Wikipedia is currently ranked by internet analysis firm Alexa as the seventh most popular website in the world. Alexa estimates that 14% of global internet users have visited the site in the last three months. The free encyclopedia with more than 19 million articles in hundreds of languages stands with Google, Amazon, Youtube, Twitter, and Facebook as one of the foundational bases for the organization and distribution of information on the internet today. Used by students in term papers and individuals anxious for quick facts, it has acquired the reputation as a source of reliable “general information.” But like so many information-based institutions, Wikipedia has also come under growing criticism from political conservatives who see a leftwing bias, sometimes overt and often subtle, in its entries. Some on the Right take the claim so seriously that in protest they created Conservapedia as an alternative.
Finding examples of Wikipedia’s bias is not difficult. One need only compare the entries of figures who do the same thing but from opposite sides of the political spectrum.
Consider Ann Coulter versus Michael Moore. Coulter’s entry (on August 9, 2011) was 9028 words long.* Of this longer-than-usual entry, 3220 words were devoted to “Controversies and criticism” in which a series of incidents involving Coulter and quotes from her are cited with accompanying condemnations, primarily from her opponents on the Left. That’s 35.6 percent of Coulter’s entry devoted to making her look bad. By contrast, Moore’s entry is 2876 words (the more standard length for entries on political commentators), with 130 devoted to “Controversy.” That’s 4.5% of the word count, a fraction of Coulter’s. Does this mean that an “unbiased” commentator would find Coulter eight times as “controversial” as Moore?
The same disproportion can be seen in the former flagship stars of Fox News and MSNBC, Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann. Beck’s entry is 7810 words; instead of featuring a dedicated “controversy” section, as in the case of Coulter, the 1789 words of criticism from leftist opponents are scattered throughout -- 23 percent of the profile.
Beck’s page shows other metrics for measuring Wikipedia bias. First, the sources: Of the 206 references, 25-35 could be characterized as leftists critical of Beck, with frequent citations from Salon’s resident Beck antagonist Alexander Zaitchik and his attack book Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance. Another telling sign of bias is the fact that 9% of the entry, or 729 words, are comprised of potentially embarrassing details from Beck’s “personal life.” Such information is often more detailed in conservatives’ entries.
In Olbermann’s 3750 word entry 199 words (5 percent) could be characterized as criticism. However it is much more muted than that directed at Beck. Of the 199 critical words 113 are devoted to an incident in which Olbermann went off on a rant against Republican Senator Scott Brown that was so vulgar that Jon Stewart stepped in, eventually causing the MSNBC host to apologize. This is a frequent element in the treatment of leftist figures by Wikipedia. Criticism from those further to the Left (or, like Stewart, higher within progressives’ hierarchy of household gods) may be included which itself “centers” the subject of the profile. Incidents where the figure apologized for his or her transgressions may be featured as a form of exculpation, transforming a failing into a chance to show the subject’s humanity.
In the 111 references for the Olbermann entry, only a single one is from a conservative source, and it is not even used to present critical information. In contrast to Beck, Olbermann’s “personal life” section is 197 words, a mostly complimentary 5% of the entry.
Perhaps more interesting than the bias itself on Wikipedia are the two factors which enabled it, the first present in the project’s founding DNA, and the second in a new policy implemented in 2009.
Wikipedia was originally launched in 2001 as an off-shoot from Nupedia, a similar effort to construct a free online encyclopedia, although in this case written by experts instead of random, anonymous contributors. Developed by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, Wikipedia was an idea whose time had come on an information-driven net whose consumers couldn’t wait for the slow workings of expertise or the cost of proprietary content: a free encyclopedia written by anonymous users supposedly striving for an “unbiased” perspective.
There was not a single ideological vision driving Wikipedia’s founders and core contributors as they launched the project. Jimmy Wales, who would become the face of the project and its “benevolent dictator,” according to Andrew Lih’s The Wikipedia Revolution, is a libertarian and Ayn Randian Objectivist. Also important in shaping Wikipedia was the so-called “hacker ethos,” the culture that has developed amongst computer programmers over the last 40 years and been shaped by the Left, the counterculture, popular culture, and anarchist thought.
What binds together these ideologies is a utopian ideal that human beings are more prone to altruism rather than self-interest. In Wikipedia Revolution Wales is quoted as saying, “Generally we find most people out there on the internet are good… It’s one of the wonderful humanitarian discoveries in Wikipeda, that most people only want to help us and build this free nonprofit, charitable resource.” Ward Cunningham was the programmer who created the wiki concept and software. According to Lih, he believed in the Wiki because “People are generally good.”
Lih explains how this philosophy is embedded within Wikipedia’s rules:
A core idea Wikipedia embraced.. was to assume good faith when interacting with others. The guideline promoted optimistic production rather than pessimistic nay-saying, and reads, “Unless there is strong evidence to the contrary, assume that people who work on the project are trying to help it, not hurt it; avoid accusing others of harmful motives without particularly strong evidence.
But as it worked out, Wikipedia in practice has strayed from these utopian ideas because of the ease with which political and social bias trumps altruism.
After almost a decade of rapid growth and free-wheeling experimentation the situation at the site by the Summer of 2009 was chaos. Political operatives would sabotage one another in electoral contests by vandalizing pages. More malicious misinformation filtered in freely, with living historical figures accused of involvement in conspiratorial plots.
Ira Matetsky, known by his Wikipedia handle as newyorkbrad, is a lawyer and veteran Wikipedian, both an administrator on the site and part of the Arbitration Committee, the council of editors who sort out disputes between editors. In a series of articles at the libertarian group blog The Volokh Conspiracy, Matetsky discussed some of these incidents and described the power of Wikipedia to affect people’s lives:
In the intervening years, though, it’s become more and more clear that malicious or simply thoughtless content added to Wikipedia BLP’s (“Biographies of Living Persons”) can be very damaging. A series of serious and widely reported incidents have brought the problem to public attention. Among these: the [[Siegenthaler incident]], in which an article was vandalized to accuse a completely innocent person of suspected complicity in an assassination, and no one caught the problem for four months; the incident in 2007 in which a Turkish academic was detained for several hours by immigration officials in Canada, reportedly based on an inaccurate allegation in his Wikipedia article that he was a terrorist; the lawsuit brought by a prominent golfer against the person who added defamatory content to his article; the blatant attack page created against a well-known California attorney, allegedly as part of a negative public relations campaign launched on behalf of one of the companies he was suing.
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.