Nice of Tucker to invite me on his program to talk about issues with Wikipedia circa 2021.
I frankly had no idea that this Unherd interview would blow up the way it did.
“All encyclopedic content on Wikipedia,” declares a policy page, “must be written from a neutral point of view (NPOV).” This is essential policy, believe it or not. Maybe that will be hard to believe, if you have read many Wikipedia articles on controversial topics lately. But it is true: neutrality is the second of the “Five Pillars” policies that define Wikipedia’s approach to the craft of encyclopedia-writing. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales made a statement that Wikipedia now regards as definitive. “Doing The Right Thing takes many forms,” he wrote, “but perhaps most central is the preservation of our shared vision for the NPOV and for a culture of thoughtful diplomatic honesty.”
Yes, Wikipedia is very earnest about its neutrality.
But what does “neutral” mean? This is easy to misunderstand; many people think it means the same as “objective.” But neutrality is not the same as objectivity. If an encyclopedia is neutral about political, scientific, and religious controversies—the issues that define the ongoing culture war—then you will find competing sides represented carefully and respectfully, even if one side is “objectively” wrong. From a truly neutral article, you would learn why, on a whole variety of issues, conservatives believe one thing, while progressives believe another thing. And then you would be able to make up your own mind.
Is that what Wikipedia offers? As we will see, the answer is No.
“Now wait a second,” I can already hear some people saying. “I reject this distinction between objectivity and neutrality. Neutrality does not mean giving equal weight to all opinions. Neutrality means approaching issues without emotion, following standards of logic and science. The neutral approach seeks hard facts and assembles hard-won truths for a critical audience.”
That might be a fine thing, but I am afraid that is not what “neutrality” means, certainly not according to Wikipedia. Logic, science, and factuality are admirable, but the words summing up those ideals are “objectivity” and “rationality.” Neutrality is something else. Wikipedia is supposed to be like Switzerland, proverbially speaking: not casting any side as the enemy, and certainly not taking pot-shots at one side. And this is roughly how Wikipedia still officially characterizes neutrality: “Wikipedia aims to describe disputes, but not engage in them.”
Jimmy Wales is right. We did originally adopt the neutrality policy to foster “a culture of thoughtful diplomatic honesty.” In other words, the way to keep the peace among a radically diverse set of contributors is not to declare winners and losers. But that is only one reason we adopted the policy. There was another key reason: as I have explained, no one has a right to make up your mind for you, especially in an open, global project. That does violence to our basic autonomy and, if the project ever became very large and important, it would place an enormous amount of power in the hands of a ideological cabal. And on Wikipedia, There is no cabal (ask them; they’ll tell you). Such ideological control would turn Wikipedia into an engine of propaganda. The neutrality policy was supposed to prevent that.
There is a crucial difference between propaganda and information that supports individual deliberation. The difference is neutrality.
So does Wikipedia meet its own ideals of neutrality? Let’s find out. I already explored this question by looking for (and easily finding) bias in articles on important topics. In the present article, I take another approach: we can list a few big political issues, briefly summarize the warring views on them, and then look and see whether these views are presented neutrally, in a way that allows the reader to make up his own mind. Does that sound fair? I think it does. And does Wikipedia take such an approach?
I propose to look and see. Which issues in the last year or so have caused the most acrimonious dispute? We can look at the main battlefronts of the culture war: politics, science, and religion. I will spend most of my time on politics.
In U.S. politics, four of the biggest political issues would include:
Democrats and (most) Republicans were sharply divided on the question of whether Trump’s impeachments had any merit. The Democratic view was that Trump abused his office by encouraging the president of Ukraine to investigate his opponent, Biden. Later, he egged on the January 6 invasion of the Capitol building. The Republican view was that Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president was wholly innocent, that he had committed no “high crime or misdemeanor,” and that Biden was in fact guilty of dirty shenanigans in Ukraine. As to the January 6 invasion, his remarks did not cause it. Of course, there is much, much more to be said on all sides. Now, a neutral Wikipedia would not come down clearly on either side, and would fully lay out the Democratic and the Republican cases fairly and fully. Is that what we see on Wikipedia?
No. As of this writing (and this caveat goes for all of the following), there was a section of the Donald Trump article about the first impeachment (2019-20). That section had absolutely no information about the Republican side in the House impeachment proceedings; only the Democratic side is presented. As to the Senate trial, here is the total extent of Wikipedia’s remarks about the Trump (i.e., majority Republican) position: “Trump’s lawyers did not deny the facts as presented in the charges but said Trump had not broken any laws or obstructed Congress. They argued that the impeachment was ‘constitutionally and legally invalid’ because Trump was not charged with a crime and that abuse of power is not an impeachable offense.” That is all; two transparently biased sentences. Among other things, the article omits the essential point that Trump’s lawyers also denied that there was any abuse of power in the first place.
There is, of course, much more information to be found about the Republican case in the (very long) article, “First impeachment trial of Donald Trump“; but, and I suppose you will just have to take my word for this, the relevant section is extremely biased, for example, dismissing various what it calls “conspiracy theories.”
As to the second impeachment trial (that of January, 2021), in the Donald Trump article, no information is offered on either side about the arguments for impeachment, either in the House or the Senate proceedings. Certainly there is nothing remotely representing the perspective of Trump and his defenders. Again, there is a much longer article, “Second impeachment of Donald Trump,” with a “Background” section that essentially lays out the Democratic case against Trump. No Trump rebuttal is given at all. The rest of the article is also extremely biased; there is a long section of opinions whether Trump should have been impeached. The “Opposition” section (i.e., listing people opposed to impeachment) skips entirely over all House Republican opposition, and presents only Senate opposition.
This is hardly fair, neutral treatment on events that deeply divided the American people. Wikipedia took the Democrats’ side against Trump, period. The articles are so biased, in fact, that it is fair to call them “propaganda.”
President Biden faced, and has so far easily escaped, two potentially devastating scandals that were unleashed in the 2020 election. One concerned Ukraine and the other concerned the shady business dealings Hunter and his father allegedly had with a company controlled by the Chinese government. The issue dividing Republicans and Democrats here, obviously, was: Was there any evidence of wrongdoing? Not all national-level Republicans thought the scandals were worth talking about, but some certainly did; and a lot of the rank-and-file did. The Democrats, meanwhile, essentially circled the wagons and refused to report on or discuss the issues involved. When they did, they typically issued blanket denials and dismissals.
A neutral handling of the many confusing accusations would not imply that Biden was guilty of anything. But it also would not clear him of all charges. Rather, it would present enough detail about the accusations and the purported evidence for them, leaving nothing important out; then it would explain in some detail how Biden was defended by Democrats and his allies. That much is the least that one would expect to find in a neutral treatment of the scandals. Is that what we see in Wikipedia?
Not at all. We can look at some relevant articles, first about the Ukraine scandal. In the “Campaign” section of the Wikipedia article on Biden, there are two paragraphs explaining the allegations (footnotes and links have been removed from this quotation):
In September 2019, it was reported that Trump had pressured Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate alleged wrongdoing by Biden and his son Hunter Biden. Despite the allegations, as of September 2019, no evidence has been produced of any wrongdoing by the Bidens. The media widely interpreted this pressure to investigate the Bidens as trying to hurt Biden’s chances of winning the presidency, resulting in a political scandal and Trump’s impeachment by the House of Representatives.
Beginning in 2019, Trump and his allies falsely accused Biden of getting the Ukrainian prosecutor general Viktor Shokin fired because he was supposedly pursuing an investigation into Burisma Holdings, which employed Hunter Biden. Biden was accused of withholding $1 billion in aid from Ukraine in this effort. In 2015, Biden pressured the Ukrainian parliament to remove Shokin because the United States, the European Union and other international organizations considered Shokin corrupt and ineffective, and in particular because Shokin was not assertively investigating Burisma. The withholding of the $1 billion in aid was part of this official policy.
This is, of course, an obviously one-sided whitewash which takes Biden’s side throughout. In these dismissive paragraphs, one cannot fully make sense of what the case against Biden was even supposed to be; Biden’s withholding of aid is mentioned, but the context and explanation essential to the case are omitted.
Anyone passingly familiar with the story knows there is much more to it. There is nothing here about the fact that Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma paid Joe Biden’s son Hunter approximately $600,000 per annum from 2014 to 2019 to serve on the Board of Directors, never mind that he had no industry experience but only a connection to his father, the Vice President of the United States. Wikipedia even has the temerity to make the claim that “Trump and his allies falsely accused Biden of getting the Ukrainian prosecutor general Viktor Shokin fired, because he was supposedly pursuing an investigation into Burisma Holdings, which employed Hunter Biden.” While it was in dispute why Biden sought Shokin’s ouster, it is perfectly true that he did so. The statement, in fact, was one Joe Biden specifically made himself—with braggadocio and to laughter—in an infamous video of an interview before the Council on Foreign Relations. The video, of course, is not so much as mentioned by Wikipedia. Nor is there any discussion of Hunter Biden’s infamous laptop and the damning evidence it contained.
Wikipedia does have a whole article titled—indeed, its bias showing right in the title—”Biden-Ukraine conspiracy theory.” It begins, “The Biden–Ukraine conspiracy theory [bold in original] is a series of unevidenced claims centered on the false allegation that while Joe Biden was vice president of the United States, he engaged in corrupt activities relating to the employment of his son Hunter Biden by the Ukrainian gas company Burisma.” There are, of course, a great many people who believe the claims are not “false” and no mere “conspiracy theory.” Their point of view is not presented but dismissed out of hand. The article goes downhill from there, serving essentially as a hit piece on Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and the New York Post, with very few actual details about what the allegations even were. More details can be found in a section of the Hunter Biden article—which is something—but even this reads as a blatantly biased brief written by the Biden family’s own lawyers.
At this point, Wikipedia’s defenders might well fall back on their notion that only “reliable sources” are permitted, and, gee, no reliable sources thought much of the above-mentioned video or laptop. “But,” you might well observe, “it was big news for a time. And Wikipedia thought there were no reliable sources at all? Why not?” The reason is that the sources that provide mainstream coverage of conservative points of view, including Fox News, The New York Post, and the (U.K.) Daily Mail—as well as pretty much all of newer conservative news media sources, which are the only outlets doing any reporting on many important stories—have all been added to a list of sources “deprecated” for their coverage of political news. This is not a joke and not an exaggeration. Republican-favoring sources, even quite mainstream ones, simply may not be used on Wikipedia, not even to explain a Republican viewpoint. (I will discuss this more in the last section below.)
The Biden China scandal is similar and is treated similarly in Wikipedia. Here, Hunter was a director of a joint venture between an American company, Rosemont Seneca, where Hunter was a partner, and Bohai Capital, a Chinese government-controlled investment firm. The joint venture was called BHR. According to the explosive testimony of Tony Bobulinski, the Bidens’ top executive for handling certain deals in China, Hunter arranged for Jonathan Li, CEO of Bohai Capital, to “shake hands” with his father, and Joe Biden was, according to Bobulinski, directly involved in the deals.
In addition to the Bobulinski interview, a great deal of supporting evidence comes from the same Hunter Biden laptop mentioned above, such as an email indicating that brothers Hunter and Jim Biden, along with “the big guy”—Bobulinski identified him as Joe Biden—would each be assigned equity shares in a business venture with Chinese energy giant CEFC.
Can any of this information on the China Biden scandal be found—even in a twisted, biased form—in the Wikipedia article on Joe Biden? Nope. As of this writing, that article contains not a single word about the China deals, Rosemont Seneca, Tony Bobulinski, the laptop, or the CEFC. But surely information can be found elsewhere on Wikipedia about these matters? Well, yes, there is a little. Most of it is again in the article on Hunter Biden, written in a way to make Hunter look as good as possible, the hapless victim of Trump’s “false charges” (those precise, dismissive words are actually used).
Again, there is much more to the story, but the point is that the Biden scandals deeply divide the American people. An ideologically neutral resource would explain both sides fully and fairly, leaving the reader to make up his own mind. Is that what Wikipedia does? No. Wikipedia is clearly aligned with one side. You might maintain that it is the only legitimate side; but then, that is what many ideologues say of their own side. What you cannot seriously maintain is that Wikipedia’s treatment of the Biden scandals is neutral. It is grossly biased.
Next I propose to look at some articles on the 2020 Antifa and BLM riots. There could not be a starker cultural divide in the American body politic than in the reaction to these riots. The rioting was sparked particularly following the May 26, 2020 death (or, as most people think, killing) of George Floyd. National Democrats generally supported the rioters; portrayed them as “mostly peaceful” activists against fascism and racism, even contributing money to their defense; took seriously the notion that we should “defund the police” or backed similar police “reform” proposals; and stubbornly minimized the months of bloodshed, danger, and destruction the riots caused. Republicans made no secret of their hatred of the riots, if they had no objection to peaceful protests; their contempt for the violent rioters; their sympathy for the afflicted neighborhoods; and their wonder and disbelief at the very suggestion that we should “defund the police.” They also pushed back, somewhat, against the notion that the United States was so woefully racist that the country must make dramatic changes to, e.g., policing practices or anti-white indoctrination at schools. Both sides generally agreed that real examples of police brutality needed to be dealt with more severely and that society, more than ever, had no place for real racism.
A neutral treatment would, of course, give broad factual coverage of such things as where the rioting took place, how many people were arrested, and numbers of injuries and deaths attributable to the rioting. The main Wikipedia article actually seems to do a good job there, as far as I can tell. But in addition, the reaction to the riots on both sides would be fully and fairly canvassed. Varying theories of the causes of the riots would be offered; Democratic theories would dwell, of course, on police brutality and racist attitudes and groups, while Republican theories, acknowledging that to some degree, would also discuss deliberate left-wing organization and dispute the extent of the problems exemplified by the George Floyd case.
Wikipedia’s coverage is, unsurprisingly, very extensive. There is a long summary article, “George Floyd protests,” as well as a “List of George Floyd protests in the United States,” and a long article titled, “2020-2021 United States racial unrest.” The concern that conservatives have is not with any protest, but with political violence in the form of rioting. So let us focus on the last article. The article does helpfully have useful statistics. While labeled “unrest,” there is a “Casualties” section in the article’s infobox, saying there were “At least 25” deaths, injuries to 2000+ law enforcement offers and to “an unknown number of civilians,” and $1–2 billion in property damage. Indeed, after pointing out that 93% of the protests were “peaceful and nondestructive,” the bottom line was that, owing to that pesky remaining 7%, the riots were “the civil disorder event with the highest recorded damage in United States history.” So far, so good: the article in those respects states facts that all sides would want presented.
As one gets farther into the article, however, the bias becomes much more pronounced. “A wave of monument removals”—an odd way to describe the deliberate, illegal destruction of public sculpture—”and name changes has taken place throughout the world, especially in the United States.” But what about the reaction to the riots? It was a “cultural reckoning,” we are told. “Public opinion of racism and discrimination quickly shifted in the wake of the protests, with significantly increased support of the Black Lives Matter movement and acknowledgement of institutional racism.” It is true that there was an increase of support for BLM early on. But support quickly dropped as the organization became associated with destructive violence in black neighborhoods, agitation against police funding, and radical communist views. Even by September of 2020, support had dropped 12% from 67% to 55%, in a Pew poll. The latter point can be found quite a long way down in the article, but it is not mentioned in the more important article introduction (which is all that most people will read), which says simply that BLM enjoyed “significantly increased support.” Also, BLM support later continued to drop to pre-riot levels. Even the New York Times, hardly a conservative mouthpiece, puzzlingly observes, “The data…contradicts the idea that the country underwent a racial reckoning.”
The rest of the article—which, I confess, I did not read entirely, as it is very long—looks like a lovingly detailed Establishment brief about the causes and events of the 2020 riots. As to the causes, one key claim is: “Black people, who account for less than 13% of the American population, are killed by police at a disproportionate rate, being killed at more than twice the rate of white people.” While this is no doubt true, a relevant fact, often cited by Republicans, is omitted: black men are much more likely to commit crimes that might bring a call to the police. Hence, as one study put it, “We found no consistent evidence of racial bias in firearm draws.” Such information, which appears inconsistent with Democratic viewpoints on racial injustice of police, does not seem to be found in the article.
Finally, there is a “Social impact” section. This is focused entirely on broader social and political changes that were supposedly caused by a reaction to the riots (and protests). In this section, and indeed all throughout the article, there is complete silence about the Republican criticism of the riots and of Democratic politicians who supported the violence or pretended that it was not happening; of the conservative backlash against Antifa and BLM; and of resistance to the social fallout such as the “Defund the Police” campaigns and some police “reform” proposals that would make policing much more difficult. There is absolutely no mention of conservative and Republican claims that the riots were deliberately and even centrally organized by left-wing organizations. Criticism of Black Lives Matter cannot be found in the article in any form, despite looming large in the Republican reaction to the riots.
Then of course there is the disputed 2020 U.S. presidential election. This was controversial not only across party lines, it was a wrenching fight within the Republican Party, with Establishment Republicans and centrists—who never liked Trump much in the first place—facing down Trump and his noisy rank-and-file supporters. Irregularities with massive amounts of mail-in ballots, failure to permit observers, and much more, caused massive uproar from Republicans. It came down to January 6, when Congress was going to vote on whether to accept the Electoral College vote count. As the Wikipedia article on the “Attempts to overturn the 2020 United States presidential election” has it, some 140 House Republicans and 11 Senate Republicans were prepared to lodge objections. Then, of course, the infamous invasion of the Capitol building happened—just in time to make such objections even more politically costly for representatives holding shaky seats.
The above-linked article was bound to be another propaganda piece. And so it is—shot through and through with egregious bias. Here is how it begins:
After the 2020 United States presidential election in which Joe Biden prevailed, then-incumbent Donald Trump, as well as his campaign and his proxies, pursued an aggressive and unprecedented effort to deny and overturn the election. The attempts to overturn the election were described as an attempted coup d’état and an implementation of “the big lie.” Trump and his allies promoted numerous false claims that the election was stolen from Trump through an international communist conspiracy, rigged voting machines, and electoral fraud.
Further down, we have another gem:
Stop the Steal [bold in original] is a far-right and conservative campaign and protest movement in the United States promoting the conspiracy theory that falsely posits that widespread electoral fraud occurred during the 2020 presidential election to deny incumbent President Donald Trump victory over former vice president Joe Biden.
I will not go into more details; you can imagine. There are actually several articles related to irregularities in the 2020 election and its aftermath. In addition to the one discussed above, there is also Republican reactions to Donald Trump’s claims of 2020 election fraud, which states, “Trump falsely claimed to have won the election, and made many false and unsubstantiated claims of election fraud.” Of course, the very title here is a good example of Saul Alinsky’s Rule 11: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, polarize it.” In other words, the backlash against the 2020 election was not a broad Republican movement, but only one hated and discredited man’s outrageous and illegal attempt to overturn the election.
Obviously, I could go on and talk about the January 6 Capitol invasion: what really happened? In “2021 United States Capitol Attack,” you will learn that the Capitol “was stormed during a riot and violent attack against the U.S. Congress,” by “a mob of supporters of President Donald Trump” who “attempted to overturn his defeat in the 2020 presidential election.” Never mind that several details here are in dispute. Many Republicans believe a number of leftists and FBI agents were among those who invaded the Capitol building. In any event, precisely what happened is not clear to those of us who have watched hours of video footage of the invasion. I watched with increasing horror and had questions even as it happened.
Republicans are naturally of differing views on Trump’s speech on the day of January 6—some think it was justified, others concede it was irresponsible—but they generally agree that he cannot be blamed for the attack. Such nuanced points of view so unpopular with Wikipedia are, unsurprisingly, not presented in the article at all. Instead, it tells a story that, by omitting key details, makes it sound as if the invasion was a spontaneous uprising of crazy MAGA people that Trump deliberately whipped up into a treasonous rage. Perhaps that is precisely what happened; but a neutral article on the topic would sketch alternate narratives as well, present all the relevant information from which various people build their cases, and leave the reader to make up his own mind about what actually happened.
I hardly need add that Wikipedia is firmly aligned with one political party, and its articles on the 2020 election read like party propaganda.
This article is already long enough and I have made my point, but it will be interesting to dip briefly into other culture war topics, drawn from science and religion, that were in the news in the last year.
In science, even more than global warming (or climate change), there has been significant controversy over Covid-19 and the official measures to combat it. You will not be surprised to learn that Wikipedia debunks everything the Establishment debunks, all conveniently collected into a single article on “COVID-19 misinformation.” Alongside silly things almost no one would take seriously, you can learn that it is “misinformation” to suggest a “Wuhan lab origin” of the virus. You will also be relieved to know that “masks do actually work.”
Another article assures us, “Several researchers, from modelling and demonstrated examples, have concluded that lockdowns are effective at reducing the spread of, and deaths caused by, COVID-19.” Of course, there is no mention of any other research. What about the Covid-19 vaccines: are they effective? Safe? In the COVID-19 vaccine article, the introductory section mentions “demonstrated efficacy as high as 95%,” but nothing about side effects; further down in the article, a very short paragraph in a “Misinformation” section informs us that claims about such side effects are “overblown.” And that is it. You read that right: in an article about the experimental Covid-19 vaccines, the only thing Wikipedia has to say about their side-effects is that concern about them is overblown. Needless to say, you will not find anything in the way of information from the many skeptical physicians and medical researchers, who must not exist.
Let us be clear on something here. You might support Wikipedia’s approach to Covid-19; but you cannot maintain that it is neutral. A neutral approach would acknowledge and fairly represent alternative views on the origin of the virus, the efficacy of masks, the effectiveness and defensibility of lockdowns, and the effectiveness and safety of the Covid-19 vaccines. You might maintain that the articles are better without such an approach; but then what you are saying is that you prefer the articles’ Establishment bias to a neutral approach that would let the reader decide.
In religion, recently, a few different issues have divided conservatives from the more liberal Establishment, represented by mainline denominations and most (but not all) seminaries. One is this: Is Christianity in decline in the West—or just liberal denominations and churches? Wikipedia’s “Decline of Christianity in the Western world” article begins, “The decline of Christianity in the Western world is an ongoing trend. Developed countries with modern, secular educational facilities in the post-World War II era have shifted towards post-Christian, secular, globalized, multicultural and multifaith societies.” But, the article correctly notes, a similar decline is not happening in Latin America and Africa, and even recently, “71% of Western Europeans identified themselves as Christian, according to a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center.”
In the section about the United States, the focus is (unsurprisingly) on mainline denominations, despite the fact that they are now among the smaller denominations; even as of ten years ago, taken together, the mainline Protestant denominations had fewer than half the adherents of evangelical and conservative Protestant denominations.” Only at the very end of the article do we learn that “‘intense religion’ including evangelicalism has persisted.” You will not learn, in this article, the name of the single largest Protestant denomination: the Southern Baptist Convention, with 16.2 million members. (The information can be found in the “Southern Baptist Convention” article.) You will also not learn that in an important segment, conservative church membership is actually growing: among others, nondenominational churches were booming as of 2014, and actually outnumbered even the Southern Baptists.
Basically, to hear Wikipedia tell it, Christianity is in decline, because mainline denominations are in decline, and the conservative denominations and churches are barely worth caring about. And I can just hear the response: “Well, yeah. Sounds about right.” But if you agree with the Wikipedia article’s approach, that does not mean it is neutral; the point is that it is clearly biased.
Among the hot-button topics in church politics is one that appears to be causing a schism in the United Methodist Church: same-sex marriage. The relevant article is “Blessing of same-sex unions in Christian churches.” The article has a section with five bullet points offering “Theological views of those who support same-sex unions and/or marriages,” but there is no parallel section—or any information at all, believe it or not—about the theology of those who believe same-sex marriage is unbiblical. Some major denominations that strictly forbid same-sex marriage, like the Southern Baptists, are simply not mentioned in the article.
These contentious issues are exactly where we should expect to see fair treatment of “alternative” views on Wikipedia. But we do not.
This is hardly news, but it bears repeating. Wikipedia openly repudiates neutrality, and therefore it is shamelessly hypocritical in how it continues to pay lip service to its “neutral point of view” policy. Wikipedia’s editors embrace their biases sometimes so fervently that their articles emerge more as propaganda than as reference material.
“But wait,” you say. “Come on. Fine, they’re hypocritical, but dodgy claims to neutrality are just marketing. Why should we care about actual neutrality? For journalists, it is totally passé. Sure, most of them don’t actually want you to make up your own mind on important issues. So? Of course they want experts to declare what is known, and then you should learn that—a lot of times that’s the whole point of ‘journalism.’ And here’s another thing. Wikipedia strongly prefers mainstream secondary sources. When it comes to the culture war, the educated classes, the readers of those mainstream sources, naturally skew liberal. Wikipedia just represents that mainstream view. And that’s reasonable; it is not a fault with Wikipedia. Live with it. It’s the new reality. How do you respond?”
First, I refuse to accept such excuses for the bully tactics of propagandists. Second, it’s also false that Wikipedia just represents the mainstream. Wikipedia does not just mirror the biases found in the mainstream news media, because some of it is conservative or contrarian. A lot of mainstream news stories are broken only in Fox News, the Daily Mail, and the New York Post—all of which are banned from use as sources by Wikipedia. Beyond that, many mainstream sources of conservative, libertarian, or contrarian opinion are banned from Wikipedia as well, including Quillette, The Federalist, and the Daily Caller. Those might be contrarian or conservative, but they are hardly “radical”; they are still mainstream. So, how on earth can such viewpoints ever be given an airing on Wikipedia? Answer: often, they cannot, not if there are no “reliable sources” available to report about them.
In short, and with few exceptions, only globalist, progressive mainstream sources—and sources friendly to globalist progressivism—are permitted.
It is true that Wikipedia permits a few sources, such as Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Daily Telegraph, and Weekly Standard, which are more often tolerant of conservative viewpoints, but these are (or have become) as often centrist as conservative, and they are generally careful never to leave the current Overton Window of progressive thought. They are the “loyal opposition” of the progressive media hegemony.
Why has Wikipedia systematically purged conservative mainstream media sources? Is it because such sources have become intolerably irresponsible and partisan? That’s what Wikipedians will tell you. As they put it, it is because they do not want what they dismiss as “misinformation,” “conspiracy theories,” etc., to get any hearing. In saying so, they (and similarly biased institutions) are plainly claiming exclusive control over what is thinkable. They want to set the boundaries of the debate, and they want to tell you how to think about it. A good illustration of just how radical Wikipedia’s source-banning policies have become can be seen in their treatment of Newsweek magazine, which is now marked as “no consensus” (i.e., avoid and use with caution), because ownership passed in 2013 to IBT Media, the publisher of the centrist, sometimes conservative-leaning, International Business Times, which is itself deemed “unreliable.”
For these reasons, it is not too far to say that Wikipedia, like many other deeply biased institutions of our brave new digital world, has made itself into a kind of thought police that has de facto shackled conservative viewpoints with which they disagree. Democracy cannot thrive under such conditions: I maintain that Wikipedia has become an opponent of vigorous democracy. Democracy requires that voters be given the full range of views on controversial issues, so that they can make up their minds for themselves. If society’s main information sources march in ideological lockstep, they make a mockery of democracy. Then the wealthy and powerful need only gain control of the few approved organs of acceptable thought; then they will be able to manipulate and ultimately control all important political dialogue.
I am announcing that my book is now available on Amazon in paperback. Please show your appreciation for this blog (and my other attempts to enlighten the world) by buying it!
Here: Essays on Free Knowledge: The Origins of Wikipedia and the New Politics of Knowledge, Sanger Press (my own imprint), ISBN 978-1-7357954-1-6. 12 essays. 270 pages. $18.75 for the paperback. The ebook version is best purchased on Gumroad ($9.95), but it is now available on Amazon as well (same price). I will make an audiobook version if there is much demand. So far about four people have requested an audiobook version. If the number of requests goes over ten, I guess I will make an audiobook.
Wikipedia celebrates its 20th anniversary in January, but as I explain in this collection of essays, it began by organizing a decentralized, global community to catalog their knowledge neutrally, with minimal rules. The results were amazing, sparking debates about whether amateurs really could declare “what we all know” and whether all this free knowledge could replace memorization. A decade later, as control of knowledge has become more centralized and closed, I ask: should we decentralize knowledge once again, and if so, how?
What do you get? In addition to front and end matter (including a full index), these twelve essays, which I include with some perhaps representative quotes:
The Early History of Nupedia and Wikipedia: A Memoir
The focus on the encyclopedia provided the task and the open content license provided a natural motivation: people work hard if they believe they are teaching the world stuff. Openness and ease of editing made it easy for new people to join in and get to work. Collaboration helped move work forward quickly and efficiently, and posting unedited drafts made collaboration possible. The fact that we started with a core of good people from Nupedia meant that the project could develop a functional, cooperative community. Neutrality made it easy for people to work together with relatively little conflict. Finally, the Google effect provided a steady supply of “fresh blood”—who in turn supplied increasing amounts of content.
Two Early Articles about Wikipedia
Wikipedia’s content is useful, and so people are starting to link to it. Google and other search engines have already discovered Wikipedia and the daily traffic they send to the project produces a steady stream of new readers and participants. The greater the number of Wikipedia articles, the greater the number of links to them, and therefore the higher the rankings and numbers of listings on Google. As they say, “the rich get richer.” So it is far from inconceivable that the rate of article-production will actually increase over the coming years—in fact, this seems rather likely.
But why all this activity and interest? Surely that is puzzling. Wiki software must be the most promiscuous form of publishing there is—Wikipedia will take anything from anybody. So how is it possible that so many otherwise upstanding intellectuals love Wikipedia (some, secretly) and spend so much time on it? Why are we not writing for academic journals, or something?
Wikipedia’s Original Neutrality Policy
Wikipedia has an important policy: roughly stated, you should write articles without bias, representing all views fairly. This is easily misunderstood. The policy does not assume that it is possible to write an article from just one point of view, which would be the one neutral (unbiased, “objective”) point of view. The Wikipedia policy is that we should fairly represent all sides of a dispute, and not make an article state, imply, or insinuate that any one side is correct.
To … put it metaphorically, neutrality does not give us a free ride. It throws us into the issues and requires us to swim through them under our own power. This can be difficult and frightening (thus Kant’s injunction, sapere aude) but it also makes us feel empowered to decide for ourselves. Neutrality supports us both intellectually and emotionally in the act of exercising autonomous judgment by presenting us with all the options and providing us the tools to judge among them for ourselves. …
When you write with bias, you are treating your readers as your pawns, as mere means to your ends. You are not treating them as autonomous agents, capable of making up their own minds rationally. You are not respecting their dignity.
Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism
There is a deeper problem—I, at least, think so—which explains both of the above-elaborated problems. Namely, as a community, Wikipedia lacks the habit or tradition of respect for expertise. As a community, far from being elitist (which would, in this context, mean excluding the unwashed masses), it is anti-elitist (which, in this context, means that expertise is not accorded any special respect, and snubs and disrespect of expertise are tolerated).
How the Internet Is Changing What (We Think) We Know
[T]he superabundance of information makes knowledge more difficult. … [F]or all the terabytes upon terabytes of information on the Internet, society does not employ many more (and possibly fewer) editors than it had before the advent of the Internet. When you go to post something on a blog or a web forum, there is no one called an editor who decides to “publish” your comment. The Internet is less a publishing operation than a giant conversation. But most of us still take in most of what we read fairly passively. Now, there is no doubt that what has been called the “read-write web” encourages active engagement with others online, and helps us overcome our passivity. This is one of the decidedly positive things about the Internet, I think: it gets people to understand that they can actively engage with what they read. We understand now more than ever that we can and should read critically. The problem, however, is that, without the services of editors, we need our critical faculties to be engaged and very fine-tuned. While the Internet conversation has made it necessary for us to read critically, still, without the services of editors, there is far more garbage out there than our critical faculties can handle. We end up absorbing a lot of nonsense passively: we cannot help it.
Who Says We Know: On the New Politics of Knowledge
[T]he public deserves a seat at the table it did not have throughout most of history. Wikipedia’s tremendous usefulness shows the wisdom of that policy. Still, it is no exaggeration to say that epistemic egalitarianism, as illustrated especially by Wikipedia, places Truth in the service of Equality. Ultimately, at the bottom of the debate, the deep modern commitment to specialization is in an epic struggle with an equally deep modern commitment to egalitarianism. It is Truth versus Equality, and as much as I love Equality, if it comes down to choosing, I am on the side of Truth.
Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age
The educational proposals and predictions of the Internet boosters described above point to a profoundly illiberal future. I fear that if we take their advice, in the place of a creative society with a reasonably deep well of liberally educated critical thinkers, we will have a society of drones, enculturated by hive minds, who are able to work together online but who are largely innocent of the texts and habits of study that encourage deep and independent thought. We will be bound by the prejudices of our “digital tribe,” ripe for manipulation by whoever has the firmest grip on our dialogue. I see all too much evidence that we are moving headlong in that direction. Indeed, I fear this is already happening. I honestly hope that I prove to be an alarmist, but I am a realist reporting on my observations. I wish the news were better.
Is There a New Geek Anti-Intellectualism?
The more that people have these various [anti-intellectual] attitudes, the more bad stuff is going to result, I think. The more that a person really takes seriously that there is no point in reading the classics, the less likely he will actually take a class in Greek history or early modern philosophy. Repeat that on a mass scale, and the world becomes—no doubt already has become—a significantly poorer place, as a result of the widespread lack of analytical tools and conceptual understanding. We can imagine a world in which the humanities are studied by only a small handful of people, because we already live in that world; just imagine the number of people all but vanishing.
But is this not just a problem for geekdom? Does it really matter that much if geeks are anti-intellectuals? The question is whether the trend will move on to the population at large. One does not speak of “geek chic” these days for nothing. The digital world is the vanguard, and attitudes and behaviors that were once found mostly among the geeks of yesteryear are now mainstream. Geek anti-intellectualism is another example.
Introducing the Encyclosphere
A few thousand people work regularly on Wikipedia. But what if millions more—orders of magnitude more—wrote encyclopedia articles and rated them, as part of a completely decentralized knowledge network, with no individual, group, corporation, or government in charge of the whole? That is surely possible. There are surely that many people who, if given the freedom to do so, would be highly motivated to volunteer their time to add to the world’s largest collection of knowledge.
We could create a knowledge commons, defined by neutral, open, technical standards and protocols: a network that decentralizes encyclopedias, exactly as the Blogosphere has done for blogs.
Declaration of Digital Independence
We declare that we have unalienable digital rights, rights that define how information that we individually own may or may not be treated by others, and that among these rights are free speech, privacy, and security. Since the proprietary, centralized architecture of the Internet at present has induced most of us to abandon these rights, however reluctantly or cynically, we ought to demand a new system that respects them properly.
The Future of the Free Internet
Even more fundamentally, what the decline of Wikipedia and social media have in common is the concentration—the centralization—of authority on the Internet. This centralization of Internet authority has many and terrible consequences. It turns out that placing so much power in the hands of Internet executives undermines us, our relationships, our minds, even our sanity, and ultimately our politics. Who knew this would happen, even ten years ago? Some open source software stalwarts foresaw some of it. But as to the general public, they had little notion, perhaps beyond a vague inkling. It is all too plain now.
I published my first book this morning. The current cost is $9.95. It is a 270-page ebook, first published on Gumroad, where I’ll get a higher percentage.
Buy via the embedded ad below, and after that, I’ll have a few notes for my regular blog readers.
I first had the idea of making a collection like this over ten years ago. The fact that Wikipedia is going to have its 20th anniversary this coming January means the book should have a better audience than it would otherwise.
Wikipedia’s “NPOV” is dead.1 The original policy long since forgotten, Wikipedia no longer has an effective neutrality policy. There is a rewritten policy, but it endorses the utterly bankrupt canard that journalists should avoid what they call “false balance.”2 The notion that we should avoid “false balance” is directly contradictory to the original neutrality policy. As a result, even as journalists turn to opinion and activism, Wikipedia now touts controversial points of view on politics, religion, and science. Here are some examples from each of these subjects, which were easy to find, no hunting around. Many, many more could be given.
Examples have become embarrassingly easy to find. The Barack Obama article completely fails to mention many well-known scandals: Benghazi, the IRS scandal, the AP phone records scandal, and Fast and Furious, to say nothing of Solyndra or the Hillary Clinton email server scandal—or, of course, the developing “Obamagate” story in which Obama was personally involved in surveilling Donald Trump. A fair article about a major political figure certainly must include the bad with the good. Beyond that, a neutral article must fairly represent competing views on the figure by the major parties.
In other words—and this is the point crucial to evaluating an article’s neutrality—a neutral article is written not to take sides on issues of controversy. It does not matter whether one or both sides believe their point of view is totally factual and supported with incontrovertible proof. How many times, in politics and in many walks of life, have we seen controversies in which both sides can cite apparently rigorous studies, or chapter and verse, or original source material that, they claim, show their view is absolutely certain? In such cases, a neutral resource like Wikipedia is bound by policy not to take a side. Yet it does.
Political scandals are a good example where sources are carefully lined up on both sides. There were many controversies over “scandals” plaguing Obama’s presidency. But in fact, the only scandals that I could find in Wikipedia’s Obama article were a few that the left finds at least a little scandalous, such as Snowden’s revelations about NSA activities under Obama. In short, the article is almost a total whitewash. You might find this to be objectively correct, if you are a Democrat; but you cannot claim that this is a neutral treatment, considering that the other major U.S. party would, citing other ostensibly credible sources, treat the subject very differently. On such topics, neutrality in any sense worth the name essentially requires that readers not be able to detect the editors’ political alignment.
Meanwhile, as you can imagine, the idea that the Donald Trump article is neutral is a joke. Just for example, there are 5,224 none-too-flattering words in the “Presidency” section. By contrast, the following “Public Profile” (which the Obama article entirely lacks), “Investigations,” and “Impeachment” sections are unrelentingly negative, and together add up to some 4,545 words—in other words, the controversy sections are almost as long as the sections about his presidency. Common words in the article are “false” and “falsely” (46 instances): Wikipedia frequently asserts, in its own voice, that many of Trump’s statements are “false.” Well, perhaps they are. But even if they are, it is not exactly neutral for an encyclopedia article to say so, especially without attribution. You might approve of Wikipedia describing Trump’s incorrect statements as “false,” very well; but then you must admit that you no longer support a policy of neutrality on Wikipedia. More to the point, Republican, Trump-supporting views are basically not represented at all in the article on Trump.
I leave the glowing Hillary Clinton article as an exercise for the reader.
On political topics it is easiest to argue for the profound benefits—even the moral necessity—of eliminating bias in reference works. As I argue in my 2015 essay, “Why Neutrality” (updated in Essays on Free Knowledge) we naturally desire neutrality on political and many other topics because we want to be left free to make up our own minds. Reference, news, and educational resources aimed at laying out a subject in general should give us the tools we need to rationally decide what we want to think. Only those who want to force the minds of others can be opposed to neutrality.
Wikipedia can be counted on to cover not just political figures, but political issues as well from a liberal-left point of view. No conservative would write, in an abortion article, “When properly done, abortion is one of the safest procedures in medicine,” a claim that is questionable on its face, considering what an invasive, psychologically distressing, and sometimes lengthy procedure it can be even when done according to modern medical practices. More to the point, abortion opponents consider the fetus to be a human being with rights; their view, that it is not safe for the baby, is utterly ignored. To pick another, random issue, drug legalization, dubbed drug liberalization by Wikipedia, has only a little information about any potential hazards of drug legalization policies; it mostly serves as a brief for legalization, followed by a catalog of drug policies worldwide. Or to take an up-to-the-minute issue, the LGBT adoption article includes several talking points in favor of LGBT adoption rights, but omits any arguments against. On all such issues, the point is that true neutrality, to be carefully distinguished from objectivity, requires that the article be written in a way that makes it impossible to determine the editors’ position on the important controversies the article touches on.
What about articles on religious topics? The first article I thought to look at had some pretty egregious instances of bias: the Jesus article. It simply asserts, again in its own voice, that “the quest for the historical Jesus has yielded major uncertainty on the historical reliability of the Gospels and on how closely the Jesus portrayed in the Bible reflects the historical Jesus.” In another place, the article simply asserts, “the gospels are not independent nor consistent records of Jesus’ life.” A great many Christians would take issue with such statements, which means they are not neutral for that reason alone. In other words, the very fact that many Christians, including many deeply educated conservative seminarians, believe in the historical reliability of the Gospels, and that they are wholly consistent, means that the article is biased if it simply asserts, without attribution or qualification, that this is a matter of “major uncertainty.” Now, it would be accurate and neutral to say it is widely disputed, but being “disputed” and being “uncertain” are very different concepts. It is in fact a controversial view that the historical accuracy of the Gospels is uncertain; others disagree, holding that, upon analysis, it is not a matter of significant uncertainty. In other respects, the article can be fairly described as a “liberal” academic discussion of Jesus, focusing especially on assorted difficulties and controversies, while failing to explain traditional, orthodox, or fundamentalist views of those issues. So it might be “liberal academic,” but it ignores conservative academic and traditional views. Therefore, what it is not is neutral, not in the original sense we defined for Wikipedia.
Of course, similarly tendentious claims can be found in other articles on religious topics, as when the Christ (title) article claims,
Although the original followers of Jesus believed Jesus to be the Jewish messiah, e.g. in the Confession of Peter, Jesus was usually referred to as “Jesus of Nazareth” or “Jesus, son of Joseph”. Jesus came to be called “Jesus Christ” (meaning “Jesus the Khristós”, i.e. “Jesus the Messiah” or “Jesus the Anointed”) by later Christians, who believe that his crucifixion and resurrection fulfill the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament.
This article weirdly claims, or implies, a thing that no serious Biblical scholar of any sort would claim, viz., that Jesus was not given the title “Christ” by the original Apostles in the New Testament. The Wikipedia article itself later contradicts that claim, so perhaps the editors of the above paragraph simply meant the two conjoined words “Jesus Christ,” and that Jesus was rarely referred to with those two conjoined words in the New Testament. But this is false, too: the two words are found together in that form throughout the New Testament.
But the effect of the above-quoted paragraph is to cast doubt that the title “Christ” was used much at all by the original Apostles and disciples. That would be silly if so. These supposed “later Christians” who used “Christ” would have to include the Apostles Peter (Jesus’ first apostle), Paul (converted a few years after Jesus’ crucifixion), and Jude (Jesus’ brother), who were the authors of the bulk of the epistles of the New Testament. The word “Christ” can, of course, be found frequently in the epistles, including very early epistles, thought to be the first texts written about Jesus.3 Of course, those are not exactly “later Christians.” If the claim is simply that the word “Christ” does not appear at all or much in the Gospels, that is false, as a simple text search uncovers dozens of instances in all four Gospels,4 and about 550 instances in the entire New Testament. If it is used somewhat less in the Gospels, that would be a reflection of the fact that the authors of the Gospels were, argumentatively, using the Hebrew word “Messiah” to persuade Jewish readers that Jesus was the long-awaited Jewish messiah. But the word means much the same as the Greek title “Christ”: the anointed one, God’s chosen. So, in any event, the basic claim here is simply false. He is called “Jesus Christ” (Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ) in the very first verse of the New Testament (Matthew 1:1) and in the first verse of the gospel sometimes thought to be the first-written, Mark (1:1), as well.5
Or if the claim were that Jesus was not understood to be the Messiah or Christ in his own lifetime before being crucified, we need not quibble about that (though it is easy enough to cite the gospel claims that Peter believed him to be the Christ; see, e.g., Mark 8:29). The book of Acts and the epistles make it abundantly clear that the Apostles, setting up the earliest churches, thought Jesus was the Messiah—indeed, the Son of God.
Clearly, Wikipedia’s claims are tendentious if not false, and represent a point of view that many if not most Christians would rightly dispute.
It may seem more problematic to speak of the bias of scientific articles, because many people do not want to see “unscientific” views covered in encyclopedia articles. If such articles are “biased in favor of science,” some people naturally find that to be a feature, not a bug. The problem, though, is that scientists sometimes do not agree on which theories are and are not scientific. This point is perfectly obvious to anyone who actually follows any lively scientific debate at all closely. On such issues, the “scientific point of view” and the “objective point of view” according to the Establishment might be very much opposed to neutrality. So when certain people seem unified on a certain view of a scientific controversy, then that is the view that is taken for granted as the Establishment one, and often aggressively asserted, by Wikipedia.
The global warming and MMR vaccine articles are examples; I hardly need to dive into these pages, since it is quite enough to say that they endorse definite positions that scientific minorities reject. Another example is how Wikipedia treats various topics in alternative medicine—often dismissively, and frequently labeled as “pseudoscience” in Wikipedia’s own voice. Indeed, Wikipedia defines the very term as follows: “Alternative medicine describes any practice that aims to achieve the healing effects of medicine, but which lacks biological plausibility and is untested, untestable or proven ineffective.” In all these cases, genuine neutrality requires a different sort of treatment.
Again, other examples could be found, in no doubt thousands of other, less exciting topics. These are just the first topics that came to mind, associated as they are with the culture wars, and their articles on those topics put Wikipedia very decidedly on one side of that war. You should not be able to say that about an encyclopedia that claims to be neutral.
It is time for Wikipedia to come clean and admit that it has abandoned NPOV (i.e., neutrality as a policy). At the very least they should admit that that they have redefined the term in a way that makes it utterly incompatible with its original notion of neutrality, which is the ordinary and common one.6 It might be better to embrace a “credibility” policy and admit that their notion of what is credible does, in fact, bias them against conservatism, traditional religiosity, and minority perspectives on science and medicine—to say nothing of many other topics on which Wikipedia has biases.
Of course, Wikipedians are unlikely to make any such change; they live in a fantasy world of their own making.7
The world would be better served by an independent and decentralized encyclopedia network, such as I proposed with the Encyclosphere. We will certainly develop such a network, but if it is to remain fully independent of all governmental and big corporate interests, funds are naturally scarce and it will take time.
If we are to believe its critics, under the pending EU copyright reform legislation, the EU would implement a “link tax” across all of Europe. So if you link to a news article, for example, including a text snippet, then you’d have to pay a fee. When Spain tried this, Google News simply discontinued service in the country—that didn’t go over too well.
Maybe worse, the new law would require websites that engage the public to set up review processes to proactively remove violations of copyright rules. Those of us who have designed and used collaborative and participatory websites (that’d be most of you reading this) can well understand the difficulty here: it mandates a review process. It would be against the law to follow the publish-then-filter principle that is at the core of open source and open content projects. This could be disastrous for those projects—including, of course, Everipedia and Wikipedia. Let me explain.
The current regulatory regime in the U.S. is defined to a great extent by the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act), which enables websites to declare themselves to be Internet service providers who are not directly responsible for what their users post. If they receive a “takedown request” from someone whose rights are violated—for example, someone whose copyrighted work is reproduced without permission—they must simply take the work down promptly, and the problem goes away. And of course, the DMCA has no requirements whatsoever regarding hyperlinks. (Why on earth would it?)
But under the new EU regime, the Internet wouldn’t work that way. You’d have to pay to link to news articles—that would have made Infobitt impossible (among many more). And whenever you designed a form allowing a user to upload information for public consumption, you’d also have to design a whole system enabling the information to be checked for copyright infringement before being posted. Web developers naturally find both ideas absolutely ridiculous, not only because of the expense and technical difficulty, but also because it would interfere with and potentially ruin the social dynamics that make the sites work properly.
Of course, Internet giants like Facebook and Twitter might be able to satisfy the requirements of the law, but so many smaller projects would not. And while Everipedia‘s new blockchain review process might satisfy the review mechanism requirement (see our white paper), it seems impossible that the literally millions of links from our articles could be paid for—if, as seems likely, they would have to be under the new regime. (Any link to content that is under 20 years old would have to be paid for.)
Wikipedia never would have been able to get a start under this regime. Nor would any small, independent startup. Only giant corporations would be able to satisfy the law’s requirements.
But then, maybe that’s the point.
It’s been 15 years since I announced the opening of the new Wikipedia.com site, with a little message that said:
http://www.wikipedia.com/ Humor me. Go there and add a little article. It will take all of five or ten minutes. --Larry
I am still sometimes called “Wikipedia’s sharpest critic,” but if you actually look at the panoply of Wikipedia criticism, you’ll quickly see that that’s not actually true. I happen to know some critics of Wikipedia, people like Gregory Kohs and Edward Buckner. They know a lot more (and care and are more “outspoken”) about Wikipedia’s assorted flaws than I do. Saying Wikipedia’s co-founder is a critic does make a nice headline, though, which is why, when I did a long, nuanced interview with VICE recently, the headline writer (not the interviewer) called me “Wikipedia’s most outspoken critic.”
Some people might come to this page to see what have I been up since leaving Wikipedia 14 years ago, so let me fill you in. I taught philosophy for a while, I worked on somebody else’s failed startup for a year, then transitioned to start Citizendium, which is still kicking six years after I left. I allowed myself to be poached from my own project by a Memphis-area philanthropist who wanted me to work on what became WatchKnowLearn. While developing that I was teaching my toddler son to read, and the video of his precocious reading inspired the same philanthropist to fund ReadingBear, which digitizes the method I’ve used with both my sons. Reading Bear was very difficult to develop, but I’m proud of it. You’ll probably see some new features on the site soon—mobile compatibility, probably.
After that I decided to try my first for-profit funded startup, Infobitt; we ran out of runway, as most startups do, but we also learned a lot about how a volunteer, collaborative news summary site might work. Since last July I’ve been working part-time doing various fun projects for Ballotpedia as well as ReadingBear, and I’ve been wooed by a few different startups. I’ve been developing a few different exciting ideas, just to test them and make proposals to different organizations. Whatever I do, I want my next move to be into something that has a good chance of being long-term.
One idea I’m toying with a lot lately is educational videos like these, which my boys liked quite a bit and which surprisingly get a good bit of traffic. The best part is that they’re fun to make and I can make them pretty quickly. I don’t have a sponsor as such for them, yet, but making a bunch of such videos does seem like a worthwhile way to spend my time. I have various other interests that I’ve thought about parlaying into meaningful employment: writing a curriculum about philosophy for kids; free speech, a topic I’m greatly interested in; organizing a community to defend the fundamental ideas behind enlightenment Western civilization; writing superior reviews of homeschooling resources; and joining a news startup interested in letting me develop Infobitt further.
There are two grand ambitions lurking in the background, although the jury’s still out whether I will ever have time and resources to work on them. One is Textop. The other is developing a system of philosophy roughly in the vein of Thomas Reid, the great Scottish Enlightenment philosopher of common sense.
I would love to hear from anyone with advice and help to move forward on any of these fronts.
I encountered a journalist-activist on Twitter, a writer for (among others) Al Jazeera in English, who is nevertheless a free speech activist. We discussed the recent FoxNews.com article that reported, among other things, that the Wikimedia Foundation entirely failed to respond to a “more or less free” offer of filtering software. They need such software, of course, because they are heavily used by school children, and widely available in schools, and yet they host enormous amounts of porn. Anyway, the journalist-activist and I had a charming exchange, the end of which went like this:
Journalist-activist: “Why don’t you simply push for people to purchase NetSpark or similar for home use?”
Me: “…a lot of people don’t have money or expertise to install such a solution.”
JA: “I don’t buy that – free, good filters are widely available.”
Me: “If you find me a ‘free, good filter’ that is ‘widely available,’ I will install and test, and blog about the results.”
JA: “t.co/4CHL54yc”, as I did in the above video. Let me try my test searches: “Poseidon.” Yep, there’s the old “Kiss of Poseidon.jpg” which does not actually feature the Greek God.
“Cucumber”? Page 2 of the results (used to be page 1) features some female exhibitionists who are altogether too fond of this vegetable.
“Toothbrush”? Again, page 2 has someone using a toothbrush in a way not approved by the ADA (used to be the top of page 1; Wikipedians obviously were uncomfortable with the bad publicity).
So…this free version doesn’t work. By the way, for what it’s worth, a non-free filter, NetSpark’s, not only caught these examples, it deleted them inline instead of simply blocking the whole page. I’m not saying NetSpark is the only or the best solution, just that it’s the one I’m familiar with and that it seemed to work rather well.
Wikipedia could pay a modest amount of money (I’m not sure what the bottom line bill would be, if over $0, from Netspark) and obtain a solution on behalf of the school children who use their smut-ridden resource. But they refuse. Few parents will want to use “Golden Filter Premium,” in any case. It’s just too clunky, and it doesn’t work the way it should on Wikipedia anyway.