The Signpost

In the media

Is Wikipedia eating itself?

Contribute  —  
Share this
By Gamaliel

Is Wikipedia eating itself? Probably not.


In "The Wikipedia Ouroboros" in Slate, David Auerbach (Auerbachkeller) writes (February 5) that "the Internet finally ate itself". He comments on The Guardian article, since corrected, that made some factually inaccurate claims about the recently closed Gamergate arbitration case (see previous Signpost coverage). (Note: this author was a named party to that case and Auerbach himself had a long-running public spat with another named party, Ryulong.) Auerbach engages in a lengthy discussion of the process of "citogenesis", a neologism invented by Randall Munroe of the webcomic xkcd to refer to the circular reporting of incorrect information inserted into Wikipedia articles. Auerbach claims that "Wikipedia has a policy of 'Verifiability, not truth,' which means that citations, even wrong citations, trump all else." WP:VNT is an essay, not a policy, and Wikipedia policy does not require editors to cite information known to be inaccurate. Auerbach brings up the frequently cited example of Philip Roth and The Human Stain article. He inaccurately writes that Roth "tried to correct an error about one of his books", but Ironholds decisively showed in a 2012 blog post that Roth wanted to remove the observations of critics instead of factual inaccuracies (see previous Signpost coverage). Auerbach writes that "Wikipedia is dragging us all down to its level" through its propagation of "bad facts". While Wikipedia certainly has issues to address with accuracy and verification, he fails to make a case that journalistic errors in reporting and fact checking can be laid at its door.

Edina edit war illustrates disconnect between new and experienced editors

Edina Theater

The Star Tribune reports (February 5) on an edit war on the article for Edina, Minnesota when a novice editor repeatedly attempted to insert information regarding Edina's history as a sundown town. A relic of America's racist past, sundown towns were segregated places where African-Americans could not live and were forced to leave before sundown or be faced with harassment, violence, or lynching. Students in an African-American studies class at the University of Illinois taught by Professor James W. Loewen, author of Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism (2005), were assigned the task of adding to a Wikipedia article the history of such racist discrimination to the article for a particular town. The student who chose Edina added the information about its past as a sundown town numerous times last year, but it was repeatedly removed. While the edit contained citations to a number of primary sources that were clearly inappropriate for Wikipedia, such as an interview and an email message, other sources such as Loewen's book and webpage were removed as well.

The Star Tribune attributed the removals to Juno, and while Juno did remove much of the material in question, he told the Signpost that he "was not the first or only editor to deal with this". The center of the dispute appears to be the work of Professor Loewen, who has a PhD in sociology from Harvard University and is the author of eight books. Juno noted that editors have attempted to enter references to Loewen's work as early as 2009, well before the class discussed by the Star Tribune. Juno disputes the accuracy of Loewen's work in general and his discussion of Edina in particular, telling the Signpost that Loewen was "not a historian" and his work was "the recipient of media criticism for sloppy research" and "can not be considered a Reliable Source". Another editor supported Juno's assessment in 2009, but it is disputed in a current talk page discussion with other editors writing that he is "a well known, respected, and successful writer/scholar" and "a very reliable source on the subject".

The editors attempting to insert the material citing Loewen, including the student interviewed by the Star Tribune, did not participate in any talk page discussion and may not have even known that any discussion existed. Beyond brief edit summaries, it does not appear there was any attempt at further discussion between Juno and the student, such as links to or explanations of relevant policies or dispute resolution procedures. The student told the Star Tribune she gave up her attempts at editing at the end of the course. Juno told the Signpost "I probably should have reached out to one of the ips or pushed for dispute resolution but I honestly thought it was just the same person" who had been inserting the material since 2009.

The publication of the Star Tribune article attracted the interest of other Wikipedia editors and some of the information the student attempted to add has been restored to the article in modified form. A March editathon will be held at the Southdale Library in Edina.

Attkisson: Wikipedia is "astroturf's dream come true"

At a January 23 TEDx event at the University of Nevada, reporter Sharyl Attkisson delivered a talk about astroturf and manipulation of media messages. (TEDx events employ the format of the renowned TED conferences but are otherwise completely independent.) Attkisson called Wikipedia "astroturf's dream come true" and alleged that Wikipedia editing was part of astroturfing and public relations efforts by pharmaceutical companies to create the illusion of a consensus that particular medications are safe and effective. She said:

While advocacy editing has long been a concern on Wikipedia (see, for example, last week's op-ed in the Signpost), Attkisson did not present specific evidence regarding editing by pharmaceutical companies, and the evidence she presented regarding Wikipedia's reliability was dubious. She recounted an inaccurate version of Philip Roth's 2012 complaint (see above) and claimed that a study showed that "Wikipedia contradicted medical research 90% of the time". This may be a reference to a 2014 study in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association which actually concluded that nine out of ten Wikipedia articles on the costliest medical conditions had factual errors. This conclusion was disputed by editors from WikiProject Medicine last year in an article called "Is Wikipedia's medical content really 90% wrong?" on the blog of the Cochrane Collaboration.

Attkison has previously alleged that the pharmaceutical industry has edited Wikipedia. In 2014, she wrote in an article on her website "They monitor and edit Wikipedia pages in an effort to downplay research that demonstrates associations between vaccines and autism, and to disparage those who investigate the links." In 2012, an editor purporting to be Attkison complained on the talk page of her Wikipedia article about citations and information in the article from critics who labeled her "anti-vaccine".

Canadian government investigating even more Wikipedia editing

Rehtaeh Parsons.jpg
Rehtaeh Parsons

The most recent in a series of Canadian investigations into Wikipedia editing from government IP addresses comes from the Department of National Defence. The Ottawa Citizen reports (February 9) that the DND are investigating edits to the article Suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons which appear to attempt to cast doubt on her alleged sexual assault and subsequent suicide. Parsons' 2013 suicide at the age of 17, which her parents blame on Internet harassment following her alleged gang rape at 15 by four teenage boys, caused a nationwide outcry against cyberbullying. The editing may have legal implications as well, because in Canada, a publication ban is in place to prevent the revelation of any identifying information about Parsons, including her name, due to the fact that the criminal case involved child pornography.

Last summer, Dean Del Mastro, then-MP representing Peterborough in the House of Commons of Canada, demanded an investigation into vandalism of his Wikipedia biography (see previous Signpost coverage). In November, Del Mastro resigned, but the fallout from the investigation continues. The Citizen reports (February 11) that the investigation narrowed down the source of the edits, which labeled Del Mastro a "Dealer of Used Cars with Bent Frames" who "formerly sold crippled mules" and a "perjurer", to a small number of computers, some used by visitors to the Library of Parliament and others by journalists in the Parliamentary Press Gallery. As a result, journalists will now be required to use a login and password to access Parliamentary computers.

Academics on Gamergate: A clash of civilizations?

In the blog of the journal Social Text, Michael Mandiberg (Theredproject) writes of the Gamergate dispute on Wikipedia as "a clash of online civilizations" (February 1). The Wikipedia model of peer production—"utopian vision of simpatico collaboration, controlled through social and technical mechanisms"—clashes with the more Anonymous-like group who "are not interested in Wikipedia per se, other than to try to control the message on that page." He notes that despite the "failure of the system" to address off-Wiki behavior, "peer-production seems to manage to persevere" at the Gamergate controversy article. But, he concludes: "This perseverance comes at an emotional cost, measured in stress and fear: stress felt by the editors who are willing to log the hours reverting the trolls who attempt to insert clauses that cast doubt and skew the content towards the pro-GamerGate position; and fear and anxiety that the anonymous horde might choose them as their target next to dox, intimidate IRL and harass on wiki."

In Overland, Jason Wilson asks "Are misogynists running Wikipedia?" (February 11). He writes that the Gamergate dispute on Wikipedia is important because "Wikipedia possesses considerable cultural authority", citing poll results that 64 percent of Britons trusted Wikipedia entries more than any media outlet and a Pew Research Center survey that the more educated a person, the more likely they are to use Wikipedia. Wilson connects Gamergate to largely right-wing and male fringe groups like men's rights activists, pickup artists, and race realists and notes their early adoption of technological means to spread their messages, such as a white nationalist BBS founded in 1984. Wilson concludes "To go along with the liberal assumption that new technologies lead us only in the direction of collaboration and consensus is not only to deny this history, but the lived experience of those who are pursued by reactionary culture warriors. The left should affirm the persistence and importance of political conflict online, and develop strategies for combatting the right in those places where fact and history are rendered."

In brief

+ Add a comment

Discuss this story

These comments are automatically transcluded from this article's talk page. To follow comments, add the page to your watchlist. If your comment has not appeared here, you can try purging the cache.
== Edina ==

In response to the Edina article being in the news, I am proposing an edit-a-thon at the public library there. Details are on Wikipedia:Meetup/Minnesota. Feel free to ask me for more information. Jonathunder (talk) 22:25, 9 February 2015 (UTC)[reply]

Australian report

"He says that if Education ­Minister Christopher Pyne wants Australians universities to have real impact, the best way would be to force professors to spend a week editing Wikipedia pages in their areas of expertise.

“In terms of making a real contribution to public knowledge, what better thing could we do? ...

Selwyn says Wikipedia editing is “an incredibly closed shop”, with hundreds of millions of viewers but active editors numbering only in their thousands. “They tend to be white, North American, of a certain age, (and) male. Which is why, when you look at things like comic books or computer games, the information on Wikipedia is brilliant. And when you look at my own area of educational sociology, it’s shocking."[1]

--Surturz (talk) 01:56, 11 February 2015 (UTC)[reply]
The above quote is from Ross, John (11 February 2015). "Wikipedia not destroying life as we know it". The Australian: Higher Education. which reports on Monash University professor Neil Selwyn's research. (Just adding this, and section heading, for clarification) PamD 13:39, 12 February 2015 (UTC)[reply]

Irony is delicious, especially with coffee

Did anyone else gain the same level of amusement during their morning coffee as I did, when discovering that the second article on this page contains a perfect refutation of the claims in the first? Maury Markowitz (talk) 13:21, 12 February 2015 (UTC)[reply]

  • It's no surprise that academics largely dislike Wikipedia; they used to be the sole arbiters of knowledge on many topics, to which they could add their own biases and inflections. Now, they are faced with the prospect of complete objectivity on a generally reliable website (as opposed to some random blog or the pop-up laden Geocities pages of the past), which threatens their hegemony. In very controversial articles, it is almost impossible for any strong POV to emerge, because there a thousand eyes of all motivations looking at it, ready to remove it. I don't usually get involved with such contentious topics, because they are outside of my field, but I have the greatest respect for those who genuinely seek objectivity in those minefields. As for forcing professors to edit, maybe they would be more comfortable over on Citizendium.-RHM22 (talk) 13:57, 12 February 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • By the way, credit goes to the Canadians for the most creative slander.-RHM22 (talk) 14:00, 12 February 2015 (UTC)[reply]


That she considers vaccines to cause autism is not surprising given the rest of the inaccuracies in her talk. It is obvious that she either never read the article looking at the accuracy of Wikipedia's medical content in JAOA or simply does not understand science. I wonder if she realizes that the Andrew Wakefield paper from the Lancet has been withdrawn? It is an interesting read as one is left wonder "how did the Lancet ever agree to publish this". Doc James (talk · contribs · email) 14:46, 12 February 2015 (UTC)[reply]


The Signpost · written by many · served by Sinepost V0.9 · 🄯 CC-BY-SA 4.0