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There was no “solution” to these derelictions if Wikipedia were to retain its basic identity as a “democratic” encyclopedia. There was only a trade-off which in “solving” this problem of defamation created a treatment worse than the disease: the birth of a “more equal” class of 20,000 volunteer editors who had greater level of authority to alter and control entries. Their responsibility is to act as guards for all articles about living people, reviewing suggested edits before they go live. The decision was made by the Wikimedia Foundation, the California nonprofit that operates the site, not only to prevent libelous vandalism but also to reduce the threat of lawsuits. Wales and Wikimedia chairman Michael Snow both voiced their support for the new policy, with “benevolent dictator” Wales noting soberly that the great informational power they had created was a “serious responsibility.”
This sentiment is a cousin to Google’s corporate motto “Don’t be evil,” also a manifestation of the utopian hacker ethos. Of course, as with Google’s occasional failures to live up to its values, Wikipedia’s altruism in theory enables malice in practice.
Wikipedia, continually guided by the ideal of universal human goodness, entrusted greater power to its most devoted, loyal user base. By definition, more authority was granted to individuals with the significant free time to devote to a volunteer, utopian endeavor to shape the world’s information into a unified “consensus.” By and large such individuals are more likely to be leftists than the general population. Wikipedia’s own demographic statistics demonstrate this further: Only 13 percent are women. The average age for a contributor is 26.8 and most do not have a girlfriend, wife, or children. So, alone and apparently without a meaningful, fulfilling career, the devoted Wikipedian instead finds excitement in devoting his time to filling Ann Coulter’s entry with 35.6 percent criticism.
The most significant, blatant examples of bias will be found in these living person entries. To see the difference one need only compare Beck’s entry with its 23% rate of criticism to the more antiseptic entry for Beck’s TV show which has far less.
The bias in entries for persons no longer living and historical subjects is less marked and, when present, more subtle, as I will show in later essays in this Wikipedia series when I consider the treatment of such controversial and politicized historical subjects as Cold War espionage, the New Left, the Black Panther Party, etc. But even here, the sort of strong bias verging on character assassination sometimes found in the living persons entries occasionally intrudes. The Wikipedia entry for Che, the top google search result for “Che Guevara,” is an example. The 12,707 word entry features a single paragraph with 235 words of criticism – a modest 1.8 percent rate. This suggests that a Marxist revolutionary who commanded the guns executing the “enemies of the revolution” after the fall of Havana is far less controversial than Ann Coulter. And when one frustrated Wikipedian described the entry as a “hagiography” and protested the exclusion of the work of prominent Guevara-critic Humberto Fontova, whose analysis of the revolutionary’s nihilistic violence stands as an antidote to the romanticism of his apotheosis as St. Che, he was rebuked by a high level contributor (one of the 4000 most active) with the telling handle “Redthoreau.” The justification for the exclusion: facts from Fontova are “written in an hyperbolic and un-encyclopedic tone.” Thus Fontova’s informed view of Guevara’s bloody career is missing from the entry because Redthoreau objects to Fontova describing Che as “revered by millions of imbeciles.” In contrast, the Wikipedia entry for another of the Left’s icon, Noam Chomsky, asserts that America is a genocidal terror state worse than Nazi Germany, a sentiment even many leftists would characterize as hyperbolic. Yet Chomsky has the most detailed and respectful entries of any political commentator. And as of mid-August 2011 his page had an even higher level of protection than most living persons: a lock logo with the warning that the profile could not be edited by unregistered or new users.
Incidentally, Fontova’s own Wikipedia entry is 826 words, 432 of which are criticism, an unusually high 52 percent. Unsurprisingly, the primary author and watchdog of Fontova’s entry is Redthoreau.
Our political culture today revolves around debate of contested ideological symbols. For better or worse, arguments about the merits of Coulter and Moore, Beck and Olbermann are actually proxy battles in the culture war between the Right and Left. Unfortunately, Wikipedia, because of its decision to create an elite group of “information specialists,” has picked its side in this war and is now fighting on the front lines.
*For these analyses I’m not counting table of contents, bibliographies, or references in the word count – just the introduction and bodies of the entries written by Wikipedians.
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