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On the moral bankruptcy of Wikipedia’s anonymous administration

By Larry Sanger (see also Wikipedia’s forgotten creator )

announcednamed, and launched Wikipedia way back in January of 2001. My originating role in the project was acknowledged by Jimmy Wales later on in 2001, when he wrote, “Larry had the idea to use wiki software…” Virtually all of the news articles about the project before 2005 identified me as one of the two founders of the project, as did the project’s first three press releases, all of them approved by Jimmy, of course. I managed it as “instigator” and “chief organizer” for the project’s seminal first 14 months. To give you an idea of what role I had in the project, Jimmy declared, a few weeks before I left the project, that I was “the final arbiter of all Wikipedia functionality.”

Since then, I’ve become better known as a critic of Wikipedia. But this is mostly because I am defending myself against repeated attacks on my reputation and pointing out inconvenient truths that a more responsibly-managed organization would try to fix. Contrary to what some have said, I bear no grudges–once I have defended myself, I let matters drop. And I am not trying to damage Wikipedia. Rather, because I inflicted it on the world, I am trying to improve it because it has become one of the most influential websites in the world. I feel some responsibility for it, even though I’m long out of its administration.

I’ve been reading draft chapters of a fascinating book, written by some online friends of mine, about the history and conduct of Wikipedia and its administration. I knew that Wikipedia’s administration is screwed up and somewhat corrupt, but these writers have opened my eyes to episodes and facts that I had not been tracking. However useful Wikipedia might be–and its usefulness is something I have always affirmed–the sad fact is that Wikipedia’s administration has been nothing but one long string of scandal and mismanagement. The saga of Wikimedia UK and its chair is only the latest. Did you know that the deposed chair, Ashley van Haeften, continues to sit on the Wikimedia UK board, and continues to head up Wikimedia Chapters Association? This is despite the fact that van Haeften has been banned from editing Wikipedia, for various violations of policy such as using multiple “sockpuppet” accounts (anonymous, fake accounts), something truly egregious for a high-ranking editor. What kind of Internet organization allows its leadership to continue on in positions of authority spite of being banned (for excellent reasons, mind you) from the very institution it is promoting? Wikipedia defenders, consider what you are defending.

But again, this is only the latest in a long, long series of scandals, which included things like Jimmy Wales telling The New Yorker, of all things, that he didn’t have a problem with someone lying about his credentials on Wikipedia, the hiring of a deputy director with rather dodgy views on child-adult sexual relations, and the hiring of a COO who turned out to be a convicted felon.

Let’s not forget the problems associated with the many, many questionable editorial decisions made by Wikipedia administrators. Like the rank-and-file, they can be and often are completely anonymous. You read that right. The people who make editorial decisions about what is taken to be “probably pretty much right” by a lot of gullible Internet users do not even have to reveal their own identities. That’s right. There are all too many Wikipedia administrators who self-righteously pride themselves on insisting that the full, ugly truth be revealed about the targets of their sometimes quite biased Wikipedia biographies; yet those very same administrators bear no personal responsibility for their actions, which can be quite consequential for people’s careers and personal lives, insofar as they remain anonymous.

 

 

No other journalistic or scholarly enterprise would tolerate such unaccountability. The reason that journalists are prized in our society, the reason they are in their positions of power and influence, is that they have committed themselves to high journalistic standards and put their personal reputations on the line when they make claims that can damage their targets. Wikipedia, like it or not, enjoys a level of credibility but without personal accountability. The system has been ripe for abuse and indeed far too many Wikipedia administrators do routinely abuse the authority they have obtained. I look forward to the above-mentioned book because it will really blow the lid off this situation.

Wikipedia administrators bear a heavy moral burden to make their identities known. If you make serious decisions that affect the livelihoods and personal relationships of real people, or what students believe about various subjects, the price you pay for your authority is personal responsibility. Without personal responsibility, it is simply too easy to abuse your authority. Why should anyone trust the decisions of anonymous Wikipedia administrators? They could easily be personally biased, based on ignorance, or otherwise worthless. Worse, aggrieved parties–whether they are persons whose reputations have come under attack or scholars who are seriously concerned about the misrepresentation of knowledge in their field–have no recourse in the real world. If someone writes lies about you, there is no way you can name and shame the liar, or at least the Wikipedia admin who permits the lie. Instead, you have to play the stupid little Wikipedia game on its own turf. You can’t go to the real world and say, “Look, so-and-so is abusing his authority. This has to stop.” In this way, by remaining anonymous, Wikipedia’s decisionmakers insulate themselves from the real-world responsibility that journalists routinely bear for their statements and publishing decisions.

If you were a Wikipedia administrator, wouldn’t you feel absolutely bound to make your identity known? Wouldn’t you feel cowardly, craven, to be standing in judgment over all manner of important editorial issues and yet hiding behind anonymity? I know I would. Why shouldn’t we hold Wikipedia responsible for making its administrators’ identities known? A Wikipedia administrator who refuses to reveal his or her identity is morally bankrupt, because unaccountable authority is morally bankrupt. Members of democratic societies are supposed to know this.

Even the so-called “bureaucrats,” the people who are responsible for conferring adminship on an account, can be anonymous. In fact, from a glance at their usernames, most of them are anonymous.

It is a little strange that journalists, who are trained to understand the importance of taking responsibility for published work, have given Wikipedia a pass for this appalling state of affairs. It’s one thing for Wikipedia authors to be anonymous, a situation journalists often remark on with bemusement. It is quite another for its administrators to be, a fact that journalists have hardly noticed at all.

Indeed, why is the fifth most popular website in the world, which shapes what so many people believe on all sorts of subjects, controlled by a cadre of mostly anonymous administrators? Isn’t that fact, all by itself, scandalous? Why don’t we as a society demand more accountability? I don’t get it.

Wikipedia, wake up. We, the undersigned (let’s make a petition out of this), demand that all administrators be identified by name.

 

Photo credit: Wikimedia/Sdalu. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

17 comments to On the moral bankruptcy of Wikipedia’s anonymous administration

  • Eric Barbour

    Thanks Larry. I’m co-author of the book you mentioned, and quite frankly, identifying all of the anonymous administrators is the one thing that will never happen. I expect they would rather pull Wikipedia down and reformat the hard drives before they gave up their miserable piddling “power” over the thing. It is not an “encyclopedia”, it is a crazy magnet.

  • Right! This is the root cause of many of Wikipedia’s problems.

    I would like to point out that you see a similar dynamic at work in other institutions. Anonymous peer-review of scientific paper submissions often results in unfair rejections and poisonous comments. Physicists have told me about other abuses. Established physicists have used their position as anonymous reviewers to plagiarize ideas from up-and-coming young scientists, and then they turned down the paper and published the idea as their own!

    There is a reason why newspapers insist that all letters to the editor be signed. The only time a person should be allowed to remain anonymous is when he or she might be harmed, by an oppressive government, for example.

    Turning back to Wikipedia, regarding academic or scientific subjects, it is okay for uncontroversial subjects, but hopeless for anything in which the experts disagree. My web site (LENR.org) covers a very controversial subject: cold fusion. We have thousands of peer-reviewed journal papers on file, and over a thousand full text papers. We have papers from both sides of the dispute, including materials from the leading skeptical opponents. Readers download 9,000 papers a week from this site; they have downloaded 2.4 million in all. Every paper in the LENR.org library was written by an accredited professional scientist or corporate engineer. We do not accept submissions from amateurs. There are thousands of authors in our database.

    The Wikipedia editors are firmly opposed to this topic. From my point of view, they allow only a biased description, which is totally at odds with the published, peer-reviewed literature. They even misunderstand and distort the skeptical point of view! They do not allow any link to LENR.org. They do not allow me or any cold fusion researcher to change the article or add comments to the discussion. I am banned for life, and any comment by a researcher or supporter is quickly erased. That includes comments by physicists with Nobel laureates, and Fellows of the Royal Society! The Wikipedia editors claim that such people have a “POV” so they must not be allowed to contribute. In effect anyone with a professional standing as an expert in calorimetry, electrochemistry, particle detection, or any other relevant field is banned. I have no idea what the anonymous editors themselves know, or what professional qualifications they have.

    • Adam

      Anonymous peer review isn’t a good comparison. Anonymous reviewers are known to journal editors. For that to work as a comparison, the Wikimedia Foundation would need to maintain a private registry of all administrators with confirmed identities, which won’t happen, or for journal editors to accept completely anonymous reviewers, which will also never happen. At least not for viable journals. :)

  • Sharyl Attkisson

    Most interesting indeed. I have been researching the Wiki world and believe the average American would be shocked to know of the secretive subculture that exists within, largely controlled by special interest/agenda editors who bully, punish and reward depending on their current need and agenda. I’m collecting stories.. you can email me via about.me/sharylattkisson I’m an investigative correspondent for CBS News who became interested in this story after learning something of this world while trying to simply stop pharmaceutical agendists (Yobol and The Red Pen of Doom) and their partners from defaming me on my bio page with false information and unreliable sources that violate multiple Wiki policies.

  • When I joined Wikipedia it had a bad reputation amongst most people who told me about it. They said that I should go there and add my theory but I didn’t bother for a long time. Eventually I joined to add a lot of useful information, particularly that which has been discovered through history and forgotten in todays books and not mentioned in Wikipedia.
    There were introductions to the rules which described them as flexible guidelines with recommendations that they were not carved in rock, but could be applied with common sense, which sounded reasonable.
    However I eventually found that two editors were constantly criticising me and rewriting the rules and adding loopholes so they could win future disputes.
    Essentially they were giving themselves an advantage by “demanding” that myself and everyone else obey the rules, while they were always finding excuses to break them in their own case. I was eventually banned and several month later my main critic gave him an Outlaw Halo Award for doing it. That award is given to editors who use Wikipedia’s “Ignore all rules” policy. My report on that can be seen here http://users.chariot.net.au/~posture/DaCosta'sSyndWikiwebpage4.html#anchor297379

  • David G H Phillips

    Jed Rothwell makes the point well. Wikipedia has a great reputation and a lot of people trust it but its position will be very quickly destroyed if it is not reformed soon.

  • Robert Watkins

    It is very worrying that misinformation is being spread by groups with an agenda. The ‘Organic Milk’ article on Wikipedia is a prime example. Sharyl Attkisson points out above, groups under usernames such as Yobol and Jytdog have edited many articles to be pro pharmaceutical. When somebody with knowledge on the subject tries to edit it (many have tried to make it purely factual and neutral), they delete the changes, usually within minutes. It is a scandal that the general public are not aware of this.

  • Dan Garry

    Fae isn’t on the Wikimedia UK board anymore, and hasn’t been for over a month now.

    https://uk.wikimedia.org/wiki/Board

  • Rob Hoffmann

    A year after Larry Sanger wrote this article, and not only has nothing changed, but it’s arguably worse.

    Was the book ever published?

    • Wer900

      Yes, the book will probably be published. Research is actively ongoing, and I think that Eric will move to publish at a logical point. More than this, I cannot say.

  • BCN

    As a bankruptcy attorney we see all the time what happens when special interest groups try to push agendas that are not healthy for the larger mass of good people. As we scroll through Wikipedia it is amazing to see the misinformation on legal topics. People should always consult with a professional before taking online advice as gospel. Use it as a resource but buyer beware!

  • Magnus Hansen

    It is all or nothing with anonymity. No one should wish to be an non-anonymous administrator working with anonymous editors. I was for awhile, but between the everyday stress of being an administrator which means being automatically accused of being a power hungry and abusive megalomaniac every time you take an administrative action, and the actual real life threats including mail to my employer, I decided both to step down as an administrator and stop editing under my real name. Accountability is good, but it needs to go both ways.

  • Madhaad

    +1, I agree with Magnus Hansen.

  • [...] A straightforward lie. Yet there it stands, in the world’s premier online encyclopaedia, penned by some anonymous user for reasons unfathomable to us mere [...]

  • Our http://www.WikiExperts.us editors were repeatedly persecuted by some anonymous Wikipedia admins who applied to our entries much higher standards than to their own entries. One admin who had created a wiki for his favorite Irish pub based on one mention in a local paper deleted our references to NY Times and some other major publications.

  • Thanks Larry for your ongoing efforts. I keep sane by writing poetry about my Wikipedia experiences. Here is one about the typical admin, as I see him: http://eyeamross.com/2013/07/06/seaside-skyscrapers/

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