Things like that really, really, really annoy me

Seigenthaler

"And so we live in a universe of new media with phenomenal opportunities for worldwide communications and research — but populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects." (Photo by Curtis Palmer)

In May of 2005 a Wikipedia editor entered false information into the Wikipedia biography for John Seigenthaler, Sr. The false information was not discovered until September 2005 after which it became known as the Seigenthaler incident. In response to the publicity generated by this and other similar cases, Wikipedia restricted page creation (see: Wikipedia Signpost 2005-12-05 “Page creation restrictions”) and created new guidelines for biographies. The Wikipedia community continues to struggle with biased and false content in its biographical articles.

Yesterday Wikipedia began testing a new tool for catching casual Wikipedia editors who add unhelpful information to the encyclopedia. Of course, anyone who wants to add false information about living people to Wikipedia can easily defeat all of the lame “safeguards” that Wikipedia has put in place. The larger problem, that goes beyond just Wikipedia’s  “Biographies of Living Persons”, has always been Wikipedians who use the encyclopedia project as a platform to purposefully harass and slander people, particularly critics of Wikipedia. The Wikipedia:Biographies of living persons policy page was started in response to the Daniel Brandt “situation“.

I linked “situation” to the 14th round in the argument at Wikipedia over the issue of having a biographical article about Daniel Brandt. The casual user of Wikipedia might wonder how there could possible be a never-ending argument about whether Wikipedia should have a biography of Daniel Brandt. Daniel Brandt has been a vocal critic of Wikipedia, “the basic problem is that no one, neither the trustees of Wikimedia Foundation, nor the volunteers who are connected with Wikipedia, consider themselves responsible for the content.” Actually, problems at Wikipedia go deeper than that since there are Wikipedians who actively use the encyclopedia to harass people and publish false information about people and Wikipedia has not taken common sense steps to prevent such abuse.

It would be easy for Wikipedia to require that anyone adding information to biographical articles edit Wikipedia under their real world identity. This would allow those who post false claims about people on Wikipedia to be traced and subjected to legal remedies that protect us all against libel and online harassment. Under the leadership of Jimbo Wales, Wikipedia has persistently avoided its ethical responsibility to take simple steps that would prevent Wikipedia from being used as a platform where Wikipedians can publish false and harassing claims about people.

Many educators are astonished that the Wikimedia Foundation, an education-oriented 501(c)(3), fails to operate in an ethically responsible manner. Since many people assume that what they see in Wikipedia is true, some educators have tried to help make clear to their students that Wikipedia cannot be trusted. For example, history professor T. Mills Kelly’s learn-by-doing project created a hoax biography on Wikipedia (Edward Owens). In addition to showing how easy it is to put false information into Wikipedia, the course, Lying About the Past,  helped its participants learn to, “think critically about the impact of media past and present on our daily lives and views,” quoting one student evaluation.

What was the response of Jimbo Wales to this successful educational project? “To ask students to deliberately hoax Wkipedia is a very bad thing“. Wikipedia editor Moulton was similarly dismayed when he came across this version of the Wikipedia biography for Rosalind Picard.

Rosalind Wright Picard is Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Laboratory. She holds Doctor of Science and Master of Science degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech. She has been a member of the faculty at MIT since 1991 and a full professor since 2005.

With over a quarter of a million biographies, Wikipedia has many biographical articles about university professors. In 1997, Dr. Picard published a book entitled “Affective Computing“, an innovative branch of Computer Science which studies how to make systems that recognize and respond to human emotions. One might guess that her Wikipedia biography would have been started in order to describe her scientific research and seminal contributions in Digital Signal Processing, Pattern Recognition, Affective Computing, and Autism Research. However, that is not the case.

On Feb. 21, 2006, The New York Times published “Few Biologists but Many Evangelicals Sign Anti-Evolution Petition” by Kenneth Chang. The petition comprised a two-sentence statement, “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.” Dr. Picard was one of a group of 105 scientists, researchers, and academics who agreed with this statement when it was circulated (in E-Mail) in academia in 2001.

On March 8, 2006 the Rosalind Picard article was created by an otherwise unidentified pseudonymous editor named “Tempb”, by copying Picard’s online Faculty Profile and adding a section called, “Intelligent Design Support”. It is clear that the purpose of the author of the biography (User:Tempb) was to craft an article that labels Dr. Picard as a supporter of Intelligent design and as “anti-evolution“. Notice that the Wikipedia user account “Tempb” was a single purpose account, used only to push into Wikipedia the conclusion that Dr. Picard is anti-evolution and a supporter of intelligent design. Note that “Tempb” is an experienced wiki editor who decided to use a “throw-away account” in order to make a biographical article that violated the Wikipedia policy on Biographies of living persons, part of which said: “Editors should be on the lookout for the malicious creation or editing of biographies or biographical information. If someone appears to be pushing a point of view, ask for credible third-party published sources and a clear demonstration of relevance to the person’s notability.”

Wikipedia editor Moulton tried to correct the problems with the Wikipedia Rosalind Picard biography. For his trouble he met stiff resistance, was harassed and was soon blocked from editing Wikipedia. Astonished by his treatment at Wikipedia, Moulton began to study Wikipedia and the Wikipedians who use the encyclopedia to publish false and misleading attacks on living people.

I first became aware of User:Moulton on or about 4 August 2008, even though he came to Wikiversity on 9 July 2008. When I first saw Ethical Management of the English Language Wikipedia I linked it to an existing Wikiversity topic, Topic:Wikipedia studies. At that time I did not have any knowledge of Moulton’s editing history at Wikipedia. I started studying the sorry history of how Administrators at Wikipedia drove Moulton out of Wikipedia rather than support his good faith efforts to fix a policy-violating biographical article. As a Wikipedia Administrator, I am frequently horrified by the sickening behavior of other Wikipedia Administrators who abuse their sysop power and do damage to the Wikipedia project. After an initial study of what happened to Moulton at Wikipedia, I established some objectives for further study.

1) Has the Wikipedia:WikiProject intelligent design attracted a group of editors who damage Wikipedia by trying too zealously to defend Wikipedia against creationists and other editors who question evolution by natural selection?

2) Is Moulton an example of a Wikipedia editor who was unfairly treated by editors associated with the Wikipedia:WikiProject intelligent design?

3) Is there something we can do to prevent this kind of problem in the future?

During the past two years my research into these kinds of issues at Wikipedia has revealed that, right from the start,  several important Wikipedians “set the tone” for using Wikipedia as a platform for fighting battles against “fringe science” and religious groups that are viewed as cults. One of these Wikipedians remains as a paid employee of the Wikimedia Foundation. There is need for further research into the institutionalized practices of the Wikimedia Foundation that allow Wikimedia wiki projects to continue to be used to publish false information about living people.

The main work page for my research into Moulton’s experiences at Wikipedia attracted the attention of Wikipedians who ultimately tried to have the entire Wikiversity Ethical Management of the English Language Wikipedia project deleted. One Wikipedian came to Wikiversity and stated his reason for participation as being an attempt to get Moulton banned from participating at Wikiversity. This “wiki hit man” was ultimately successful. Jimbo Wales blocked Moulton from editing and declared him as being globally banned from all of Wikimedia.

Wikipedia remains a website where its participants can publish false information about living people and never face consequences for their actions. Wikipedia remains a website where Administrators and other high officials protect policy violators and ban good faith Wikipedians who try to correct Wikipedia’s problems. Given the anonymity that is given to Wikipedia editors, it may be that the Administrators who protect policy violators (like User:Tempb and his buddies) actually are alternate user accounts of the policy violators. Who knows?

Participation at Wikimedia wiki projects remains an educational experience. As long as Wikipedia fails to correct its problems it will remain the target of “Ethical Breaching Experiments” and hoaxes that aim to either correct Wikipedia’s deficiencies or educate the public about those deficiencies.

Image. Photo by Curtis Palmer, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike

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