By Hersch, with research assistance from Eric Barbour and Andreas Kolbe
At Wikipedia, any controversial topic will inevitably become an arena of combat between opposing teams of propagandists. Initially, there will be arguments on the “talk page,” which will then escalate to “revert wars” where the contestants simply rush to undo edits made by the other side. At this point it is likely to move on to “dispute resolution,” which typically consists of the most appalling assortment of sophistry, subterfuge, connivance, chicanery and intrigues, the sort of thing that makes trial lawyers and insurance claim adjustors look angelic by comparison. Over time, the article will gradually stabilize, as one team or the other gains the upper hand, and that team’s bias becomes more or less institutionalized as Wikipedia’s approved slant on the issue, or what has been called the “House POV” (“House Point of View”).
But it is important to realize that in these ideological battles, there is collateral damage. Almost every Wikipedia article links to other articles; therefore, to gain supremacy over a controversial subject matter, the successful propagandist must control the linked articles as well. In practice, this means one must either puff up or discredit institutions, publications, and in particular, individuals that are associated with a particular controversial idea.
Let’s take as an example one of the more popular current controversies, that of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW), or Anthropogenic Climate Change, the theory that climate change is bad and is primarily caused by human activity. This theory is widely accepted, but is questioned by some scientists and others who are typically called “Climate change skeptics.” At one time, Wikipedia had an article called “Climate change skepticism”, but that ended last year. Instead, Wikipedia has an article entitled “Climate change denial”, which helpfully carries the implication that these skeptics are as morally reprehensible as Holocaust deniers. As the reader may suspect, these changes at Wikipedia were the consequence of more than a few fierce battles.
One of the most visible participants in these battles has been an editor and former administrator named William Connolley, who in real life is a software engineer and environmental activist who vocally promotes the AGW theory. He has his own biography on Wikipedia, in part because his editing at Wikipedia was sufficiently controversial that he received some unfavorable press coverage for it. The coverage was authored by one Lawrence Solomon, who belongs to the skeptics’ camp. Solomon, too, has his own biography on Wikipedia, and before long, Connolley was busily performing hostile edits on it, which in turn sparked a typically exhausting debate at Wikipedia’s Administrators’ Noticeboard. Connolley was ultimately involved in several cases at Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee, as a result of which he was forbidden to edit biographies about AGW skeptics, a prohibition which he proceeded to ignore. Then he was forbidden in 2010 to edit any articles related to AGW, a prohibition that was reversed one year later, with the renewed proviso that he not edit AGW-related biographies. All of this continued to draw media attention, such as this article, or this one.
Now, fast-forward to the year 2014. Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and media commentator who has been associated with a number of trendy causes, including animal rights and the promotion of AGW. He has attained a level of celebrity approaching that of Al Gore, whose AGW activism earned him one of America’s most prestigious awards, the Oscar. Tyson is an intelligent man who, in his public speaking engagements, prefers to speak off the cuff, without the benefit of teleprompters or scripts. Anyone who does this runs the risk of occasionally misspeaking, as Tyson apparently did when he said:
Here’s what happens. George Bush, within a week of [the 9/11 terrorist attacks] gave us a speech attempting to distinguish we from they. And who are they? These were sort of the Muslim fundamentalists. And he wants to distinguish we from they. And how does he do it?
He says, “Our God” — of course it’s actually the same God, but that’s a detail, let’s hold that minor fact aside for the moment. Allah of the Muslims is the same God as the God of the Old Testament. So, but let’s hold that aside. He says, “Our God is the God” — he’s loosely quoting Genesis, biblical Genesis — “Our God is the God who named the stars.”
For Tyson’s ideological opponents, this was an opportunity for payback. The erroneous — some say fabricated — quote found its way into TheFederalist.com, an anti-establishment — some say conservative — webzine, which charged that Tyson has a history of inventing facts. From there it was just a small step to Wikipedia, where the accusation, sourced to TheFederalist.com, was added to Tyson’s bio. Then naturally all hell broke loose. Editors who may be ideologically aligned with Tyson rushed to delete the offending material. The reliability of TheFederalist.com was quickly called into question, resulting in an editorial assault on the Wikipedia article on TheFederalist, which left it looking like this. One group of contestants attempted to have that article deleted altogether, in order to prove that the publication lacked “notability” as a source. Meanwhile, editors who may be aligned with Tyson’s opponents created a new article entitled “Neil deGrasse Tyson fabrication allegations”, which within hours was retitled “Criticism of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s sourcing of quotes” by editors who may be aligned with Tyson, before it was deleted altogether the next day by Wikipedia administrator FreeRangeFrog (yes, they do use names like that). In the interim, the accusations had appeared in numerous other publications, rendering the issue of TheFederalist’s notability moot. And what’s more, other articles were now appearing about the battle raging at Wikipedia.
As all this was going on, the edit war continued to rage at Tyson’s biographical article, until the article was “protected” on September 20, meaning that only Wikipedia adminstrators could edit it. But meanwhile, Jimmy Wales, the man who would be god-king of Wikipedia, had gotten himself embroiled in some heated tweeting over the controversy, after which he moved to “unprotect” the article. And then Mr. Tyson issued a sort of convoluted mea culpa — where? — why, on Facebook, of course.
So what happened to Tyson’s Wikipedia bio after Jimmy’s “unprotection”? The edit warring resumed. And when the smoke had cleared, the article had been “protected” once again, and the “protected” version had been thoroughly cleansed of any mention of the quote controversy. National Review editor Rich Lowry, writing in Politico, summarized the affair as follows:
This bullheaded gracelessness has extended to Tyson’s acolytes. They have worked to keep any mention of the controversy off of the Wikipedia page on Tyson, and tried to exact revenge against the Federalist on its Wikipedia page, for daring to expose a mistake by Tyson the Magnificent.
Of course, this is the opposite of what should be the reaction of the “reality-based community” to the exposure of a factual mistake. But Tyson’s most intense fans are less skeptics than worshipers.
But hold on a minute, gentle reader — would not this be a good time to step back and ask ourselves the question, What would a real encyclopedia do? Would not a real encyclopedia exclude any mention of a transitory imbroglio from a biographical article, on the grounds that it may not stand the test of time, and the individual in question may ultimately be remembered for other, more substantial things? Would the use of any individual’s biography as a battlefield of convenience for warring ideologues be tolerated at a real encyclopedia? My friends, I submit to you that it would not. So may we conclude that, in this regard, Wikipedia is on the right track?
Well, I suppose we could, if the policy were applied with anything resembling consistency. Like any Wikipedia policy, the one called “Biographies of Living Persons” means one thing for you, and another for your opponent. If the “House POV” is smiling on you, it will shield you not only from calumny, but even from the mildest of cricitism. But on the other hand, if you are political reporter Carl Cameron, here’s what happens:
The most recent version, as this post is being written, of the Wikipedia biography of Mr. Cameron is very brief, and seems to exist primarily to feature an incident in which Mr. Cameron authored a parody with made-up quotes from John Kerry. The parody was written for the amusement of Mr. Cameron’s friends, but it was accidentally posted to the FOX news website. The original version of the Wikipedia biography, created 10 years ago, was devoted entirely to this incident. It has been marginally toned down over the past decade. But nonetheless, whatever else Mr. Cameron may have done during his career, it is this boo-boo that shall be his legacy, thanks to Wikipedia.
Image credit: Flickr/Boston Public Library , Wikimedia Commons ~ licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic