 2,000+ edits were expended on a photograph in the Cow-tipping article in the middle of 2001, that’s too bad, but you were reasonably misled. Nor would would you know that the article did not include a photograph until several years later.

What you are left with is a decent visualization of how frequently edited some randomly selected articles — some popular, some timely, some but not all controversial — happen to be. Why not simply show that? Focusing on this alone we can see that the following articles have attracted tens of thousands of edits over the years:

  • The Beatles
  • Jesus
  • Wikipedia
  • Christianity
  • Ann Coulter
  • Star Wars
  • Wii

That’s not linkbait enough for you? Then please do the research.

Meanwhile, the infographic is also a little too snarky for its own good, especially toward its chosen subject. Color-coding is used to categorize certain types of edit wars; one is labeled “American Cultural Superiority” and exists mainly to identify debates between U.S. and British spellings. Which I find a little… superior itself, but hey, I suppose it’s a misdemeanor violation. Worse is that edit wars involving Wikipedia and site co-founder Jimmy Wales are coded as “Religion.” Too cute. Or maybe just an oversight?

Another oversight concerns an on-wiki debate about whether the most famous Palin was, at the time of its occurrence, Monty Python’s Michael or Alaska’s former governor Sarah. (Since then, I believe the one with decades of contributions to comedy has been definitively usurped by the mavericky one’s more recent, er, contributions.) According to “Articles of War” this happened in 2003. But if you think about it, this makes no sense at all — of course this happened in 2008, when John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. And the Lamest edit wars essay itself mentions that this happened in 2008. Pure oversight to be sure, but I have to wonder what other mistakes the research team made.

To their partial credit, they have opened their Google Spreadsheets for public inspection, so it’s clear they at least intended to impart real information. And there you can see that they are indeed using the total number of edits over time and that their “Palin” error was made early on. That seems to put the responsibility on the researchers, rather than McCandless himself, but of course it’s a total package.

I hold McCandless to a standard that I don’t the jokers at Cracked* or Something Awful because their job is to make you laugh, while McCandless’ job, according to his website’s own tagline, is to take “issues, ideas, knowledge, data” — and make it easier to understand by visualizing it. There are certainly issues and ideas to be found in “Articles of War” — but knowledge and data, not so much. And though I am getting a little more rant-y than usual about this, I do aim to be constructive, so I would very much like to see this infographic re-done with some extra research. This blog post may serve as a guide if they so choose. I hope they do.

P.S. The Gizmodo thread — where I found it — on this is hilarious, with many people re-fighting the same disputes that once arose on Wikipedia. However, only one that I saw came anywhere near noticing the fact that the methodology was suspect.

P.P.S. Am I being nitpicky to add that “Articles of War” appears to convey that Wikipedia’s articles about The Beatles and Jesus were created prior to 2001? That is to say before Wikipedia itself began? I don’t actually think so.

*Actually, about Cracked — a.k.a. Digg’s favorite website — as I have seen a prominent Wikipedian point out elsewhere, it often does a pretty good job using information from Wikipedia responsibly. Among their articles about Wikipedia, the title of “5 Terrifying Bastardizations of the Wikipedia Model” alone gives away that it’s implicitly pro-Wikipedia, as does “5 Celebrity Wikipedia Entries they Clearly Wrote Themselves“. Even “8 Most Needlessly Detailed Wikipedia Entries” knows what’s good about Wikipedia, even when it isn’t. Cracked writers clearly know their way down through a history page — like say, Corey Feldman’s — but it doesn’t appear that McCandless and his researchers looked as closely.

Too Hot to Handel? Wikipedia’s Troubled Role in State Political Campaigns Continues

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on July 6, 2009 at 8:59 am

As noted here recently in the case of Creigh Deeds, a well-written, informative Wikipedia article can have a positive impact on a candidate’s reputation. As noted here a couple months back in the case of Ryan Coonerty, a Wikipedia article edited primarily by opponents can have the opposite effect.

The case of Georgia secretary of state and gubernatorial hopeful Karen Handel is one of the latter, and it points to exactly why politicians should keep a close watch on their page as well as just what can happen when they do not.

In early June, a relatively new editor going by the name RomneyGingrich12 changed Handel’s article from…

She served as Deputy Chief of Staff to Vice-President Quayle’s wife, Marilyn Quayle, where she worked to promote breast cancer awareness.


She dropped out of highschool, but later got her GED. She forwent college to served as Deputy Chief of Staff to Vice-President Quayle’s wife, Marilyn Quayle, where she worked to promote breast cancer awareness.

Forget the typos. Forget the lack of a source. And forget the tendentious nature of the change. This was not obvious vandalism — the edit contained neither obscenity nor nonsense — and it remained on the page for 20 more days, until Georgia politico Erick Erickson — known nationally for editing the conservative website RedState — posted about it on his Peach Pundit blog:

In fact, Handel both graduated from high school and went on to college until getting a job in the White House.

Judging by RomneyGingrich12’s history on Wikipedia, he appears to be a big fan of John Oxendine, having edited the Ox’s bio religiously and also having made sure to point out in Ray McBerry’s biography that McBerry came in second in a straw poll to Oxendine. The original reference to McBerry just said he came in second.

And it so happens that Stu Rothenberg, a Washington-based political analyst, had already picked up the GED information from Handel’s Wikipedia article. Jim Galloway at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution questioned Rothenberg on the subject:

We called Rothenberg this afternoon. The political analyst said he picked up information about the GED by talking to his Georgia contacts. Rothenberg acknowledged that he saw the information on Wikipedia as well, but said that’s not what he based his reporting on.

“I may have made a mistake,” Rothenberg said. But the columnist said he has also asked Handel’s staff for more information. “I’m waiting for a response,” he said. “I’m waiting for data on the woman’s life.”

Granted, it’s hard to fault Rothenberg if a detail he found on Wikipedia was backed up by interviews in the state. The GED claim was finally removed on June 29, but by then it was too late for Handel to stay quiet. On July 3, WBS-TV in Atlanta ran a story titled “Karen Handel Upset Over Altered Wikipedia Entry” which begins:

Secretary of State Karen Handel, a Republican running for governor, wants to set the record straight about her education.

“For the record, yes, I have a high school diploma,” said Handel.

Yikes. Although Handel seems to have dealt with the situation appropriately, by the time this kind of thing gets into the press, the damage has been done. After all, one thing people know about her is a false story — and they may or may not know it is false. Now the page is attracting vandals from beyond Georgia, some of whom are writing much worse things.

Erickson claims to have identified RomneyGingrich12 as an Oxendine staffer, and while the circumstantial evidence is certainly there, it seems unlikely to hurt Oxendine as much without a smoking gun, resignation or firing — and one can expect the Oxendine camp to do whatever they can to avoid such a scenario. That may not be fair, but that’s politics.

If there is one leveler here, it is that now both the Oxendine and Handel pages currently are affixed with the same warning templates:


Those won’t last forever, and I have to wonder which article will be improved first. So far, all the news has not resulted in significant changes to either. Both campaigns need to have open representatives working through the Wikipedia community to make sure their articles are written as fairly as possible. Until then, the coverage will continue.

Words and Deeds: Wikipedia and the Virginia Governor’s Race

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on June 14, 2009 at 8:03 am

The Democratic Party of Virginia settled on a nominee for governor this past week, choosing state senator Creigh Deeds over two better-known rivals, including former DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe. (On the Republican side, Bob McDonnell was unopposed for the nomination.) Following the race, Virginia blogger and Wikipedia contributor Waldo Jaquith posted about “Wikipedia’s role in Sen. Deeds’ nomination“, featuring quotes from a live discussion WashingtonPost.com. Wrote one voter:

I voted for Deeds. The WaPo endorsement really helped. I started doing the research this weekend and was disappointed that the WaPo did not have a quick guide the issues. I searched for a half an hour and did not find a quick rundown of the candidates and the issues.

Also, Deeds had a wikipedia page about his past stances. That really helped. The other two did not have similar pages.

Interestingly, the specific page quoted — “Political positions of Creigh Deeds” — has been merged back into the main Deeds article, but the content appears intact. Jaquith writes:

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Wikipedia is going to play a large role in year’s Virginia elections. The campaigns that a) understand that, b) harness that and c) do so in a fair, unbiased way will reap the benefits. The campaigns that ignore Wikipedia or attempt to manipulate its information in a way that is anything less than fully truthful will be penalized accordingly.

In fact, that seems to have already occurred in the primary. As noted in an overexcited but basically correct diary at Daily Kos last week, ““You can’t handle the truth!” TMac’s dogs scrub Wikipedia of facts” supporters of McAuliffe did remove sourced information, none of which has been restored as of this writing.

In the first instance, material about a land deal and disgraced Democratic fundraiser John Huang because it “lacked NPOV” (i.e. not written from a neutral point of view), and in the second about business deals involving Telergy and inPhonic “for being unsourced.” Well. Lacking a neutral tone is cause to rewrite a section, but not a reason to delete — certainly not as a first resort. Second, the inPhonic material was properly sourced, and better than deleting the Telergy section would have been to find a citation. On the other hand, this goes both ways — the material was almost certainly added to cast doubt upon McAuliffe’s fitness for office, and according to the discussion page about McAuliffe’s article, much of this criticism popped up just days before the Tuesday primary vote. And so it goes.

So now the Commonwealth turns to the general election where, if Jaquith’s prediction is correct, the articles about Deeds and McDonnell will be both important resources as well as the locus of battles to establish narratives about each candidate. Indeed, both articles are the top non-official sites listed in Google searches for each candidate’s name. (Another important article will be Virginia gubernatorial election, 2009.)

As yet, Deeds’ article is the better one, in part because of the aforementioned section outlining Deeds’ political positions. His article is also somewhat more active, probably due to the active primary, and more experienced editors working on the page. Recent contributors to Deeds’ page include Virginia resident John Broughton, who literally wrote the book on editing Wikipedia, whereas most recent work on McDonnell’s page has been done from unregistered accounts represented only by the user’s IP address. Jaquith, for his part, has recently edited both.

It’s a good bet that, after the summer, editing on both articles will ramp up as November draws closer. It will be interesting to see how they develop.

How Not to Plead Your Case at Wikipedia

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on March 29, 2009 at 10:20 am

Yesterday I wrote a relatively lengthy post discussing the circumstances surrounding the deletion of a Wikipedia article about Human Achievement Hour (HAH), a parody holiday created this year by the Competitive Enterprise Institute. The title — “Why WWF’s Earth Hour Gets a Wikipedia Entry But CEI’s Human Achievement Hour Doesn’t” — was a bit misleading in that it did not actually go point-by-point about why the Earth Hour article lives yet HAH is no more, mostly because it was a response to a request from CEI’s Twitter guy about whether environmentalist-oriented articles had been removed in a similar manner (they have).

There should be no great mystery as to why the article was deleted, and the reasons given can be found in the relevant deletion debate. But such discussions are not always easy for the uninitiated to follow, so let me try to explain a little more neatly:

  • The article’s supporters maintained that because the fake holiday had been mentioned in various publications, it deserved an article.
  • However, they failed to acknowledge that these citations do not trigger notability — Wikipedia’s rules are a little more complex than that.
  • For one thing, mentions in the National Post and National Review were by CEI employees; commentaries don’t count toward establishing Notability in the same way that reported news articles do.
  • Notices from actual news articles, in USA Today and Time, only mentioned HAH in articles about Earth Hour.
  • Therefore, HAH warrants a mention in the Earth Hour article (which was not in dispute for long) but because it does not yet have news reports dedicated to HAH itself, it doesn’t make the cut for a standalone article. It would need at least two or three to rate.

Yet there are at least two recently-arrived Wikipedia contributors who may not necessarily have CEI’s blessing but have continued to press their argument at Wikipedia. And, to put it diplomatically, they are going about it all wrong.

The first, as noted previously, is someone calling themselves Thehondaboy. The second is an account named Thelobbyist, which has only ever edited articles related to this issue. So let’s take a tour of the arguments made by these two and the mistakes they’ve made. This won’t contain all of the necessary context, but I will link to the pages that provide it.

Going chronologically, Thehondaboy argued in the HAH deletion debate on March 23:

    The commentor presumably thinks that criticism from ClimateBiz determines the event is not notable. ClimateBiz commentary will obviously be opposed to CEI or anyone that sides with their position or takes part in the event. Obviously they believe (or hope) the event is not notable. Using their sentiments to determine notability is therefore asinine. The use of the link is clearly to show a major player in the environmental movement noting the event. The observation by the of the event taking place justifies its notability. Thehondaboy (talk —Preceding undated comment added 20:37, 23 March 2009 (UTC).

Thehondaboy makes two primary mistakes, that I see. The first is violating the “Assume good faith” guideline; making inferences about another editor’s political viewpoint does not change any of the facts under discussion and is no way to ingratiate you with other editors. It’s a tactic of weakness, and a sure sign you’re going to lose. Second, look up what “Notability” means to Wikipedians.

On the same page, Thehondaboy argued later:

    It certainly sounds like the attempts of someone opposed to the event, rather than someone simply and unbiasedly concerned about whether it should or should not exist. The reasons for it’s removal are weak. There are reasonable sources that have listed the event. Whpq asks for reliable sources. I don’t know who Whpq is. He is some random guy on the Internet. Why would he get to decide what is or is not a “reliable source.” Weak argument for deletion. Additionally, he again makes the assumption based on personal bias that the event is not notable. The argument that “We don’t create articles in the hopes that the subject may become notable in the future,” is not valid because it has not been agreed on that the subject is not notable. The events notability has not been agreed upon, so therefore we can’t determine that it is currently or will be notable. Post hoc ergo propter hoc.Thehondaboy (talk —Preceding undated comment added 20:42, 23 March 2009 (UTC).

Pretty much the same thing here, although now that the discussion is resolved to the dissatisfaction of Thehondaboy, he’s making the same arguments again. There are a few behavioral guidelines that apply here, but one worth focusing on is “Characteristics of problem editors” which unfortunately describes Thehondaboy. Here he is again, on the talk page of an editor who had disagreed on the deletion review after the HAH page was first removed. And here is Thelobbyist also claiming to know the rules better than Wikipedia editors who regularly work in AfD:

    Very clearly what I mean by political is the fact that editor’s of the Earth Hour page have been rallied to endorse deletion on our page whether it has merit or not. It’s obvious that no one actually cares about merit or WP rules. There is no way after this I could ever trust anything on WP ever again. There are climate articles built on blog citations. But Human Achievement Hour is mentioned in 3 national papers including the USA Today. And there is a story citing it in TIME MAGAZINE today. But these aren’t good enough for noteriety. Why? Because individuals personal bias is deciding when these will be good sources or not. This whole project is a sham. thehondaboy (talk) 17:03, 28 March 2009 (UTC)

“Problem editor” also describes Thelobbyist, another account created with the apparent sole purpose of arguing about HAH. Here he (or she) is on yet another editor’s discussion page, with Thehondaboy right on his heels:

    Human Achievement Hour
    Your deletion of HAH is based on a previous page that had no notability. A brief even callous glance at the new page placed up today would make it very, very obvious that the event is notable now. It appeared in the USA TODAY this morning, and two national news papers yesterday. This is censorship at it’s finest. Especially being that the event is tomorrow. It needs to be reinstated now. Thelobbyist (talk) 22:06, 27 March 2009 (UTC)

    Agreed. Reinstate. thehondaboy (talk) 22:07, 27 March 2009 (UTC)

Thelobbyist’s attempt to dictate content is laughable, although it is disruptive and therefore serious. This person makes a few obvious errors, such as arguing that Wikipedia is censored and trying to impose a deadline. Wikipedia does not take kindly to being called “censors,” and conservatives who know that only the government can truly impose censorship should not be flinging the term around. Likewise, Wikipedia is not a promotional tool, and will generally resist attempts to use it in this manner. And of course, it’s painfully clear neither of the pro-HAH contributors have bothered to study the aforementioned Notability guidelines even four days later.

Worse still is the fact that Thehondaboy’s comment was added just one minute after Thelobbyist’s, which raises the possibility that they are working as a team — a frowned-upon activity referred to as Meat puppetry:

While Wikipedia assumes good faith especially for new users, the recruitment of new editors to Wikipedia for the purpose of influencing a survey, performing reverts, or otherwise attempting to give the appearance of consensus is strongly discouraged.

I don’t know who either editor may be or whether they are in fact working in tandem, but I will reiterate my point from yesterday: it’s a shame that CEI cannot find someone more knowledgeable or conscientious to make sure they are represented fairly.

There are more examples from both editors, but they tend to mine the same territory. Four days later, both editors were still banging their heads against the wall. Here’s Thelobbyist reduced to being snide on still another editor’s talk page:

    Enjoy your articles?
    I hope so. Thelobbyist (talk) 06:58, 28 March 2009 (UTC)

And here’s Thehondaboy, back on the original deletion debate:

    This just got picked up by Michelle Malkin. michellemalkin.com. Any further questioning of it’s relevance or notoriety is at this point garbage rhetoric from individuals biased against this article. —Preceding unsigned comment added by Thehondaboy (talk • contribs) 17:33, 24 March 2009 (UTC)

Right, but Michelle Malkin is a blogger and that only counts under certain circumstances. It’s also hilarious — and almost as telling — that this person has confused “Notability” with a non-existent “Notoriety” standard. And if there’s one thing Thehondaboy knows, it’s garbage rhetoric. What’s more, this kind of edit activity makes it difficult to take seriously complaints from NewsBusters’ Christine Hall that there is an “Enviro Wikipedia Assault on Human Achievement Hour” going on. Doesn’t it look like the other way around?

Let me conclude with a few quick points of advice:

  • Don’t make demands.
  • Don’t issue threats.
  • Don’t keep making arguments that have already been resolved.
  • Don’t treat Wikipedia debates like a 50 percent-plus-one vote.
  • Don’t argue that other editors are politically-motivated — especially if you are also politically-motivated.

These are all negative, so here are a couple that are positive:

  • Remember that words like notable, verifiable, reliable and others have specific meanings at Wikipedia, so get to know them.
  • Ask for help.

Yes, ask for help. Go to the Help desk and ask uninvolved editors which content guidelines apply. Wikipedia is not monolithic, and if one or two editors are unfairly denying your argument, another editor is likely to make a non-judgmental call. Maybe you win or maybe you don’t. But you sure won’t get posts like this written about you.

Why WWF’s Earth Hour Gets a Wikipedia Entry But CEI’s Human Achievement Hour Doesn’t

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on March 28, 2009 at 5:05 pm


You may have heard of Earth Hour, an eco-Hallmark holiday for the Twitter age, created by the World Wildlife Fund in 2007 and promoted in the media each year since.

You are probably less likely to have heard of Human Achievement Hour, a counter-holiday launched by the Competitive Enterprise Institute this year.

I was unfamiliar until I noticed CEI’s Twitter account acting upset on Friday about the deletion of a Wikipedia article about their new tradition. I responded to @ceidotorg and said I would take a look for myself. Here are the relevant tweets, in descending choronological order:

    ceidotorg: #hah Attempts to ‘delete’ Human Achievement Hour in Wikipedia http://ping.fm/4rABR #fr33 #tcot #liberty #c4 –1:38 PM by CE
    ceidotorg: #hah WIkipedia deletion discussion here http://bit.ly/kZMJ No good reason given for axing entry on HAH -#liberty #tcot –3:22 PM
    ceidotorg: #hah deleted by Wikipedia now banned by Youtube in 1 minute -Human Achievement strikes again http://ping.fm/5wtS4 #liberty #tcot –12:44PM
    williambeutler: Sorry, @ceidotorg, your Wikipedia article was not deleted because editors didn’t like your agenda: http://twurl.nl/ersp1o –1:11 PM
    williambeutler: @ceidotorg Not surprising an event that hasn’t occurred yet and is just getting notice wouldn’t make the cut. Next year may be different. –1:16 PM
    ceidotorg: @williambeutler if you could provide any solid evidence that the same occurred to an entry that agreed with green agenda-I’d believe that –3:34 PM

I said I knew just the place to look, and that was WikiProject Deletion sorting/Environment/archive, which saves past discussions from Wikipedia’s Articles for Deletion process — where entries that just aren’t ready for prime time go to die.

On that page, I counted 36 deliberations over keeping vs. deleting articles on Environmental topics since the archive category was created last year. And after counting twice, I found 14 nominated articles were kept, 13 were deleted and 9 were “other” — sometimes being merged into other articles.

This demonstrates in the aggregate that just any submission of interest to Wikipedia’s many environmentalist-minded contributors won’t stick just for being “politically correct.” The results even looks outwardly fair, although Wikipedia is concerned more with process than outcome.

Meanwhile, there are specific examples of such debates from the past and present we can study:

  • There is no longer an article about an outfit named Carbon Purging, which seems to be one of these “green” companies whose business model depends on an Al Gore-style guilt-trip.
  • Climate conflict, a little-used term apparently referring to some kind of feared global warming-sparked regional confrontation, got the boot.
  • More recently, the neologism Hot Stain (not what it sounds like, whatever you think that may be) is currently the subject of a sustained, as it were, debate on both sides (based on what I’ve seen, I lean “delete”).
  • And a biographical entry about an “eco-feminist” named Leslie Davies is currently headed down to defeat.

The important thing is that all of these decisions — and all of those that resulted in a “keep” — were made by community consensus based on the content guidelines with which anyone can familiarize themselves.


Since I started writing this post, I’ve been following the actions of an editor using the handle Thehondaboy, who had been pressing the CEI case on the “AfD” debate over Human Achievement Hour (aka #hah, if you didn’t catch that) in recent days, has been trying to dramatically expand the “Criticism” section on the Earth Hour page to include substantial details about the campaign, including just about every single mention in the media — over and over again, after being reverted — as if the previously-given explanations (about why they didn’t satisfy the guidelines) never took place.

And it’s not an insignificant point that Human Achievement Hour had in fact already been prominently mentioned on the Earth Hour article. Yet Thehondaboy was apparently not satisfied with that.

I’m a little surprised this account hasn’t been temporarily blocked from editing, although it does look like it’s headed in that direction. I have no idea who Thehondaboy is, though I do certainly hope it is not someone from CEI edit warring on this point. From this editor they’d be wise to keep their distance.

Wikipedia needs conservatives and right-leaners to contribute, especially at the margins where many topics would be lopsided in favor of the left-progressive perspectives of editors from WikiProject Environment. As an economic libertarian myself, it’s especially frustrating to see CEI’s cause reduced to a futile struggle against a set of rules (and a community) that its chief advocate hasn’t taken the time to understand.

I have written elsewhere that many conservatives’ complaints about Wikipedia are misplaced (see here and here, for example) and this seems to be another such case.

Conservatives are not unique in having a weak grasp of how Wikipedia functions, nor are they even alone among political activists. The website is undoubtedly complicated, but it’s hardly incomprehensible. If you learn to edit according to rules, you can figure out which battles are winnable — ahem, which content disputes are likely to be resolved in your favor — and save yourself a real headache.

Don’t Be WorldNetDaily’s Aaron Klein

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on March 11, 2009 at 2:52 pm

As noted yesterday, a recent article by WorldNetDaily Jerusalem bureau chief Aaron Klein about Wikipedia’s alleged “scrubbing” of President Obama’s Wikipedia article resulted in additional coverage that brought to light the probability that Klein himself had made the controversial edits in question and was also the creator and top contributor to his own Wikipedia entry (at least until yesterday, when it exploded with activity.

To be fair, Klein has now claimed (in a letter to Gawker) that he is not in fact Jerusalem21 but in fact only told a subordinate at WND to edit the page:

First, I am not “Jerusalem21,” but I do know the Wikipedia user (he works with me and does research for me), and I worked with him on this story, which focused on investigating allegations I had received from others of Wikipedia scrubbing Obama’s page.

Whatever. Klein is probably satisfied that he has brought to the world’s attention the horrible Wikipedia conspiracy to keep fringe theories out of articles where they don’t belong, but it may come at a price he didn’t expect:


If you check out the deletion debate itself, it’s not immediately clear which way it will go. Many votes for Keep and many for Delete as well. The fact that Klein (or his subordinate) wrote up a vanity page is not the issue — after all, it can always be changed — but whether Klein meets Wikipedia’s notability requirement certainly is.

Amusingly, some take the position that Klein did not meet the requirement prior to criticizing Wikipedia, but due to the ensuing coverage, he now does. And I think this is may be correct, though I think it’s arguable he met the requirement in the first place. I think the article will most likely survive, even if the decision is “no consensus.” But he may not like that, either — because as long as the article stays, so will some version of this:

Klein removed the name of the editor from the article after reports arose on blogs and Wired News that he might himself be the suspended editor described in the story.

The So-Called Fight Over Barack Obama’s Wikipedia Article

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on March 10, 2009 at 7:27 am

There are two stories going around in the past 24 hours about President Obama’s biographical article on Wikipedia. One, from FoxNews.com, is about the article downplaying Obama’s relationship with the controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright and eliminating all references to erstwhile domestic terrorist William Ayers. The second is from WorldNetDaily and concerns Wikipedia editors reverting attempts to mention the alleged controversy over whether Obama was in fact born somewhere outside the United States, thus making him ineligible for the presidency (misleadingly promoted at Druge as “WIKIPEDIA scrubs Obama page clean of critical entries…”).

While I haven’t done extensive research into the history of this page or its associated talk page, I think there are reasonable questions involved but as we will get to later, this is ultimately a non-story.

First of all, Fox was wise to have ignored WND’s primary concern: there is a big difference between campaign controversies that merited mainstream press attention and those which remained the confined to blogs and message boards. The editor who removed the “eligibility” information the first time cited WP:FRINGE and WP:UNDUE and if neither guideline is familiar, they are worth studying. However, due to the actual lawsuits that were not covered in conjunction with the campaign, the subject is deserving of its own Wikipedia article, and it has one: Barack Obama citizenship conspiracy theories.

Meanwhile, I can at least envision a case being made that Ayers warrants a mention on this page, although not much more of one than what Wright gets:

Obama resigned from Trinity during the Presidential campaign after controversial statements made by Rev. Jeremiah Wright became public.[200]

This sentence resides in the “Family and personal life” section, and is the closing sentence in a paragraph on Obama’s religious views. This also points to the fact that Wright was, by all accounts, a much more important person in Obama’s life than was Ayers. It’s true, the article does not mention that inspiration for the title “The Audacity of Hope” comes from Wright, but the article on the book most certainly does.

In fact, Fox News’ Joshua Rhett Miller concedes there is less than meets the eye here in this paragraph:

Obama’s controversial relationships with both men have two extensive independent Wikipedia pages: “Bill Ayers presidential election controversy” and “Jeremiah Wright controversy.” The associations, however, are largely downplayed or ignored altogether in Obama’s main Wikipedia entry.

True (see here and here, respectively). There is also a discussion of Wright in the article about Obama’s presidential primary campaign and mentions of Ayers in that article as well as the one about his general election campaign. This is whitewashing?

That said, the concern that supporters of President Obama may zealously guard the page is a real one. Wikipedia has a whole guideline pointing out that no single editor has ownership over any article, which is a pretty good indication that this does happen. Because Wikipedia runs on consensus, it is also possible that a group of like-minded editors are reinforcing each other’s desire to see negative material removed from the article. Likewise, relegating disputed material to another page in order to avoid debates is called POV forking, and is discouraged. However, I see no clear-cut evidence this either the case, and it would take several hours’ research for me to know enough to say.

Meanwhile, what is clear is that the editor whose reverted additions of aforementioned material did a clumsy job, is obviously motivated by political considerations and is hardly a conscientious Wikipedia contributor. As Wired points out:

Of more interest is the identity of the mysterious Jerusalem21, whose courageous disregard of Wikipedia’s ban on fringe material provided WND’s Aaron Klein with his smoking gun in the first place, spawning what will soon be a national wiki-scandal.

Curiously, it turns out that Jerusalem21, whoever he or she might be, has only worked on one other Wikipedia entry since the account was created, notes ConWebWatch. That’s Aaron Klein’s entry, which Jerusalem21 created in 2006, and has edited 37 times.

Who watches the watchmen, indeed.