Fri, Jun 12, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Wikipedia’s journey from Eden to bureaucracy

While controversial material is quickly edited out of high-traffic Wikipedia pages, sniping over low-traffic Scientology entries finally led to some users being banned from the site


Itis an interesting twist about Wikipedia that the most controversial, most heavily trafficked articles — on abortion, politics, virgin birth — are often the most accurate and vandalism-free. Not that people aren’t trying to cause mayhem. It’s just that the frequent visits ensure that vandalism is quickly removed, aided by automated tools that can recognize crude writing before it ever appears.

Leave these high-traffic thoroughfares, however, and things can get a bit sketchier. A few wrong turns and you may find yourself deep in Hatfield-and-McCoy territory. Entrenched enemies engage in combat over the wording of topics so obscure — Armenian historians from the first millennium, for example, or breakfast cereals — that you may wonder: so much fighting over this?

But it is exactly the obscurity that makes these Wikipedia articles ripe for feuding, fighting and vandalism. A basic tenet of the online encyclopedia is that articles be written from a neutral point of view.

And it can be hard to expect neutrality on some topics. For example, the 430 Wikipedia articles about all aspects of Scientology represent a free-floating civil war, a “miasma,” in the description of Ira Brad Matetsky, a corporate litigation lawyer in New York. He is a member of Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee, which last month waded into the sniping over the Scientology entries.

In a sweeping ruling with little precedent in the eight-year history of Wikipedia, the committee blocked editing from “all IP addresses owned or operated by the Church of Scientology and its associates, broadly interpreted.” The ruling did allow users from those addresses to appeal to be reinstated on a case-by-case basis.

“We’ve only blocked the work sites; they can edit from their laptops, their kid’s computer at home,” said Roger Davies, the committee member who wrote the exhaustive report after more than five months of fact-gathering and deliberation.

The material in the case file was half a megabyte of data, or more than 400 pages printed out, he said.

The decision has a range of sanctions for dozens of users, including outspoken critics of Scientology and Wikipedia administrators, from mild chiding for poor behavior to bans on editing about Scientology to total bans. Among the violations were name-calling and repeated nullifying of the editing of others without any discussion first.

“It was obvious that this case was going to be controversial pretty much from the start,” Davies said in a telephone interview from London, where he is a writer. “What we have done is we’ve really tried to make sure that we have not directed our fire at anyone in particular.”

The Church of Scientology accepted its ban in that spirit, saying in a statement: “More importantly is the fact that Wikipedia finally banned those who were engaged in unobjective and biased editing for the purposes of antagonism as opposed to providing accurate information. We hope the decision will result in more accurate and useful articles on Wikipedia as the site evolves.”

There are articles covering detailed elements of Scientology belief and practice, important people in the religion, important debunkers of the religion, important documents released by the important debunkers and important cases about the legality of release of the important documents. Each is a potential battleground between the camps, often while being viewed only a few dozen times a day. In essence, they preach to the converted or those who used to be converted.

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