Wikipedia as a Force for Evil

Piero Scaruffi | Editorial correspondence | Back to History | Back to the world news

(This article is now a chapter in my book on Artificial Intelligence and the Singularity but i leave the original of 2010 here)

(See also Some glaring Wikipedia errors)

Wikipedia has grown to become the largest cooperative project in the history of the world, with 17 million articles in 250 languages. The jury, however, is still out on whether Wikipedia is a force for good or a force for evil.
The traditional debate over Wikipedia has focused on how much we can trust thousands of anonymous editors as opposed to the small team of highly decorated scholars who curate the traditional encyclopedia. Since scholars and erudite people in general are less likely to get into a fight, the fear was that in the long run the mob wins (a fact that has indeed happened in just about every aspect of popular culture). That was pretty much the only concern when Wikipedia was just that: a substitute for the encyclopedia. (My favorite example of Wikipedia mis-education: many Wikipedia articles give distances in the archaic US system instead of the metric system that is adopted by all other countries in the world, simply because most Wikipedia editors are based in the USA).
However, the Internet is not a bookshelf. Those who treat the Internet like a bookshelf miss the point about its impact, which is not just to replace existing objects and services.
In mid 2010 i searched Wikipedia for biographies of the main politicians of China and consistently found adulatory comments with virtually no reference to the role that those politicians (including Mao) played in blatant violations of human rights (for example, then president Hu Jintao had not threatened Taiwan with invasion and had not almost started a war with Japan but instead "advocated China's peaceful development"). In my research for my book on Silicon Valley i accessed thousands of Wikipedia pages about companies and individuals: the vast majority were simply the equivalent of press releases worded according to the current business strategy of the company or according to the whims of the individual. In late 2010 the article on Feminism presented Mohummad (the founder of Islam) as the first major feminist in the history of the world. In february 2011 the article on detective fiction mentioned the medieval Arabian collection of stories "One Thousand and One Nights" as the first suspenseful book. According to the Wikipedia article of 2012, Bangladesh was not conquered by the bloody military campaigns of Bakhtiar Khilji and Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji but peacefully converted by a saint, Hazrat Shah Jalal. The first confirmed detection of an exoplanet? "In the nineteenth century Bahá'u'lláh, the prophet-founder of the Bahá'í Faith, who spent much of his life in prison or exile for his teachings, stated "Every fixed star hath its own planets, and every planet its own creatures, whose number no man can compute." Wikipedia pages on albums and films routinely describe them with a "Response from the critics was generally positive" comment, totally ignoring the devastating reviews published by reliable independent critics.
I started noticing a disturbing fact: the popularity of Wikipedia is de facto obliterating all the alternative sources that one could use to doublecheck Wikipedia articles. A Google search on any major topic routinely returns a Wikipedia page in the first two or three lines. The other lines in the first page of results are almost inevitably commercial in nature. In order to find a scholarly page that can prove or disprove the Wikipedia page, one has to flip through several pages of Google results. Very few people make the effort. Therefore Wikipedia is rapidly becoming the only source of information about any major topic. Maybe this is acceptable for scientific topics (although i would still prefer that my Quantum Physics and Genetic Biology come from someone who has signed the article with his name and affiliation) but it is dangerous for topics that are "politicized" in nature. Then Wikipedia becomes the only source that billions of people access to find out what a politician, a government or a company has done. Worse: every topic can be "politicized" to some extent. I found references to the Bible and the Quran in articles about scientific topics. No traditional encyclopedia and no academic textbook would reference the Bible or the Quran to explain Quantum Mechanics or Cellular Biology. Precisely because it is edited by the "lay" public, Wikipedia lends itself to a global politicization of every topic. It is an illusion that Wikipedians carry out "anonymous and collaborative editing": the very nature of Wikipedia encourages people to avoid collaboration and instead to leak ideological agendas into encyclopedia pages. The "collaboration" about which Wikipedia boasts is the fact that someone can retaliate to an opinionated or biased statement by removing or altering that statement and maybe inserting one that leans in the opposite direction; but a brawl is a very loose definition of "collaboration".
That danger is very visible in the rapid decline of quality. Like any corporation that has to hide its own shortcomings, Wikipedia boasts study after study that shows Wikipedia to be as accurate and more complete than the Encyclopedia Britannica. This is true only if one ignores semantics. In reality, there has never been and never will be a Britannica article that is simply the press release from a company or a doctored biography from a tyrannical government. If one considers the semantics, the gap between the accuracy of the traditional encyclopedia and the inaccuracy of Wikipedia is rapidly increasing.
The evil is, obviously, not coming from the founder or the staff. It originates from the success itself of Wikipedia. According to this diagram from a 2011 presentation by Zack Exley, the number of senior (unpaid) Wikipedia editors rapidly reached 60,000 and has declined a bit during the Great Recession. That number, of course, does not tell the whole story. The meaningful number is the number of pages that on average one of those 60,000 unpaid editors has to maintain. In 2003 (just before the Wikipedia explosion) there were less than 200,000 articles and about 60,000 editors: on average three pages per senior editor. In 2010 the number of editors declined to 50,000 while the number of articles in English alone had increased to ten million (see this diagram): even assuming that all those 50,000 are unpaid editors that stick to Wikipedia's original philosophy (i'll say later why i don't believe it), that means 200 articles on average per editor.
Here is the bigger problem. When there were only a few thousand users, there was little interest from governments and corporations in what Wikipedia said. Now that there are millions of users and that the Wikipedia page is usually the first one presented by a search engine, the interest in determining what Wikipedia displays is enormous. There has been an undocumented explosion in the number of Wikipedia editors who are paid by governments, organizations, corporations and celebrities to twist the text of a Wikipedia article so that it represents the interest of that government, organization, corporation or celebrity. De facto, these shadowy paid editors express an opinion within a Wikipedia page that is supposed to be about some facts.
When there were only a few thousand articles, it was relatively easy for the unpaid idealistic editors to control the content of Wikipedia. Now that there are more than ten million articles, it is simply impossible for those unpaid editors to control what the paid editors do. To make matters worse, Wikipedia covets the idea that editors have to be anonymous: therefore there is no way for an unpaid idealistic editor to know if another editor is unpaid or paid. It's like those movies in which there is no way for a human to know whether she is surrounded by humans or zombies.
Like any corporation that has to hide its own shortcomings, Wikipedia boasts that "In the month of July 2006, Wikipedia grew by over 30,000,000 words". But that's precisely the problem. That's precisely what is frightening. Many of those 30 million words were written by unprofessional, biased and sometimes paid "editors" whose interest in creating an encyclopedia is much lower than their interest in promoting a viewpoint or serving their employer. This leaves less than 50,000 unpaid Wikipedia editors to fight against an increasing number of editors paid by government agencies, ideological organizations, corporations and celebrities, not to mention the thousands of occasional uninformed amateurs who introduce minor mistakes.
Needless to say, a government agency, an ideological organization, a corporation or a celebrity has more resources at its disposal and it is much more determined than a hapless unpaid Wikipedian. Therefore their version of the facts will eventually win. No wonder that the number of volunteer editors is declining: if you are one of them, you are rapidly losing motivation to check and enforce Wikipedia's rules on a growing number of unruly and increasingly powerful violators. The "brawl" doesn't even happen anymore. Wikipedia is being hijacked by entities whose goal is not to spread knowledge but to spread propaganda.
Furthermore, several governments around the world block Wikipedia webpages. In the Middle East we were not able to access pages about Israel and Islam. In China we could not access just about any page about history. However, the free world can view the pages that have been doctored by the Chinese government and by Islamic religious groups. Therefore there is a one-way flow of mental conditioning: "their" people don't see our version of the facts, but we are continuously exposed to their propaganda. It is not difficult to predict who will win in the long run.
For government agencies, ideological organizations, corporations and celebrities Wikipedia has become a fantastic device to brainwash not only your own audience but all the people in the world.
Politically speaking, Wikipedia is de facto a force opposed to the change that social media foster. While Facebook and Twitter cannot be easily hijacked by authorities and corporations to brainwash people with distorted facts, Wikipedia can be and is being used precisely for that purpose by an increasing number of skilled and sinister "editors". Wikipedia is rapidly becoming a force to stop change and promote repression, corruption, speculation and possibly genocide. Because they are so distributed and cannot be "edited", the voices expressed by Facebook and Twitter represent the voice of the people. Wikipedia, instead, is increasingly representing the voice of the oppressor; or, if you prefer, the oppressors are increasingly keen on appropriating Wikipedia.
In parallel, Wikipedia is having another detrimental effect on culture: it is sending out of business the only sources that we can use to verify Wikipedia's accuracy, i.e. the encyclopedias. Compiling an encyclopedia is a colossal endeavor that requires the collective work of dozens of distinguished scholars. The cost for the publisher is enormous. In the age of Wikipedia no publisher is crazy enough to invest millions for an encyclopedia that will have to compete against the much bigger and absolutely free of charge Wikipedia. The age of encyclopedias that began in the Enlightenment is ending in the 21st century. In other words, the fact that Wikipedia is free has created a problem of historical proportions. Since no more encyclopedias will be produced, and any specialized website will be infinitely difficult to find with a search engine, society will have no way to determine if a Wikipedia article is telling the truth or not. There will be no second source where one can doublecheck a statement, a date, a story, and let alone discussing the merits of who is represented on Wikipedia and who is not. Wikipedia is sending out of business the very sources that we use to determine Wikipedia's reliability and accuracy.
At the same time the masses tend to assume that Wikipedia "is" the truth, just like they used to assume that the Bible is the truth. Whenever i post on my website a datum that differs from Wikipedia's, readers start writing to me that i made a mistake. I wonder how many scholars eventually give up and simply accept Wikipedia's mistake for the sake of getting rid of all these emails. For example, a Wikipedia article claims that SPECT was invented by Kuhl in 1962. There is a very detailed account written by his collaborator Ronald Jack Jaszczak ("The early years of single photon emission computed") that details how it was 1963. My website says 1963 but i keep receiving emails from students of nuclear medicine that i have the "wrong" date. The day that someone removes Jaszczak's article and other articles from the web i will have no way to prove that i am right and Wikipedia is wrong.
We'll need blind faith in the anonymous mob that edited a Wikipedia article. A scary prospect, to say the least.

Wikipedia's claim that anybody can edit an article is one of those false statements that become true just because a lot of people repeat them: in reality, millions of IP addresses are banned from editing Wikipedia. My favorite is a Stanford friend who added a link into a Wikipedia article (linking to this very article of mine) and has never been able to edit articles again: Wikipedia displays an error message in which he is accused of "non constructive behavior". Simply because he tried to link to this article that you are reading. If it reminds you of totalitarian regimes, welcome to the world of Wikipedia. Wikipedia keeps a detailed record of what every IP address in the world has written on which articles. And Wikipedia routinely bans from editing articles the places (like libraries) that don't allow it to track down the identify of the person by the IP address. This is exactly what secret police like the KGB have always done in totalitarian regimes in which you are supposed to read (what they want you to read) but not write (what you would like the world to read). The usual objection to this comparison of mine is that Wikipedia editors are volunteers who do it just because they believe in the ideal. You'd be surprised how many members of the secret police in places like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and today's Iran were and are fanatic volunteers who believe in the ideal of their totalitarian state and are willing to work for free to fight the enemies of the state: the fanatics are always the worst ones. The real enemy is often not the dictator in charge but the fanatics who legitimize that dictator. Without those fanatic followers the totalitarian state would collapse.
Most readers of this article (originally published in 2010) have trouble accepting that Wikipedia is bad for humankind. They admit the limits and the potential harm, but would not want to erase it from the Web. A friend said "We just need to educate people on how to use it". My suggestion: we should introduce more mistakes. It is important that the users of Wikipedia realize that Wikipedia articles are typically biased articles written by whoever has more time and more money to continue editing them. In the interest of the truth, please change an article on the Nazi massacre of Jews in Poland so that "Warsaw" becomes "Acapulco" and "Hitler" becomes "Mickey Mouse". This way people will be aware that they cannot trust an anonymous Wikipedia article and they have to use other sources to doublecheck the content of Wikipedia articles. Sure, Wikipedia is useful to find out that Hitler was a dictator, that millions of Jews were killed, and so on. It is very "useful" for many purposes. As long as we don't make excessive claims about its reliability: it is NOT an encyclopedia. It is just a bunch of advices given by amateurs to amateurs, just like Yelp and Amazon reviews. Many television shows, documentaries and Internet videos have been useful to raise awareness about world events, but people (hopefully) are aware that those shows are run by comedians, entertainers and amateurs. Because Wikipedia articles are anonymous, people are routinely misled into thinking that they were written by top authorities more reliable than comedians and entertainers. In many cases that is not true. In fact, i don't know a single scholar who has contributed to a Wikipedia article (i spend my life on the campuses of Stanford, UC Berkeley and Univ of San Francisco). How about a big banner on every Wikipedia article that warns "Disclaimer: None of the text published here was provided or verified by a competent scholar"? Just like we warn people that cigarettes cause cancer.

Note of 2015: Wikipedia has had a bio of myself for years. If you had to write someone's biography, whom would you contact first? I think it comes natural to contact that person, and start by asking him/her some basic questions. Then you doublecheck the information, contact others who know him/her, and so forth. Nobody ever contacted me, nor any of the people who know me. Friends occasionally correct glaring mistakes in that bio, or very biased personal attacks against me, but nobody who knows me has had any significant part in writing that biography. That bio of mine has been written, edited and re-edited mainly by people who never did any research about me. This is true of pretty much every biography ever published by Wikipedia. It is all based on "hearsay", and, as i said, on who is more determined in having his version of the facts publicized on Wikipedia.

As a terrifying example of what Wikipedia can do to you, read the Wikipedia page about him (August 2016 - it's been this way for years: change it and someone will immediately change it back). This French Anderson must be a disgusting human being, right? Except that the Wikipedia page has obviously been edited by someone out to destroy his career, probably the vicious woman who was behind the entire persecution. As of 2016, you can read Anderson's version of the story on his website: Now he doesn't look so disgusting, does he? Wikipedia is a terrifying weapon to destroy people.

Some glaring Wikipedia errors (but you do a disservice to the world if you correct them: by correcting these ones, you create the impression that ALL mistakes have been corrected when in fact these are just the ones that i bothered to document out of millions out there, pretty much in every single page, not to mention biased opinions disguised as scholarly reviews and advertising disguised as factual information).
TM, ®, Copyright © 2010-17 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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The Wikipedia entry for Piero Scaruffi as it appeared on September 15, 2012 :-)

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