Wikipedia’s Governance Structure: A Call for Change

Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, has probably done more to further the education of those in the world who want to learn than any innovation in our lifetime, and it has never cost the taxpayers a cent.  That is an impressive accomplishment.  Their first decade featured rapid growth which took on a life of its own and a unique subculture.  But going forward they face an entirely different set of challenges.  In a small but significant number of areas their articles are not as accurate as they need to be.  Sometimes these deficiencies result in deeply unfair treatment of living human beings, or worse.  Sometimes their good name is hijacked by those with an agenda. Usually the problem occurs when those in positions of influence take on strong opinions. The underlying problem is a team of “administrators” and “arbitrators” who are not getting the job done.

In an era when our identities are often defined by Google searches, the importance of Wikipedia cannot be emphasized enough.  Almost any Google search on a notable event or person produces a link to the Wikipedia article.  With such prominence comes a responsibility to get it right.

How Accurate is Wikipedia?

The short answer is that is in the vast majority of articles it is quite accurate.  I’ve found a consistent, and I believe misguided, skepticism within academia for their content.  Decisions about who is reliable and who isn’t are no different now than they have ever been.  When those in positions of influence within Wikipedia take on an agenda, watch out. Here are some examples of articles with serious problems.

Murder of Nicola Furlong Article

Nicola Furlong was an Irish exchange student in Japan who died in May 2012 in Tokyo.  She had probably been strangled while unconscious from excess alcohol or date rape drugs in a room at a Tokyo hotel.  Two Americans are being held on the charges. From the Wikipedia article:

Nicola Furlong and her friend were drugged, kidnapped (forced into a taxi), sexually assaulted in the taxi, and then taken to the Keio Hotel Tokyo where the hotel broke local Japanese law by allowing non-registered guests into the rooms at night, and assisted the kidnappers by giving them a wheelchair to take the comatose girls to the room, where they were raped and one murdered.  In August 2012 they plead guilty.”

Actually no one has plead guilty so the article is flat wrong on that count.  Much of the rest has not been sufficiently established to be stated as fact in the way that it has been here.  The case has also been marked by a lack of information from the Japanese courts and media.

 

Jerry Sandusky Article

As noted in the Wikipedia article, no real question exists as to Jerry Sandusky’s guilt.  The fair treatment of high ranking Penn State officials who were terminated for not doing enough to prevent Sandusky’s actions is another story.  From the Wikipedia article:

In 1998 Sandusky came under investigation by the campus police, following a claim by a mother that her son had been molested by him in the showers in Penn State.  The president of Penn State, Graham Spanier, and Paterno among several Penn State officials followed the investigation closely”

The [Freeh] report asserts that these emails demonstrate that in 1998 Paterno knew of the investigation of Sandusky, and followed it closely and suggest that it was Paterno, "long regarded as the single most powerful official at the university," who persuaded Spanier, Curley, and Schultz not to formally report Sandusky to law enforcement or child welfare authorities.

Not exactly.  In fact the 1998 incident, not to be confused with the more serious 2001 incident, was fully investigated by local law enforcement and the State of Pennsylvania Department of Child and Youth Services.  Correct or not, a district attorney named Ray Gricar declined to prosecute.  It was not just the Campus Police who looked into the incident.

Vulcan Capital Management Article

Virtually every word of Wikipedia’s article about New York based Vulcan Capital Management is false.  The company is a now defunct New York based private equity firm with a long history of failed projects in the energy sector.  It should not be confused with the Vulcan Capital Management in Seattle owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, one of the world’s richest men. The problem is that all the information in the Wikipedia content derives from self published information from the company’s website.  One example from the Wikipedia article:

Created in 2003, Vulcan Energy International (VEI) provides power plant solutions and services to customers world-wide. VEI’s projects include Vulcan Elvaton Limited, which in 2008 was contracted by the Sokoto State government of Nigeria to build a $25 million (N3.8 billion) 30 megawatts gas turbine power station.[9] and GVEI, which announced in 2005 the investment of more than $1.6 billion in power production, coal mining and fertilizer production in Bangladesh.

Really?  Actually nothing has ever been produced in Nigeria or Bangladesh.  Their only effort in Nigeria was to take in $11,500,000 from a local government for a power plant that five years later has never produced any electricity.  Over $1.6 billion in Bangladesh?  No work was ever done  in Bangladesh.  For a comprehensive list of other claims see this Sourcewatch article

Murder of Meredith Kercher Article

The all time champion for inaccuracy and unfair treatment of living human beings is the Murder of Meredith Kercher article, an effort which Jimmy Wales has described as “highly biased.”  The de facto policy in place now and before is that anyone who did not accept the guilt of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito for the crime was destined to be blocked because of their point of view.  This reality has been set out in black and white to the Wikipedia Arbitration Committee who lacked the integrity to take the proper actions.

The main problem is that the article totally ignored the vast criticism of the numerous important experts who had called into question the fairness of the trial of Knox and Sollecito.  Their ranks included two former FBI agents, an American Judge, a Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times columnist and a CBS news correspondent, all of whom have literally compared the case to the medieval witch trials that have cropped up in this part of Italy for thousands of years. Here is all that Wikipedia could say about the controversy:

Several commentators criticized the Italian legal process, including Donald Trump, New York Times columnist Timothy Egan, and journalist Judy Bachrach”

As pointed out by Jimmy Wales, lumping together Trump, who is a household name but not a reliable source on crime, with Egan, a Pulitzer Prize winner who is not widely known, was a deliberate attempt to diminish the reliability of those who criticized the trial.  More importantly there is no discussion of the substance of the criticism.  The efforts to keep the readers in the dark was a deliberate effort by UK based administrators who had bought into the irresponsible British tabloid coverage of the case.  More links are here:

Wikipedia Dispute Resolution
A Rare Failure
Wikimania

And then there are the false assertions about bloody footprints at the crime scene.  British tabloids early on had claimed that footprints found at the crime scene were made by Knox in the victim’s blood.  Even today the Wikipedia article parrots this urban myth, long ago discredited by both the appellate judge and independent observers of the case.  The prints had tested negative for blood and did not contain the victim’s DNA. From the Wikipedia article:

 “The judge did not accept this view, and concluded that the traces revealed with Luminol in Knox’s bedroom, the corridor and Filomena’s room had originated from Knox’s bloody feet.”

In past versions of the article they had an entire section titled, “The Knox Family’s Public Relations Campaign.” This lie remained in Wikipedia for months.  No one was ever paid or recruited by the family to speak up in favor of Amanda. Those who spoke out came to the issue independently and were never, not once, paid for their services.

Wikipedia is a marvelous institution but they are unsophisticated about democracy and governance. This flaw in their process leaves them deeply vulnerable to manipulation and corruption.

So what needs to change? In my opinion there are two problems: First, the current selection criteria for administrators has almost nothing to do with their qualifications to be good cops or judges.  Editors with many non-controversial edits or no history of conflict are not always the right ones to make difficult decisions when a conflict gets out of hand. And second, the prohibition against organizing efforts for or against a candidate or issue should be abandoned.  Editors need to be able to freely talk about candidate’s qualifications among themselves without fear of being expelled from Wikipedia for their opinions.