Who Watches the Wikipedians? (Cont'd)


recently noted the media blackout surrounding the kidnapping of New York Times' reporter David Rohde in Afghanistan. When Rohde was nabbed by the Taliban last year, the Times coordinated the suppression of the story with other media outlets, ostensibly to protect him. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and other Wikipedia editors cooperated with the blackout, censoring Rohde's Wikipedia page to omit information about the kidnapping that at least one ornery editor was repeatedly attempting to add.

National Public Radio's "On The Media" did a short segment on Friday with Wales about the kidnapping. It's worth a listen. Wales discusses some of the ethical questions surrounding news suppression in a WikiWorld:

[Wikipedia's editors have] never considered ourselves a wide-open free-speech forum where people can post speculative things. We just look at it and we say, well, yes, there was one report here—and a couple of blogs—but it wasn't reported anywhere else, so, who knows. Now, of course, I knew that it was true because The New York Times contacted me to ask what could be done about it. But it's not my obligation to report everything I know, just as it wouldn't be for anybody….

We have the sort of deeper question, which I've struggled with…which is the question of, well, what really is the best thing to do here? The New York Times told me that they were acting on advice that it would be best if it was kept quiet, and I just chose to believe that.

This could work as an after-the-fact justification for censorship, depending on how reputable you consider the sources originally cited to be. That question is still wide open. If the sources were reliable, Wales and other editors were engaged in the selective suppression of properly verifiable and topical information about Rohde—raising the sorts of questions about ethical wiki management that I discussed in my previous post about the Rohde affair. Otherwise, they were just enforcing one of Wikipedia's core content policies (albeit with unusual vigilance).

NPR link via the estimable (and unlinkable) Logan Dobson.

NEXT: Is the Obama Administration Under the Influence?

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  1. It is always useful to keep in mind that when one publicizes a terrorist act, one is doing the terrorist’s work for them. That’s precisely what they want. That’s why they do it.

    I read a book once – fiction, sadly – where rather than suppress terrorist actions, they simply made jokes out of them. Characterized the terrorists as bumblers (which they surely are) and laughed at the inadequacy of everything they did. The premise of this methodology was that this acted directly to disenfrancise the terrorists of terror; to remove any illusion of legitimacy from them. It also worked to to block their message(s.) No description of goals or intent was ever given; just a casual mention of a mostly failed attempt by bumbling incompetents.

    I loved the idea; still do.

    I don’t think our media could pull such a thing off, as they’re in business for profit, and terror = profit for them. But it’s a nice thought.

  2. The New York Times told me that they were acting on advice that it would be best if it was kept quiet, and I just chose to believe that.

    Nothing like the avante garde of the new media marching unquestioningly to the beat of the old media.

  3. I don’t have a hard time with someone who owns and manages an outlet choosing not to air or publish something based on their morality. They own the outlet. I especially don’t have an issue to doing so with time sensitive information that the person may choose to publish at a later date. Discretion is often the greater part of valor. I have to assume that people are operating what they think is their best interest and the interest of others at the time they make a choice. If they are not it will come to light sooner or later. If a paper asked me to keep something quite a few days while they worked it out to save a life I wouldn’t hesitate to extend that courtesy. The choice would be mine, and I would weigh the decision accordingly. Just like other people would judge and weigh my decision. My morals are greater than the ethics of journalism or whatever career I am in and always will be. If there is a conflict I can always resign and exit the situation so as not to violate the ethics of the group I agreed to join.

    I have a huge issue with government forcing someone to publish or not publish. Government operates in it’s best interest only and has no morals.

  4. It boils down to the fact that an American news agency requested that a news report from an Afghan news agency be buried and it was. It doesn’t really surprise me that countering systemic bias went out the door. It does, however, kinda surprise me that the New York Times and Mr. Wales bragged about their “sanitizing” of the information about Mr. Rohde. If Mr. Wales is going to lead the charge against “White Male Bias” in the worlds information store, it may be kinda handy for him to not go around flaunting that a quick call from one of his white male friends is all it took for him to compromise the validity of the information that Wikipedia contains.

  5. The NYT, Wikipedia, and all these media outlets are a bunch of hypocrites. They will lie and cover-up to protect one of their own, but they have no problem releasing information that puts American soldiers and citizens at risk.

    Screw them.

  6. I really don’t see a problem here. Wiki isn’t obligated to post or not post anything. They are not a news agency. They are, by their own definition, an online encyclopedia. There was no government coercion involved. This is a purely internal Wiki matter. If they want to censor information that others post to their medium, regardless of verification, it plays only to their credibility as a reliable source. I would go so far as to say, they have a right to control their property, the way they see fit.

  7. [Reposted from the first time around, and still true:]

    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.

    Bear in mind that the “RS” rule allows WP to keep things in and keep things out, and when you consider how flawed it is – and how in addition to the above it means that WP is a meek version of the MSM – and you add that together with their top search rankings, you realize they’re little more than a disinfo source.

    Also, I wonder if kids at libraries can find pages like this:

  8. To give an example of the latter, let’s say a 10-year-old wants pictures of docks for a school report. They enter “dock” into Google, and the first choice is this WP page:

    Now, scroll down to “Other”, where there’s a link to this page:

    (Warning even for adults: the image at the last is both NSFW and very hairy).

  9. Who gives a shit if Wikipedia supressed anything? It is not a government-run site. Furthermore, anyone with half a brain knows that site is about as accurate as Obama’s economic team’s prognistications concerning the effectiveness of the stimulus.

  10. Back in the early part of the liberation of Iraq when American soldiers and civilians were being kidnapped fairly regularly, I remember a roaring debate on Hit&Run about whether the media, especially the NYTimes, was encouraging the practice by their obsessive and detailed coverage of the kidnappings. (You may remember that it got so bad that at one point they released a hoax image made with an action figure.)I remember many on this forum defended the practice (especially Joe) as being absolutely essential to a free society that we give terrorist millions of dollars worth of free publicity everytime they kidnapped someone.

    Apparently, the rule was if they kidnapped anyone except a journalist. Nothing so strips the mantle of protectors of the people away so brutally as their willingness to see soldiers die and to undermine the cause of democracy just to make a buck. I am at least glad to see that the NYTimes and the rest of the media now understands the connection between their economic self-interest and the interest of terrorist.

    Better late than never I suppose.

  11. It strikes me as a particularly lazy to “not give a shit” about Wikipedia simply because it’s not the government and it’s often inaccurate. Are libertarians no longer allowed to inquire into current events beyond asking whether the government is involved?

    “Oh, it’s not involved, you say? Well, I suppose nothing of interest or consequence could possibly have happened here, then. Toodles!”

  12. Wikipedia’s usually pretty accurate for me, especially as a reference guide for math formulas, scientific laws, and stuff like that.

    It’s not surprising that Wikipedia’s coverage on current events isn’t very good.

    As for the censorship on Wikipedia, first of all Wikipedia has NEVER proclaimed itself as a site to get up-to-date news. You shouldn’t expect current events like that to be quickly updated, especially if there is controversy involved. I think Wales did the right thing to temporarily censor the information.

    Are people complaining that only the media has this kind of power to protect their own? No surprise there, when you have power, you get the power to protect others. Who wouldn’t do this if they were put in the same position, to help one of your fellow reporters???

  13. I don’t have a hard time with someone who owns and manages an outlet choosing not to air or publish something based on their morality. They own the outlet.

    As a matter of law, yes. As a matter of Wikipedia policy, no. In theory, Jimmy Wales has to go through the same process as any other editor to have dubious edits rolled back — and it looks like at the very least he bent the rules in this case cause he had a hotline to the NYT. His justification wrt reliability of sources is very shaky (especially since he knew the information was correct!) and the bio of living person policy was not on his side IMHO either.

  14. Wikipedia is an independent business and is free to edit, censor and publish whatever they feel like. However, they are in no position to hold any position as an authority on anything, given their political interests and the way their editors grind an ax on others with differing views. Material omission is the same as a lie.

  15. This is especially damaging to an outlet that is explicitly built on communal standards for fairness and accuracy. One of the main reasons people turn to sites like wikipedia is because EVERY piece of information gets a fair airing and vetting through completely open public debate.

    Thus far, the only censorship behind the scenes has involved people like the Church of Scientology that are attempting to hack the site to bypass that process.

    It hasn’t yet involved explicit suppression of that public debate that Wikipedia is founded on. If the wiki editors can suppress information about a journalist being kidnapped, they can suppress information that is politically unfavorable to one party or another. And in case you think that’s paranoid, it’s not at all beyond reason to think that a kidnapping of a NYTimes journalist could impact the political scene in ways unfavorable to the party in power.

    This story doesn’t seem to have any serious political spin to it, but it easily COULD have had.

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