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Rhodri Marsden

Journalist and musician Rhodri Marsden has been addressing common technology problems by stripping away the jargon and enlisting the help of readers in his Cyberclinic column in The Independent for the past two years.

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Wikipedia bans Scientologists – but should they?

Posted by Rhodri Marsden
  • Tuesday, 2 June 2009 at 10:44 am
When I saw the news the other day that Wikipedia had banned contributions from IP addresses used by the Church of Scientology in response to them relentlessly pushing a pro-Scientology agenda on the website, my first reaction was that it was fair enough. True, stories like this one don't make me feel well-disposed towards Scientology, but this isn't about the existence or otherwise of Operating Thetan Levels – it's simply about repeated violation of the terms of service of a website in order to further ones own agenda. If you ignore the terms of service, surely it's right that the service is withdrawn?

I was called on this pretty quickly by someone on Twitter, who questioned whether this was really the most progressive move from Wikipedia, and raised the inevitable issue of censorship. Ideally, of course, everyone would be free to furiously bat their various views on burning topics backwards and forwards across the internet until the end of time; those patient enough to get involved could wade in, and the rest of us could happily ignore them all and get on with our lives. But the problem with these kind of slanging matches taking place on Wikipedia is that, sadly, it matters.

For whatever reason – probably through skilful search engine optimization techniques, but I daresay conspiracy theorists have their own ideas – Wikipedia pages are ranked incredibly highly on Google. In fact, if you want to find a Wikipedia page, you may as well search for it on Google to save yourself some time; a study a couple of years ago revealed that over 96% of Wikipedia's pages rank in Google's top 10 when you search for the titles of those pages. So despite all the things we know about WIkipedia – that it's an unreliable source of information, it's prone to being vandalised and edited by people who don't know what on earth they're talking about – it has become the premier source of knowledge on the web. So no wonder that organisations are as keen for information about them on Wikipedia to be as glowing and positive as it might be on their own website.

Let's be honest: if you see something less than positive or even untruthful written about you online, and you have the opportunity to change it, you're going to change it. I've removed such stuff from my own Wikipedia page (which, I hasten to add, I didn't create, but thank you to whoever did) and while it has become fashionable for the media to excitedly expose stories of people altering their own Wiki pages, the fact is that the practice is endemic. The small group of volunteers who police Wikipedia aren't going to be able to detect all such activity, and in many cases these changes will actually improve the reliability of the information thereon.

But you can see from this Wiki page the colossal onslaught that Wikipedia's moderators were having to cope with from the Church of Scientology. This isn't just the tweaking of a few articles, it's a sustained campaign of endlessly reverting changes that they didn't agree with. Of course, for every revert that they made, there was a change that an anti-Scientologist made to cause it, neither are remotely helpful, and one would hope that Wikipedia applies the same rules to both camps, regardless of "religion". The real question is: is Wikipedia more useful to us if the moderators just allow us to watch an article become a battleground, such that we can arrive at our own opinions? Or will the majority of people visiting that article just believe whichever version of the truth happens to be present on the page at that particular moment? If it's the latter, the Wiki moderators job suddenly becomes incredibly onerous. If I were them, and looking at the hoohah surrounding the Scientology episode, I'd be tempted to believe the former, and just let everyone get on with it.


caramel_betty wrote:
Tuesday, 2 June 2009 at 11:43 am (UTC)
Of course, for every revert that they made, there was a change that an anti-Scientologist made to cause it, neither are remotely helpful,

I'm not sure how you've made that leap of logic.

If someone is adding a more rounded point of view to an article - linking to critical articles/news reports etc., removing enthusiastic gushing - that's helpful because it's what Wikipedia wants. If someone removes that sort of material, it's unhelpful. Nor can I see that every item that will have been reverted will have been written by a rabid, frothing anti-Scientologist intent on completely eradicating every trace of the pro-Scientology side of any article.
rmarsden wrote:
Tuesday, 2 June 2009 at 11:50 am (UTC)
Absolutely. But Scientology is the kind of issue that will inevitably attract edits from people wound up into fury about the idea of "The Space Opera" and intent on demolishing it. I'm ashamed to say that I haven't had the patience to explore in depth the to-and-fro of editing of Scientology articles, lest I get wound up into fury myself.
percyprune wrote:
Tuesday, 2 June 2009 at 11:59 am (UTC)
I'd be cautious of assigning equal weight to the pro- and anti-'s in this case. Yes, it's easy to declare 'a pox on both their houses', but that's just lazy journalism. We see too much 'he said, she said' reporting these days with not enough analysis as to why one argument is stronger than another. Presumably because the latter takes some time and effort.

Not all arguments have equal weight, and in this case the anti-'s are likely to have more evidence and perspective on their side than the pro's.
rmarsden wrote:
Tuesday, 2 June 2009 at 12:46 pm (UTC)
Um. I'm not talking about the myriad reasons why Scientology is nonsense because it's not a discussion I'm remotely interested in having. That's not laziness. I'm just more interested in Wikip's role in mediating edit wars, the resources it takes up, whether them getting involved is censorship, and whether they should let us use their site as a forum for discussion.
rmarsden wrote:
Tuesday, 2 June 2009 at 12:50 pm (UTC)
NB According to a commenter on Caitlin Fitzsimmons' post on The Guardian site today (can't link, or indeed check its veracity, cos I'm standing on a road in Mile End) Wikipedia also cracked down on anti-Scientology edits.)
mcgazz wrote:
Tuesday, 2 June 2009 at 05:22 pm (UTC)

This is true of many things, and you're on the money as regards lazy, "balanced" journalism (although, in the case of the BBC, it's fear more than anything else).
Why not?
ronyromaniello wrote:
Tuesday, 2 June 2009 at 08:53 pm (UTC)
Wikipedia folks, fear not. You've done well! Give them no leeway.

Signing in
justinbrodie wrote:
Wednesday, 3 June 2009 at 02:04 pm (UTC)

Surely the thing that makes Wikipedia so easy to abuse is the fact that anyone can make changes anonymously. If you had to register to make changes, giving a valid email address, it would make you think twice about what you did on the site. As long as the site was still free to access to look at, and there was no charge to register, the spirit of it would be unchanged.

I once reversed a piece of vandalism on Wikipedia on the page of one of the opinion writers in the Independent after he had written a particularly controversial piece. Whilst I disagreed with his views, it did not warrant such vandalism!


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