Wikipedia as a Force for Evil
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The social media that came out of Silicon Valley have turned out to be a force
for good beyond the most optimistic expectations of cyber-utopians. Without
those social media the people of Egypt might have endured tyranny for many
TM, ®, Copyright © 2010 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
Meanwhile, Wikipedia has grown to become the largest cooperative project in
the history of the world, with 17 million articles in 250 languages.
The jury, however, is still out on whether Wikipedia is a force for good or
a force for evil.
The traditional debate over Wikipedia has focused on how much we can trust
thousands of anonymous editors as opposed to the small team of highly
decorated scholars who curate the traditional encyclopedia. Since scholars
and erudite people in general are less likely to get into a fight, the fear
was that in the long run the mob wins (a fact that has indeed happened in
just about every aspect of popular culture).
That was pretty much the only concern when Wikipedia was just that:
a substitute for the encyclopedia.
(My favorite example of Wikipedia mis-education: many Wikipedia articles give
distances in the archaic US system instead of the metric system that
is adopted by all other countries in the world, simply because most Wikipedia
editors are based in the USA).
However, the Internet is not a bookshelf. Those who treat the Internet like
a bookshelf miss the point about its impact, which is not just to replace
existing objects and services.
In mid 2010 i searched Wikipedia for biographies of the main politicians of
China and consistently found adulatory comments with virtually no reference
to the role that those politicians (including Mao) played in blatant violations
of human rights (apparently Hu Jintao has not threatened Taiwan with invasion
and has not almost started a war with Japan but instead "advocated China's
In my research for my book on Silicon Valley i accessed thousands of Wikipedia
pages about companies and individuals: the vast majority were simply the
equivalent of press releases worded according to the current business
strategy of the company or according to the whims of the individual.
In late 2010 the article on Feminism presented Mohummad (the founder of Islam)
as the first major feminist in the history of the world.
In february 2011 the article on detective fiction mentioned the medieval
Arabian collection of stories "One Thousand and One Nights" as the first
Wikipedia pages on albums and films routinely describe them with a
"Response from the critics was generally positive" comment, totally ignoring
the devastating reviews published by reliable critics.
I started noticing a disturbing fact: the popularity of Wikipedia is de facto
obliterating all the alternative sources that one could use to doublecheck
Wikipedia articles. A Google search on any major topic routinely returns a
Wikipedia page in the first two or three lines. The other lines in the first
page of results are almost inevitably commercial in nature. In order to find
a scholarly page that can prove or disprove the Wikipedia page, one has to
flip through several pages of Google results. Very few people make the
effort. Therefore Wikipedia is rapidly becoming the only source of information
about any major topic. Maybe this is acceptable for scientific topics (although
i would still prefer that my Quantum Physics and Genetic Biology come from
someone who has signed the article with his name and affiliation) but it is
dangerous for topics that are "politicized" in nature. Then Wikipedia becomes
the only source that billions of people access to find out what a politician,
a government or a company has done. Worse: every topic can be "politicized"
to some extent. I found references to the Bible and the Quran in articles
about scientific topics. No traditional encyclopedia and no academic textbook
would reference the Bible or the Quran to explain Quantum Mechanics or
Cellular Biology. Precisely because it is edited by the "lay" public,
Wikipedia lends itself to a global politicization of every topic.
It is an illusion that Wikipedians carry out "anonymous and collaborative
editing": the very nature of Wikipedia encourages people to avoid collaboration
and instead to leak ideological agendas into encyclopedia pages.
The "collaboration" about which Wikipedia boasts is the fact that someone
can retaliate to an opinionated or biased statement by removing or altering
that statement and maybe inserting one that leans in the opposite direction;
but a brawl is a very loose definition of "collaboration".
That danger is very visible in the rapid decline of quality.
Like any corporation that has to hide its own shortcomings, Wikipedia boasts
study after study that shows Wikipedia to be as accurate and more complete
than the Encyclopedia Britannica. This is true only if one ignores semantics.
In reality, there has never been and never will be a Britannica article that
is simply the press release from a company or a doctored biography from
a tyrannical government. If one considers the semantics, the gap between
the accuracy of the traditional encyclopedia and the inaccuracy of Wikipedia
is rapidly increasing.
The evil is, obviously, not coming from the founder or the staff. It originates
from the success itself of Wikipedia.
According to this diagram from a 2011 presentation by Zack Exley, the number of senior (unpaid) Wikipedia editors rapidly reached
60,000 and has declined a bit during the Great Recession. That number, of
course, does not tell the whole story. The meaningful number is the number of
pages that on average one of those 60,000 unpaid editors has to maintain.
In 2003 (just before the Wikipedia explosion) there were less than
200,000 articles and about 60,000 editors: on average three pages per
In 2010 the number of editors declined to 50,000 while the number of articles in English alone had increased to ten million (see this diagram): even assuming that all those 50,000
are unpaid editors that stick to Wikipedia's original philosophy (i'll say later
why i don't believe it), that means 200 articles on average per editor.
Here is the bigger problem.
When there were only a few thousand users, there was little interest from
governments and corporations in what Wikipedia said. Now that there are
millions of users and that the Wikipedia page is
usually the first one presented by a search engine, the interest in determining
what Wikipedia displays is enormous.
There has been an undocumented explosion in the number of Wikipedia editors
who are paid by governments, organizations, corporations and celebrities to
twist the text of a Wikipedia article so that it represents the interest
of that government, organization, corporation or celebrity.
De facto, these shadowy paid editors express an opinion within a Wikipedia
page that is supposed to be about some facts.
When there were only a few thousand articles, it was relatively easy for the
unpaid idealistic editors to control the content of Wikipedia.
Now that there are more than ten million articles, it is simply impossible for those
unpaid editors to control what the paid editors do. To make matters worse,
Wikipedia covets the idea that editors have to be anonymous: therefore there
is no way for an unpaid idealistic editor to know if another editor is unpaid
or paid. It's like those movies in which there is no way for a human to know
whether she is surrounded by humans or zombies.
Like any corporation that has to hide its own shortcomings, Wikipedia boasts
that "In the month of July 2006, Wikipedia grew by over 30,000,000 words".
But that's precisely the problem. That's precisely what is frightening.
Many of those 30 million words were written by unprofessional, biased and
sometimes paid "editors" whose interest in creating an encyclopedia is much
lower than their interest in promoting a viewpoint or serving their employer.
This leaves less than 50,000 unpaid Wikipedia editors to fight against an
increasing number of editors paid by government agencies, ideological
organizations, corporations and celebrities, not to mention the thousands of
occasional uninformed amateurs who introduce minor mistakes.
Needless to say, a government agency, an ideological organization, a corporation
or a celebrity
has more resources at its disposal and it is much more determined than a
hapless unpaid Wikipedian.
Therefore their version of the facts will eventually win.
No wonder that the number of volunteer editors is declining: if you are one
of them, you are rapidly losing motivation to check and enforce Wikipedia's
rules on a growing number of unruly and increasingly powerful violators.
The "brawl" doesn't even happen anymore.
Wikipedia is being hijacked by entities
whose goal is not to spread knowledge but to spread propaganda.
Furthermore, several governments around the world block Wikipedia webpages.
In the Middle East we were not able to access pages about Israel and Islam.
In China we could not access just about any page about history.
However, the free world can view the pages that have been doctored by the
Chinese government and by Islamic religious groups. Therefore there is a
one-way flow of mental conditioning: "their" people don't see our version of
the facts, but we are continuously exposed to their propaganda.
It is not difficult to predict who will win in the long run.
For government agencies, ideological organizations, corporations and
Wikipedia has become a fantastic device to brainwash not only your own audience
but all the people in the world.
Politically speaking, Wikipedia is de facto a force opposed to the change that
social media foster. While Facebook and Twitter cannot be easily hijacked by
authorities and corporations to brainwash people with distorted facts, Wikipedia
can be and is being used precisely for that purpose by an increasing number
of skilled and sinister "editors". Wikipedia is rapidly becoming a force to
stop change and promote repression, corruption, speculation and possibly
Because they are so distributed and cannot be "edited", the voices expressed
by Facebook and Twitter represent the voice of the people. Wikipedia, instead,
is increasingly representing the voice of the oppressor; or, if you prefer,
the oppressors are increasingly keen on appropriating Wikipedia.
In parallel, Wikipedia is having another detrimental effect on culture: it
is sending out of business the only sources that we can use to verify
Wikipedia's accuracy, i.e. the encyclopedias. Compiling an encyclopedia is
a colossal endeavor that requires the collective work of dozens of distinguished
scholars. The cost for the publisher is enormous. In the age of Wikipedia no
publisher is crazy enough to invest millions for an encyclopedia that
will have to compete against the much bigger and absolutely free of charge
Wikipedia. The age of encyclopedias that began in the Enlightenment is ending
in the 21st century. In other words, the fact that Wikipedia is free has
created a problem of historical proportions. Since no more
encyclopedias will be produced, and any specialized website will be infinitely
difficult to find with a search engine,
society will have no way to
determine if a Wikipedia article is telling the truth or not.
There will be no second source where one can doublecheck a statement, a date,
a story, and let alone discussing the merits of who is represented on
Wikipedia and who is not.
Wikipedia is sending out of business the very sources that we use to
determine Wikipedia's reliability and accuracy.
We'll need blind faith in the anonymous mob that edited a Wikipedia article.
A scary prospect, to say the least.
Wikipedia's claim that anybody can edit an article is one of those false
statements that become true just because a lot of people repeat them:
in reality, millions of IP addresses are banned from editing Wikipedia.
My favorite is a Stanford friend who added a link into a Wikipedia article
(linking to this very article of mine) and has never been able to edit
Wikipedia displays an error message in which he is accused of
"non constructive behavior". If it reminds you of totalitarian
regimes, welcome to the world of Wikipedia.
Wikipedia keeps a detailed record of what every IP address in the world has
written on which articles.
And Wikipedia routinely bans from editing articles the places
(like libraries) that don't allow it to track down the identify of the person
by the IP address.
This is exactly what secret police like the KGB have always done in totalitarian
regimes in which you are supposed to read (what they want you to read) but
not write (what you would like the world to read).
The usual objection to this comparison of mine is that Wikipedia editors are
who do it just because they believe in the ideal. You'd be surprised how many
members of the secret police in places like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union
and today's Iran were and are fanatic volunteers who believe in the ideal of their
totalitarian state and are willing to work for free to fight the enemies of
the state: the fanatics are always the worst ones.
The real enemy is often not the dictator in charge but the fanatics
that legitimize that dictator. Without those fanatic followers the
totalitarian state would collapse.
Most readers of this article (originally published in 2010) have trouble
accepting that Wikipedia is bad for humankind. They admit the limits and
the potential harm, but would not want to erase it from the Web. A friend
said "We just need to educate people how to use it".
My suggestion: we should introduce more mistakes. It is important that the
users of Wikipedia
realize that Wikipedia articles are typically biased articles written by whoever
has more time and more money to continue editing them.
In the interest of the truth, please change an article on the Nazi massacre of
Jews in Poland so that "Warsaw" becomes "Acapulco"
and "Hitler" becomes "Mickey Mouse". This way people will be aware that they
cannot trust an anonymous Wikipedia article and they have to use other
sources to doublecheck the content of Wikipedia articles.
Sure, Wikipedia is useful to find out that Hitler was a dictator, that millions
of Jews were killed, and so on.
It is very "useful" for many purposes. As long as we don't make excessive claims
about its reliability: it is NOT an encyclopedia. It is just a bunch of
advices given by amateurs to amateurs, just like Yelp and Amazon reviews.
Many television shows, documentaries and Internet videos have been useful to
raise awareness about world events, but people know that those shows are run
by comedians, entertainers and amateurs. Because Wikipedia articles are anonymous, people are routinely
misled into thinking that they were written by top authorities more reliable
than comedians and entertainers. In many cases that is not true.
In fact, i don't know a single scholar who has contributed to a Wikipedia
How about a big banner on every Wikipedia article that warns
"Disclaimer: None of the text published here was provided or verified by a
Just like we warn people that cigarettes cause cancer.
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The entry for Piero Scaruffi as it appeared on September 15, 2012 :-)