?Some People Try to Use Wikipedia for Ideological Purposes?
17 Jul, 2007 01:18 pm
B?atrice Roman-Amat is a journalism student at Sciences po Paris. In an interview with Scitizen.com she discusses the findings of her study on the soundness of Wikipedia submissions.
What motivated your study?
Our purpose was to think about the role that Wikipedia has played today in opening up knowledge to the general public, and to look at whether Wikipedia could supplant the traditional sources of knowledge like paper form encyclopedias. Also, to see how they - Quiz or Larousse French dictionaries - would react to this new free form of competition that is available to all. We also wanted to refer back to the study done by Nature, which is always cited as a reference by those who defend Wikipedia by saying that it’s as trustworthy as the Encyclopedia Britannica on a certain number of scientific subjects.
How would you estimate the trustworthiness of Wikipedia?
It is not up to par with the other traditional fee-based encyclopedias. There are often alerts on the articles stating that this or that article is not sufficiently referenced or that it is incomplete. We were able to cite multiple problems. A collaborative encyclopedia that can be modified by all is never free of vandalism, malevolence, or propaganda. Notably, we often noticed that in all of the articles that deal with religion, current events, or history, if the subjects were very sensitive, they were semi- or totally protected so that they weren’t constantly vandalized. We also learned that there were almost semi-internal wars of sorts in Wikipedia. For example, the night that followed the debate between Nicholas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal on the EPR reactor, there were dozens of modifications between 3rd generation and 4th generation EPRs.
We clearly see that certain individuals try to use Wikipedia for ideological purposes.
Beyond standard errors, there are always inaccuracies or small mistakes on dates. But that isn’t what is the most troubling, there seems to be a general philosophical undercurrent throughout the certain articles.
You mean propaganda…
Yes. For example, articles on religious cults, ideological movements that are written by people who are part of larger movements or are sympathizers, despite the fact that the administrators of Wikipedia work behind the scenes to halt biased articles or articles that are extremely pejorative, or inversely overly enthusiastic. That is also the case for articles on artists, musicians, and writers. The administrators of Wikipedia do everything they can so that the articles don’t have a critical journalistic tone, but on the contrary, to allow a sort of encyclopedic objectivity and neutrality.
As a reminder, what is Wikipedia’s stance on neutrality?
Indeed, we see recommendations saying to adopt a neutral position and not to give personal opinions. That is the official stance. While at the same time the contributors are not obliged to take into consideration the recommendations.
You mentioned the study done by Nature, which is often used by Wikipedia to justify the quality of the content. What is your main critique of this study?
It isn’t a critique of the study in and of itself. It’s a critique on the way the study is used as an instrument to prop up Wikipedia, because it only examines the scientific articles, notably the ones pertaining to hard science, like physics or mathematics. I personally believe that if the study had been on political, religious, or philosophical subject matters, the results would have been quite different since these subjects are quite controversial.
What was the methodology used to arrive at your conclusions?
We are journalism students. It was a journalistic study that doesn’t pretend to be a thesis or a very high-level university study. We looked at the major subjects: those against the traditional encyclopedias, which are the main contributors to Wikipedia, what their motivation is as volunteers, the reaction of intellectuals, debate in theory,...
Did you yourself test the trustworthiness of Wikipedia by introducing a certain number of facts in the encyclopedia?
That is without a doubt the most talked about aspect of our study, but it is the smallest one as well in relation to the rest. It is true that it was a little overblown, notably following the article that appeared in the Libération. We documented two inaccuracies, one was the article concerning Pierre Assouline with his agreement: we wrote that was the French national champion of Real Tennis. In addition, in an article about Tony Blair we wrote that he was of the catholic faith, which is more of a subtle inaccuracy given that his wife Cheryl is catholic, that he often goes to catholic church services, and that there exist rumors of his conversion.
How long did the information in the article about Tony Blair stay on the site?
Two weeks. Even though it was the first sentence of the article.
You did a study on the use of encyclopedias in universities...
Yes, at the moment there is a huge lack of training of teachers at the grade school level, the high school level, and the university level regarding these new sources of information on the internet. Most of the teachers, even more so the “old school” teachers, didn’t know how to show their students to use critical analysis when using these sites. Of course, critical analysis of sources available online like paper sources is necessary, we are not exclusive in this regard, but we think it is necessary on the other hand regarding copying and pasting and using Wikipedia as the only source of reference.
Furthermore, I also became interested in the fact that some professors started using Wikipedia in a positive way. For example, Jean Noel Lafargue who is a professor of plastic art at Paris 8 grades his students on their contributions to Wikipedia in the contemporary art section.
Do you think Wikipedia is honest about its own shortcomings?
We see lots of contributors in Wikipedia forums who are critical of other contributions or of Wikipedia in general. There is a sort of permanent internal mechanism of self-critique and reflection. But it is true that in the same time, once they feel they are being attacked or questioned by a study like ours, their reaction is very aggressive. We were partially expecting that reaction, but we were actually surprised by the level of aggressiveness even though they hadn’t read our study.
Interview by: Gilles Prigent
Translation by: Christopher Le Coq