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Wikipedia Editing or Censorship

by Anthony J. Bradley  |  June 29, 2009  |  8 Comments

Recently the NY Times and Wikipedia conspired to keep a story on the kidnapping of a Times reporter off of Wikipedia.

A “sanitizing” team of Wikipedia editors, led by Jimmy Wales himself, worked to keep the story from posting by deleting, blocking and freezing. The story quotes Wales as saying, “We were really helped by the fact that it hadn’t appeared in a place we would regard as a reliable source,” he said. “I would have had a really hard time with it if it had.”

This seems like a convenient excuse to me. A much more common practice with Wikipedia is to leave the information, at least for some period of time, with a disclaimer that the information needs more citations.

I realize that lives may have been at stake here but don’t you think this sets a dangerous precedent? Some immediate issues jump to mind.

  • Will Wikipedia set up a new process now for “sanitizing” information and how would one go about requesting “sanitization?” Clearly the normal editing process was not sufficient or the “sanitizing” team wouldn’t have been needed and the story would never have been told.
  • What is the line between editing and censorship? Do they need to define what humanitarian circumstances qualify for sanitization? This action blurs the line.   
  • One of the benefits of Wikipedia is the speed at which information is posted even though it may not be fully supported by citations (very current events rarely are). Will Twitter replace Wikipedia as the information source for events as they happen relegating Wikipedia to a historical account that can be verified by suitable citations?
  • What if this “editing” approach spreads thru social media? Could it impact credibility of the whole movement? Will it impact Wikipedia credibility (positive or negative)? Does anyone care anymore or do we just accept Wikipedia now regardless of how they edit?
  • “Sanitizing” content implies that the content was dirty (pornography, bad language, etc.) but this wasn’t the case here. This was a decision to actively stifle legitimate information that others may have corroborated had it not been deleted. Building on one another’s contributions until the content is more complete is a fundamental premise of the social computing movement. Did Wikipedia break a fundamental tenet?  

I am ambivalent on this one since the whole concept of “sanitizing” in social media is generally anathema, but in this case, lives may have been at stake. What do you think? Was it censorship in the form of exuberant editing? Was it justified? Where do you draw the line?

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Category: social-solutions  social-web  

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Anthony J. Bradley
GVP
10 years at Gartner
26 years in IT

Anthony J. Bradley is a group vice president in Gartner Research responsible for the research content that Gartner publishes through its three internet businesses (softwareadvice.com, capterra.com and getapp.com). These responsibilities include creating and leading the research organization and infrastructure needed for the strategy formulation, planning, research, creation, editing, production and distribution of the content. He has four global teams of highly talented people who are advancing towards the world's greatest destination for content on how small businesses succeed through information technology.


Thoughts on Wikipedia Editing or Censorship


  1. Brian Prentice says:

    The Wikipedia editing process is a topic ripe for analysis. But, I’m not sure this is the best issue upon which to base such a discussion.

    This was a story specific to an individual – someone who was neither a high profile public figure nor someone of influence or power. So what harm was done to the public by withholding this information? None. On the other hand, was there a credible argument that by making this person’s plight public his life would be endangered. I think it’s safe to draw that conclusion.

    So, what’s the fuss? Ask yourself, if you were in Mr. Rohde’s shoes how would you have liked the matter dealt with?

    There’s a corollary issue here – one I think you need to add to your list. To what extent can an individual expect that they are in control over publication of information pertaining to their private life.

    In this situation though, I’m marking this as a victory for common sense.

  2. Jimmy Wales says:

    To answer some of your questions:

    1. “Will Wikipedia set up a new process now for “sanitizing” information and how would one go about requesting “sanitization?” Clearly the normal editing process was not sufficient or the “sanitizing” team wouldn’t have been needed and the story would never have been told.”

    You are mistaken. This was handled through the normal editing process. There was no special team formed, and no unusual actions taken. Wikipedia has had for a long time safeguards to deal with issues relating to biographies of living persons and the need for reliable sources. This is a case of those processes working very well, not a case of them being altered in any special way.

    2. “What is the line between editing and censorship?”

    Censorship is the use of force in the suppression of information. Editorial judgment, right or wrong, is done voluntarily. In this case there was no use of force or threatened use of force: there was good judgment on the part of volunteers.

    The major safeguard here is that the people involved are volunteers. They think and act independently. It would be impossible to pull this off if the facts did not justify it.

    3. ““Sanitizing” content implies that the content was dirty (pornography, bad language, etc.) but this wasn’t the case here. This was a decision to actively stifle legitimate information that others may have corroborated had it not been deleted. Building on one another’s contributions until the content is more complete is a fundamental premise of the social computing movement. Did Wikipedia break a fundamental tenet?”

    The word ‘sanitizing’ was entirely that of the New York Times reporter who wrote about it. This was not a decision to “actively stifle legitimate information” – it was a decision to remove poorly sourced speculation, as is done routinely at Wikipedia, and for good reason.

  3. I have had some disagreements with other editors on what is appropriate content and what is not, and frankly it has caused me to slow down on contribution. There are at least a few editors who I disagree with on content substance.

    For example, I recall working on an entry where other editors considered web site links to companies in the field to be valid, while excerpts from books and links to the reference material were considered spam from publishing companies. It seems to me that a published manuscript reference offers more value to Wikipedia readers than obvious attempts by a company to build link popularity using Wikipedia. Not so with this editing crew.

    That said, I still find Wikipedia to be a very valuable resource, especially in pop culture references. The system seems to work when there are obviously passionate fans contributing and policing the facts around their idols.

  4. Brian McNeil says:

    This didn’t sit well with me when I first heard about it, but it stands up to closer scrutiny if you examine the article history and know the Wikipedia policies on Biographies of Living People and Reliable Sources.

    You can grumble about a particular person’s article being closely watched for unreliably cited additions, but anyone can win a wikistalker.

    In any case, I have other issues with Wikipedian’s love of ‘recentism’. It is meant to be an encyclopedia, not a news site.

  5. Anthony Bradley says:

    I appreciate you giving your side and defending your actions (Wikipedia, that is). But the NY Times article doesn’t support your statements. Unless the article is mistaken you personally coordinated an effort to keep this information off Wikipedia. Doesn’t your personal involvement and discussions with NY Times make it exceptional?

    The line between “removing poorly sourced speculation” and censorship is a dangerous one to walk. Especially for a social encyclopedia. Isn’t is usual for articles that do not have adequate source infrmation to survive, at least for some period of time, for the collective to augment them?

    Additionaly, since you were in talks with the NY Times, you knew the information was not speculation but indeed accurate. So, indeed, you did stifle what you knew was good information. You used the lack of sources as a technicality for keeping information you knew to be correct, off the site. IMO, this is not a question of “Was it censorship?” I think it clearly was. The questions are “Was it justified?” and “What impact should this have on how we, as the larger community, view Wikipedia as a source of information?”

    As I pointed out in the original post, maybe this is the line between Wikipedia as an encyclopedia v. as a source of late breaking events. An encyclopedia generally has a more stringent requiremnt for supporting references whereas news does not. We all know that reporters rarely divulge their sources.

  6. Anthony Bradley says:

    My last response was to Jimmy Wales. In case there is confusion.

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