Wikipedia, Politics, and Anonymity Don’t Mix

Wikipedia.jpgThe Washington Post has an article today about the recent instances of employees of various politicians editing Wikipedia entries:

This is what passes for an extreme makeover in Washington: A summer intern for seven-term Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) altered the congressman’s profile on the Wikipedia Web site to remove an old promise that he would limit his service to four terms.

Someone doctored Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s (D-W.Va.) profile on the site to list his age as 180. (He is 88.) An erroneous entry for Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) claimed that he “was voted the most annoying senator by his peers in Congress.”

Last week, Wikipedia temporarily blocked certain Capitol Hill Web addresses from altering any entries in the otherwise wide-open forum. Wikipedia is a vast, growing information database written and maintained solely by volunteers. In December, the database received 4.7 million edits from viewers, of which a relatively small number — “a couple of thousand,” according to founder Jimmy Wales — constituted vandalism. . . .

When the Wikipedia entry for Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) noted that he had criticized the president, for example, someone modified it to say that Reid had “rightfully” criticized the president. . . .

A popular change in recent weeks has been deleting mentions of former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) from politicians’ profiles. Politically motivated edits aren’t just coming from Capitol Hill; some comments are being traced back to other parts of political Washington, including the Justice Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Navy and Marines.

I continue to wonder why Wikipedia still accepts anonymous edits. I am generally a fan of anonymous speech, but perhaps anonymity is contributing more costs than benefits to Wikipedia. For one, the anonymity on Wikipedia is often a mirage, as people can frequently be tracked down via their IP addresses. Second, the value of anonymity depends upon context. Anonymity is valuable in encouraging people to express unpopular messages. But Wikipedia isn’t designed as a forum for the free expression of opinions — it is an encyclopedia. There are plenty of other places in cyberspace where people can express their views — and where anonymity is very important. But I do not readily see the importance of anonymity to the Wikipedia project. Perhaps there are significant benefits I am missing, and if so, I hope readers will point them out.

UPDATE: Geoffrey Manne over at Truth on the Market has a post on this issue that’s definitely worth reading.

Related Posts:

1. Wenger, Congress Takes Action on Wikipedia Abuse

2. Solove, Wikipedia Irony: Jimmy Wales Edits His Own Entry

3. Solove, Curtailing Anonymity on Wikipedia

4. More posts about Wikipedia are at our wiki archive page.

You may also like...

4 Responses

  1. Eric Goldman says:

    I’m with you, Dan. Putting aside how anonymity facilitates gaming, I think it’s impossible to gauge content credibility when people don’t own their own words. Eric.

  2. geoff manne says:

    Well, one benefit is that it encourages risk-averse people who are less than certain about their information to contribute. The great thing about Wikipedia is not that its information is perfect (it isn’t), it’s that its information is diverse. I don’t doubt that the costs may outweigh the benefits (we’d need to know something about the elasticity of the supply of information), but I do think that wikis may benefit precisely from encouraging the marginal contributors to contribute, and forced disclosure would deter them somewhat.

    By the way — I posted on this story at Truth on the Market about a week ago, and the post has a great comment from Joe Miller. Click here to see it.

  3. Simon says:

    What is anomynity on Wikipedia, though? I mean, even if a user account becomes a requirement to edit the article (something which completley defeats the underlying purpose of a WIKI, incidentally), why is a person with a user account less anonymous? Because they provided an e-mail address? Lord knows, it’s difficult to get one of those. The business of having user accounts, it seems to me, has nothing to do with anomynity and everything to do with opportunity cost. You aren’t going to stop a determined vandal, but what you can do is make it so that they have to actually make some effort – sign up for a user account and go through that process – before they can vandalize an article.

    I continue to think that anomynity is at the root of most of the problems with the tone of the blogosphere. Notice how most blawgs don’t sound like Daily Kos – and I think part of the reason for that is because most blawgs are written by people who post under their own name (an ancillary reason might be because most blawgs are written by intelligent and articulate folks, the kind of people who sneer at Kos, LGF, etc). What you post can and may come back to you. I blog under my own name, and if there’s something I wouldn’t be willing to stand up and say to the people I know, I should think twice about posting it. It comes down to accountability: when a company feels unaccountable to its customers because it sells so many units or because it has a monopoly, it provides worse service than it might otherwise do, and when people feel like they’re unaccountable, they are unconstrained by conventional notions of decency and decorum.

    So I’m not a fan of anonymous speech, for the exact same reason I’m not a fan of monopolies: because unaccountability is bad.

  4. Paul Gowder says:

    I had to dig up this post for a recent onion article about wikipedia. Wonderful stuff.