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 ElizabethWarrenWiki.org


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