More reasons to avoid Wiki

Alas, few of those holding strong opinions on history bother to actually read anything about it… and those that do seem to rely on Wikipedia, rather than books. The following article in today’s Telegraph should (but won’t) give them cause for concern:

Wikipedia has become a tool of the Left in the battle to control the truth

Website’s bias is all the more dangerous because it masquerades as objectivityANDREW ORLOWSKI8 August 2022 • 11:00amAndrew Orlowski

Is the United States economy now in a recession? It all depends on how you define a recession. And in turn, that depends on who gets to write the definition of a recession.

When the Biden administration began to quibble with the widely accepted technical definition of the term recently, after two quarters of declining GDP, that was quickly reflected in the world’s most popular source of information, Wikipedia.

However, the “encyclopedia that anyone can edit” then decided that anyone couldn’t just edit it.  The Wikipedia entry for “recession” was put out of reach. A statement declared the page “protected to prevent vandalism.”

It rapidly provoked a response from billionaire culture warrior Elon Musk, who tweeted: “Wikipedia is losing its objectivity”.

In an era when the dictionary definitions of words – such as woman – are on the front lines of the battle between left and right, we shouldn’t be surprised that an open access website reflects the disagreements. But Wikipedia’s role goes curiously unscrutinised.

The website has become the most powerful media organisation on the planet, but the attention we pay to it is in inverse proportion to its influence.

No one in history has had the same power to reach billions of people. With its “facts” sprayed out via Siri and Alexa home speakers and smart TVs – a scenario Orwell envisaged in his dystopian novel 1984 – it’s more influential than ever. The world today in effect has a single source of knowledge, and that source is Wikipedia. 

You may think that with such immense power might come some responsibility. But here things get complicated.

Wikipedia is really made up of two separate groups, and neither is keen to step forward when things go wrong. On one side is the informal collective of hard working and unpaid maintainers, which self-organises loosely on a national basis and is no more of an institution than the hacking group QAnon.

The other entity is the US-registered fundraising non-governmental organisation, the Wikimedia Foundation, which exists largely to bring in funds which are then spent mostly on itself. Imagine an NHS where the white collar managers enrich themselves while the nurses work for free.

The foundation employs hundreds of office staff with average salaries higher than comparable tech NGOs and can call on some $400m-plus (£331m) of cash. The foundation can’t effectively tell Wikipedia’s editors – or “administrators” in the jargon – what to do.

For their part, the Wikipedians resent attempts by the newly minted NGOcrats to boss them about.

This is a dysfunctional marriage, held together only by the incredible amounts of money raised each year by guilt-tripping and misleading fundraising drives. Misleading because the costs of the site are a fraction of the nine-figure dollar sums raised by the NGO each year, and it is financially secure for several decades.

Wikipedia’s co-founder Larry Sanger agrees with Musk, and argues that that bias is now entrenched in both camps.

The site has changed character over recent years, he says. The NGO has been happy to accept cash from “dark money” groups aligned to the Left and the Democratic Party, such as The Tides Foundation.

With the encouragement of Jimmy Wales, another co-founder, it’s thrown itself hard onto one side of political campaigns too, going “dark” to highlight changes to copyright law. Wikipedia led such protests in 2019, even after it had succeeded in carving out an exemption for itself, with statements that European MEPs described as highly misleading. 

It’s a fools’ errand to try and prove bias – and I don’t think the link between dark money and the site’s slant is quite as straightforward as it may appear. But what is perhaps more disquieting is just how much the world has come to consult a single source of truth, one that is both unaccountable and unreliable. 

In the first study of its kind, five academics decided to test if Wikipedia had an influence on judicial decisions.

Law students created over 150 articles summarising Irish Supreme Court judgements, with half kept offline, and half uploaded to Wikipedia. The number of cases on Wikipedia that were cited as precedents in subsequent Irish cases rose 22pc. 

“The information and legal analysis offered on Wikipedia led judges to cite the relevant legal cases more often and to talk about them in ways comparable to how the Wikipedia authors had framed them,” the study found. 

In other words, judges were reaching for the most easily available precedents, not necessarily the most legally appropriate. Wikipedia has begun to shape the law – and nobody even noticed. “Because such content is not authoritative, our analysis reveals a policy-gap,” the study concludes.

As for reliability, this has not been a year to boast about. Large chunks of Sino-Russian history, added to Chinese Wikipedia over a decade and replicated in the Russian and Arabic versions, disappeared overnight last month.

Totalling over a million words, these historical entries appeared to be detailed and exhaustive, but were the invention of one bored Chinese housewife, who was dubbed the “Chinese Borges”, after the Argentinian Nobel Prize winning writer who created elaborate fantasy worlds.

Inventing facts became the vocation for the user known as Zhemao, because she was bored: “My husband has been away for a long time, I am empty and lonely,” she finally confessed. 

In another world, some of the staggering fortune that the powerful tin rattling NGO has amassed would be diverted to fact-checking, removing bias, or even ensuring editors are paid and accountable.

But power without responsibility is the NGO credo. When that power means information dominance, we should all be worried.

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