Bias, Sabotage Haunt Wikipedia’s Free World

David Mehegan. Boston Globe. 12 Feb 2006.

When the news broke last month that US Representative Martin Meehan’s staff director admitted deleting unflattering material from Meehan’s profile on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, it might have been a shock to some. Maybe it shouldn’t have been. Wikipedia administrators have since turned up thousands of flattering or disparaging changes in profiles of dozens of members of Congress.

Last week, volunteer investigators discovered that staff members in the office of Senator Norm Coleman, Republican of Minnesota, removed descriptions of him as a “liberal Democrat” in college. A reference to Senator Dianne Feinstein’s payment of a 1992 fine for not disclosing her husband’s involvement in her campaign finances was removed by someone in her office.

The revelations that political bias has crept into articles raises new questions about an Internet phenomenon that some are acclaiming as the future of information. And the issues plaguing the site run deeper than political spin. Wikipedia touts itself as “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” and it is exactly that quality that is causing problems.

Two months after a highly publicized attack on the Wikipedia profile of a Tennessee newspaper editor—in which a prankster falsely implicated him in the murders of President John F. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy—the new disclosures sharpen a nagging question about Wikipedia: Can it stop sabotage and distortion without losing the freedom and openness that made the reference possible?

In five years, Wikipedia has amassed a mountain of impressive articles, written by thousands of anonymous contributors. But the dark side of that freedom is that Wikipedia’s articles are becoming battlegrounds, pitting writers with biased viewpoints and vandals trying to sabotage entries against a volunteer band of “Wikipedians” who constantly seek to set the record straight.

For the true believers, Wikipedia is far more than a reference work. It’s a movement, a social circle, a proof of the power of free Internet content, even a kind of optimistic cult. “Wikipedia’s goal is to give everyone on the planet free access to information,” founder Jimmy Wales said last week in a speech in Boston. “We’re talking about bringing people in to join the global conversation.”

At the same time, teachers and college professors are wondering whether they should allow students to cite Wikipedia as a source in term papers, which they are increasingly doing. Given its inherent nature as a work in progress, some wonder whether Wikipedia can ever be a reliable source of information.

Kate Clifford Larson, a Simmons College history professor who wrote a 2003 biography of Harriet Tubman, had barely heard of Wikipedia until her students began to cite it as a reference on research papers. Curious, she looked up the Wikipedia article on Tubman, the famous conductor of the Underground Railroad who rescued slaves from the antebellum South.

She was startled to find errors: the wrong birthplace for Tubman, as well as discredited legends that she had rescued 300 people and had had a $40,000 price on her head. Larson clicked on the “edit” link with the article, and corrected the errors herself. Then she clicked the article’s “history” link, which shows all the changes that have been made since it was started, and got a second shock.

“Someone has vandalized the site on a regular basis,” she said in an interview, “inserting racist and ugly comments, misinformation, and some basic juvenile toilet talk.”

The sabotage doesn’t appear in the article itself, but it can still be read in the history. “Someone would always go back and take out the racist stuff,” Larson said. “Who are these people who do this [sabotage]? I hope it’s teenage kids. I’m concerned that there isn’t some overarching editorial board.”

With no editorial board, Wikipedia (at wikipedia.org) works amazingly well. According to statistics on the site, since it was founded in 2001, the English-language version has drawn 857,750 registered users. Far fewer than this are still active, perhaps as many as 15,000. Last week, Wales, 39, cited internal data suggesting that 0.7 percent of users, about 615 people, have made more than 50 percent of edits. However many there are, the Wikipedians have developed a complex and more-or-less democratic system of rules and policies for contributions, such as neutral point of view, civility, citation of sources, and no libel or vandalism.

The project has 150 computer servers in South Korea, Amsterdam, Paris, and Florida, all managed day to day by volunteers. Indeed, the whole thing is run by volunteers, with a corps of about 800 administrators at the center—experienced, committed Wikipedians with special powers, elected by the community at large.

While Wales—internally known as Jimbo, and sometimes referred to as the “god-king” or “benevolent dictator”—retains ultimate control as president and chairman of the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, he doesn’t supervise content and takes no salary. He has only two full-time staff members, and funds to support the project come mostly from public fund-raising, in gifts of $50 to $100. Wikimedia Foundation—which has spun off such “sister projects” as Wikiquote, Wikinews, and Wictionary—spent $750,000 last year and expects to spend $1 million to $2 million this year.

Wales’s dream is high-minded, to be sure, but not everyone is sold. The best-known doubter is John Seigenthaler Sr., 78, retired editor and publisher of the Nashville Tennessean and founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. “In mid- September,” Seigenthaler said in an interview, “my wife got a call from a retired industrialist in town, who said, ‘What are you going to do about this stuff they’re saying about you?’ My wife called me and said, ‘Google yourself, click Wikipedia, and take a look.’ It knocked my eyes out.”

In a Wikipedia biographical article, after the accurate statement that “Seigenthaler was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960s,” someone had added, “For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven.” The sentences had been there for more than four months.

Seigenthaler called Wales, who was appalled at the slander and quickly wiped it out. However, he did not know who had done it. Wikipedia users don’t have to give real names or addresses. Anyone with access to a computer can log in and do mischief. On his own, Seigenthaler tracked down the saboteur to a business in Nashville, and an employee there admitted altering the article. He had done it as a prank.

Seigenthaler wrote a scathing op-ed piece in USA Today. “When I was a child,” he wrote, “my mother lectured me on the evils of ‘gossip.’ She held a feather pillow and said, ‘If I tear this open, the feathers will fly to the four winds, and I could never get them back in the pillow. That’s how it is when you spread mean things about people.’ For me, that pillow is a metaphor for Wikipedia.”

Wales and other Wikipedians say they were shocked by the incident and are working on new measures to fight vandals. “We care deeply about getting it right,” Wales said in an interview. “At the same time, you don’t have to beat up on yourself permanently. You have to ask, ‘What did we do wrong and what do we do better next time?’ “

Seigenthaler also called Larry Sanger, a key former member of Wales’s team. Interviewed for this story, Sanger said, “I felt horrible, almost personally responsible. It was a feature of the system that I set up that made it possible. I told him I always thought this would happen.”

But not all Wikipedians felt horrible.

Every article has a link for discussion, and after Seigenthaler went public, his discussion page was soon filled with furious debate between those who were distressed by the libel and those who considered him an enemy of free speech who just didn’t understand the greatness of Wikipedia.

“Mr. Seigenthaler’s attitude and actions are reprehensible and ill-formed,” said one typical comment. “[He] has the responsibility to learn about his own name and how it is being applied and used, as any celebrity does on the Internet and the world-at-large. Besides, if there is an error whether large or small, he can correct it on Wikipedia. Everyone fails to understand that logic.” Another wrote: “Rather than fixing the article himself, he made a legal threat. He’s causing Wikipedia a lot of trouble, on purpose.”

And some clearly thought he should be taught a lesson. Since the USA Today piece ran Nov. 30, the Seigenthaler profile has been continually sown with obscene, homophobic, racist, or vindictive comments.

Someone wrote that Seigenthaler’s wife had tried to kill Wales. On Dec. 21, the Kennedy allegation was inserted again. On Dec. 29, someone wrote, “Some journalists have commented [sic] on how odd it is that a proponent of ‘free speech’ is so intent on shutting down Wikipedia.” On Jan. 11: “He died last Tuesday while on vacation.” On Jan. 5, someone replaced all the photographs of Seigenthaler in the article with pictures of Lee Harvey Oswald, and repeated the trick Jan. 14. Most of these changes were removed within minutes by administrators watching the article.

As disturbing to Seigenthaler as the original incident and the ongoing attacks is the link to the editing history. Though Wales deleted the history of the original sabotage, all the garbage written since is there for inspection.

“Why is this happening to me after 78 years?” Seigenthaler asks. “I don’t want my grandson or great-grandson to read that history, and by God, they can read it now. These people have nothing against me except that I have criticized Wikipedia. Wales call them vandals, but they think of themselves as being loyal to Wikipedia.”

“There are many more good people than bad—in the world, and in this project,” said Wales. It’s a remark you hear from many Wikipedians. Wales, raised in Alabama, made a fortune in the Chicago futures market in the 1990s, and moved to St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1996 to start his online Internet portal site, Bomis.com. At first, Bomis featured soft-core erotic content. But Wales had long had a dream “to have a free, high-quality encyclopedia in all the languages of the world. I think that global universal access to basic information can have a transformative impact on the world.”

In 2000, he founded Nupedia, intended to be a comprehensive online encyclopedia and hired Sanger, a computer nerd with a doctorate in philosophy, as editor. At first, they expected Nupedia to have articles written by specialists such as Encyclopedia Britannica. But it was slow going, with only 20 articles completed in the first year. Britannica has 65,000 articles, available in books or by subscription online.

What happened next is disputed by Wales and Sanger. Sanger, who at times calls himself the cofounder, and says he got the idea of using “wiki” technology (“wiki” is Hawaiian slang for “quickly”; “pedia” comes from the Latin word for “education”) and proposed it to Wales in 2001. His Wikipedia profile says he “spearheaded and named the project, and formulated much of the original policy.” Wales’s profile says he got the idea from someone else, and last week he said “it’s preposterous” to call Sanger the cofounder.

No matter whose idea it was, it allowed encyclopedia articles to be written much faster, since a theoretically unlimited number of authors can contribute.

At first, Wales says, he doubted the anyone-can-edit system would work over time. He had suspected that, “as traffic grew, we would have to lock things down. The major revelation was how good people are—the vast majority of edits are helpful. We were able to remain open and flexible after more growth than we thought possible.” Today the encyclopedia has multiplied into versions in more than 200 languages, 85 of them with at least 1,000 articles. There are more than 960,000 articles in English. By some estimates, there are 40,000 contributors in all languages.

But the vandals multiplied, too, and the sabotage points up a fundamental philosophical difference between the Wales and Sanger schools. Wales believes open editing should remain, and that evildoers, or “trolls,” can be defeated or kept at bay by the good people, using sensible rules and effective tools. Sanger believes supervision should be in the hands of specialists.

“Wikipedia is not sufficiently committed to the involvement of expert contributors or to a review process that is credible to the public,” he said. “There is a difference between something that is more or less guaranteed to be the best representation of expert knowledge, and a pretty good guess on the part of amateurs working together.”

Sanger also lost patience with the “edit wars,” in which a persistent ignoramus battles with a well-informed contributor, each side deleting the changes of the other. “The idea that an expert should have to negotiate at length with someone who knows nothing about a matter of substance is ridiculous,” Sanger says. Such wars erupt over politics, culture, biography, and religion, and pages often have to be “protected”—wholly or partially locked against changes. The George W. Bush page is currently protected.

Cynics might expect the vandals to win in the end—after all, graffiti artists never quit. But there’s a core of loyal Wikipedians who are determined that they won’t.

Wikipedia administrator Ryan Kaldari, 28, of Nashville, is an active vandal-fighter. A programmer who edited his high school newspaper, Kaldari said John Seigenthaler had always been one of his heroes.

“I was especially concerned about that article,” he said. “I felt personally responsible, because I keep an eye on Nashville articles.”

Now he watches the article like a hawk and several times has temporarily protected it. While he understands Seigenthaler’s desire to wipe out the editing-history, Kaldari insisted, “It’s important for the history to be there—to have a record of how an article has evolved.”

Another vandal-fighter is administrator David Denniston, 48, of Santa Barbara, Calif. A high-tech manager and composer with a doctorate in music, Denniston has written 400 articles on medieval music.

“If you do a Google search on [15th-century composer] Guillaume Dufay,” Denniston says, “there is a link to Wikipedia. I intend to compete with Grove [the Grove Dictionary of Music], only my articles are free.”

At home and at work, Denniston watches the “recent changes” page and his own “watch list,” and using various shortcut software tools available to insiders, he zaps vandalism almost as soon as it appears. Asked why he bothers, Denniston said, “Suppose you could go to a big city and wherever you see [graffiti], click a button and repair a surface. One after another, they’re gone in 10 seconds. It’s extremely satisfying.”

Aside from sabotage, for many people the big question about Wikipedia is accuracy.

A December article in the journal Nature found that at least in science, its articles are only slightly less accurate than Encyclopedia Britannica. And college students are increasingly relying on it. However, some academics are skeptical.

“It’s absolutely not trusted, from a faculty point of view,” said Gregory Fried, chairman of the philosophy department of Suffolk University. “I don’t doubt that it has good articles, but I don’t know which are good and which are not.”

Joyce Lee Malcolm, professor of history at Bentley College, said her students are citing it in footnotes. But, she says, “for major papers, I don’t want them to use it. The articles and books I assign are refereed and are accurate. With Wikipedia, someone may be cranking it out in a garage somewhere.”

An e-mail request to a variety of scholars to look at articles in their fields turned up some complaints. David Garrow, author of a Pulitzer-winning book about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., replied: “I called up their MLK entry, and right in the second sentence there’s an obvious error: that King was awarded both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom before he was assassinated. Wrong. He was awarded that presidential medal in 1977, by Jimmy Carter.”

But most of those queried had no big complaints. “Thus far my experience of Wikipedia has been quite positive, with quite high levels of accuracy,” replied historian William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin and author of “Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West.” “I just skimmed the entry on Chicago, and what I did read seemed basically accurate.”

Even so, anyone may find errors. The article for Cardinal Bernard F. Law, for example, reports that amid the priest sex abuse crisis: “The archdiocese was forced to close 65 parishes before Cardinal Law stepped down.” In fact, the closures occurred under Law’s successor, Archbishop Sean P. O’Malley. The article on Hingham, Mass., says the town has a statue of revolutionary war general Benjamin Lincoln, “forebearer” of Abraham Lincoln. But there is no statue, and the two Lincolns were not related.

Wikipedians brush off such lapses. Wikipedia is a work in progress, they insist, and Larson’s repair to the Tubman entry only proves that it works. The site has an explicit disclaimer: “Use Wikipedia at your own risk … Wikipedia cannot guarantee the validity of the information found here.”

Despite the questions, there’s widespread admiration for Wikipedia among the Internet intelligentsia.

“I keep waiting to find out that there’s really a group of editors behind it,” said Jonathan Zittrain, professor of Internet governance at Oxford University and cofounder of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He has doubts, too—not so much about sabotage as about the kind of manipulation that happened on Capitol Hill.

“It’s not brute-force vandalism that will be a problem,” he said. “There’s a more subtle bias and spin.” Once publicists and marketers realize Wikipedia is one of the top results on Google searches, Zittrain said, “whether it’s Wal-Mart, a university, or a person, they will paint a positive picture on it. When it becomes so successful, people with agendas have reason to be part of the fray.”

It’s not only in Washington, of course. Around the time Governor Mitt Romney announced in December that he would not run again, a Wikipedia article about Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, who is running for governor, was edited. She was praised as “a rising star” with a “distinguished career.” No one knows who made the edits.