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Wikipedia expert — removal of Elizabeth Warren Cherokee controversy “contrary to Wikipedia rules”

Wikipedia expert — removal of Elizabeth Warren Cherokee controversy “contrary to Wikipedia rules”

A citizens’ guide to Wikipedia

WAJ intro — I am very pleased that one of the true experts on the workings of Wikipedia, someone who noticed and acted on the Elizabeth Warren controversy, agreed to explain how Wikipedia works, how the removal of information about Warren happened, and how citizens can get involved.  Consider this incident a wake up call — history is what is written about history.


On January 7, 2013, Legal Insurrection noted that the entire section about controversy surrounding Elizabeth Warren’s asserted Native American heritage had been wiped from her Wikipedia page. That assertion was seen by Wikipedia and responded to, with the section reinstated, albeit in a  different form than before.

While this may seem ominous, it is important to understand how Wikipedia works and what its limitations are to put things in perspective.

While just about everyone in the United States and most of the world has used Wikipedia at least once in their lives, very few have any idea of how its content develops. Unlike traditional sources of information, there is no editor or editorial board that makes final, permanent decisions about what appears in articles.

Wikipedia began in 2001 as Nupedia, an online encyclopedia written by experts and reviewed like traditional encyclopedias. However, this process quickly showed itself to be too slow in the age of the Internet. Web 2.0 technology was allowing users to participate in web page formation and maintenance and a side project of Wikipedia was created as a complement to
Nupedia. However, Wikipedia grew so fast that it eclipsed its predecessor and relegated it to the dust bin.

From then until about 2007, Wikipedia grew by leaps and bounds in both number of editors and articles and the number of languages. Since that time, there has been some decrease in activity and production.  However, there are about 80,000 active editors worldwide working on Wikipedia in 270 languages with a count of about 24 million articles. By far, English Wikipedia has the most with over 4.1 million.

All article creation and many other tasks are done by volunteers, loosely coordinated under the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, based in San Francisco.

Volunteers, called “editors” or “Wikipedians,” do not work in a vacuum, but rather the site has developed tools to allow communication, rank articles, give and receive small awards such as barnstars (the Wikipedia version of the grade school gold star) and more. It also has norms, the most basic of which are the Five Pillars:

1) Wikipedia is an encyclopedia

2) Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view

3) Wikipedia is free content that anyone can edit, use, modify, and distribute.

4) Editors should interact with each other in a respectful and civil manner.

5) Wikipedia does not have firm rules. (This rule is the least relevant to this discussion but it basically means that if a rule gets in the way of making a positive change, you should work to change it.)

All other policies, guidelines, etc. are supposed to be compatible with these.

For articles on controversial subjects, such as those related to politics, not to mention religion and sex, the development of an article can be contentious and enforcement of the Five Pillars is often problematic. First of all, Wikipedia articles are never really finished. ANYONE can edit just about ANY article in Wikipedia at any time and can edit anonymously.

Controversial topics attract a lot of attention and a lot of people want to put in their two cents. This leads to A LOT disputes. Ideally, disputes are taken up primarily on the articles “Talk” page, the link to which is found on any given article in the upper left. Editors discuss and hopefully reach a consensus. For serious disputes, there are other venues, and a cadre of
elected Wikipedians called administrators to intervene when editors cannot negotiate among themselves.

However, the very free nature of Wikipedia and it anonymity leads it to have many of the same kinds problems faced in other parts of the Internet.

Trolls in Wikipedia come in various types, from those who “edit war” (two or more editors that keep changing each others’ work), those who engage in vandalism (including inclusion of nonsense, foul language and unjustified deletion of material) and those called “POV pushers,” whose purpose is to promote a certain point of view.

For political and other potentially volatile topics, all of these are serious concerns. Several methods of handling incidents have evolved. One is the monitoring of pages by Wikipedians and programs called bots. Another has been some changes in policy to restrict editing in certain articles (such as George W. Bush and Global warming) to cut down on all of these problems. There have been calls to limit editing further, require editors to have accounts and more, but these have been resisted in various Wikipedia forums as contrary to the spirit of “anyone can edit.”

Another issue is the size of Wikipedia and its shrinking or stable (depending on the source) pool of active editors, estimated at 80,000 worldwide vs 24 million articles, 4.1 million in English alone.

However, all this does not explain how a very significant section of Elizabeth Warren’s article was eliminated and stayed off the page long enough to come under the scrutiny of Legal Insurrection.

Based on the talk page for the article and its article history (access to which is on the upper right of the article page), the section was taken off the article and it and
its cite sources placed on the talk page for discussion. The justification for this was that all of the sources were from Boston and perhaps the issue was not significant enough to warrant a section.

That the editor wanted to discuss the content of the section is not controversial, but taking it off the page while it is being discussed is.  This is not how disputes of this type are supposed to be handled. Uncited information can be challenged and removed unilaterally, but eliminating a full section supported by various citations should have raised red flags much sooner than it did. In fact there are bots that look for large scale deletions.  In this case, the deletion of the section, even with putting into the talk page for discussion took it out of the view of the general public, and whitewashed the article, whether that was the intention or not.

So how did it happen and should it be of concern? I can only give my own opinion here as a Wikipedian since 2007.

Without a doubt I can tell you that whatever happened, it was not an official decision on the part of some board or other authority. The action was taken by one or more of Wikipedia’s thousands of editors. I can also tell you its wholesale deletion was contrary to Wikipedia rules and as soon as it became generally known, steps were immediately taken to correct it. In this sense, there is nothing sinister.

However, there is a significant problem with pushing of points of view by informal groups of editors in Wikipedia. To see this, all you have to do is read through the talk pages of controversial articles. One example is the naming of Wikipedia’s article on Climategate to “Climate Research Unit email controversy”.

Despite the fact that Wikipedia rules indicate that “Climategate” should be the title, a large very vocal group has kept the term out of the title to this day.

If you search for “Climategate” you will be redirected to this unwieldy title and it does appear in an article that lists controversies and scandals with the suffix “–gate”.

It is very possible in Wikipedia to gang up in a certain article and even break the rules if there are enough people willing to overwhelm the rest. In more obscure topics, the number needed to “prove” a community consensus can be far less.

Wikipedia has been accused of liberal bias, most prominently by those associated with Conservapedia, which was begun as an alternative to Wikipedia.  I will punt this question  somewhat saying that I don’t have a definitive answer. As a conservative and educator myself, one reason I work with Wikipedia is that it is the only  informational/educational institution that still believes in neutrality in its content and does strive for it. Compare that to the sorry state of many news outlets and most of academia.

Even if there is a liberal bias, it is not the main problem.

Wikipedia’s main problem is that it is too big for the Wikimedia Foundation to police, and indeed its ideal is that there is self-policing among editors acting on “good faith.”

Unfortunately, that leaves gaps that some people cannot resist taking advantage of.

Outside eyes looking onto Wikipedia is indeed necessary and useful. Legal Insurrection’s criticism of the missing controversy information got noticed by the Wikipedia community and it responded. It’s not the first time something like this has happened nor will it be the last.

However, if there is a liberal bias, it is most likely in the form of lack of (good, reliable) coverage of topics of importance to conservatives  (like legal articles!).

For this reason, more conservatives should be participating in Wikipedia on the inside as well. After all, Wikipedia is the #1 go-to source for basic information in the world!


Leigh Thelmadatter is a long time Wikipedian and educator who primarily works on articles related to Mexico, where she lives and works as an English as a Second Language teacher. She has integrated working with Wikipedia as part of her classes and has done collaborative projects with various cultural, educational and governmental institutions and has given talks about Wikipedia in Mexico, the U.S. and England.


Update 1-30-2013 — We created our own, Announcing


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So, you’re saying that the progressives co-opted something that was traditionally good (encyclopedia), and turned it into a piece of crap to further their agenda?

    Sanddog in reply to Browndog. | January 9, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    Shocking, isn’t it?

    Wikipedia is full of lefty “administrators” who are nothing more than self appointed dweebs who get themselves ingrained as volunteers and then try to screw with the facts and slant articles the way they want them to go. This is nothing new. Now if conservatives wanted to do this, I suppose originally they could have. But most conservatives have jobs, careers, spouses, and frankly lives. But it is too late now since they control the entire wikipedia hierarchy. They are like an infestation of scabies.

    These Wikipedia administrators are like minor petty failures and antagonists in an Ayn Rand novel.

      Ferrylodge in reply to EBL. | January 9, 2013 at 8:40 pm

      Yes, unfortunately the powers that be at Wikipedia will ignore every single one of their own rules to ensure that the encyclopedia is skewed to their liking.

        VetHusbandFather in reply to Ferrylodge. | January 10, 2013 at 1:03 am

        Not so much the ‘powers that be’. Essentially Wikipedia is a bunch of nerds (I use that term as someone who considers himself a nerd) that police themselves in a pseudo-democratic fashion. Unfortunately the majority for nerds on the internet are liberals.

          Ferrylodge in reply to VetHusbandFather. | January 10, 2013 at 6:47 am

          Wikipedia has a hierarchy, albeit chosen in a pseudo-democratic fashion. Their “Arbitration Committee”, for example, is dedicated to skewing the encyclopedia and ignoring all rules to do so. They claim to avoid “content disputes”, so they instead simply lynch editors who “coincidentally” include content that they do not like.

Yes, watch out. I’m a Wikepedia editor, which is really kinda spooky and totally undermines my confidence in it.

However, so far, I have contributed only a few minor corrections of fact in historical articles.

N.B. – NEVER use Wikepedia as an authoritative source. I’ve seen too many collegiate students lose grade points doing just that. Rather, it can be used as an anecdotal source (with proper citation of course).
I’ve yet to see Wikepedia used in any pleadings or discovery productions.

    Browndog in reply to SeniorD. | January 9, 2013 at 7:02 pm

    It’s a good place to start your research.

    If you Google something from Wikipedia, and all the search results come back to Wikipedia…well….

    JerryB in reply to SeniorD. | January 9, 2013 at 7:08 pm

    Don’t read the numbers on bathroom walls, either. But sometimes you’ll find good insights.

    Valerie in reply to SeniorD. | January 9, 2013 at 10:54 pm

    Of course it is not authoritative, given the way it operates. But it’s a convenient place to start. If anybody involve in a lawsuit cites Wikipedia, they deserve the result they get.

It’s probably not a liberal bias at Wikipedea so much as the observable fact that, in ostensibly neutral institutions, liberals more than conservatives prioritize their personal political goals over the neutrality of the institution and are willing to bend or break mutually agreed-upon rules in order to leverage that institution’s influence to produce the “right” outcome from the liberal point of view.

…there is no editor or editorial board that makes final, permanent decisions about what appears in articles.

What a Clintonian statement! Of course there are no “permanent” decisions. Nothing in life is permanent. And of course there’s no “editor”, there are a gang of liberal gatekeepers – assigned to instantly remove any information which conflicts with the party line. Just try and insert a single “may” in the entry on Global Warming and see what happens. The lifetime of any word which implies that the science of Global Warming is not settled has a half-life measured in minutes.

William Connelly is one such gatekeeper. Read about his hi-jinks at Wikipedia climate revisionism by William Connolley continues

Apparently Wikipedia’s own attempt at self policing problem editors isn’t working. Despite being up for a restriction or a ban, rogue Wiki editor (and Real Climate co-founder) William Connolley is still removing anything he doesn’t like when it comes to climate science. This time it’s wholesale removal of any reference to the American Physical Society resignation letter of physicist Hal Lewis, who resigned over the APS global warming position

“2) Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view”

That’s a God Damn lie. Wikipedia has had quotes in their global warming article that misquote and misrepresent at least one scientist, and even HE can get the changes made to correct his position.

Excellent post! Fairly and evenhandedly summarizes the Wikipedia process. I do, however, wish the author had found a way to work into the post the fact that because Elizabeth Warren is a living person; any article about her, and whatever issues she may have created/inspired/be the subject of, means that much higher standards of fairness and accuracy are demanded for that article (see policy known, in shorthand, as: WP:BLP) [not mentioned as a way of excusing the actions of the editor, above, in moving the contested section to the Talk page. Just trying to illustrate the point that WP articles are NOT tools to be used to vent one’s spleen and attack persons one does not like].

Editing WP can be a frustrating experience. There certainly are those who approach editing with an agenda and one only has to read the Talk page for the “hot”-topic-du-jour to see the kinds of, um, energetic discussion which can result.

As an editor, I have certain qualms about WP, the WP paradigm, and some of its guidelines. I am not sure, however, that the effort is hopeless. I agree with Leigh Thelmadatter that it is a good thing that the outside world looks at the “product” from time to time and offer their input when they see/think that something is amiss. And, I agree that it is a good thing that people of good will whose political beliefs might fairly be described as “conservative” would do well to join up and contribute to the effort. Remember, the job of editor can be almost anything a person wants it to be, from simple acts of proofreading to the creation of entire articles.

Wikipedia has been utterly corrupted by leftists.

It is as useless a source of information, just as NBC or the NY Times is useless on any topic that in any way could conceivably be manipulated to further leftist propaganda.

But like NBC or the NY Times is useful for (the date, sports scores, or what propaganda is on television tonight)it is useful for similar facts on politically neutral subjects.

When government is your religion, and you are as fervent a believer as a Jehovah’s Witness, you’re going to knocking on every door you think might open.

For obvious reasons, I prefer the Jehovah’s Witness.

As a political prisoner in the “Peoples Republic of Taxachusetts”, let me go on record with the fact that I have never voted for Kennedy, Kerry, Liarwatha, or Brown. So none of this is on me!

I second Leigh Thelmadatter’s post. Wikipedia has been the go to source for many fence-sitters seeking ‘objective’ information on political candidates. But the information is only as good as the diligence of the conservative citizenry to make it so.

I’ve cleaned-up past Wikipedia entries on ‘Tea Party’. But everyone should also keep an eye on subversive entries on American History, particularly during the Revolution and the Founders. I’ve also challenged and corrected other altered, white-washed entries on the history of communist and socialist regimes.

This is one digital space where we must exercise due diligence.

I think you will find there are lots of articles on Wikipedia that are left biased and when Conservatives try to chime in we get this nonsense about “the rules”. There are lots of libs who have nothing better to do than pollute the media and web with their propaganda. Wikipedia is is where alot of them hang out.

I was monitoring the Muslim Brotherhood entry and every time any derogatory information was put in (factual I might add) it was removed by some lib editor citing “the rules”. Well since then the Brotherhood is starting to show their true colors so it seems the skeptics were right and the Wikipedia editor was wrong.

Leftists understand that controlling the flow of information is essential to their objective. They wear everybody down because most of us have other things to do other than playing editing wars with them. Sadly, their point of view has now taken hold in the popular culture and it will take an enormous effort to set the record straight.

I dunno, folks, but I’m reading a definite invitation to come out and play from at least some of the folks at Wikipedia.

It might be fun, and it might be a real eye-opener. My experience is that,America, when you really get into the weeds of policy, a smart and principled Conservative has a lot of common ground with a smart and principled Liberal. We need both.

I think that Wikipedia would benefit from an injection of American conservative philosophy, and American conservatives would, as well.

I call to the attention of any interested parties the current fuss & fury currently occurring at the Wikipedia article on Paul Krugman. One of the involved parties was also involved in the removal of Elizabeth Warren Cherokee section.

[…] » Wikipedia expert — removal of Elizabeth Warren Cherokee controversy “contrary to… […]

“As a conservative and educator myself, one reason I work with Wikipedia is that it is the only informational/educational institution that still believes in neutrality in its content and does strive for it. Compare that to the sorry state of many news outlets and most of academia.”

The quest to find and support objective sources of news is as old as the printing press itself. Perhaps a follow-up article on tips for sorting out the merits of the reported news is in order. For example, when an information source calls itself “No Spin Zone” or “All Things Considered,” it is hardly time to relax on scrutinizing the reports.

[…] presumably trusted individuals. One such page is the one devoted to Elizabeth Warren, where much of the current dustup […]

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