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Is Wikipedia a Conspiracy? Common Myths Explained

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Susan Gerbic

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 39.5, September/October 2015

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This past June, the Guerrilla Skep​ticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project celebrated its fourth anniversary. The project has been a great success. Wikipedia is the default source of information for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Over the years, I’ve heard many myths and misconceptions about editing Wikipedia.
At almost every Q&A, I hear the story of someone who attempted to edit Wikipedia and “they” deleted their edits. I’ve heard how people tried to edit the evolution page, the homeopathy page, and the astrology page, and every time they could not get the content to stick. Often I hear that they were suspended or banned from editing Wikipedia. Often they tell the story as if it is evidence of a conspiracy by the paranormal community to control content on Wikipedia.

I’ve heard many stories of how they wrote an amazing Wikipedia article for a subject and then it was deleted for no good reason or was marked as not being noteworthy and “they” didn’t even bother to look for sources. I’m told “of course the person was noteworthy; they are an author or have a ton of followers on YouTube, it must be the anti-skeptics who are deleting the pages.” One video I’ve had drawn to my attention was from a TEDx talk where the speaker was talking about the bias on Wikipedia. She recounted the story of a man who tried to correct information on his own Wikipedia page and was told he was not allowed to do that. When the lecturer stated that Wikipedia did not consider the man to be an expert on himself, she got a nice laugh from the audience and lots of agreement that there must be a conspiracy.

So allow me to set the record straight. First off, Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia that is trying to be the repository of all knowledge; it is not Tumbler or Reddit or some other social network. Wikipedia has rules. Some of them are open to interpretation a bit, but for the most part the rules are discussed within the community of editors and usually enforced evenly.

There is no “they” on Wikipedia, only a “we.” There are a few admins and senior editors who usually have the last word on an issue, but more often rules are enforced by consensus. The idea of a conspiracy of people who edit with an agenda (pro-skeptic or otherwise) is just unwarranted.

We hear a lot about editors having a bias. Most people who edit Wikipedia are interested in specific topics: butterfly enthusiasts, for example, edit pages about butterflies. It’s just human nature to want to work on pages that interest you. There is nothing wrong with that, but a problem arises when someone comes to Wikipedia with the idea that they are going to work on one specific page to the exclusion of all others. These are known as “single-purpose editors,” and I see it a lot on controversial pages. These people are not trying to improve Wikipedia content as a whole; they are typically trying to push one specific agenda.

Furthermore, you do not own a Wikipedia page; even if you spent weeks researching every detail for fairness and accuracy, once you publish the page and it’s live, it’s fair game. Anyone can make edits. Large changes should be discussed on the talk page first, but you have no recourse once it is determined that changes should be made.

Let’s next break down the story I mentioned earlier, about the man who tried to edit his own Wikipedia page and was told he was not allowed to make the changes. What most people do not realize is that even if your name is on the title of the page, it is not your page. It is a page about you, but you are very biased and should not make changes. If there is a problem with factual information, you can make a comment on the “talk page” asking for the change to be made and giving strong reasons along with a citation to substantiate the change. Wikipedia editors don’t run background checks on other editors. How do they know that you are who you say you are? It’s easy to make a username, and just as easy to pretend you are someone you are not.

Controversial pages such as astronomy, scientology, evolution, and homeopathy are not pages for a beginner editor. You should first learn the rules, make edits on less controversial pages, and prove to other editors that you are trying to improve Wikipedia in general not just a specific page. The changes you are trying to make might be legitimate changes, but if you barge in with an aggressive attitude, then yes, people are going to be a little worried about your changes. If you have something important to add or change on a controversial page, then go to the “talk page” that exists behind every entry and start a discussion. Better yet, read through past discussions, as it’s likely that your suggestion has already been discussed and a consensus has been agreed on.

We see trolls and well-meaning editors vandalize Wikipedia all the time. Changing a psychic’s page to say “alleged” is considered vandalism. Adding South Park’s epithet “The Biggest Douche in the Galaxy” to John Edward’s page is also vandalism. The South Park show referring to Edward is already mentioned on the Wikipedia page about him, so it does not need to be added again.

One woman who had just attended the Reason Rally contacted me several years ago. From the hotel room the next day she had attempted to edit the brand new Reason Rally Wikipedia page. What people don’t realize is that editors rarely use primary sources. Instead we rely on notable secondary sources. Since it had only been one day, the only noteworthy secondary sources to come out were from Christian reporters writing in Christian news outlets. Of course their coverage was biased by their point of view. They reported on how they were being harassed by the atheists, the importance of their involvement handing out free water, and how mean-spirited the signs were the atheists were carrying. She was so incensed that she stormed in and made accusations and deleted content without discussion. She was banned, and probably rightly so. I did look at the page and was able to calmly clean it up. By that time, more neutral secondary sources had been published in noteworthy places, which made it much easier to fix.

Recently, another person approached me wondering why he was having so much trouble adding content to a page he was working on. I started looking at the history of the page and found that “IdoWhatIWant” was working on only one specific page and nowhere else on Wikipedia. (Not only can you see every edit made on a specific page, you can also see every edit that username has ever made.) It turns out that he was getting some push-back from other editors. We had a long chat; I suggested a few changes to his editing patterns and how to talk to other editors. He laughed and said it had not occurred to him that he had looked like the aggressor and was editing like a troll. He has since written me again saying that he had taken my advice and had finished the page calmly.

The rules apply equally to the paranormal and the skeptic communities. This is not a game or a joke. Wikipedia is too important for people not to take seriously. First learn to edit and start on non-confrontational pages. Improve pages by fixing grammar and spelling. Work on many topics, which shows the editing community that you are there to help. Create a username that does not show your bias: handles like “Chopra-
isaidiot” and “TeamRandi” shout to the world that you are a skeptic and are needlessly confrontational.

Wikipedia is the sixth-most viewed website in the world. It is the closest thing we have to a repository of all knowledge. In my opinion, it is extremely important to make sure that content concerning scientific skepticism is accurate and well-cited. When people are looking for reliable answers to their questions about paranormal topics or are trying to determine the competency of a specific person, it is most likely they will turn to Wikipedia. It is our responsibility to make sure the answers they are getting are the closest we can get to being accurate. This is the goal of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project. You do not have to join our team to improve Wikipedia content; anyone can edit. Instructions on how to do so are all over the Internet. If you like working on projects with other like-minded people and would like hands-on training, GSoW might be the best solution for you. Write to us at GSoWteam@gmail.com.


Topics: Wikipedia

Susan Gerbic

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Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. You can contact her at SusanGerbic@yahoo.com.