August 21, 2008
Wikipedia, the community-edited encyclopedia that anyone can revise, is one of the Web’s biggest success stories. What you may not know is that it also has become an important player in the political world.
Started in 2001 on a shoestring budget, Wikipedia now ranks as the ninth most popular Web site in the U.S., according to Internet ratings company Alexa.com, outpacing such “old media” stalwarts as CNN, ESPN and the New York Times. (It’s even more popular worldwide, where it is currently the seventh most-read site.)
Since its launch, Wikipedia has become a valuable tool for students, journalists, lawyers and anyone looking to settle an argument, find a quick bit of information or start a research project.
This popularity makes Wikipedia very interesting in a political context, particularly because its pages are highly regarded by most Internet search engines. Chances are, if you look up the name of most any state or national politician, the Wikipedia entry on him or her will be in your top three results. In some cases, such as those of President Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney, Wikipedia’s article actually beats out the official government biography pages.
When you add to its popularity the fact that Wikipedia has more than 10 million articles and great search-engine placement, it’s pretty hard to avoid the conclusion that Wikipedia is one of the most influential publications in American politics.
Basically anyone who works in political communications will acknowledge the value of Wikipedia as a messaging tool, but you would be surprised to find out how few politicians have come to this realization. That’s because most political leaders are either too busy or too technologically out of touch to make the Internet a part of their media diets. Many D.C. elites think that because they have no contact with the interactive Web in their personal lives, no one else does either.
Unfortunately for the right, there seems to be a higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats who suffer from this thinking. Whether it’s a senator wondering how long it takes for “an Internet” to arrive or a nonprofit president thinking that placing an op-ed in the Podunk Courier is an accomplishment, the right has not placed the value on Wikipedia that it deserves.
Conservatives seems to be making another critical error regarding the online encyclopedia on the question of political bias. You can’t entirely blame them either, considering that Wikipedia seems to have tilted leftward in a number of cases.
As my NewsBusters colleague P.J. Gladnick has documented, the online encyclopedia blocked all mention of allegations that former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards had conducted an extramarital affair.
In addition, Wikipedia articles on so-called “climate change” similarly tend to leave out information that contradicts conventional liberal views.
The reason for this is in the editing. Anyone can alter Wikipedia’s entries, in most cases without even bothering to register for an account. What this means in practical terms is that people with enough determination to force their viewpoints on Wikipedia can do so.
Accomplishing this task can take up large amounts of time, up to 15 hours a week, according to Jonathan Schilling, a 50-something software developer from central New Jersey interviewed by the New Republic in April.
Mr. Schilling told the magazine that he spent several hours a day managing the Wikipedia article about Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton during the Democratic presidential primaries, all on his own initiative using the online name “Wasted Time R.”
Journalist Lawrence Solomon uncovered similar levels of dedication among extreme environmentalists when he tried to correct an entry that incorrectly stated that global warming skeptic Benny Peiser had endorsed an alarmist study.
The temperature debate is not the only area where left-wing bias skews Wikipedia’s articles. Right-leaning critics have noted the encyclopedia’s tilt in entries on Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Al Franken, Minnesota Democrat and former talk-show host for the liberal radio network Air America.
Faced with such bias, many people on the right seem willing to retreat from the Wiki Wars, resorting to legal maneuvering to block particularly noxious entries and crying foul about Wiki unfairness. Still others on the right have withdrawn to their own site, Conservapedia.
There is nothing wrong with such efforts, but they are incomplete — incomplete because they fail to recognize that liberal bias at Wikipedia isn’t like bias at ABC or CBS. These institutions are dominated by liberals, true, but their systematic structure is such that the ability for people on the right to push for fairness is severely limited.
That is not the case with Wikipedia, a participatory medium in which those who are most active enjoy the most influence. It’s time for the right to dust off its hands and engage in some old-fashioned activism.
Matthew Sheffield is a Web consultant and creator of NewsBusters.org.
Related stories on this topic, by Lawrence Solomon: