January 31st, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

No Surprise, Politicians Don't Understand NPOV

A year and a half ago I wrote an article in which I praised Wikipedia as our best hope for an eventual long-term, lasting end to the Culture Wars. Whatever other value it has (or doesn't have), I said at the time that the most important thing it brings to the table is its core concept of Neutral Point of View, and I still feel that way. To summarize, NPOV starts with an encouragement to "Edit Boldly" -- if you have an opinion about something in a Wikipedia article, edit it all you want. However, the community on Wikipedia have agreed upon certain self-enforcing terms. If anybody, whether from among your opponents or some neutral bystander, thinks that what you wrote is inflammatory, intended to stir up hatred, then the next Wikipedian to see your edit will simply press two buttons and revert the article to what it looked like before. Similarly, if you deface something that your opponents wrote and others think that what they wrote was perfectly calm and rational, your deletion or vandalism will also be reverted.

This occasionally leads to what are called "edit wars" and "revert wars," where two or more people get into a fight by constantly reverting the article to their preferred text. But if you do that too many times, the article gets automatically locked until a 3rd party mediator steps in. What happens more often, though, is that somebody notices the edit war, looks at both sides' versions, and writes their own version that tries to be fair to both sides. Eventually pretty much every article on Wikipedia converges towards a version that tells the agreed-upon facts, and then tells everybody's side of the rest of the subject, in the fairest and calmest possible way for each side. It works because of massive peer pressure, and because eventually even the most bitter partisan usually feels sheepish after repeatedly deleting what even they would have to admit are fair and neutral statements and getting equally repeatedly slapped down for it.

Unsurprisingly, at least some politicians and political operatives don't "get" this. I say "unsurprisingly" because you usually don't make it very far in that line of work unless you truly are a True Believer. If you don't think that you've fairly considered both sides of the argument, looked at all of the facts, and come to the conclusion that your own side is 100% in the right and the opposition party 100% in the wrong, you probably won't be able to sustain the energy, the enthusiasm, to stay in there and stand up for your side. Very few people have what it takes to give both sides the benefit of the doubt and yet still have the stamina and determination to work for their side. I bring this up and say that they don't "get" it because a minor news story is probably going to break wide-open, and be this week's scandal of the week, at least on the Internet. See the Lowell (Massachusetts) Sun, "Rewriting history under the dome," and the Associated Press, "Meehan staff are said to admit rewriting data." In summary, US Congressional and US Senate staffers have been caught repeatedly vandalizing Wikipedia, from their offices, on the taxpayer's dime.

At the center of the controversy is the one politician who's admitted to ordering his staff to vandalize Wikipedia, Massachusetts Democratic Representative Martin Meehan. When he found out there was a biography article on him at Wikipedia, he ordered a staff member to replace it in its entirety with a piece of his own campaign literature, his own thoroughly one-sided campaign biography. It of course got reverted. When his staff checked back months later and found that it had been reverted, they simply deleted the parts of it that they didn't like, specifically the fact that he'd reneged on his original "term limits" campaign promise to only serve 8 years. This kicked off an edit war. When the volunteer administrators stepped in, one of them thought to pull the server logs to see what other articles had been edited from the same IP address, which turns out to be a shared IP address for everybody on the other side of the House of Representatives' firewall, and they were shocked: dozens, maybe hundreds of web pages vandalized or defaced in some way or other. So they slapped a temporary ban on all Wikipedia editing from within the US House of Representatives. It didn't stick, because the other administrators eventually concluded that bans on multiple addresses because of misbehavior of some of them violate Wikipedia policy. But during the argument over this, another admin pulled the server logs for all edits originating from the block of addresses associated with the US Senate, and found a similar (if not quite as egregious) history of bad-faith edits. You can see the combined summary on Wikipedia itself at the (temporary?) "Congressional Staffer Edits" page. Because of this, there's a community-wide argument over whether or not Wikipedia needs a separate, specific policy for edits originating from within the US Congress.

From a technical side, I actually think this is going to be pretty easily dealt with. In fact, existing software and existing moderation policies have already dealt with it pretty well. The only thing potentially long-term interesting about this is whether or not people who are not only truly fanatic about getting their way on Wikipedia but who are also getting paid to do so, who can do so on the company (or taxpayer) dime, can wear down the volunteers and software that support NPoV. Frankly, I doubt it, and I'll tell you why. One of the things that will almost certainly happen in the next day, or certainly by the end of the week, is that they'll slap a rule onto the server like the one they already have for America Online, which (like the House of Representatives) uses shared IP addresses for all users: they'll block anonymous edits. That way, the next time someone like Marty Meehan orders or even just lets his staffers try to whitewash his record or smear his opponents on Wikipedia, there'll be an indisputable audit trail of who did it. Which I can pretty much guarantee you will become an issue in their re-election campaign. Would you really want to be running for re-election while your opponent and the press are credibly accusing you, every day, of using taxpayer money to attempt to rewrite history?