April 21, 2008
In the Battle of Wikipedia, we must not surrender
JOHN J. MILLER
‘Every organization should Google itself, just to see what comes up,” says Bridgett Wagner of the Heritage Foundation. As it happens, a Google search for “Heritage Foundation” produces millions of links. The first two go directly to the think tank’s own website. The third, however, leads to Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia.
This winter, Wagner was surfing around Wikipedia to see what it said about her employer. Soon she found herself reading the entry for Heritage president Edwin Feulner. “It was full of errors,” she says. Some of them were relatively harmless, such as the false claim that Feulner has a sister who is a nun. A prominent section of the entry, however, carried a different cast. “The author was obviously hostile to us,” she says. “It wasn’t even remotely neutral.”
Because Wikipedia is written and edited by the general public rather than a staff of professionals, almost anybody can alter its entries. Wagner looked into correcting the record. Today, the page on Feulner is at once more accurate and more substantial, with new and pertinent information about his family, career, and writings. There’s even a photograph of him. What was once an amateur hit job now has the look and feel of what might appear in a comprehensive encyclopedia — the sort of thing Wikipedia aspires to be.
So the immediate problem of a think tank’s brand management was solved. Yet the episode highlights a larger conundrum for conservatives, which is that Wikipedia brims with liberal bias — and that conservatives aren’t doing enough to fight back.
Founded in 2001, Wikipedia calls itself “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” It has become the most influential reference site on the web. It may even be the most influential reference source available anywhere, online or off. Its English-language edition carries more than 2.3 million articles, written by thousands of contributors who call themselves “Wikipedians.” These entries almost always rank high on Google searches. Most are on topics that have nothing to do with politics, such as black holes and fire ants. For nagging trivia questions — what is Indiana Jones’s middle name? — Wikipedia is a boon. It’s an increasingly reliable resource for general information as well. A couple of years ago, the journal Nature compared a sampling of scientific entries found on Wikipedia with those published in Encyclopedia Britannica. It determined that the newcomer was almost as trustworthy as the old hand.
Politics are another matter. They arouse more passions than photosynthesis, or at least different ones. The Pew Internet & American Life Project estimates that two years ago, during the last round of congressional elections, 25 million people “fact-checked the candidates online.” That figure is bound to rise this year, and these online investigations may influence undecided voters. Anybody who searches the Internet for information about candidates can’t avoid bumping into Wikipedia. On a Google search for “John McCain,” the Wikipedia entry comes in second — just below McCain’s presidential-campaign website and just above his Senate-office website.
McCain’s entry is locked, which means that ordinary users of Wikipedia can’t change its content. The same is true for a handful of other entries, including those on President Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. These are some of the most-read pages on Wikipedia, and the idea is to shield them from vandals. Only a handful of entries are protected, however. As for the rest, just about anybody can edit them, and at any time.
The most egregious examples of vandalism tend to be corrected quickly by devoted Wikipedians. It’s like the “broken windows” theory of crime — if you keep replacing the shattered windows, eventually the vandals will quit tossing rocks at them. Plenty of controversial subjects are handled with an exquisite sense of fairness, and Wikipedia provides a special forum for editors to debate each other on how best to treat topics. There are vigorous debates between “deletionists” who seek to eliminate material they consider irrelevant and “inclusionists” who believe that more information equals richer content.
As a result, Wikipedia is in a constant state of flux and improvement. In the current issue of Education Next, Michael Petrelli of the Fordham Foundation complains that Wikipedia’s entry on school vouchers contains an abundance of negative commentary, including the claim that vouchers encourage “taxpayer-subsidized ‘white flight’ from urban public schools.” Petrelli points out that the vast majority of students who receive vouchers in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Washington, D.C. — the few places where private-school-choice programs actually exist — are not white. Shortly after Petrelli published this observation, a Wikipedian added it to the school-voucher entry. Anybody who reads it now will learn that the white-flight claim is empirically false. “I guess it means that Wikipedia seems to be self-correcting,” says Petrelli.
If Wikipedia’s openness is its primary strength, it’s also the website’s greatest vulnerability. In 2005, John Seigenthaler, a former journalist and Department of Justice official, learned just how far the mischief can go. His entry suggested that he was involved in the assassinations of both JFK and RFK. The editor who made the claim intended it as a prank, but it went unnoticed for about four months. With some understandable bitterness, Seigenthaler wrote about his experience in USA Today, and Wikipedia suffered a blow to its credibility.
A Wikipedia entry is only as good as the person who wrote it or the last person who edited it — and if that person is a liberal who isn’t committed to the Wikipedian principle of objectivity, conservatives can suffer. “I used to monitor my boss’s page,” says a former staffer to a Republican congressman. “The people who set it up were obviously on the other side.” A section on “notable stances,” for instance, included data from pro-labor and pro-abortion groups — and no alternative views. “I tried to offer some balance,” says the staffer. “I didn’t take down any of the liberal material, but I did add content from a more conservative orientation.” He became a Wikipedian, editing the entry from home or a public library.
He didn’t work on the page from his Capitol Hill office because others have sparked controversies for doing so. In 2006, the Lowell (Mass.) Sun revealed that the staff of former Democratic representative Marty Meehan had removed a reference to the congressman’s broken term-limit pledge. Other members of Congress have had their entries whitewashed by their employees, including Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein of California (a mention of a campaign-finance fine was expunged) and Republican senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota (who apparently didn’t want anybody to know he was a “liberal Democrat” in college). For a time, the problem was so pervasive that Wikipedia actually blocked computers with House or Senate web connections from making edits.
The burnishing was bipartisan. Yet loads of entries carry an ideological slant. Leslie Graves of the Wisconsin-based Lucy Burns Institute tracks Wikipedia coverage. “Negative information about liberals is buried, but with conservatives it’s featured prominently,” she says. “Just look at the entry for Eliot Spitzer.” The New York Democrat resigned from the governorship after news reports linked him to hookers. His biographical entry on Wikipedia chronicles his career but doesn’t get around to mentioning anything about prostitution until its sixth paragraph, even though these ties are almost certainly the one thing Americans are most likely to know about him. By contrast, the entry for Republican senator David Vitter of Louisiana points out in its first paragraph that he was identified last year as the client of a Washington, D.C., escort service. Sex scandals involving Republicans Larry Craig and Mark Foley also receive much more emphasis than Spitzer’s fall from grace. (Because Wikipedia entries are constantly updated, they may change over time; the descriptions provided here are accurate as of late March.)
It’s impossible to say whether these biases influence voters, but lots of web activists have made up their own minds. The 2006 reelection campaign of Republican senator George Allen of Virginia is a case in point. “The left-wing netroots used to advertise on blogs and elsewhere for people to post negative information about us,” says Jon Henke, who was a new-media coordinator for Allen. “On Wikipedia, we got our brains beat out.” Whereas the entry on Allen came to read like a compendium of opposition research, the one on Allen’s Democratic opponent, Jim Webb, didn’t suffer the same kind of treatment. “His profile was glowing,” says Henke. In the end, Webb narrowly defeated Allen.
The problem has nothing to do with the rules governing Wikipedia. “The policy guidelines are very good and having a neutral point of view is close to a sacred rule,” says one experienced editor, a conservative who has worked on political content. “Conservatives shouldn’t whine about bias because they can correct it themselves.”
In order to do so, however, they need manpower. “We’re up against a bunch of liberals without jobs who are making these changes,” says Patrick Ruffini, a GOP political consultant. So far, however, conservatives have found it difficult to respond. Last summer, David All, a Republican web strategist, tried to organize conservative Wikepedians to serve as watchdogs. “Each of the top 200 races in 2008 should have at least one volunteer responsible for monitoring Wikipedia,” says All. “There are people out there who won’t make phone calls or lick stamps for candidates, but who will be active online. For a campaign, this could be just as important as a traditional ground game.” The effort sputtered out and All has moved on to other projects, but he still believes it’s something that Republicans should try to tackle in more than an ad hoc fashion.
Traditionally, conservatives have done a good job of finding unconventional ways to communicate their ideas to the public. Excluded from the mainstream media, the Right helped invent the direct-mail business and political talk radio. On the web, a different story could be unfolding — and if conservatives don’t catch up, the Wikipedia entry for “United States general elections, 2008” may include results that no amount of clever editing will rub away.