Wikipedia Controversies

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This page augments our general page on Wikipedia which had become too long.


On the Credibility of the Wikipedia

For the fully illustrated and hyperlink- saturated online version of JOHO, please visit:


Simply appearing in the Encyclopedia Britannica confers authority on an article. Simply appearing in Wikipedia does not, because you might hit the 90 second stretch before some loon's rewriting of history or science is found and fixed. Yet, Wikipedia is in some ways as reliable as the Britannica, and in some ways it is more reliable. Where does it get its authority?

There are a few reasons we'll accept a Wikipedia article as credible.

First, we apply the same rules of thumb as we do when listening to someone for the first time: Does she sound like she knows what she's talking about? Does she seem fair? Does she seem to have some perspective? Does she blatantly contradict herself?

And, we are generally more likely to believe a major article than one on an obscure topic because it's more likely to have been worked on by many people. Plus, we may already know something about the topic. If the article on the JFK assassination says he was poisoned by Rasputin, we'll be disputin' that article.

The article gains credibility if we see it has a long edit history. It becomes yet more credible if the discussion pages are long and rich. (As someone pointed out to me a few months ago - who were you, dammit? - those pages are going to become remarkable artifacts as future historians try to understand our attitudes and beliefs. Imagine we had discussion pages for the 1950's Wikipedia page on segregation.)

There's one more sign of credibility of a Wikipedia page: If it contains a warning about the reliability of the page, we'll trust it more. This is only superficially contradictory. Wikipedia has a page that lists the available not ices [1]. Here are some of the warnings available in the Disputes category. (See the online version of Joho for the graphics).

The factual accuracy of this article is disputed.

This article appears to contradict another article

This article appears to contradict itself.

The factual accuracy of part of this article is disputed.

The truthfulness of this article has been questioned.

The neutrality and factual accuracy of this article are disputed.

The neutrality of this article's title and/or subject matter is disputed.

An editor has expressed a concern that the topic of this article may be unencyclopedic.

This article is an autobiography, and may not conform to Wikipedia's NPOV policy.

Some of the information in this article or section has not been verified...

The current version of this article or section Reads like an advertisement.

The current version of this article or section reads like a sermon.

The neutrality of this article or section may be compromised by "weasel words".

Concern has been expressed that a "self-published" source being cited in this article is not legitimately citable as a secondary source...

This article is a frequent source of heated debate. Please try to keep a cool head when responding to comments on this talk page.

The fact that Wikipedia encourages us to use these notices give us confidence that Wikipedia is putting our interests over its own.

So, why is it that you don't see such frank notices in traditional sources such as newspapers and encyclopedias? Is it because their articles don't ever suffer from any of these human weaknesses? Oh, sure, newspapers issue corrections after the fact, and "This is non-neutral opinion" is implicit on the Op-Ed page. But why isn't there any finer grain framing of the reliability and nature of what's presented to us in their pages? Can we come to any conclusion except that traditional authorities are more interested in maintaining authority than in helping us reach the truth?

Which in the long run will be devastating to their credibility.

Overview of the critiques addressed at Wikipedia, from the Wikipedia Review:

From the Wikipedia Review [1]:

Wikipedia Content

1. Wikipedia contains incorrect, misleading, and biased information. Whether through vandalism, subtle disinformation, or the prolonged battling over biased accounts, many of Wikipedia’s articles are unsuitable for scholarly use. Because of poor standards of sourcing and citation, it is often difficult to determine the origin of statements made in Wikipedia in order to determine their correctness. Pursuit of biased points of view by powerful administrators is considered a particular problem, as opposing voices are often permanantly banned from Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s culture of disrespect for expertise and scholarship (see below) make it difficult to trust anything there.

2. Wikipedia’s articles are used to spread gossip, abet character assassination, and invade the privacy of the general public. So-called “Biographies of Living Persons” are often the result of attempts by powerful but anonymous editors and administrators at humiliating or belittling those real-world people with whom they disagree. Wikipedia’s “anyone can edit” culture has allowed baseless defamation of various individuals to spread widely through the Internet. When the family, friends, associates, or subjects of these biographies attempt to correct errors or insert balance, they are often banned from Wikipedia for “Conflicts of Interest”. Subjects of these hatchet jobs usually must resort to legal action to get the articles removed or corrected, a course not available to all.

3. Wikipedia over-emphasizes popular culture and under-emphasizes scholarly disciplines. Wikipedia contains more articles, of greater depth, on television shows, toy and cartoon characters, and other emphemera of popular culture than on many prominent historical figures, events, and places. Massive effort is spent on documenting fictional places and characters rather than science, history, and literature.

4. Wikipedia violates copyrights, plagiarizes the work of others, and denies attribution to contributions. Wikipedia contains no provision to ensure that the content it hosts is not the work of another, or that content it hosts is properly attributed to its author. It contains thousands of photographs, drawings, pages of text and other content that is blatantly plagiarized from other authors without permission.

5. Wikipedia, frequently searched and prominently positioned among results, spreads misinformation, defamation, and bias far beyond its own site. Wikipedia is searched by Google and is usually one of the top results. Its database is scraped by spammers and other sites, so misinformation, even when corrected on Wikipedia, has a long life elsewhere on the network, as a result of Wikipedia’s lack of controls.

Wikipedia Bureaucracy and “Culture”

1. Wikipedia disrespects and disregards scholars, experts, scientists, and others with special knowledge. Wikipedia specifically disregards authors with special knowledge, expertise, or credentials. There is no way for a real scholar to distinguish himself or herself from a random anonymous editor merely claiming scholarly credentials, and thus no claim of credentials is typically believed. Even when credentials are accepted, Wikipedia affords no special regard for expert editors contributing in their fields. This has driven most expert editors away from editing Wikipedia in their fields. Similarly, Wikipedia implements no controls that distinguish mature and educated editors from immature and uneducated ones.

2. Wikipedia’s culture of anonymous editing and administration results in a lack of responsible authorship and management. Wikipedia editors may contribute as IP addresses, or as an ever-changing set of pseudonyms. There is thus no way of determining conflicts of interest, canvassing, or other misbehaviour in article editing. Wikipedia’s adminsitrators are similarly anonymous, shielding them from scrutiny for their actions. They additionally can hide the history of their editing (or that of others).

3. Wikipedia’s administrators have become an entrenched and over-powerful elite, unresponsive and harmful to authors and contributors. Without meaningful checks and balances on administrators, administrative abuse is the norm, rather than the exception, with blocks and bans being enforced by fiat and whim, rather than in implementation of policy. Many well-meaning editors have been banned simply on suspicion of being previously banned users, without any transgression, while others have been banned for disagreeing with a powerful admin’s editorial point of view. There is no clear-cut code of ethics for administrators, no truly independent process leading to blocks and bans, no process for appeal that is not corrupted by the imbalance of power between admin and blocked editor, and no process by which administrators are reviewed regularly for misbehaviour.

4. Wikipedia’s numerous policies and procedures are not enforced equally on the community — popular or powerful editors are often exempted. Administrators, in particular, and former administrators, are frequently allowed to trangress (or change!) Wikipedia’s numerous “policies”, such as those prohibiting personal attacks, prohibiting the release of personal information about editors, and those prohibiting collusion in editing.

5. Wikipedia’s quasi-judicial body, the Arbitration Committee (ArbCom) is at best incompetent and at worst corrupt. ArbCom holds secret proceedings, refuses to be bound by precedent, operates on non-existant or unwritten rules, and does not allow equal access to all editors. It will reject cases that threaten to undermine the Wikipedia status quo or that would expose powerful administrators to sanction, and will move slowly or not at all (in public) on cases it is discussing in private.

6. The Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), the organization legally responsible for Wikipedia, is opaque, is poorly managed, and is insufficiently independent from Wikipedia’s remaining founder and his business interests. The WMF lacks a mechanism to address the concerns of outsiders, resulting in an insular and socially irresponsible internal culture. Because of inadequate oversight and supervision, Wikimedia has hired incompetent and (in at least one case) criminal employees. Jimmy Wales’ for-profit business Wikia benefits in numerous ways from its association with the non-profit Wikipedia." (

Rob Myers

"This confusion (between Open Source and the principles of Free Software) leads to projects such as Wikipedia trying to create an open space for anyone to use as they wish. This leads to social darwinism, not freedom, as the contents of that space is determined by a battle of wills. Wikipedia has had to evolve to reproduce many of the structures of a real Free Software project to tackle these problems. But people still regard its earlier phase as a model for emulation, whereas it should serve as more of a warning." (

Larry Sanger

Larry Sanger, one of the early founders, and now heading the Citizendium, at

"Wikipedia quickly showed itself to have a wonderful system for producing massive amounts of reasonably good content quickly. But that does not mean that, as an encyclopedia and as a community, it is free of serious and endemic problems:

  • The community does not enforce its own rules effectively or consistently. Consequently, administrators and ordinary participants alike are able essentially to act abusively with impunity, which begets a never-ending cycle of abuse.
  • Widespread anonymity leads to a distinguishable problem, namely, the attractiveness of the project to people who merely want to cause trouble, or who want to undermine the project, or who want to change it into something that it is avowedly not--in other words, the troll problem.
  • Many now complain that the leaders of the community have become insular: it has become increasingly difficult for people who are not already part of the community to get fully on board, regardless of their ability or qualifications.
  • This arguably dysfunctional community is extremely off-putting to some of the most potentially valuable contributors, namely, academics. Furthermore, there is no special place for academics, so that they can contribute in a way they feel comfortable with. As a result, it seems likely that the project will never escape its amateurism. Indeed, one might say that Wikipedia is committed to amateurism. In an encyclopedia, there's something wrong with that.

Can Wikipedia recover from these problems? The first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem in the first place. Wikipedia's most passionate defenders, if they react at all, will probably do nothing but explain why I am mistaken in each of these criticisms. There are some active Wikipedians who are able admit at least some of these criticisms. But could the Wikipedia community as a whole admit any of them, with enough force actually to do anything about them? I am now, I fully admit, an outsider looking in on the project. But I do still watch the project a fair bit, follow the news about it, and read mailing list posts and events on the wiki. So I know of course that there are movements afoot to reform Wikipedia in various ways. But I see little evidence that the community, whatever its discontents, will go so far as to admit the problems I've listed.

The failure to recognize these serious problems is a reflection of the fact that, at bottom, they are political problems. Like all open communities online, Wikipedia's community is self-selecting, and its policies have determined who stays and who leaves (or is driven away). For this reason, online communities tend to become rather conservative in their attitudes toward their own systems, and Wikipedia is certainly no different. So it is not surprising that, as anyone who is aware of how Wikipedia works knows, the changes made to the system recently have been mostly cosmetic, and even the bolder of these changes have little chance of solving the problems I outlined earlier. The first step to solving a problem is to admit that it's a problem; and much of the Wikipedia community will not admit the problems I've listed, unless they have a massive collective change of heart. And, I think, that is very unlikely ever to happen. In fact, you could say that I have waited for several years for it to happen, and it never has."

Jason Scott: The inanity of "Neutral Point of View

"In Wikipedia, because of the fact that it is a system, it is a system of politics, a system of gaming, a system of people being aware of rules, being able to interpret those rules any way they want to and then interact with others, and then use their internal language.

The term they use inside is called "Wikilawyering" and the reason it's called that is because you end up taking these very very thin credos that Wikipedia has put forward, in the absence of anything else, and then being able to interpret them to your own whims. Because of that, there are groups of people now working to destroy Wikipedia. They're doing so by slowly building up karma, and knowledge, and ability in the Wikipedia system. Wikipedia has about 900 administrators. A good portion of them, more than they would like to admit, are people who are working from within to understand it, take it over, destroy it. The Wikipedia system enables this.

Now, why does it enable it?

Jimbo Wales is a Randian Objectivist. This means that in his particular interpretation of that philosophical thought, he does not like to interfere, he likes to give general ideas, he likes to trust in people, and he likes that the truth, that the truth represents an honest objective entity that cannot be questioned. A is A. That is to say, if somebody says "this is blue", no amount of your stupid liberal whining is going to make it not blue. That's the theory behind that aspect of Randian Objectivism.

What he did with Wikipedia was, put forward a number of very simple credos: Wikipedia will have a neutral point of view; Wikipedia will always cite it's sources; Wikipedia will never be an original source of information; and then said: "Go with it."

This worked for a very long time by some standards. It worked for at least a year and a half. That Wikipedia in it's early days was able to handle this. It had a certain amount of editors, it had a certain amount of people working on it, and they could all kind of agree, and when they didn't agree, they could work out ways.

Now, the problem with these credos is that they don't hold up. For instance, "neutral point of view". The idea behind a neutral point of view in Wikipedia is that Wikipedia will not take sides.

So if you have, for instance, the Hindenburg disaster, there is an entire school of thought, and they are not compatible, two schools of thought: One school of thought says ... it's the "inside" and the "outside" schools. The "inside" school says the gas inside the Hindenburg ignited, and the Hindenburg blew up. The "outside" school says that the covering on the outside of the Hindenburg was of a design that wasn't very good, and was in fact flammable and that's why the Hindenburg went up.

They are not compatible. There will never be a situation where they go "I could see that, the entire thing was a huge bomb." But, Wikipedia, because of it's neutral point of view, ideally has to present both of these views. Two conflicting, completely not compatible views, which have to share the same essay space with no separation between them except for a vague section header.

Oh, and the people don't believe in the other one get to edit in the same space as the people who do. You can imagine what happens: Conflict, constant unending conflict. Now the Hindenburg Disaster, perhaps you can say, OK, these are all fat old white guys, and that's going to be no big problem. But if you end up with one where the actual existence of a country, say Tibet, is under scrutiny, where one says "this doesn't exist" and the other one says it does, you can imagine how well and how willing these groups are to work together to come up with the neutral point of view.

Neutral point of view is also, because of Jimbo's lack of direct influence, something that's used to say: "If you put something in Wikipedia that espouses too direct a view, even if it's in the same area as other opposing points of view, that is not neutral enough." In other words, you have cases were people post something that's a fact, and someone goes "that's not a neutral point of view," and the answer is "OK." And this is the thing, the number one question that I get, and the number one question I think a lot of people get if they do any work on Wikipedia is "Who the f .. ck are you?"" (

Wikipedia's civil wars as example of hyperpolitics

Mark Pesce:

"This shows up, at its most complete, in Wikipedia, which (warts and all) represents the first attempt to survey and capture the knowledge of the entire human race, rather than only its scientific and academic elites. A project of the mob, for the mob, and by the mob, Wikipedia is the mob rule of factual knowledge. Its phenomenal success demonstrates beyond all doubt how the calculus of civilization has shifted away from its Liberal basis. In Liberalism, knowledge is a scarce resource, managed by elites: the more scarce knowledge is, the more highly valued that knowledge, and the elites which conserve it. Wikipedia turns that assertion inside out: the more something is shared the more valuable it becomes. These newly disproportionate returns on the investment in altruism now trump the ‘virtue of selfishness.’

Paradoxically, Wikipedia is not at all democratic, nor is it actually transparent, though it gives the appearance of both. Investigations conducted by The Register in the UK and other media outlets have shown that the “encyclopedia anyone can edit” is, in fact, tightly regulated by a close network of hyperconnected peers, the “Wikipedians.”

This premise is borne out by the unpleasant fact that article submissions to Wikipedia are being rejected at an ever-increasing rate. Wikipedia’s growth has slowed, and may someday grind to a halt, not because it has somehow encompassed the totality of human knowledge, but because it is the front line of a new kind of warfare, a battle both semantic and civilizational. In this battle, we can see the tracings of hyperpolitics, the politics of era of hyperconnectivity.

To outsiders like myself, who critique their increasingly draconian behavior, Wikipedians have a simple response: “We are holding the line against chaos.” Wikipedians honestly believe that, in keeping Wikipedia from such effluvia as endless articles on anime characters, or biographies of living persons deemed “insufficiently notable,” they keep their resource “pure.” This is an essentially conservative impulse, as befits the temperament of a community of individuals who are, at heart, librarians and archivists.

The mechanisms through which this purity is maintained, however, are hardly conservative.

Hyperconnected, the Wikipedians create “sock puppet” personae to argue their points on discussion pages, using back-channel, non-transparent communications with other Wikipedians to amass the support (both numerically and rhetorically) to enforce their dictates. Those who attempt to counter the fixed opinion of any network of Wikipedians encounter a buzz-saw of defiance, and, almost invariably, withdraw in defeat.

Now that this ‘Great Game’ has been exposed, hypermimesis comes into play. The next time an individual or community gets knocked back, they have an option: they can choose to “go nuclear” on Wikipedia, using the tools of hyperconnectivity to generate such a storm of protest, from so many angles of attack, that the Wikipedians find themselves overwhelmed, backed into the buzz-saw of their own creation.

This will probably engender even more conservative reaction from the Wikipedians, until, in fairly short order, the most vital center of human knowledge creation in the history of our species becomes entirely fossilized.

Or, just possibly, Wikipedians will bow to the inevitable, embrace the chaos, and find a way to make it work.

That choice, writ large, is the same that confronts us in every aspect of our lives. The entire human social sphere faces the increasing pressures of hyperconnectivity, which arrive hand-in-hand with an increasing empowerment (‘hyperempowerment’) by means of hypermimesis. All of our mass social institutions, developed at the start of the Liberal era, are backed up against the same buzz saw." (

Banning as governance tool in Wikipedia

From Moulton [2]:

"The governance model of Wikipedia was so anachronistic that it took me over a year to place it in the timeline of historic governance models adopted at various times in the annals of human history.

The thing that stymied me was the prominence of blocking and banning as the primary tool of governance. I simply couldn’t place that among the recognized tools of governance in any historic context.

And then I happened to take a look at the oldest surviving account of secular law — the Code of Hammurabi of 1750 BC.

Of the 282 laws that Hammurabi of Mesopotamia carved into the stone tablets, take note of the very first one:

1. If any one ensnare another, putting a ban upon him, but he can not prove it, then he that ensnared him shall be put to death.

Evidently, banning (ostracism) was a common practice in the tribal cultures in the Middle East some 4000 years ago, at the dawn of civilization. Capricious and spurious banning was evidently such a common and egregious abuse of tribal overlords that Hammurabi made it a capital offense to ban someone without proving just cause.

And yet, on Wikipedia, indefinite blocks and bans without due process are a common occurrence. That is to say, the prevailing governance model of Wikipedia corresponds to a pre-Hammurabic tribal ochlocracy that is so anachronistic, it predates the advent of the Rule of Law.

When Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders drafted the US Constitution, one of the provisions they put in Article One was a prohibition against Bills of Attainder. A Bill of Attainder is the technical term in the law for declaring a person to be an outlaw (without respect to having violated any specific law that applies equally to everyone). The Founders excluded Bills of Attainder from the tools of governance because 4000 years of political history had demonstrated that such a toxic practice is corrosive and ridden with corruption, and invariably sinks any government that comes to rely on it.

The irony here is that Wikipedia purports to be the “sum of all knowledge” with an educational mission that reaches out to students, teachers, and scholars around the world. And yet those exercising power in Wikipedia have not yet learned the oldest and most profound lessons in the annals of human history — lessons enshrined in the first written law and in the first article of the US Constitution.

The consequence of adopting such an anachronistic governance model is that Wikipedians are fated to relive and reify the long-forgotten lessons of history. They relive those lessons by reprising the same kind of political dramas that fill the history books since the dawn of civilization.

The anachronistic governance model which Jimbo Wales foolishly and mindlessly introjected into Wikipedia is simply not a sustainable model in this day and age. Summary and capricious banning wasn’t even a sustainable model some 3750 years ago when Hammurabi first singled it out as an unacceptable practice in a civilized culture."

Turning deletion into a good faith process

Some notes by Chriswaterguy, being developed in Wikipedia userspace, not yet turned into an article or blog post:

Turning deletion into a good faith process was a proposed lightning talk at Wikimania 2007, which didn't actually take place (I think)

Better warning templates

Template warnings could be improved to offer more help to a newbie.

There's too much to do for admins, vandal-fighters WikiGnomes and other editors to engage with every transgressor in a detailed way; templates are a way of putting best practice and careful explanations at everyone's fingertips.

Using the wrong label isn't helpful. e.g. part of my concern with the label "vandalism" for persistently adding non-notable links is that, unless that specific part of the policy is pointed out, a user is most likely to think they've been wrongly accused, and that those reverting their additions are persecuting them. Some might dismiss such attitudes, but the reality is that some people feel that way, and as a wiki with open-editing, and more importantly with a policy of "assume good faith," we need to deal with such people as best we can.

In such cases, we're talking about people who have already shown they don't "get" Wikipedia policy. It might take something akin to flashing neon lights (and clear brief explanations) to get through to them.

When such users are non-native speakers of English, this probably compounds any misunderstanding.

I'm assuming of course that someone who hasn't yet been blocked is still considered someone worth trying to engage with and explain policy to.

More options

Valuable knowledge includes more than what can fit in Wikipedia - so what do we do with the stuff that doesn't fit?


As noted on Wikipedia:WP:Transwiki #(1.) Send to AfD/Use Proposed Deletion, transwikiing is one option for AfD's. If an article has already been discussed on AfD, and the outcome was to transwiki...

meta:Help:Transwiki (shouldn't there be a page on when to transwiki?)

Move to userspace

Appropedia:Template:Movenotice: The article [[{{{1}}}]], to which you were the main contributor (or one of the main contributors), has been moved to your userspace, at [[User:Movenotice/{{{1}}}]]. This was done rather than removing the article, in case you had plans to work on it further, and so that the edit history and text are conserved. If it becomes suitable for an article, it can be moved back later.

Relevant policies