Bias, sabotage haunt Wikipedia's free world
By David Mehegan, Globe Staff
First of two parts
When the news broke last month that US Representative Martin Meehan's
staff director admitted deleting unflattering material from Meehan's
profile on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, it might have been a
shock to some. Maybe it shouldn't have been. Wikipedia administrators
have since turned up thousands of flattering or disparaging changes in
profiles of dozens of members of Congress.
Last week, volunteer investigators discovered that staff members in
the office of Senator Norm Coleman, Republican of Minnesota, removed
descriptions of him as a 'liberal Democrat' in college. A reference
to Senator Dianne Feinstein's payment of a 1992 fine for not
disclosing her husband's involvement in her campaign finances was
removed by someone in her office.
The revelations that political bias has crept into articles raises new
questions about an Internet phenomenon that some are acclaiming as the
future of information. And the issues plaguing the site run deeper
than political spin. Wikipedia touts itself as ''the free encyclopedia
that anyone can edit," and it is exactly that quality that is causing
Two months after a highly publicized attack on the Wikipedia profile
of a Tennessee newspaper editor -- in which a prankster falsely
implicated him in the murders of President John F. and Senator Robert
F. Kennedy -- the new disclosures sharpen a nagging question about
Wikipedia: Can it stop sabotage and distortion without losing the
freedom and openness that made the reference possible?
In five years, Wikipedia has amassed a mountain of impressive
articles, written by thousands of anonymous contributors. But the dark
side of that freedom is that Wikipedia's articles are becoming
battlegrounds, pitting writers with biased viewpoints and vandals
trying to sabotage entries against a volunteer band of ''Wikipedians"
who constantly seek to set the record straight.
For the true believers, Wikipedia is far more than a reference work.
It's a movement, a social circle, a proof of the power of free
Internet content, even a kind of optimistic cult. "Wikipedia's goal
is to give everyone on the planet free access to information," founder
Jimmy Wales said last week in a speech in Boston. "We're talking
about bringing people in to join the global conversation."
At the same time, teachers and college professors are wondering
whether they should allow students to cite Wikipedia as a source in
term papers, which they are increasingly doing. Given its inherent
nature as a work in progress, some wonder whether Wikipedia can ever
be a reliable source of information.