How Does Political Wikipedia Stay Apolitical?

The seventh-most visited site is one of the first online listings for any elected official—but how does a site that stakes its reputation on neutrality walk that line?

The homepage of Wikipedia on January 18, 2012, in protest of two bills in Congress, SOPA and PIPA, that aimed to provide greater copyright protections online. Critics, like Wikipedia, charged that the bills would have a chilling effect, and both eventually failed.
AP Photo/Yves Logghe
Zach Montellaro
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Zach Montellaro
Nov. 18, 2015, 8 p.m.

There’s one thing that most American politicians have in common. Google one, from the president of the United States all the way down to a New York state assemblyman, and one of the first hits you’ll get is their Wikipedia page.

Wikipedia has been a fairly ubiquitous part of everyone’s Internet browsing for the last 14 years, having just crossed the 5-million-article threshold for the English version of the site. It’s often the first stop for basic biographical information on politicians for most would-be Googlers, too.

It makes the site a valued (and well-trafficked) resource for politics, but that also presents the site with a problem: Wikipedia stakes its reputation on being a neutral, unbiased source of information—a particularly difficult target to hit in a world of partisan politics, where the “facts” that all parties agree on are few and far between.

So who at Wikipedia, a site run on a famously small staff, gets the task? Is it a group of academics and reporters contributing to the general good in their free time? Nefarious politicos trying to mislead the public? A nameless, faceless hive mind?

Turns out, it is somewhere in between all of that. The Wikipedians I talked to were a mix of academics and hobbyists—but they shared a dedication to a few core points: They all preached one of Wikipedia’s most sacred guidelines—NPOV, or neutral point of view. The other two, NOR (no original research) and verifiability, form the basis of what longtime Wikipedia editors say make the site such a trustworthy source of information.

“I’m very proud that I keep rigidly impartial in my edits,” said Michael Lowrey, a Wisconsin clerical worker and self-identified union activist and left-wing Democrat, who edits under the username OrangeMike. “Most of the active Wikipedia editors are very, very ethical about keeping to impartiality. … An editor that does not maintain neutral point of view eventually finds themselves blocked. It’s not optional.”

That sounds fine when editing an article on a baseball team or type of flower—there’s no political implications there. But how do Wikipedians strike a balance when talking about climate change or the current presidential candidates? Political impartiality and transparency on Wikipedia, the seventh-most popular website in the world, have long been a major concern—and for good reason.

A Twitter bot that tracks anonymous edits from Senate and House computers has discovered changes from the banal—like adding more plot details to the article for the movie Almost Famous—to the serious, like striking a reference comparing the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” to torture from the article about the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture.

And who has made the most edits to Jim Gilmore’s wikipedia page? An editor using the handle Gilmore4Pres wracked up more than 50 edits to the page between 2006 and 2007, still topping the list today. (The user appears to now be inactive and did not return a request for an interview on the user’s Wikipedia talk page.)

“That’s trickier in political articles because what I feel is an obviously true statement about Paul Ryan, to someone else it is a vile canard,” said Lowrey. “I’m proud to say I work well with some of our more conservative editors, and I think some of them are proud they work with me.”

Enforcing the sacred NPOV comes in part from the two other core values—requiring nonoriginal research and verifiability, which when combined requires every assertion of fact be backed up by a reliable source (like peer-reviewed scholarly research or articles from well-regarded media outlets), which editors say helps filter out bias from the articles.

Most editors say they are aware of their own potential biases, political or otherwise, and do take steps to protect their writing from their personal views. If they don’t, they’ll face a humiliating (for a Wikipedia editor, at least) prospect—having their content deleted.

“I approached it from the standpoint that the Republicans are likely losers, because they always seem to lose even when they win elections,” said Billy Hathorn, a retired history and government professor (who edits under his real name) and who said he had a Republican preference for a long time. “That way you can keep from getting too involved personally.”

But the real vetting process comes on each article’s talk page, an area dedicated to discussion among the page’s editors, according to Andrew Lih, an associate professor of journalism at American University and author of The Wikipedia Revolution (and an active Wikipedian himself under the username Fuzheado).

“Talk pages … are kind of the back channel, or the newsroom of articles,” said Lih. “Outside the public eye, there is a conversation happening, hopefully, among well-behaving Wikipedia editors. … I’d like to think Wikipedia, with its homegrown community that kind of comes and goes, has established—in most cases—a pretty nice way of people deliberating and coming up with a solution to something. Not by voting or liking or giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, just through conversation and logical discussion.”

And the same pillar of Wikipedia that lets anyone, even anonymous users, edit pages can be just as much of a force for good as one for bad. The edit that removed the torture reference from an anonymous Senate computer? The article was reverted back to include that same torture reference just two minutes later by another anonymous user.

Additionally, the site’s volunteer administrators have an elevated level of power above regular editors that allow them to block users from editing and to protect a page so that only registered Wikipedians can make edits to them. Most controversial or high-traffic articles, like those on Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, are provided some form of protection to prevent anonymous editing.

“The official regalia of the Wikipedia admin is a mop and bucket,” said Lowrey. “Their job is to do things like clean the graffiti off the wall, block the obvious ax-grinder, … block the person who is apparently a 13-year-old, at least in heart and not in body, who gets glee out of vandalizing things.”

These policies do not isolate Wikipedia from criticism of bias, both on individual pages and as a systemic mind-set that the editing network has as a whole. Is there such a thing as impartiality on Wikipedia?

“What you have, in effect, is certain areas of Wikipedia, including certain political areas of Wikipedia, that tend to be controlled by a small number of editors who tend to see things the same way,” said William Beutler, who writes the blog The Wikipedian and who also runs a consulting firm called Beutler Ink, which works to build their clients’ Wikipedia presence through “white hat” editing, or by suggesting edits to Wikipedia editors for pages but not directly editing the page themselves. Beutler edits Wikipedia under the username WWB or WWB Too for corporate clients.

(Full disclosure: Beutler was a reporter for National Journal in 2006, before I or anyone associated with this article worked here.)

And certain communities have long cried foul against Wikipedia and its editors, saying that the pages had obvious systemic bias against them.

A site akin to a counter-Wikipedia called Conservapedia, which describes itself as “conservative, family-friendly Wiki encyclopedia,” was founded in 2006. Conservapedia’s founder claimed that Wikipedia “contained bias against the achievements of Christianity and conservatism” and sought to create a separate site to rectify that. And the Conservapedia crowd is far from the only community railing against Wikipedia.

“Wikipedia is supposed to be neutral, but when all the news coverage about an organization or group is fairly critical, Wikipedia is obligated to reflect what is broadly said,” said Beutler, referencing the complaints of the Gamergate community, which is either a group of Internet users looking to restore ethics in video-game journalism or a bunch of “anti-feminist thugs” who harass women on Twitter, depending on who you ask. “Wikipedia should be fair, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be balanced.”

The community can also appear hostile, both to outsiders looking in and to those involved in it. Talk pages routinely devolve into seemingly petty arguments and one longtime Wikipedia editor declined to talk for the story because he did not want his other Wikipedians to know his real name because of “groundless accusations” that others have leveled against him on the site.

The uniformity of Wikipedia’s user base does little to address the above problems. The vast majority of editors are young, college-educated males or, as Lih calls them, “a bunch of male geeks who are wealthy enough to afford a $2,000 laptop and a broadband connection.” Some estimates peg that under 15 percent of Wikipedia’s active editors are women, and those editors that publicly identify as women face harassment.

“I happen to know some very prominent female editors on Wikipedia. But they have to deal with so much junk, and they have an extra fortitude for dealing with this,” says Lih. “Unfortunately, for a lot of women online—who needs that bother? When you make an edit, to have things called out in terms of their gender or the stereotypes around their gender being a point of argument.”

Some editors also take issue with the anonymity of some editors, which includes unregistered users who are only identified by their IP address or editors who only use pseudonymous usernames and don’t provide their own personal background or potential sources of bias or conflicts of interest.

“I think that Wikipedia would be better off if we did not have anonymous editing,” said Tina Vozick, a freelance editor who edits Wikipedia in her free time under the username Tvoz. “It holds people a little bit more accountable, and it means, theoretically, you shouldn’t be able to edit under multiple names to support your own position,” a practice known as “sock-puppeting,” which Vozick said could threaten the integrity of articles.

At the end of the day, why do editors do what they do? The community is far from perfect, the work is (largely) anonymous, and it is entirely composed of volunteers—the hours and hours editors put in on the pages are all unpaid.

“It became an obsessive hobby really. Just the idea of seeing your work in print was enjoyable,” said Hathorn. “And knowing I was having the last word on a lot of individuals, particularly those who have died. I was actually leaving their last word for them.”

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