The conservative take on Wikipedia

A couple months ago John Miller, a reporter for the conservative publication The National Review, contacted me for an interview about Wikipedia. I had previously encountered a few Wikipedia editors who seemed keen on advancing their political views, so I welcomed the opportunity to discuss the intersection of political agendas and Wikipedia editing.

John had done his homework before our conversation, and had some interesting questions. The central foundation for his story was the opinion of many conservatives that Wikipedia articles, in general, have a liberal bias.

To illustrate the point, John brought up the articles on David Vitter (a “conservative” U.S. Senator accused of soliciting prostitutes) and Eliot Spitzer (New York’s “liberal” former governor, accused of the same). (Note: linked articles are the old revisions that were current at the time of our interview.) John pointed out that the prostitution scandal was mentioned in the first paragraph on the Vitter article, but that Spitzer’s scandal was buried several paragraphs deep.

(video: a humorous take on political bias on Wikipedia)

I wasn’t familiar with those specific articles (although I’d done a little work on Vitter’s a while back). I took a look, and immediately recognized that the articles were simply at two different stages in their natural evolution.

Natural evolution? What the heck is that? Well, once you’ve worked on a whole lot of Wikipedia articles, you start to notice some patterns in how they get developed. One of the most significant elements of an articles is the lead section — essentially, the introduction to a subject. Wikipedia actually has a guideline on writing good lead sections; among other things, it recommends that a lead section have several paragraphs, and that it should generally be comprehensive enough to serve as a complete summary of the article, capable of standing on their own.

But meeting that guideline can be one of the most difficult tasks involved in writing an article, because the author needs to understand the subject pretty thoroughly to even attempt such a task. Anybody can add a detail to the appropriate section of an article, drawing facts out of a newspaper article or other source; but writing a concise overview at the beginning takes deeper comprehension.

So often, articles go through a cycle where numerous facts are added to the body, while the lead section remains very short. Often, the details that wind up in the lead section are those that are currently in the news. This was clearly the case in the Vitter article; but with the Spitzer article, somebody had already taken the initiative of writing a more complete lead, so the (recent) prostitution scandal was in its chronologically proper place, near the end of the lead.

What’s the lesson in all this? I’m not entirely sure. As I told John, I’m not sure anyone — myself included — is in a position to draw conclusions about the general bias of the encyclopedia. Articles vary widely. Some subjects have diligent editors watching closely. Other subjects, often overlapping, have highly biased editors working hard to establish their points of view. Wikipedia does have highly effective procedures in place to address this kind of “point-of-view pushing,” but highly effective is a far cry from perfect.

My opinion — more or less reflected in the Daily Show video above — is that Wikipedia levels the playing field for all potential contributors (with Internet access), so in a certain respect, its structure allows it to be unbiased in a more organic and reliable way than any other information source. But by the same token, a system as open as Wikipedia allows for all sorts of gamesmanship. So like I said, I’m really not sure what the “true state” of Wikipedia is. All I can say is, the more prominent areas I work in appear to improve in their quality and balance over time, due to the contributions of a variety of people. More obscure subjects are slower to evolve, and are more likely to reflect an individual enthusiast’s point of view.

At any rate, the article John wound up writing (unfortunately not available online) is one of the more thoughtful and accurate pieces I’ve seen produced by a general interest publication. He offers advice to conservatives looking to bring balance to overly liberal articles, and that advice is measured and appropriate, largely mirroring the advice seasoned Wikipedians offer to newcomers. Near the end of his article, he quotes a self-identified conservative Wikipedia editor as saying: “Conservatives shouldn’t whine about bias because they can correct it themselves.”

Oh, and the Vitter article? Not wanting to interfere directly, I left a note on the article’s discussion page, encouraging those familiar with the subject to write a more comprehensive lead section. A few weeks later, it was taken care of.

NATIONAL REVIEW
issue date: April 21, 2008
Liberal Web: In the Battle of Wikipedia, we must not surrender
JOHN J. MILLER

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9 Responses to “The conservative take on Wikipedia”

  1. What’s the Colbert phrase? “Reality has a well-known liberal bias”? Wikipedia takes much of its information from news sources like the New York Times and Washington Post, which are considered “liberal” by the conservative establishment in the United States (though hardly liberal by European standards). And other information comes from academic journals and university presses (a.k.a. the “liberal academy”). Most of the principles underlying Wikipedia–the free flow of information, copyleft ethics, relativism, consensus decision-making, etc.–have a long association with liberal political philosophies. It doesn’t surprise me that conservatives see the encyclopedia as a liberal institution. Open Left had an interesting post a few weeks ago arguing that the internet itself is a progressive movement on par with the labor movement and the civil right’s movement in its capacity to effect change in social structures. This is not an argument that liberals are taking over the internet or taking over Wikipedia, simply an acknowledgment that the medium itself is by its very nature progressive. The whole idea of encyclopedia-making came out of the Enlightenment, which had at its core “a critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs, and morals.” It’s fundamentally incompatible with conservatism.

  2. Oops! I used Wikipedia’s definition of the Enlightenment. I should have checked out Conservapedia first, which quotes researcher Rodney Stark: “The ‘Enlightenment’ [was] conceived initially as a propaganda ploy by militant atheists and humanists who attempted to claim credit for the rise of science [through promulgating] the falsehood that science required the defeat of religion.”

  3. Any way to get a copy of “the article John wound up writing”? It sounds very interesting.

  4. Well, the right answer is to buy a copy of the National Review, grab one at the library, or sign up for their online subscription service.

    I don’t think I can in good conscience post it here, it’s not mine to post. But I doubt anyone would complain if I email a copy to interested parties…so, just let me know!

  5. Northwesterner, you make a very good point — similar thoughts have been rattling around in my head, but I haven’t really found the words for it.

    On the one hand, I do believe that many conservatives have a genuine belief that there is liberal bias in media and in academia. But on the other hand, the rhetoric I hear is generally so exaggerated, that it’s hard to keep track of the more reasonable points supporting that view. I have personally noticed liberal bias in the NYT, but consider it very much to be the exception, not the rule. They do lots of reporting that is well balanced and…to borrow a Wikipedia catchphrase…NPOV.

    Part of it is, I don’t see examples of what conservatives think the media should look like. The obvious example is Fox, but I think even reasonable conservatives would agree that it’s largely a propaganda outlet, mixing fact and opinion too loosely to have much credibility.

    Another thing I explained to John: I don’t see a lot of utility in the labels “conservative” and “liberal.” In so many cases, I think these labels are used to draw false dichotomies, or poorly frame discussions. Often, this works to the benefit of the powerful, allowing them to lobby both “liberals” and “conservatives” to work for their interests, while everybody squabbles about more “controversial” issues that are easily cast as liberal vs. conservative. And when the current self-appointed “conservatives” in power (Ron Paul and Howie Rich aside) have increased government spending to a degree never before contemplated, it’s easy to wonder whether there’s really any meaning behind the labels any more.

  6. Conservatives do have good media outlets that are considerably better than Fox. The Wall Street Journal does solid reporting. Thoughtful conservative arguments come out of the think tanks and policy journals (like the National Review). The issues as I see it is not that the NYT is liberal, but that the whole idea of taking all information in the world and putting it in a basket is liberal. Google is liberal. The Library of Congress is liberal. Wikipedia’s policy is that information must be verified by reliable sources. Unfortunately, a good portion of socially conservative ideas are derived from unreliable sources (e.g. the Bible), which seems to be the primary difference between articles in Conservapedia and articles in Wikipedia. When you add up all the reliable sources in the world, you are engaging in a liberal practice, and the end result is a document that looks liberal to people who prefer to process information in other ways. As for economic conservatives, I would think that they should have no problems with Wikipedia, as it is essentially a free-market economy based on information capital. In its current state, there are a lot of “market distortions” but as more people join and it moves closer to an ideal state that market becomes more free.

  7. Again, excellent points. I got the thing about “liberal practice” the first time — just didn’t have anything to add, I think it’s a great point though. Different approaches to information processing. Yes.

    The free market/info capital/market distortion point is an excellent one too. And I think your observation of the differing outlooks of religious (?) or values-oriented (?) conservatives vs. economic conservatives goes right to the heart of much of the confusion.

    Wall Street Journal conservative? Hmm. I don’t read it as much as I should, but that’s not my impression. Maybe the editorial page vs. reporting is the difference…

  8. I’m an Australian living in London. I’m surprised that American conservatives perceive the content of Wikipedia as having a liberal bias. When I started editing in early 2004, it seemed to me very Americanised and biased to the right. After a short time I realised that neutrality annoys *all* partisans … We’re far from perfect, but the attempt at a neutral point of view – the view from 20,000 feet, as approximated by fallible biased humans at ground level – seems to me the only workable way to keep the encyclopedia together. Even the most contentious topics attract a core of editors who may have very strong opinions themselves, but write with a view to encyclopedic neutrality. So it’s something that can never be achieved with perfection, but I think serves as an editorial compass :-)

  9. David, that strikes me as a very healthy perspective — an editorial compass. I like that. We can’t guarantee that we’re all going north all the time, but by making sure that everyone’s at least aware that north is the way we want to go, and has a tool to help them determine where north is, at least the right ingredients are there! Ouch, sorry for the hideous mixed metaphor…

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