Wikipedia “feuding, fighting and vandalism”

Today’s New York Times had an article about Wikipedia’s  “lamest edit wars” (whether Lucky Charms cereal is sold in Ireland, whether the Death Star is 120 or 160 kilometers in diameter) and the recent decision by the Wikipedia Arbitration Committee to block editing from all I.P. addresses owned or operated by the Church of Scientology:

It is an interesting twist about Wikipedia that the most controversial, most heavily trafficked articles — on abortion, politics, virgin birth — are often the most accurate and vandalism-free. Not that people aren’t trying to cause mayhem. It’s just that the frequent visits ensure that vandalism is quickly removed, aided by automated tools that can recognize crude writing before it ever appears.

Leave these high-traffic thoroughfares, however, and things can get a bit sketchier. A few wrong turns and you may find yourself deep in Hatfield-and-McCoy territory. Entrenched enemies engage in combat over the wording of topics so obscure — Armenian historians from the first millennium, for example, or breakfast cereals — that you may wonder: so much fighting over this?

But it is exactly the obscurity that makes these Wikipedia articles ripe for feuding, fighting and vandalism…

I wish the article had discussed Wikipedia’s flaws more critically rather than just as a source of amusement. Wikipedia– the first (and often only) place many people go for information, whose articles appear on the first page of most Google searches– is inherently unreliable and rife with errors, bias, and intentional vandalism, and the quality of individual articles and the information in them varies wildly. I’m not mollified by the fact that most vandalism may eventually be noticed and corrected– at any given time you have no idea whether what you are reading is accurate and who wrote or edited it.

Much of the article concerns the little-known Wikipedia Arbitration Committee:

The Scientology decision, which received plenty of news coverage, brought the Arbitration Committee (or ArbCom) to public view. No doubt, most users of Wikipedia had no idea that there was a court of last resort for disputes on the site.

Tens of millions of people around the world use Wikipedia, but few users — even the most frequent editors — can say how or why it works. The two members of the committee I interviewed agreed that the committee was not vital to Wikipedia’s continued operation… but they said that having a way to ban people of bad faith made the site more friendly, more efficient and more welcoming to new editors.

Wikipedia users elect the panel members, and Mr. Matetsky reports that he is the only active lawyer among them…  He says he often is opposed to outright bans — he abstained on some of the sanctions in the Scientology case — because “to a user who is banned, Wikipedia is ‘the encyclopedia anyone can edit,’ except for you.”

The discovery that Wikipedia is not the anarchic paradise some might imagine can be a shock. Others see hypocrisy, evidence that there is a class of users who control what appears there, people who benefit from Wikipedia’s huge public clout with little public scrutiny.

So I found it rather ironic to read minutes later that a Wikipedia Arbitration Committee member, David Boothroyd, was forced to resign over the weekend for “sock-puppeting,” according to the UK’s Independent newspaper:

A “guardian of the truth” on Wikipedia, the global internet encyclopedia, has been caught up in an embarrassing scandal after it was revealed that he created bogus online identities to change entries on the system.

David Boothroyd – a London councillor by day, a cyber policeman by night – has been forced to resign from Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee after his alias editing gave rise to a major conflict of interest.

The Labour councillor’s fall from grace comes two years after he fought off stiff international competition to win a coveted seat on the 15-strong committee, which is responsible for settling hundreds of editorial disputes every day.

His membership of “ArbCom” was no longer tenable after it emerged that he had committed one of the most serious crimes in cyberspace: sockpuppeting – the use of multiple online identities to create the illusion of support for a point of view, person or organisation.

A log of publicly available page edits exposes several changes to Tory leader David Cameron’s Wikipedia entry by Mr Boothroyd under the alias of Sam Blacketer, including changing the picture to one “not carrying saintly overtones”.

3 responses to “Wikipedia “feuding, fighting and vandalism”

  1. I have to disagree with a blanket statement such as “at any given time you have no idea whether what you are reading is accurate and who wrote or edited it”. I’ve generally found it easy to spot when an article is controversial or disputed, even when that is not explicitly indicated at the top of the article. You always have access to the change list, so you can see what was changed, and when. If you’re concerned about the “who”, then Wikipedia is not the place to be looking. (Who writes the articles in Encyclopaedia Britannica? Only “name” authors get credit for their entries there.)

    You hint at the solution when you described Wikipedia as “the first (and often only) place many people go for information”: that’s fine for trivial queries, but for serious work of any sort, people just have to learn that they can (by all means) start at Wikipedia, but they can never simply stop there. Like any encyclopaedia (paper or electronic), it is a useful secondary source, but it is not intended to be a primary source on any academic subject. You always go back to the primary source if at all possible.

    In my view, the Wikipedia controversies raise important questions about just what people say, think and experience in this world, and serves to highlight the difficulty in writing a history of anything that is based on human viewpoints and opinions. I think it was Churchill who said “history will be kind to me, for I intend to write it”. The Scientology article is a case in point: it’s a Religion, so (by definition) it is True to its followers, and False to everyone else. So, which side gets to write its history? We’re talking about an immensely wealthy organisation that takes people to court for talking about them negatively, even when that is justified by their actions. On this, and other controversial topics, it’s unrealistic to expect to find the “truth” in any encyclopaedia, on the Internet or in print. Then again, since the controversies are always around “human activity”, and rarely in more fundamental topics such as the applied sciences, it hardly matters anyway. 8)

  2. lisagoldresearch

    Brian–
    I do agree with you. Wikipedia, like any source, has its own strengths and weaknesses, and as long as you are aware of them and act accordingly, it can be a useful tool. If everyone used it critically and then followed up with primary sources and more authoritative secondary sources, I wouldn’t have as big a problem with it. But most people go right to Wikipedia and stop there, and they don’t bother to view the change list. It’s not just students– even journalists, who should know better, use Wikipedia regularly and have been taken in by hoaxes. This may be a user problem, but there are still more things Wikipedia could (and should) do to curb vandalism and fix other issues that arise from anonymous user-generated content and editing and the overdependence on web sources. (As I constantly stress on my blog and in my classes, if you are doing research, you should use multiple sources, as well as different types of sources, as each will vary in credibility, accuracy, and value. The web is a phenomenal research tool, but there’s a vast amount of information that you just won’t find there.)

  3. Nathan Spears

    “at any given time you have no idea whether what you are reading is accurate and who wrote or edited it.”

    The guy at Penny Arcade refers to this concept as a quantum encyclopedia.

    When I am looking for information casually, I don’t want to spend as much time looking at change logs as I do at the information itself, so if using Wikipedia means looking at change logs every time, it’s not worth the effort.

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