Essays, Analyses and Meditations

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Wikipedia as a Force for Evil

See also: the updated article
  • 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 more years.
  • 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.
  • 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 peaceful development"). 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 "One Thousand and One Nights" as the first suspenseful book. 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.
  • 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 flipped 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 comes from someone who signs 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 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. 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 has shown 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 senior editor. In 2010 the number of editors (in the USA) declined to 50,000 while the number of articles had increased to over three 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 60 pages 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 three 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. Wikipedia is being hijacked by entities whose goal is not to spread knowledge but to spread propaganda.
  • For government agencies, ideological organizations, corporations and celebrities 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 genocide. 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.
  • It is just a matter of time before we will have to take the streets (of cyberspace) against the dictatorship of Wikipedia the same way that young Egyptians took to the streets of Cairo to topple the dictator.
See also: the updated article