The unmasking of a troll, and Wikipedia’s Achilles’ heel

The “unmasking-of-the-troll” narrative is burgeoning genre in internet journalism, and it’s one that is frequent fascinating, and occasionally riveting (see these two classic examples, for instance). Yesterday, Salon published a piece by Andrew Leonard that is a major contribution to this genre. Leonard’s article illuminates one of the most serious weaknesses of one of the best, most popular, and most important sites on the internet: Wikipedia.

Wikipedia, as I’m sure you know, is the internet’s largest online encyclopedia. Like practically everyone else on the internet, I’ve used it countless times. It’s my go-to source for learning or confirming basic facts (what year was Representative X first elected to Congress? who won the best actress Oscar in 1938?) — going to Wiki first for these kinds of things tends to save time. I’ve also surfed the site to explore various passions of mine, such as history and music. In fact, Wiki does a particularly brilliant job with pop music. It includes entries detailing the histories of obscure bands (The Tammys, anyone?), the recording of a classic album or song, and the origins, scope, and legacy of an entire genre. On those occasions when a Wikipedia article is less than comprehensive, I feel irrationally peeved (what? you mean the George Jone discography is incomplete?).

Wiki also does a superb job at explicating scientific and technical subjects. The instructor of a statistics class I once took assigned Wikipedia articles as supplemental materials to explain various concepts.

No print encyclopedia could possibly be this comprehensible or accessible; nor, of course, could it be free. Wikipedia stands as one of the world’s great institutions of human knowledge. But like every great institution, it also has its share of serious problems.

In his Salon article, Leonard uses an unusual case to shine a spotlight on some of the site’s most glaring flaws. The article focuses on a writer named Robert Clark Young who, under the pseudonym “Qworty,” used the site to publish malicious (and sometimes false) information and pursue petty literary vendettas. As you probably know, anyone can write or edit a Wikipedia entry. As Leonard puts it, the site is “a crowd-sourced labor of love,” and that is its genius. But that being the case, the site is dependent on a corps of unpaid writers and editors to check one another and make sure their work remains honest and obeys Wikipedia guidelines.

In the case Leonard writes about, that system completely fell apart. Young or “Qworty” has made over 13,000 Wikipedia edits, and under other pseudonyms he has appeared to make edits to his own page. He has also deleted info and made hostile edits to the pages of writers he was feuding with. Wikipedia’s self-policing system is supposed to prevent this sort of thing. But even though other Wikipedia contributors complained — as Leonard notes, Qworty was “at the center of scores of disputes over the years” and came to “the angry attention of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales on at least three separate occasions” — nothing happened. As Leonard put it, “there have never been any significant consequences for his actions” (emphasis Leonard’s). Qworty was not banned, his account was not suspended — nothing.

The Qworty case reveals the Achilles’ heel of the Wikipedia project. Anyone possessing enough time and resources, and who is obsessed enough, can post information on the site that is false, misleading, or extremely biased. In many cases, other Wiki users limit the damage caused by the worst abuses by re-editing questionable articles into a more appropriate form. But such corrections don’t always occur, or if they do, they can easily be switched back again, and “editing wars” ensue.

Sometimes, abuses occur in cases where the stakes are much higher than some petty personal feud. For example, Wikipedia’s entries on the gender pay gap and equal pay for women contain seriously misleading information. The gender gap article falsely implies that the gap may be caused by “differences in personal and workplace characteristics between women and men,” but every rigorous study has shown that even when those characteristics are taken into account, the gap remains. Yes, the article also says that discrimination may play a role, but only in a “experts differ on shape of the earth,” false equivalence kind of way. And the equal pay article includes a weird theory, attributed largely to a single source, that the wage gap may be reversing in favor of women because there is less of a gap between younger workers. But that’s a garbage theory, because historically the gap has always been the widest among older workers. A lifetime of small instances of discrimination accumulate into an increasingly large gap as workers age (see here, here, and here for more).

Crowd-sourced projects can be wonderful, and Wikipedia is mostly just that. But in these kinds of projects, a system for disciplining and sometimes banning disruptive or dishonest contributors must be in place, and it must be strictly enforced. Without that, there’s a risk that the entire project can become poisoned. With Wikipedia, I particularly worry about the political consequences. Potentially, some wingnut billionaire could spend his entire fortune paying political hacks to rewrite Wikipedia in way that is far more favorable to conservative ideology. In fact, I wonder if something like that might be occurring with the women’s pay entries.

I blame Wikipedia’s problems, and the problems of other sites which have refused to appropriately discipline its users (such as, for example, Facebook, which has frequently declined to shut down inflammatory pro-rape pages and posts), on the libertarian philosophy which pervades the tech sector. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, for example, is a self-described libertarian and Ayn Rand objectivist. Libertarians claim to value “freedom” above all; yet they tend to have a hard time seeing how the unchecked “freedom” of certain powerful — or in the case of Qworty, unusually determined — actors decreases the freedom of everyone else. That’s why rules and the ability to force them are important. Extremist “individualism” allows a few people or special interests to run roughshod over the rights of everyone else. In a political context, that contributes to the oppression of underprivileged groups and to high levels of inequality. And in an internet context, this can, in sites like Wikipedia, result in bad, biased information.

I really hope Wikipedia gets its act together and institutes a more effective system of self-policing. Given the fact that Wikipedia is crowd-sourced, some abuses will always inevitably occur. But to the extent that flagrant abusers like Qworty are allowed to run amok, the site’s quality and credibility are badly damaged. And that is a tragedy for site’s overall project of advancing human knowledge.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee