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It should not be so hard to discern what the truth is. The sources that we rely on to give us objective information should not be subjected to unseen biases. In fact, it was a rapid transformation from reliable sources being entirely in print, that is, researched, fact-checked, to those sources existing entirely in an online capacity. This happened so quickly that there was not adequate time to vet or scrutinize these new models before they were the norm. The measure of convenience offered by online sources was too intoxicating to question.
Wikipedia is primary among those sources. In many ways and for many purposes, Wikipedia has replaced other research methods. When students or the general public need a quick answer, a basis, or a jumping-off point for further research, they turn to the crowd-sourced, user-edited, encyclopedia. If you’re not a student, an academic, a researcher, or a serious nerd, it is virtually unheard of to actually look something up in a book. Instead of taking this responsibility to heart with regard to the need to provide objective, accurate, information, Wikipedia has an informational political bias. It is this bias that Quillette founder Claire Lehmann recently uncovered in the edit history of her publication’s page.
On Wikipedia, the entry for Quillette deals primarily with the site’s detractors and defamers. Yet the edit history of the page, as pointed out by Lehman, shows an ideological battleground brewing behind the scenes, where editors are fighting it out for accuracy versus misinformation. An editor called Bringeroftruth92 has been editing the page, only to have their edits reversed out by Simonm223, before bringing in new falsehoods. This Bringeroftruth92 has been bringing the exact opposite, adding things like “It seems notable that Quillette creates lists that are later used by Atomwaffen terrorists to build out kill lists.” This was backed out because it was decidedly false, but there’s no assurance that it won’t find its way back in.
This kind of deception from a site that has a reputation of factual accuracy shows how susceptible our trusted online sources are to campaigns of misinformation by dedicated users who seek to dismantle discourse. When Wikipedia touts a politically diverse publication like Quillette as a far-right den for lunatics, Holocaust deniers, and perpetrators of “kill lists,” we should realize, collectively, that the faith we have put in this seemingly user-driven institution was drastically misplaced. Wikipedia makes its judgements as to how to define a subject based on their own prejudice, how a thing is perceived, and not based on fact or rigorous analysis.
Author and longtime journalist Sharyl Attkisson is very clear on the harms of Wikipedia and its methods. Her Wikipedia page also focuses on those aspects of her career that editors could use to discredit her work, which is primarily in showing how media bias, whether from businesses, special interests, or those with hidden motivations, seek to skew the public narrative to achieve their own ends. It was her decades of work in mainstream, television journalism that gave her the impetus to research this and to uncover those behind-the-scenes biases that drive so much of what we receive as news and information.
Speaking of astroturf and manipulation of media messages, Attkisson says that though Wikipedia is “billed as the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit, the reality can’t be more different.
Anonymous Wikipedia editors control and co-opt pages on behalf of special interests. They forbid and reverse edits that go against their agenda. They skew and delete information in blatant violation of Wikipedia’s own established policies, with impunity, always superior to the poor schlubs who actually believe anyone can edit Wikipedia, only to discover they’re barred from correcting even the simplest factual inaccuracies. Try adding a footnoted fact, or correcting a fact error on one of these monitored Wikipedia pages and poof, sometimes within a matter of seconds you’ll find that your edit is reversed.”
Attkisson goes on to note that author Philip Roth was denied an edit on his own page, about the inspiration for a character he wrote, because editors at Wikipedia determined that he was not a credible source on his own work. While many of Lehmann’s Twitter followers suggest that she should take the Wiki edits of the Quillette page into her own hands, the Roth story shows that even if she did, with all the credibility of having founded and served as editor-in-chief of the publication, there’s every chance that her perspective would not be authoritative enough to warrant access to edits.
Since its emergence on the new media scene, Quillette has come under fire from mainstream outlets, legacy publications, and people who are less interested in perspective diversity than solidifying their own bias in discourse. Media Bias skews it as “far-right,” but that label is as incorrect as Wikipedia’s contentions. Media Bias judges the outlet by how it is perceived as an outlier, a publication that is open to sharing ideas from writers, researchers, and academics that do not fit neatly into any of the standard American categories. It does not appear to judge it on its own content or merits. But what Media Bias forgets, or perhaps what makes them extra credulous, is that Quillette is not an American outlet, and as such, is not poisoned by the same kind of factionalism.
“By American standards, most other English-speaking conservatives are practically socialists,” writes David Marcus for The Federalist, “For all the talk of the dangerous, right-wing, mostly international Intellectual Dark Web, Quillette, or Jordan Peterson, by American standards they aren’t conservative. They can’t buy guns, they have socialized medicine, the government controls vast swaths of their news and media, and there is no significant movement to change much of that.” That Media Bias seeks to frame Lehmann’s Quillette as something it is not speaks to the push to box ideas by their perceived prejudice and discredit those views that do not support the bias of the one doing the checking.
My first introduction to Wikipedia was in a course called Citizenship and Identity in US History at the exceedingly liberal Sarah Lawrence College. For our first paper, the professor instructed us to only use online sources. She said that we were to cite articles and things published via the internet only. This was a few years before the launch of Wikipedia, but even so, I was appalled. In typical fashion, for me, I refused to do the assignment properly and trooped off to the library to obtain actual, credible sources. My professor hadn’t spent long summer days camped out in front of computers with incredibly stoned and spun out kids who were creating the internet, playing games, programming fractals, and figuring out how to use it to make music and have more sex. I had. She didn’t know what we are all coming to learn, which is that crowdsourced information is only as good as the willingness to put aside bias and attempt objectivity. She was blinded by the convenience, ease of use, open-source, and the little blinking cursor.
Wikipedia management tried to grab hold of the reigns back in 2006, but what solved one problem created another. While their adjustments were designed to diminish the frequency of bad edits, they also resulted in making it harder for new editors to participate in the crowdsourcing. If Wikipedia is serious about wanting to maintain its dominance over the online encyclopedia resource that it has come to be, they should look to limit political bias in definitions, and curb the impulse of those astroturfers (false grassroots activists) who would use the platform to further their own desires. If they don’t, they will survive, but no one will have any idea what the truth is, and by the time anyone really notices that manipulated fiction has replaced reality, most of the libraries will be long gone anyway.