I share Patrick's fondness for Wikipedia on matters of geekery, and think there's a quite wide range of topics on which it is an excellent resource. That range is mostly made up of technical stuff, non-controversial history, cultural minutiae, and the like.
However, for modern politics, it's completely unreliable.
Now, a large number of you are going "Well, DUH!" right now. But increasingly I see Wikipedia cited as a reliable source in political discussions. My friends who are high school and college instructors tell me that students increasingly rely on it. It has a veneer of respectability and pretenses to both neutrality and rigor. It's poised to accepted more widely.
So allow me to discuss a case study of why it is not.
I'm not neutral on this particular issue, which concerns The FIRE, an organization that I cite to the extent that Ezra has made fun of me for it. The FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) is generally concerned with free speech rights and freedom of conscience at colleges. Many of the causes it has taken up could be described as "conservative" in a rather puerile way: it has defended students and professors facing discipline for offensive speech of a right-wing bent, and has advocated the right of student religious organizations to limit their leadership to members of that religion. On the other hand, it has defended the speech and conscience rights of liberals as well, including such luminaries as Ward Churchill. If you think that strong opposition to campus speech codes is conservative, then you'll see them as conservative. If you think that fighting limited "free speech zones" is liberal, then you'll think that they are liberal — or confused. If you think that strong advocacy of freedom of expression and conscience, regardless of whose ox is being gored, is libertarian, then you'll see them as libertarian.
FIRE has partnered with groups on both sides of the political spectrum, from the ACLU to David Horowitz. The right-wing groups predominate in the FIRE's materials and writings, as the defense of arguably "conservative" speech from university infringement outweighs defense of arguably "liberal" speech. Some left-wing commentators regard them as a right-wing shill.
So how does all of this relate to Wikipedia?
Well, Wikipedia has a page on FIRE. Until late yesterday, that page strongly advocated the FIRE-as-right-wing-shill notion, emphasizing the ties to conservative groups an the defense of conservative speech and de-emphasizing the defense of liberal speech and not mentioning ties to groups like the ACLU.
I know, not blowing the wind up your skirts so far — it's typical for Wikipedia.
What makes this instance particularly useful as an illustration of Wikipedia's unreliability on political matters is that one of the most prominent editors of the entry wrote a dishonest hit piece on The FIRE. "Sdedeo", a handle for Simon DeDeo, was a frequent editor on the FIRE article as well as a participant in the discussion page on the article. In a comment on that discussion page that will, as you'll see, prove comical, one of the editors praises DeDeo's objectivity: "It seems obvious that it has been a running battle between those who wish to abuse Wikipedia to bash the organization and editors like Sdedeo who have been doing their best to keep the Wikipedia spirit of objectivity alive."
Meanwhile, on March 21, 2008, DeDeo posted a hit piece on FIRE at Open Left. You'll note that "sdedeo" has since withdrawn the piece, admitting that some of it was in error and some was "overly harsh and rhetorical." But here is the Google cache of the piece available as of this writing. To further preserve it for posterity, here are screen captures:
Because I suck at formatting those, you'll have to click on them and then use the magnifying function to read.
Why did SeDedo back down? Well, probably because yesterday FIRE president Greg Lukianoff wrote a strong refutation of the hit piece, in which he pointed out factual errors and plausibly argued against DeDeo's conclusions.
Many of DeDeo's arguments are low-hanging fruit — such as his wildly unserious claim that Lukianoff must not be a real Democrat because Lukianoff has not donated to Democratic politics (never mind that DeDeo's creds, with a $200 donation to Dean in 2004, are not earth-shattering by that silly measure). Much of the rest of it is just as silly. But much of it is also deeply disingenuous. DeDeo argues that FIRE is an "astroturf" organization — organized for no purpose but to create cover for extreme right-wing agendas. Now, I've blogged before (in previous iterations of this blog) that I'm concerned when FIRE's rhetoric drifts towards Fox talking points, or when they are too cozy with some organizations. But when you look at the breadth and depth of their activities in support of free speech rights, the accusation that they are a sham organization is simply ludicrous. It marks DeDeo as someone concerned with ideological purity, not substance. Frankly, his guilt-by-association discussion of FIRE reminded me very strongly of Fox News' wall-to-wall coverage of Obama's connection to Rev. Wright — ignoring the subject's words and actions to focus on associations. He was right to delete that hit piece, and should be embarrassed of it.
This is not merely a matter of freaking out because someone on the internet is wrong. This is a vivid illustration that Wikipedia — a site with pretensions to rigor and neutrality — can be edited by someone who simultaneously pretends to neutrality and writes an inaccurate and unfair hit piece on a partisan site about the very subject he is editing.
Wikipedia: great for confirming trivia about Mamma's Family episodes, not so great on anything subject to current political debate.
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