Wikipedia's Open Content Doublespeak


In 1995, software developer Howard ("Ward") Cunningham created the first "wiki" and named it "WikiWikiWeb." A wiki is an open source website or page on which content is written and updated by users. The name came from the Hawaiian word for "quick," the idea being that pages could be generated quickly to expedite the exchange of ideas. In 2001, internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales and philosophy professor Larry Sanger applied the concept to launch Wikipedia as a free, open-content encyclopedia. Sanger left in 2002, expressing criticism of the site's accuracy and credibility.

In 2003, Wales founded the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) as a nonprofit to house and fund Wikipedia, and Wikimedia has since spawned an array of "sister site" projects, such as Wiktionary, Wikiquote, and more. (WikiLeaks is not a Wikimedia project.) Based in San Francisco, WMF employs about 300 people and reported annual revenues last year of more than $91 million, mostly from individual donations. Wales is its chair emeritus, public face, and, in the words of The Economist, "occasional monarch who intervenes in editing disputes."

Reason for Surveillance:

WMF identifies itself as a charitable educational organization. Its stated goal is "to develop and maintain open content, wiki-based projects and to provide the full contents of those projects to the public free of charge." This is certainly a fine goal, and when it comes to noncontroversial subjects, Wikipedia can be fairly helpful as a starting point for learning.

WMF's Wikipedia page lists an additional goal of "political advocacy." WMF's website explains, "Policies on access to knowledge [and] censorship . . . directly affect the vibrancy of Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia projects. . . . Everyone should have the right to share and access knowledge free of government censorship." This too, is a fine guideline, and Wales is to be commended for refusing to comply with a request from the People's Republic of China to censor "politically sensitive" content, especially after Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft had already done so. This is consistent with the goal of providing access to information freely and openly.

But what about censorship from within? After all, absent government censorship (which nobody wants), responsibility for maintaining free access to information on Wikipedia lies with Wikipedia. How well does Wikipedia abide by its own standard? Shouldn't we expect a charitable, educational organization to live up to its own advocacy?

We should, but alas, if we did, we would expect in vain. Wikipedia editorial decisions are made by an anonymous-pseudonymous micro-collective that can and does censor controversial information at will.

Most Recent Offense:

Its obscurantism regarding intelligent design is an especially egregious case in point. According to the entry, "Intelligent design (ID) is a religious argument for the existence of God." This definition is inexcusably false. Even Larry Sanger, a self-professed "agnostic who believes intelligent design to be completely wrong," called the article "appallingly biased." Still, the ID entry at least goes on to reference what ID proponents propose. Far worse was Wikipedia's outright deletion of the entire entry for eminent paleontologist Günter Bechly after Bechly became an open ID proponent. All of a sudden, he was gone. Kaput. "The page 'Günter Bechly' does not exist."

In George Orwell's 1984, Winston Smith rewrote history according to the dictates of the Party. In the Soviet Union rewriting history was official strategic policy. And in Wikipedia-land, "knowledge" can apparently change (or not) at the behest of the party. Shrewd seekers of knowledge, then, should trust this "people's encyclopedia" about as much as they would any other collective with the word "people's" in the title.

is a freelance writer and blogger on apologetics and matters of faith.
This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #45, Winter 2018 Copyright © 2019 Salvo |