User:Becksguy/Information Flow on Campus: A Closer Look at Wikipedia
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Brown, Barrett (Spring 2008 (Vol 25, #1)). "Information flow on Campus: A Closer Look at Wikipedia". 2600: The Hacker Quarterly. pp. 54–57. Check date values in:
|date= (help) ISSN 0749-3851, Middle Island, NY 11953. Article not available online, reproduced below per following: "We have no problem with the straight text of individual articles being reproduced and spread around, provided proper attribution is given." - Excerpted from publisher's response to a letter on page 35, same issue.
The article text from 2600
Information Flow on Campus: A Closer Look at Wikipedia
by Barrett Brown
There are many different media which a student can use to access information on a college campus. Each medium has its own benefits and drawbacks in the way that information is framed and in what options the student has for active interaction with the medium. One very popular medium for research is the collaborative on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia. Wikipedia has grown enormously since its inception and is fast becomingly widely accepted as a verifiable academic resource. How reliable is Wikipedia? How does it work? And, can it be manipulated by third parties? These are the main questions I hope to address in this article. The goal of any honest researcher is to find sources that are as unbiased as possible. Wikipedia uses the term "Neutral Point of View" (NPOV) to refer to the goal of stating only facts and omitting bias, or "Point of View (POV) Pushing," in order to have a neutral, academic resource. Putting aside the question of whether Wikipedia has achieved NPOV, it is important to note that many students believe that Wikipedia has achieved this status. That belief is enough for them to trust Wikipedia above television or radio news. Whether this is warranted or not remains to be seen.
When most students go to Wikipedia, they search for an article, find the article, write some notes, and log off. Although the administrative and editorial functions of Wikipedia are open to all, most students simply use the on-line encyclopedia as a passive resource. In doing the research for this study, I created my own Wikipedia editor login, which is free for anyone to do, and made some changes to some established and some non-established articles, in order to examine how the Wikipedia process works in action. What I learned was interesting and a little disappointing.
There are essentially four levels in the social hierarchy of Wikipedia. From least powerful to most, these are anonymous editor, new editor, established editor, and administrator. An anonymous editor is someone who just makes a change without registering for an account; this option is available to anyone browsing Wikipedia. Changes made by anonymous editors are watched very closely by both administrators and established editors, as anonymous editors are the source of a lot of vandalism and disinformation. When an anonymous editor decides to register for an official account, he or she becomes a new editor and begins building Wikipedia social capital by editing pages and creating an edit history. With enough successful edits—that is, insertion of correct, verifiable information—a new editor becomes an established editor. This is where personal opinion starts to become a factor in the inclusion of information, as will be shown later. The status of established editor is the most prevalent. After becoming an established editor, one can become an administrator by being voted into the position. Voting is based on a user's edit history and the opinion of other administrators about the contributions made by that user. Administrators are the highest tier in the Wikipedia social hierarchy, and they wield a significant amount of power over to new articles and over information.
In order to reduce the opportunity for abuse of power, Wikipedia has policies for everything. These policies, though, are comprised of recommendations for behavior rather than hard and fast rules. There are policies for how an article is deleted, where to report an administrator who is abusing his or her power, where to report a page that has been unfairly deleted, and so on. These pages where these policies are implemented are called administrative pages. Once an issue is taken to an administrative page, it is voted on by any administrators who happen to take the entry made. Official Wikipedia policy states that Wikipedia is not about votes; rather, it is based on contributions of information with the goal of reaching consensus. However, even a cursory examination of the day-today operations of administrative pages shows that voting is very much what occurs; furthermore, all votes are shown on the same page, so it is possible to see what others have voted for and to be swayed accordingly.
The final piece of my brief tour of the policy-making apparatus of Wikipedia is page rank. Articles are ranked in classes known as stub, start, general, good, and feature; these classes also dictate how much attention is garnered by the editing community.
After gaining a rudimentary understanding of the procedures that regulate Wikipedia, I decided to try some experiments in order to aid my evaluation of Wikipedia's effectiveness in ensuring NPOV. The first pages that I edited were Joseph Smith Jr., the Prophet of the Mormon Faith; his father Joseph Smith Sr.; the Knights Templar; the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM); Lt. Col. Philip J. Corso; Aleister Crowley; and the United Fruit Company.
To the article on Joseph Smith Jr. I added a comment about his manner of death, which I had read in two books at the Masonic Library in San Francisco. This information was immediately removed with a strict order to "list the sources:" a sufficiently fair, procedural response.
To the article on Joseph Smith Sr., I inserted a note about his membership in the Freemasons, with appropriate citations; that edit was kept.
To the Sovereign Military Order of Malta article, I added a very large portion of information taken directly from one of their private membership rosters, which I happen to have in my possession. I mentioned in my edit that I got the information from an official SMOM roster, which is privately distributed to members only. Although this did not fit in with Wikipedia's guidelines for citations, my inserted information stayed in the article.
Lt. Col. Phillip Corso is an interesting case. When I first visited the article about him, he was listed as a "paranormal researcher," and there was a very unbecoming photograph. After gaining access to Freedom of Information Act requests, I discovered that he had a long military career, including four years at the National Security Council under President Eisenhower, service as the head of the Foreign Technology Desk at the Pentagon, a battalion command under General McArthur during World War II and the Korean War, and decoration with twelve prestigious medals. After his retirement, Lt. Col. Corso wrote a book about the military's involvement with UFOs. I changed Lt. Col. Corso's article to more accurately reflect his military career, removing the "paranormal" header. These changes also stayed.
Aleister Crowley was a spiritual and counterculture figure. Even today, there are many religious organizations which focus on his teachings. The majority of these organizations do not practice what Crowley taught, and I felt it important to point this out on his page. My comment was first removed without any reason given. I replaced it. Then, it was re-written quickly, but the substance of my comment stayed.
I went to the United Fruit Company article and noticed that there was some debate over the ClA's involvement with the coup d'etat overthrowing the Arbenz government in Guatemala. I happened to have some books on the subject and entered them as references and citations. These changes were also kept.
My final experiment was to create a new page about Ebony Anpu, who I know personally and believe to be notable enough for inclusion in Wikipedia.
A cursory analysis of these simple experiments yields some interesting observations and theories. Naturally, this is very preliminary information, but I still think it is vital to an understanding of Wikipedia's verification process.
The article about Joseph Smith Jr. appears to be heavily watched by Mormons and by administrators sympathetic to the Mormon faith. This deduction comes from the nature of the information contained in the article. For example, in addition to the historical fact that Joseph Smith Jr. was shot to death in a gunfight, the article mentions that he is considered a martyr, even though he is only considered a martyr by Mormons. Sociologically, Mormons have proven to be very good with information technology and it comes as no surprise to me that the Wikipedia article about their prophet is watched constantly. The information I submitted was not libelous and was historically accurate. However, the information was not flattering, and so another editor found any excuse to remove it: in this case, lack of citation. This reason for deleting the information, while technically valid, overlooks questions about the motivation of the removing editor, and it points to a deliberate framing of that information by a specific group of people, as we will see by comparison to other articles.
Joseph Smith Sr. is considerably less famous than his son, and the citation I provided ensured that my edit was included, even though the information I placed in the article about Smith Sr. was very similar to that which I placed in the article about Smith Jr.
To the Knights Templar page, I added a legend with appropriate citations. This legend was moved to a special page just for Templar Legends, but it remained otherwise unchanged.
The Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM) is a very interesting case. This private organization is international and very powerful, yet it remains virtually unknown to most people. I inserted a great deal of information about them without following proper citation procedure. Nevertheless, my information stayed. I attribute this to fact that SMOM is virtually unknown and is not surrounded by any controversy. I find this to be very interesting. It illustrates to me that articles which are not well understood can easily be manipulated by anyone claiming to have information. It takes a concerted effort by concerned individuals to check citations and references. Without any motivation from such individuals, the sources may not be checked. This implies that "feature" or "good" articles are carefully watched by those who have an interest or personal stake in the subject and thus less neutrality, while non-notable subjects are more prone to unnoticed disinformation.
Lt. Col. Phillip J. Corso is another very interesting case. Despite his illustrious military career, the article about this decorated officer was centered entirely on his work as a "paranormal researcher." This is based on a book he wrote about his experiences with UFOs while working for the Department of Defense. When I first viewed it, the article was terribly biased and simply made him out to be a loony. I did a lot of work on this page, finding sources and changing its subject from "paranormal researcher" to "military biography." There was some slight resistance to my edits, but in the end, all of my information was accepted. This is a vital point. A completely legitimate historical figure was listed as a "paranormal researcher" simply because he wrote one book on the subject. The vast majority of his life was spent as a career soldier, and he was listed with Bigfoot hunters. Whether this was a deliberate choice I cannot say, but that the framing was biased is certain. This further reinforces my point: the less notable an article, the more malleable it is to unobserved manipulation.
I edited the article on Aleister Crowley for two reasons. The first is that I know quite a bit about him; the second is that, as a controversial religious figure, he makes an interesting contrast to Joseph Smith Jr. To Crowley's page I added the comment, "Most organizations today which claim to be based on his teachings do not follow the guidelines he wrote down." This was slightly critical, but easily referenced and very citable. First, it was removed by an anonymous editor. After I replaced the comment, it was altered to say "Many individuals who claim to follow Crowley's teachings do not follow the guidelines he wrote down." This is a subtle reframing which changes the meaning. Clearly the person who edited my statement did not approve of the fact that I was disparaging organizations which claim to follow Crowley's teachings. As with the Mormons, we see a situation where a religious group is using Wikipedia to ensure that their specific message gets out and no other.
The United Fruit Company (U.F.C.) is another interesting case. When I first went to their page, rumors of CIA involvement with the Guatemalan Coup were mentioned, but without any evidence. Looking at the discussion page, it was evident that a debate about including information about the CIA in the U.F.C. article had been ongoing for some time. I happened to have a few reliable books on the topic, so I entered their ISBNs as references, and a week later the CIA information was officially added to the page. This is similar to the article on Phillip J. Corso, where the subject matter is of somewhat niche interest, and thus the article is easily malleable by third parties.
What can we see from the edits so far? We have two prominent religious figures, Smith and Crowley, whose articles are watched constantly and continually modified within a biased framework, providing little room for contrary or defamatory information to be added without support from other administrators as well as firm citations. We have two notable but niche historical subjects, United Fruit Company and Lt. Col. Philip Corso, both initially framed with a heavy bias, but easily amenable to correction. Finally, we have three not-so-notable niche historical subjects, the Knights Templar, SMOM, and Joseph Smith Sr., which were very easy to alter, even without proper citations.
My final experiment was the creation of a page for a man I know, Ebony Anpu, who was a rather controversial character in life. Within twenty-four hours of the creation of this page, anonymous editors moved to vote the page for deletion. When this occurs, the article is taken out of the main article area and is sent to the Articles for Deletion (AfD) portion of Wikipedia, where it must stay to be examined and voted on for five days. The fact that my article was voted for deletion by anonymous editors is a violation of Wikipedia policy, and so several administrators voted to keep the page purely for reasons of process. However, one administrator, who we will call Jeffrey, decided to take a somewhat firmer stance on the article. Jeffrey began to haunt Ebony's AfD page. He violated his "Administrator NPOV" repeatedly, voicing his opinion that Ebony was "non-notable" and "crazy," and working personally on Ebony's article, rather than moderating the discussion, as is an administrator's role. It became obvious to others and to me that Jeffrey was POV Pushing. After three days, another Administrator closed the AfD as a violation of Wikipedia process, and Jeffrey reopened it. However, all the evidence on the first AfD indicated that the page would be kept. When Jeffrey opened the second AfD, his opening paragraph framed the page in a negative manner: "This individual is non-notable, unimportant, etc." Due to this and other comments, the second AfD appeared to lean towards deletion, and so did all the votes that came after.
I was somewhat stunned and shocked at how impassioned a stance Jeffrey was taking against the article about Ebony, so I opened a report on his behavior with the Administrative Notice of Incidents (ANI) page, specifically maintained to report on unruly Administrator behavior. I was met with threats from Jeffrey and a few of his friends, including "Don't even try to save this page, you will just be blocked" and "Don't be a cry baby, you'll never win." Even given these coercive attempts by an unruly Administrator to affect my actions, Wikipedia keeps records of everything. Once mentioned on the ANI board, Jeffrey's behavior could be scrutinized by other Administrators, and his unacceptable behavior was noted. Although he responded to every post I made and continually tried to divert attention away from my valid points, other administrators recommended that he recuse himself from further conversations on this topic. The term that is used for his type of behavior on Wikipedia is Wikilawyering.
Eventually Jeffrey asked another Administrator to close the AfD on Ebony Anpu for him. Again, this displayed bias and personal motivation. The other Administrator did as requested, but the AfD was overturned by the "Deletion Review Verification" administrative page.
In theory, Wikipedia is a collaborative internet encyclopedia, which relies on peer review and procedure to keep a neutral point of view (NPOV). The evidence from my experiments and experience inside the Wikipedia social structure point to a slightly different reality. What I observed is that people are still people, regardless of the number of policies or checks and balances on power. Editors on Wikipedia will follow the lead of "more experienced" editors without making their own judgment call, and established editors will use their social collateral to coerce new editors into doing what they wish, not necessarily what is right or neutral. I have noted that religious figures are more carefully watched and framed than military figures, that military figures who write on unpopular subjects can be labeled "paranormal researchers," that little-known organizations can have completely unverified material included in the articles about them, and finally, that through manipulation of sympathies and herd-mentalities, peer-reviewed opinions can be swayed.
I will end this paper with a hypothetical situation that beautifully illustrates my findings and concerns about Wikipedia. If I were an organization such as the CIA or al-Qaeda, concerned with controlling the public release of information on Wikipedia, this is what I would do.
First, I would hire ten to thirty people and put them in a library. Their jobs would be to enter reference information from books into Wikipedia, day after day, until their accounts had become established editors or administrators. Once a sold core of administrators was under the control of this organization, it would be easy to manipulate specific topics. Quite simply, since the system is based on collaboration, it does not matter who is right; it matters who is agreed with the most. Therefore, the Wikipedia system is severely flawed.
Wikipedia: an online collaborative encyclopedia.
Wikipedia Editor (Editor): anyone who changes the content of a Wikipedia article.
Anonymous Editor: anyone who changes an article without creating a user account.
New Editor: a recently created Wikipedia editor account with little or no edit history.
Established Editor: an editor with a sizable established edit history.
Administrator: an established editor who has been voted into office by other editors.
Edit History: the edit record of an editor or the record of all edits on an article
Page Rank: a quality rating assigned to a page by administrators, such as "Stub," "Start," "Good," or "Feature."
Neutral Point of View (NPOV): the official Wikipedia policy regarding objectivity.
Point of View (POV) Pushing: an action by editors trying to make an article biased or bias a process.
Administrative Pages: pages solely for dealing with administrative issues, including AfD, ANI, and DRV.
Articles for Deletion (AfD): the queue of pages which an editor has requested be deleted. When such a request is made, the article in question is placed in the AfD administrative page for debate.
Administrative Notice of Incidents (ANI): administrative page for reporting abuse of an administrator's powers.
Deletion Review Verification (DRV): administrative page for reviewing deleted pages, pictures, or information.
Out-of-Process: an action that goes against Wikipedia policy.
Wikilawyering: the act of manipulating Wikipedia policy in order to assert POV Pushing.
Comments on the article
These are my personal observations of errors of fact made by the author, based on reading the article.
- DRV does not mean Deletion Review Verification, it means Deletion Review (as in Deletion ReView).
- Voting in a RfA is not just by administrators.
- Claims policies are just recommendations for behavior, rather than requirements.
- Claims articles that are nominated for AfD are moved to the AfD area. Not true; a note pointing to the deletion discussion is placed on the article, but the article is left in place..
Response by Author
Hi Beksguy! Thanks for reprinting my article! First, yes Captainbarrett is the same as Barrett Brown the author for 2600, good sleuthing. Second here are my minor defenses.
- When an author submits an article to 2600, they get no feedback. The article is edited and altered without any further say of the author. To be honest I did not even expect 2600 to publish this, it was originally an Anthropology class paper I wrote.
- True about voting in Rfa
- Easy to say about Claim Policies until you have a Cowboy Admin ordering a bunch of nervous newbies around
- There was serious misbehavior by an admin that never got addressed.