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Wikipedia—The Dumbing Down of World Knowledge

Jay Leno probably said it best a few weeks ago when he joked that when Wikipedia's servers briefly went down for some three hours, it left the world without a source for false and erroneous information.  But many in our information-driven society believe it is no joke. A growing community of the informed believes that Wikipedia, the constantly-changing knowledge base created by a global free-for-all of anonymous users, now stands as the leading force for the dumbing down of world knowledge.  If Wikipedia's almost unstoppable momentum continues, critics say, it threatens to quickly reverse centuries of progress in the sharing of verifiable knowledge with its highest aspiration being genuine fact.  In its place would be a constant cacophony of fact and falsity that Wikipedia's critics call a “law of the jungle.”

By way of background, Wikipedia's 2.3 million-plus unvetted entries are contributed by anonymous users known only by colorful and sometimes bizarre and shadowy pseudonyms, often in a sort of “anything goes” perpetual intellectual wrestling match.  In the 2008–2009 period, an estimated 132 million edits were logged and viewed by 342 million unique visitors worldwide.  A pillar of Wikipedia doublespeak establishes this rule: “Wikipedia has no firm rules.” But actually, there are rules—and many of them. Original research is forbidden.  For example, the world's leading experts on the Dead Sea Scrolls, sea turtles or methanol could not contribute their knowledge based on their peer-reviewed findings.  But anyone with an ax to grind on either topic could.

Words such as “verify” are re-defined upside down in the Wikipedia World to mean the opposite of what the common meaning has been for millennia.  In Wikispeak, verify does not mean test and check, but seems only to mean cite any visible source and, all too often, even that attribute is missing in action.  Under Wikipedia principles, a user need not possess expertise or credentials in the topic area or even believe his or her entry is true.  Wikipedia policy specifically states, in part, that posters need not determine “truth (original bold)—what counts is whether readers can verify that material added to Wikipedia has already been published by a reliable source … not whether editors think it is true.”  What passes for a reliable source can span the spectrum, as any patchwork of policies and weighing measures can discredit the best sources and highlight the worst, depending upon the moment and motive.  Even this paragraph just written could be parsed and debated with no firm conclusion as to its correctness or completeness.

Speed-of-light changes are part of the Wikipedia mindset.  Indeed, the term “wiki” comes from the Hawaiian word for “quick.”  Wikipedia was originally named for a Hawaiian airport shuttle named “Wiki Wiki,” or really fast.  Here's an example.  One day in late 2007, just before midnight, a British Wikipedia contributor/editor opened a new article containing just one sentence about an obscure train station near Glasgow.  Within twenty-four hours, dozens of Wikipedians had edited that article more than four hundred times.

Were it not for the fact that the Google algorithm currently elevates Wikipedia to nearly the highest stature in search visibility, the impact of this so-called “online encyclopedia” would be vastly less important.  It would just be fact noise.  Without Google, Wikipedia would probably achieve only a fraction of its reach.  But as it stands now, the rapid ascent of Wikipedia has helped contribute to the obsolescence of traditional encyclopedias, even new high-tech ones such as Microsoft's Encarta.  Media reports attribute the recent discontinuation of Encarta to the omnipresence of Wikipedia.  Encarta cost money to access and costs a great deal more money to compile, while Wikipedia is free to all and created by an all-volunteer army.

In its purest optimal state, Wikipedia is often quite a correct, accurate and reliable compendium on arcane subjects of historical or scientific fact, such as the history of railroads, high-energy particle physics, or the biology of bees—that is, until degraded by mistaken individuals, those with an agenda, or outright intellectual frauds.  One never knows, and those who consult the source for a fact in our split-second world generally only consult it once, and cannot be expected to check back again and again to see the evolved text.  Journalists and scholars have learned to tediously edit over and over again before publication to get it right.  Wikipedia believes there is no use waiting—every edit and version is immediately public.

The notorious case of “Essjay,” a senior Wikipedia administrator, faking his credentials was brought to light by The New Yorker magazine in February 2007.  “Essjay,” who claimed he spent some 14 hours per day on Wikipedia editing articles and settling disputes, had originally boasted he was “a tenured professor of religion at a private university” with “a Ph.D. in theology and a degree in canon law.”  Originally, The New Yorker, in its July 31, 2006 feature, wrote glowingly about “Essjay”. Indeed, “Essjay” had been recommended to The New Yorker by Wikipedia management because he had actually been hired as a “community manager,” and was a sterling example of an informed Wikipedia administrator.  Later, The New Yorker published an admission that “Essjay” was actually Ryan Jordan, a 24-year-old “community college drop out.”  Wikipedia cofounder and current chieftain, Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales, commented on the affair to The New Yorker, “I don't really have a problem with it,” although he is said to have retracted that nonchalance later.  However, in a further explanation on Wikipedia (if that can be believed), Wales added, “Mr. Ryan was a friend, and still is a friend.”  The purported explanation by Wales continues, “He is a young man, and he has offered me a heartfelt personal apology, which I have accepted.  I hope the world will let him go in peace to build an honorable life and reputation.”  Ironically, after the fraud was exposed, Ryan Jordan was reportedly appointed to the Wikipedia Arbitration Committee, which decides thousands of factual and policy disputes.  Ryan defended himself with the rationale: “There are a number of trolls, stalkers, and psychopaths who wander around Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia projects looking for people to harass, stalk, and otherwise ruin the lives of (several have been arrested over their activities here) … You will eventually say something that will lead back to you, and the stalkers will find it … I decided to be myself, to never hide my personality, to always be who I am, but to utilize disinformation with regard to what I consider unimportant details:  age, location, occupation, etc.”

Academic frauds are one thing. But numerous entries are vandalized by deliberate propagandists, graffiti pranksters, those with pure bias and, in some cases, group hatred.  Wikipedians uses the word “vandalized” to refer to revisions by made malicious editors.  With erroneous—or deliberately false—statements in articles occurring almost every minute from everywhere in the world, it can be difficult for even the best-intentioned Wikipedia administrators to police.  But homage must be paid to the ability of Wikipedia monitors to assemble in a nanosecond on special forums and panels to identify and deal with vandals and vandalism on topics from the greatest political topics of the day to little-known historical matters.

For example, after Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens announced his retirement, his Wikipedia biography page was modified to claim he was a homosexual.  His official vandalized entry opened with the phrase:  “John Paul Stevens (born April 20, 1920) is the homosexual Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.”  The entry was quickly removed by other Wikipedians.  But they can't get everything.  Often, they jump in too late to avoid serious damage.

A famous case in 2005 involved John Seigenthaler, Sr., assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960s, one of America's most revered journalists and later a founding editor of USA Today.  A fake Wikipedia biography of him by an unknown Wiki vandal or vandals accused him of being a suspect in Kennedy's assassination.  His article in USA Today about the ordeal can still be read online.  It begins: “This is a highly personal story about Internet character assassination.  It could be your story.  I have no idea whose sick mind conceived the false, malicious ‘biography’ that appeared under my name for 132 days on Wikipedia, the popular, online, free encyclopedia, whose authors are unknown and virtually untraceable”

But the very nature of Wikipedia allows libelers to repeatedly repost their libel even after it has been corrected.  For example, last year actor Ron Livingston discovered that a malicious Wikipedia editor had posted that the star of the TV hit Office Space was gay.  Every time the actor's representatives corrected the falsehood, the libeler reposted it—time and time again.  In December 2009, a fed-up Livingston finally sued the anonymous poster as a “John Doe” for libel.  With court-granted discovery powers, Livingston's strategy was to seek the identity of the anonymous person and stop him.  Using a forensic computer expert, Livingston's attorney was indeed able to identify the culprit, the attorney explained in an interview with this writer.  The conduct stopped and the suit was recently dropped.  Although it was widely reported that Livingston sued Wikipedia itself, that information was incorrect.  In fact, the actor only sued a “John Doe,” that is, the individual poster.  Livingston's legal strategy brings out an important feature of Wikipedia's seeming invincibility to lawsuits.

Many have threatened to sue Wikipedia for various acts of infringement or defamation.  Some have actually done so, such as New Jersey literary agent Barbara Bauer, who claimed she was libeled professionally.  Inevitably, all litigants in the United States find themselves thwarted by the current judicial interpretation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which makes Internet content providers immune from local or federal actions regardless of community standards, excepting child pornography.  This law is commonly cited by pornography sites as an absolute defense.  Wikipedia happily does the same.  Many critics assert the 1990s-era law is woefully lagging behind the technological times.  If one presses the print button on his computer and prints a libelous Wikipedia page, and then passes that page out on the street corner, libel has occurred—as it would for any publisher of the physically printed word.

When viewed on a computer screen, Wikipedia is immune.  If printed and distributed, those pages are subject to the libel laws.  Ironically, many would argue that the Internet has become the new newspaper and that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act creates a double standard—one for the shrinking community of physical publishers and one for the mushrooming community of Internet publishers.  Naturally, the Communications Decency Act does not apply to other countries, such as Canada, Great Britain, or throughout Europe, where Wikimedia enjoys millions of daily page views and is subject to civil and criminal process.

Seigenthaler wrote bitterly in USA Today “We live in a universe of new media with phenomenal opportunities for worldwide communications and research—but populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects.  Congress has enabled them and protects them.”

The current answer, say some legal experts, is not to sue Wikipedia but the posters, who enjoy no legal immunity, not even under Section 230.  Since Wikipedia so effectively hides identities, frustrates requests to obtain them, and even outlaws efforts by contributors to “out” such identities, litigants have resorted to suing “John Doe” defendants. With subpoena power, they can go to any third party to track down the culprits.  That is exactly what Livingston did.  Although that particular suit did not go as far as obtaining a court order requiring Wikipedia to furnish whatever identification exists, the idea has appealed to others.

When a British woman and her daughter were allegedly blackmailed by a Wikipedia editor, she sued using the name “G and G,” and last December 2009 successfully secured a subpoena from Justice Tugendhat compelling the tax-exempt Wikimedia Foundation, which owns Wikipedia, to furnish as much of the identity as they possessed.

Wikipedians are constantly fending off legal threats and do all in their power to prohibit such threats even though such threats traditionally mitigate against further damage and are the legal right of the aggrieved.  In some cases, damaged parties are even obligated to notify those doing the damage that they must cease and desist.  Naturally, since Wikipedia protects the identity of those making statements, the only way to directly communicate with an offending party is on the Wikipedia site, either through individual but anonymized User Pages, article Discussion Pages or other Wikipedia forums.  But making such threats, or even if giving cause to subtly think such threats are lurking, is enough to cause Wikipedia administrators to immediately block a user's account, effectively foreclosing a victim's right to stop such attacks.

However, a growing number of unhappy victims are advocating “John Doe” actions or other persistent litigation to eventually erode the protections of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.  At Wikipedia Review, an entire community of vituperative Wikipedia critics is dedicated to overturning Wikipedia's primacy.  Their language is blunt and irreverent but points up the wide distaste some advanced Internet users have for Wikipedia, a dislike so intense they have come together under that banner. A typical recent Wikipedia Review rant declared:  “1. Wikipedia has no governance to speak of.  It's a land of jungle law.  2. Wikipedia has no respect for people and their works. People are treated on Wikipedia like s--t.  3. Wikipedia cannot be trusted for accurate information, considering the agenda-pushing street gangs of wiki.  4. Wikipedia pollutes the internet as well as diminishes scholarship.  It floods and pollutes the search engines on the internet and pushes out good scholarship and honest debate in favor of bad scholarship, defamation, and bold face intimidation and thuggery.  5. Wikipedia needs to be brought under the rules of slander, liable [sic], defamation, and copyright laws.  6. Wikipedia should be stripped of its 501c3 status.”...

...Like most academics, historians, teachers and journalists, I rejected Wikipedia as a mish-mash of truth, half truth, and some falsehoods.  Late last month, Wikipedia's unseemly nature came to my personal door.  It was then that IBM advocates chose to launch a systematic elimination of references to IBM's role in the Holocaust in the Wikipedia article entitled “History of IBM.”  The willing role of IBM in co-planning and organizing the identification, pauperization, and extermination of the Jews of Europe was documented in my book IBM and the Holocaust.  A million copies are in print in 60 countries.  IBM and the Holocaust won two major awards from the American Society of Journalists and Authors:  Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year, and Best Investigation of the Year for an article on IBM in Auschwitz published by the Village Voice.  IBM and the Holocaust has been the subject of numerous documentaries, news reports and studies, all of which have validated the findings.  Notable among these is the film The Corporation, which displayed close-ups of IBM Nazi-era documents.  IBM has never denied a word of the extensive documentation, although techies and IBM advocates have tried, even as the company itself remains silent.

In recent days, IBM advocates on Wikipedia edited the “History of IBM” entry to gloss over, dilute, or outright delete the company's involvement.  To accomplish this, coordinated revision on Holocaust history required deleting or vilifying my book, IBM and the Holocaust.  It was done just in time to whitewash the record for Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 11.  The effort was led by an unidentified IBM operating system software aficionado who goes by the name “Blaxthos” and a Dutch contributor using the name “Andries,” openly fortified by official IBM corporate archivist Paul Lasewicz using his real name, and others.  Ten years ago, Lasewicz was directly involved in the day-to-day blocking of my access to IBM's Holocaust-era documents both in the United States and Germany while this book was being researched.

The coordinated revisions began in earnest when “Andries” declared, in the Discussion Page for the “IBM History” entry, that it would be better to replace several paragraphs of detailed information drawn from the book, including specifics about IBM's machines at concentration camps and gas chamber codes, with text closely lifted from an IBM press release issued some nine years ago when the book first came out.  Date references such as “over the weekend” were to be left in.  Andries stated, according to the preserved Wikipedia online transcripts, that he thought the company's vague press release was “more balanced.”  Efforts by other users to preserve the original vetted and documented information on IBM's Nazi past and maintain a so-called “Neutral Point of View” were overwhelmed in a tense electronic back and forth with “Andries” and “Blaxthos.” Eventually, individuals who called for fairness and restoration of the original text were denigrated for their views barred from further comment by senior Wikipedia administrators who blocked their IP addresses.  Hence, they were censored, a common Wikipedia punishment for violators real and perceived.  The blocked IPs showed that protesting users were located across the United States.  Not only were these individuals blocked, but so was anyone else using that IP address, even from a different computer, for example, in a dorm building, a coffee shop, or a home, regardless of what topic they were interested in.

After removing the detailed references from the book about IBM's Nazi past from the IBM history article, two sentences drawn from the company's 2001 press release were finally inserted into the Wikipedia text without attribution or sourcing them to the press release.  The IBM phrasing deleted the name of the book and the word “Holocaust” disappeared completely.  The new text simply asserted that an unnamed book and lawsuits at the time “speculate” on Nazi use of IBM punch card machines.  The verb “speculate” was used in place of the earlier verb “documented” over objections of silenced protestors.

IBM advocates on Wikipedia also deleted all references to long-time Polish-born IBM employee Michael Zamczyk, who had authored a series of articles demanding IBM be indicted for genocide in the killing of his parents in Krakow, which Zamczyk says he determined after his own independent investigation in Poland.  IBM organized the rape of Poland in 1939 after the German invasion using a newly-formed IBM subsidiary, Watson Business Machines.  This business unit was located in Krakow and named for then-IBM president Thomas J. Watson, who received a medal from Hitler “for outstanding service to the Reich.”  Additionally, references to lawsuits against IBM, including one by a European Gypsy group in Switzerland, were also deleted from the Wikipedia article.  Naturally, the revised text could change again in the twinkling of an eye.

As part of the on-going deletions and discussions, the notion of IBM's role in the Holocaust was linked to an urban legend picture of “the man in the moon.”  With critics foreclosed on the IBM History article, Blaxthos turned his attention to related Wikipedia articles on IBM and the Holocaust (the book) and my own Edwin Black biography page—which was at that point accurate and unremarkable.  Attacks against my journalistic integrity ensued on Wikipedia Discussion pages attached to the articles as an international group of anonymous contributors materialized to block or bully those who argued for fact and fairness.

“Would anyone like to help organize a team to give the articles a good editorial review?” Blaxthos asked in an online post.  To this, IBM archivist Paul Lasewicz, who had previously offered his services to the group, openly replied, “I'd be happy to participate in said review, although for obvious reasons (potential Conflict of Interest …) it would [sic] preferable if I were not [sic] be the primary lead here. But if whoever takes on the lead feels that there's a role I can play to make these articles more objective and useful to the reader, s/he need only ask.”

Other revising editors then joined the process, including one called “TnXman” and another Wikipedia editor operating under the identity “Fred the Oyster,” presumably named for a character drawn from the British radio comedy known as The Goon Show.  At press time, the Wikipedia User Page for “Fred the Oyster” displays a large middle finger and openly pays homage to and quotes the “F-word.”  TnXman's user information says his own page has been “vandalized 136 times.”

Eventually, “Fred the Oyster” led an effort to enforce “rapid deletion” of the IBM and the Holocaust book article; but it was salvaged under a slightly different name to imply it was actually not connected to IBM's role in the Holocaust.  As posters debated whether this subtle change was ethical under Wiki rules, the book's description and synopsis were deleted, with only fragments left remaining as of press time.  Reference to the book was, at first, totally deleted from the “Edwin Black” article devoted to the body of my work including a bibliography listing my several books by name.  On that page a link was made to a cartoon of a weasel, this apparently as an official Wikipedia policy, with a special “weasel” label.  A second label identified me as “American Jew.”  When I complained and issued an online cease and desist request, like others, I was blocked by Wikipedia system administrators.  However, after my complaints were reviewed by a senior administrator in Ireland, the name of my own work, IBM and the Holocaust, was restored to my list of books.  The “weasel” and “American Jew” labels—which danced perilously close to hate speech—were also removed.

Once the Holocaust “purge” got out of hand, IBM's Lasewicz issued a public statement on Wikipedia:  “Upon further reflection, I think that my participation in any dialogue around IBM's role in the Holocaust is likely to become a distraction.  So I'm going to recuse myself from this particular discussion.”  I know Lasewicz as a man of integrity, and I am certain he got caught up in the effort to cleanse IBM's name without realizing it would result in personal vilification and such tags as “weasel American Jew” being branded on my bio page.  IBM sources who I am in cordial contact with explained they feel a duty to correct false Wikipedia history on the company involving a range of ordinary software, computational, and organizational issues.  They are not eager to join a gang on anonymous posters.  “But you're damned if you do and damned if you don't,” stated one IBM official with direct knowledge of the incident.

But I refused to appeal to an anonymous committee, and was clear that if Wikipedians could not be fair and accurate, they must at least avoid false statements and libel.  Eventually, a senior Wikipedia administrator located in Ireland under the moniker “Stifle” stepped forward.  He gave me his genuine first and last name.  It should be noted that at all times, “Stifle” reflected the reason and patience that every Wikipedian would be proud of, even if to me he seemed hamstrung by Wikipedia's self-proclaimed premises and policies.  “Stifle”'s User Page bears a notice:  “I am tired of the ongoing levels of drama on Wikipedia.” Eventually, “Blaxthos” and others went back into the Wikipedia Discussion logs to amend, backdate, and modify their statements to mask what was really said and when it was said.  In doing so, they deftly mitigated the false statements in the current record, making the libelous content recede in severity.

I was able to identify and contact “Andries” in Holland by his real name at his real e-mail and he quickly ceased.  “Fred the Oyster,” thought to be a man in Manchester, England, clarified after the fact that his claims that such statements as “What I do give a flying f--k about though is not pulling the wool over people's eyes” was directed at the quality of the article in Wikipedia and not the book or the topic matter, both of which he was unacquainted with.  Efforts to locate “Fred the Oyster” continue.

As for “Blaxthos,” the ongoing investigation has turned up leads for an anonymous user who studied at Auburn University, at a Georgia location, and that name has also an unverified association with an internet site called bash.org.  The authentic Blaxthos User Page on Wikipedia shows a great deal of involvement with IBM products.  It also tellingly declares:  “If you tell Wikipedians to trim some fingernails, the nature of the Wikipedia environment is that someone will start chopping off hands.  And after you go ‘Hey, slow down, Tex, that's gone too far,’ they'll switch to just chopping off fingers and everyone's happy at the compromise.”

“Blaxthos” at Wikipedia was the subject of a Newsbusters.com debate over when “Blaxthos” was reported to have blocked references on Wikipedia to Fox News as a legitimate source in reporting on the John Edwards mistress scandal.  The published Newsbusters article was entitled “Wikipedia Disallows Any Mention of Alleged John Edwards Scandal.”

The Wikipedia concept, if turned right side up, could be a boon to mankind.  Allowing named and credentialed scholars from around the world to collaborate in their area of expertise could revolutionize the speedy advancement of knowledge.  Such efforts are underway.  Sanger has commenced a website called www.citizendium.com, which will coordinate known experts writing openly under their own names.

The site www.scholarpedia.com is doing the same thing.  But since carefully crafted, peer-reviewed collaborations take time, Scholarpedia has fewer than 2,000 articles either finished or nearly finished, mainly in the sciences.  These have been contributed by more than 4,600 credentialed scholars.  But its contents are dwarfed by Wikipedia's millions of entries.

In an era when carefully assembled newspapers, books, and accrued knowledge on paper are being rapidly supplanted by the spontaneous Internet, in an era when information is so abundant and omnipresent that everyone can be an “expert” with the click of a mouse, yet fewer understand the issues or the facts, the struggle to reclaim honest scholarship, historical fact, and contemporary reporting may be one of the greatest challenges to modern civilization.  As society careens into the unchartered roadways of the next rev of the Internet Age—called Web 2.0 by some—will mankind's itinerary be determined by the open vanguard of our best thinkers and writers or by the shouts and jeers of an anonymous, masked crowd operating in the shadows?

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