Science & Technology

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.