The fact that anyone can edit Wikipedia is both the site’s selling point and its Achilles heel. It means that the online encyclopaedia avoids the sort of elitist, academic approach that could freeze some users out, and that it makes full use of everybody’s knowledge. At the same time, it means it’s open to vandalism, and in the era of ‘fake news’, this could be seen to be damaging.
Recently, Vice News picked up on an incident where the California Republican Party had its Wikipedia page tampered with, affecting its Google search results. A user who might be described as either a ‘prankster’ or somebody with more ulterior motives had added ‘Nazism’ to the list of the party’s ideologies.
Only an eagle-eyed observer would have spotted this on the Wikipedia page itself, but it came to wider attention because Google often pulls the data for its Knowledge Panels from Wikipedia, meaning a simple Google search for the party resulted in it being associated with far-right, authoritarian views.
Depending on your political leaning and other factors related to how seriously you view the reliability of online information, you could see this as either a piece of pesky tomfoolery or something more sinister. With the edit being made in the run-up to the California primary elections, it could be seen as a case of misdirection or even sabotage. Any user with a flimsy knowledge of politics may have Googled the California Republican Party and seen that they were linked with ‘Nazism’. As we associate Nazism with Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, this word may in itself have been enough to deter some people from voting Republican.
There is a limit as to how much editing Wikipedia will allow average bods to carry out on its pages. If a general mischief maker had tried to edit the page of the Republican Party, or indeed the Democratic Party, they would have been told that it’s protected against vandalism. Since the incident, it seems that the California Republican Party’s page has also been given protected status. Pages have different levels of protection, with some semi-protected pages only requiring the editor to have a registered Wikipedia account to effect changes. These trusted volunteers are referred to as ‘Wikipedians’. Meanwhile, fully protected pages are left entirely in the hands of Wikipedia administrators.
However, doesn’t this incident show that even pages of lesser global importance can create harmful misinformation if edited irresponsibly, and doesn’t it beg the question of where to draw the line? Isn’t it in Wikipedia’s interest to make every page as accurate and reliable as possible, regardless of whether it’s the one of a globally recognised politician, or a full-back who made a couple of appearances for Chester City in the 1980s?
Wikipedia has community and accessibility at its heart, and one of its ‘five pillars’ is that “anyone can use, edit and distribute” its content. Paradoxically though, another of these ‘pillars’ is that the site has ‘no firm rules’, so in effect one of its immovable rules is that no rules are immovable. The fact that someone may edit a Wikipedia site without even being logged in has always struck me as an extremely liberal attitude that’s commendable, but perhaps does more harm than good. Without an account, these ‘guest editors’ become extremely hard to moderate and the floor is opened up to serial mischief-makers or even bots. Forcing editors to set up an account and log in would not change the maxim that anyone can edit Wikipedia, and may help to ensure that only serious editors are making changes, and that any Wikipedians with a habit of vandalising pages can have their accounts restricted.