Crowdsourcing Bias

May 31, 2016

Jimmy Wales at Fosdem; cropped and touched up from Image:Jimbo-wales---fosdem-2005.jpg. Taken by Chrys; I (Rdsmith4)

Perhaps the greatest part of living in the current year is the access our civilization has to a virtually limitless supply of information. Although many refuse to take advantage of it, the fact is that we are living during an era which is unprecedented for acquiring and transmitting knowledge at light speed, which I-as someone who narrowly missed out on being a millennial-can appreciate. From the Khan Academy, to more structured online universities, to Web tutorials on how to construct 3D models, there is no domain of expertise concealed from anyone with a reliable Internet connection and a morsel of curiosity. However, the most revolutionary Web portal when it comes to collating and archiving the collective knowledge of humanity in an encyclopedic way is, without question, the website known as Wikipedia.

Founded by former options trader Jimmy Wales and philosopher David Sanger at the turn of the century, Wikipedia is still-despite my deep misgivings, which I’ll explore at length in this essay-an extraordinarily useful resource. Unfortunately, it is also a website which, like the others I’ve tackled in the past week, is administered by a group of individuals with intensely hidebound ideologies. Ideologies which frequently supersede any dispassionate search for truth when determining what articles are fit for inclusion-or exclusion, as the case may be. While an enormous amount of energy has been spent decrying the alleged misogyny of Jim Wales’s brainchild, as well as its overwhelmingly white base of contributors-and it is a very white, extremely male, and probably slightly autistic website-very little attention has been paid to the reflexive hostility many Wikipedians display towards any perspective which doesn’t dovetail with their rather cloistered worldview. Particularly, with regard to hotly contested cultural, economic, or political questions.

Although some critics of the gender/racial dynamics at play within Wikipedia have also pointed out the intellectually hermetic nature of its operation, and alluded to the problems this poses for honest, open debate about controversial historical and political subjects, that critique is often absent from most liberal analyses of this website. Conservatives, on the other hand, haven’t hesitated at pointing out that Wikipedia’s vaunted Neutral Point Of View does not exist, a view validated by independent scholarly studies. As a former active Wikipedian, I can attest to the fact that NPOV is pretty much bunkum, especially when it comes to highly controversial political subjects. It’s kind of like the average journalist’s notion of impartiality, which is really just an ex post facto rationalization of his or her own pre-existing socially progressive views. So that, in the same way that reporters don’t see anything racist in attacking Silicon Valley tech firms for having too many white, i.e. Asian, employees, Wikipedia admins don’t believe there’s a conflict of interest in a leftist political activist manipulating how you view a conservative rival.

Neutrality, just like impartiality, is not some sort of nonpartisan ideal to which you aspire in order to treat the subjects you’re covering fairly. It’s a reference point which is shaped by your own class and political prejudices. So treating the most notorious criminal case involving an abortionist as an afterthought, unworthy of inclusion in a comprehensive encyclopedia, isn’t a sign of an occluded worldview. Slandering opponents of feminism isn’t tendentious; it’s simply the default ideology, which frames the narrative that others must conform to in order to participate in this collective intellectual endeavor. Left wing interpretations of history, politics, economics, and culture are the norm, and deviations from that norm must be cordoned off from the  7th most popular website on the planet.

This is how our adversaries delimit acceptable debate, not only on Wikipedia but on various other enormously influential, powerful parts of the World Wide Web-as I’ve tried to illustrate throughout this series of essays on the sociological impact of new media. In my final post, I’ll explore some constructive options for altering the status quo.



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One Response to Crowdsourcing Bias

  1. PeaceByJesus on June 1, 2016 at 9:56 PM

    As a long time editor I have faced and sought to add balance in the face of the listing to port side. One problem that i faced was that Pittsburgh Theological Seminary professor Robert A. J. Gagnon could not be called a “scholar,” despite having a M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School, and a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary and B.A. degree from Dartmouth College and being a prolific writer in the homosexual debate- on the wrong side.

    The reason given by another editor was that his school was biased, unlike universities like Harvard I suppose.

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