Who Watches the Wikipedians?

Since The New York Times' David Rohde has escaped Taliban captivity, information about his capture—and the voluntary six-month media blackout that accompanied it—is finally out. In order to protect Rohde, the Times explains that it corralled print media into a circle of story suppression, but had a tougher time keeping the vigilant user-editors of Wikipedia silent:

The Wikipedia page history shows that [the day after he was kidnapped], someone without a user name edited the entry on Mr. Rohde for the first time to include the kidnapping. [Times investigative reporter Michael] Moss deleted the addition, and the same unidentified user promptly restored it, adding a note protesting the removal. The unnamed editor cited an Afghan news agency report. In the first few days, at least two small news agencies and a handful of blogs reported the kidnapping...

On Nov. 13, news of the kidnapping was posted and deleted four times within four hours, before an administrator blocked any more changes for three days. On Nov. 16, it was blocked again, for two weeks....

Most of the attempts to add the information, including the first and the last, came from three similar Internet protocol addresses that correspond to an Internet service provider in Florida, and Wikipedia administrators guessed that they were all the same user.

“We had no idea who it was,” said [Wikipedia founder Jimmy] Wales, who said there was no indication the person had ill intent. “There was no way to reach out quietly and say ‘Dude, stop and think about this.’”

It's hard to say whether this makes new media (or new ways of managing media) look bad. Given a situation in which "lives were at stake"—that is, in which the nearly-anarchic quality of Wikipedia's management threatened to put Rohde in more danger by publicizing his situation—Wales compromised and used top-down censorship to suppress news of the kidnapping. It is remarkable, and a little bit reassuring, that Wales and his editors had such a difficult time censoring the site's more ornery, persistent users. Rohde's case, however, also exposes an interesting kink in Wikipedia's model of content control. Usually, it's possible for decentralized governance to keep content on a medium-sized leash, but decentralization requires public discussion about what is or isn't worth including. What should be done when the subject is so sensitive that preventing public discussion of it has to be the entire aim of content control? It looks like we have Wales' answer.

In June 2007, Reason's Associate Editor Katherine Mangu-Ward wrote about Wales, Wikipedia, and the changing World Wide Web.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • SpongePaul||

    si if i read this right, the times was censoring independent media reports (the wiki-editor) to hide the fact that they had a reporter who was kidnapped. By delaying the reporting, and delaying the info getting out, they endagered him, not portected him. Plus no one should be able to censor accurate true info!!!! It does not matter the outcome, truth in reporting is paramount. sensetivities are for nannies, not news services

  • Rimfax||

    Why was the blackout important again? I don't see the logic.

  • ||

    Why was the blackout important again? I don't see the logic.

    That's the question that keeps coming to my mind.

    Publishing fact that the reporter was kidnapped was considered a threat to the reporter? Why is that?

    The rationales given by the Times folks and the Wikipedia folks are merely taken at face value -- no one seems to be asking why reporting the kidnapping posed a danger to the victim or how a media blackout was supposed to help.

  • ||

    At first, I'm sure, they were thinking that they were keeping him safe.

    Eventually, however, I'm sure it was an issue of "this is our information and we don't want others to have it".

  • ||

    I'm with Chicago Tom (are us guys who use cities in in front of our names for monikers extremely bright, and good looking, or what?)
    What is the criteria used for keeping someone who has been kidnapped out of the news? How do they know this is helpful or not? If a soilder is kidnapped, is that suppose to be supressed? Or does it just apply to reporters? Or just Times reporters?

  • Hugh Akston||

    FTFA:

    Afghan officials confirmed the kidnapping in the days after the abduction, but The Associated Press and most other Western news outlets respected a request from the Times to not report on the abductions because the publicity could negatively affect hostage rescue efforts and imperil Rohde's life.

  • Happy Jack||

    the publicity could negatively affect hostage rescue efforts and imperil Rohde's life.

    This morning ABC had someone gibbering about a soldier kidnapped in Afghanistan.

  • ||

    This is a strange perspective for a blogger at Reason to take, isn't it?

    A private organization, working with independent private volunteers, used their own independent judgment to choose not to publish something that they believed (correctly, it seems) was not consistent with their broader humanitarian goals.

    Since when, in a libertarian magazine, is private parties behaving in a responsible and thoughtful manner, voluntarily, "censorship"? :-)

    In any event, this blog post is factually mistaken. I didn't use any "top down" controls at all. Nor did we have to "compromise". Instead, we followed standard Wikipedia policy on reliability of sourcing and on biographies of living persons.

  • mike||

    I'm with wikipedia on this one. I could buy the argument that if the kidnappers are getting press, they may have more leverage in negotiations. You'd think it would be the fbi or cia doing the requesting, though.

    How will Wikipedia stop itself from getting dragged into these kinds of actions again and again now that they've very publicly admitted to it in this case?

    Also it's kind of weird to say you were following standard policy on reliability of sourcing when you were killing a story that had a source and that you knew to be relevant and factually correct. But anyway.

  • ||

    Mr Wales,

    Reason is not saying that the government should coerce this private organization in any way, so I don't see what libertarianism has to do with this at all.

    Being a private organization does not, and should not, shield Wikipedia from criticism for throwing its ostensibly pro-free-flow-of-information principles to the four winds when faced with an unusual situation.

  • The Angry Optimist||

    Come on, Mr. Wales, half of the sources on Wikipedia (due to no fault of your own) run to broken weblinks. This seemed to have a relevant source for a "footnote", so what gives?

    Not that I necessarily have to step in and state reason's editorial policy here, but the magazine does look at things from other perspectives other than "hey, private adults = OK!" It's perfectly acceptable to criticize on other grounds.

  • ||

    A private organization, working with independent private volunteers, used their own independent judgment to choose not to publish something that they believed (correctly, it seems) was not consistent with their broader humanitarian goals.

    Why "correctly, it seems"? The guy escaped on his own by climbing over a wall. Like others, I just don't get how withholding publicity helped the guy.

    While this is all admirably free of greasy government fingerprints, just because its all private doesn't mean we can't criticize it on other grounds, such as whether the private organization did the right thing, followed its own mission and policies, etc.

  • ||

    Instead, we followed standard Wikipedia policy on reliability of sourcing and on biographies of living persons.

    I guess the question for Mr Wales, if he is indeed the real Mr Wales, would you have deleted these edits if there had been a reliable source referenced? Or if the article that had been edited was not the reporter's own article (ie, if it had been an article on the Taliban that had been edited).

  • ||

    LoneWacko is missing an opportunity here...

  • JB||

    This case is such bullshit.

    The MSM will lie and cover up information when it protects one of their own, but they have no problem reporting information that will endanger American soldiers and citizens.

    Fuck them.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Actually, looking at the discussion threads and edit history, it looks like the original editor linked to a couple of neocon blogs, which linked to stories from Pahjwok and AdnKronos. Both have the appearance of reputable news agencies.

    But still, the proper response there is to dig a little (it took me about 15 minutes) and update the links. Not bury the story and lock the entry.

  • Hugh Akston||

    whoops, so busy with HTML that I forgot to make the point.

    Jimmy is correct that the sources cited did not meet standards of reputability, which the Wikipedia policy clearly states is grounds for summary deletion.

    Still, considering that a quick Google search would have yielded a couple of reputable sources, it looks increasingly like Wikipedia was engaged in wagon-circling at the behest of some old-media elites.

  • ||

    But Wikipedia has no signed entries--no one actually takes responsibility. Until the site can offer up accountability, it's not a good source for anyone more serious than a middle school kid.

  • 24AheadDotCom||

    What Reason didn't mention (because they're clueless about so many things) is that this story exposes Wikipedia's "reliable sources" rule for the sham it is. See my neat-o formulation in the penultimate paragraph.

  • ||

    DING DING DING!

  • Art-P.O.G.||

    (sigh) @LoneWacko,

    Quiet, you.

  • alan||

    Hypothetically speaking:

    If a captive were to have been butt raped, or mouth raped, or had a flopping wiener q-tipping his ear (hey, it happens), and it was credibly sourced, and an anon wrote it up on Wikipedia would you take it down, and why?

    Certainly old media would not publish it as it would offend the delicate sensibilities of their readership niche. However, the standards of discourse over time have changed, and your average on line reader doesn't expect the Big Momma FCC to protect them from every thing they may find unpleasant.

    If the Taliban, just to take as an example, does casually practice rape on its captives, this is something that should be in the public domain of knowledge, should it not?

  • ||

    "Since when ... is private parties behaving in a responsible and thoughtful manner, voluntarily, 'censorship'? :-)"

    Good question. It hasn't been answered yet in this thread.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Here's an answer for both of you: It isn't. Flanigen should know that censorship is the result of government action, not those of private parties.

    Doesn't change the fact that Wikipedia's actions stink.

  • BeesInTheBrain||

    "Since when ... is private parties behaving in a responsible and thoughtful manner, voluntarily, 'censorship'? :-)"

    I don't know, ummmmmm maybe you should try checking WikiPedia for the answer.

    WikiPedia defines censorship as
    the suppression of speech or deletion of communicative material which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or inconvenient to the government or media organizations as determined by a censor.

    and there is a whole article on self-censorship you may want to read.

  • Paul||

    "We had no idea who it was," said [Wikipedia founder Jimmy] Wales, who said there was no indication the person had ill intent. "There was no way to reach out quietly and say 'Dude, stop and think about this.'"

    It's hard to say whether this makes new media (or new ways of managing media) look bad.



    Here we go again. Again I say, this says something about the nature of knowledge and information, and Wiki trying to create a 'balance' which, in my opinion is in direct contradistinction to the original hype surrounding what Wikipedia would become.

    The wiki administrators, in my humble opinion weren't supposed to create the balance, the Wikisphere was supposed to create the balance. The truth would out. The 'many eyes' theory would drive the information in Wikipedia ever close to truth.

    Mr Wales:

    A private organization, working with independent private volunteers, used their own independent judgment to choose not to publish something that they believed (correctly, it seems) was not consistent with their broader humanitarian goals.

    Is this a new mission of Wikipedia of which I'm unaware? Will Wikipedia edit (or lock) its own articles away from 'truth' if it serves a higher humanitarian goal?

    And no, we don't have any issue with a private organization engaging in this behavior. Note the lack of calls for government oversight, or a congressional investigation. You've apparently confused pure criticism (or even lightweight questioning) for draconion police action.

    And while I might agree that you used Wikipedia policy to lock out the article or block edits, does that make it less top-down?

  • 24AheadDotCom||

    It might be helpful to work into all of this that, while WP is indeed a private company, they're also up there with national newspapers in terms of influence due to the fact that they're at the top of search results for most terms.

    If Jimmy Wales is lurking, maybe he'd like to look into the history of user ZXY4931. That's the new name I was forced to get after my old name, LonewackoDotCom was blocked due to WP's extra special "no URLs in usernames" rule. (One notes that a domain-based username increases accountability and thus quality).

    Why was my old name blocked in the first place? Why, because I dared to put some truth on BHO's *talk* page. Not the entry itself, but just the talk page, the place for informal chat about improving an entry. Just minutes after making that edit, my old username - one I'd used on and off without incident for a few years - was suddenly blocked.

    The bottom line to all of this is that WP is a very pernicious influence on society.

  • Art-P.O.G.||

    LoneWacko:

    World's smallest violin: it plays for you.

  • Paul||

    That's the new name I was forced to get after my old name, LonewackoDotCom was blocked due to WP's extra special "no URLs in usernames" rule. (One notes that a domain-based username increases accountability and thus quality).

    Why was my old name blocked in the first place? Why, because I dared to put some truth on BHO's *talk* page.


    Dear Jimmy Wales,

    I take everything I said back. Sometimes the truth has to take a back seat to higher goals.

  • Gregory Kohs||

    Okay, folks... a few things.

    First, the notion seems that you're not all convinced that keeping a captive's kidnapping all hush-hush is a benefit to his longevity. Congratulations, you're not alone! We've been talking about this over at Wikipedia Review for some time:

    http://wikipediareview.com/index.php?s=&showtopic=25128&view=findpost&p=181324

    Second, you will note that once Jimmy Wales did his drive-by comment above; he expected you all to swoon before his master intellect; and you were supposed to roll over and play dead, or beg for mercy. You didn't play by his rules of expectation, so now he's up and left. He won't debate people smarter than him, on their turf. Just won't happen.

    Third, you'll note the piece above says "[Wikipedia founder Jimmy] Wales". BUZZZZZ! Wrong! He's a "co-founder" of Wikipedia. Larry Sanger brought the wiki idea and architecture to the encyclopedia project; Sanger named it "Wikipedia"; and Sanger did ten times more work than Wales establishing policies and editorial guidelines in the first year. The whole "Wales as founder" (or, even more ridiculous, "sole founder") of Wikipedia is a sham that JIMMY WALES generated about three years ago. Please don't reward his deliberate dishonesty by giving him the false crown of "founder".

    More info on the URL link from my name, if you want a good chuckle.

  • Jon Awbrey||

    Let's see, it's an odd-numbered day, so Wikipedia is a "private organization" - kind of like a Country Club with a "Selective Membership" Policy, in the Fifties, maybe - that operates according to the Prime Directive of "Ignore All Rules".

    Tomorrow will be an even-numbered day, so Wikipedia will go back to being a Publicly Subsidized Charitable Educational "Community" of Free And Independent Altruistic Scribes who operate according to "Policy" with Equal Justice For All.

    Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow …

    A Tale Told By A Wikipediot …

  • han||

    What, indeed?

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