Is it all about reliability?

15 August, 2012 at 14:24 | Posted in knowledge, Politics, Web 2.0, Wikipedia policy | Leave a comment
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Whom shall I trust? A typical newsstand in New York City.

Whom shall I trust? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These are some thoughts I had after reading Heather Ford’s thought provoking and most interesting research “Beyond reliability: An ethnographic study of Wikipedia sources“.

Walking in Tel Aviv, I saw an interesting magazine and decided to buy a copy. The price was printed on the magazine’s cover – EUR 2, but actually I had to pay ILS 20 at the cashier. Apparently, this magazine is not reliable at all, because it lies about its own price… It says it is available for euro, and yet I paid in shekel. I suppose we can live with that, because there is a worldwide accepted conversion rate between the euro and the shekel. Then again, according to this conversion rate, EUR 2 = ILS 10 (approximately).

On the face of it, I am the victim of a series of lies, and I should be careful not to trust this magazine too much (especially its business and economy sections). Or, perhaps it is this bookstore that I have to distrust, or perhaps the bank that provided the list of exchange rates. In fact, nothing dramatic happened here, and I don’t even have to explain why this story is so trivial and why there were no lies here.

And yet, when writing about sensitive issues on Wikipedia, I often felt like someone who tried to convince other people that he bought the New York Times in Tel Aviv for shekels. All the sources say it is a US magazine whose price is quoted in US dollars, and your own testimony is a primary source at best, and an unreliable testimony at worse.

When the issue is not sensitive, people are naturally more willing to accept unwritten testimonies or “common sense” inferences. For example, other editors were willing to accept my testimony that the Jordanian Television was easily received in Israel (hence, for example, color sets could be popular in Israel before the local stations broadcast in color, because these sets would show color films from Jordan). When someone suggested that the same was true for Norway and Iceland (Icelanders could receive color transmission from Norway before their local stations switched to color broadcasting), another editor said it was illogical, because the distance between Norway and Iceland was too large. It was a dialog of direct testimonies and pure logic. No sources were involved.

Things are different when it comes to sensitive political issues, and you are welcome to browse this blog for some examples (forgive me for feeling a bit tired of repeating them, just like that hypothetical example about the magazine’s price.

So actually, it’s only reliability that is at the focus here. We are not concerened only about the accuracy of the information and how trustworthy it is. It is also a question of whether we want to have the information at all, how we plan to put it into use and how we want it to be “wrapped”. We often argue about the wrapping paper of the “present” (namely, the information), rather than the accuracy of the information itself. Sometimes, this “wrapping paper” is indeed more important than the content.

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Wikipedia takes a u-turn – The change in the editing concept of Wikipedia (Part Two)

26 September, 2011 at 18:51 | Posted in Collaborative work, knowledge, Politics, Web 2.0, Wiki systems, Wikipedia policy | Leave a comment
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The following is the second part in a series of essays, which ellaborate my talk on Wikimania 2011. The first article is here.

Heated debates are not about the facts but rather on how to present them

Five cartoon images in various colors sitting or leaning on the Wikipedia puzzle-globe, engaged in deep reflections

Quo Vadis, Wikipedia?

How to call Ireland?

Looking at some of the heated debates on the English-language Wikipedia reveals that facts are never the core of such debates, but rather the way they should be presented. For example, in December 2008, the debate about Ireland culminated. The issue at stake had nothing to do with actual facts about this northeast Atlantic island, its people or the two geopolitical units on its land. Rather, the controversy was about how to name the articles about Ireland. With the name “Ireland” being used in the English language (and most other languages) in both political and geographical contexts, and considering the conflict that affected the island for several decades in the recent past, it is not surprising that the right way to present the facts about the island is a matter of controversy. It is not unusual to have polysemies like this, and there are simple ways to overcome them, especially with a flexible tool like a Wiki system (the software infrastructure upon which Wikipedia is built), but here, the decades old conflict reflects on the work of the Wikipedians. They can agree about the facts, they cannot agree on how to present them.

Is it “pro-life” or “anti-abortion”?

A similar case is the set of articles about abortion. In August 2011 the bitter debate about the articles on the English-language Wikipedia dealing with the termination of pregnency reached the “Arbitration Committee”. No one argues about the facts presented in the article or about the method in which they were collected. The controversy is about whether to call the movement that objects abortions “pro-life” or “anti-abortion” (see here and here) and whether the article about abortion should include this image of  a ten weeks old live fetus inside a uterus which was removed from a 44-old woman (for pure medical reasons, in this specific case, according to the photograph’s uploader). The lead of articles is often a matter of harsh debates, and this case is no exception. While Wikipedia is committed to fairly present all significant views about a subject, the lead is often perceived as if presenting the prevailing or most valid view. It is probably also assumed that many people read the lead and disregard the details that follow. Here, a question was raised several times whether the process should be described as “causing the death [of a fetus or embryo]” or “causing the termination [of a pregnancy]”. Once again we see that the facts are in consensus. It is how to present them that causes the controversy. 

English-language Wikipedia’s mechanism of conflict resolution 

At this point, and before moving ahead in my analysis, it might be worth while to shed some light on one of the ways in which the English-language Wikipedia resolves conflicts. In this partial overview, I will address one of the more recently developed methods, which seems to have gained prominence quite quickly. More details can be found in one of the excellent articles and presentations about Wikipedia written by Ayelet Oz. One of her peresentations about this subject is available on the Wikimania 2009 website.

Arbitration Committee: Popular idea that fails in most cases

 The English-language Wikipedia has an “Arbitration Committee” to which Wikipedians appeal when they think their debates with other Wikipedians have reached a dead end. The appeals are either against alleged misbehavior of another Wikipedian, or about a certain topic, at the center of one or several article, which seems too controversial. This whole system is quite peculiar. The Arbitration Committee is not supposed and usually not expected to act as an editorial board or a fact-checking committee. They actually act as a court of law judging where Wikipedia’s procedures of editing went wrong. The committee is supposed to offer remedies that would bring the procedures back on track and move away the “blocking element” that prevents the normal flow of the debate, when it heads toward a solution.

The Arbitration Committee method has become very popular for various reasons, even though it fails in most cases. In most of the cases, the Committee ends the heated discussion by repeating the main principles of Wikipedia in a general language, and declaring the topic in question a danger zone, so to speak. This means that Wikipedia’s administrators have the right to be much less tolerant toward editors who wish to introduce changes to these articles. They would be able to punish them in various ways, or even ban them completely from editing on the English-language Wikipedia, if they deem their edits contentious.

Eventually, it is the politically motivated that are heard

The debates on the pages of the Arbitration Committee are open to all, but just in theory. First of all, you have to know such a committee exists. Then you have to read long pages of instructions and recommendations. Filing a request or commenting on an open case improperly can have unpleasant consequences if you wish to keep editing the English-language Wikipedia. The structure of the debates and their languages is a mixture of debating club sessions and juristic discussions. You have to be very acquainted with this structure, as well as the language and jargon in order to have a say in the arbitration process. Finally, you need to have a lot of time and dedication. These debates are long, tiring and often frustrating. In real life, we often hire lawyers to do this kind of works for us. Here you have to do it all by yourself. Those who have political interest in the phrasing of the certain article in question, are usually those who have the motivation to make the time and effort, and they are the ones who will be heard. Those who have an innocent wish to contribute some of their knowledge will give up.

TO BE CONTINUED

Wikipedia takes a u-turn – The change in the editing concept of Wikipedia (Part One)

20 September, 2011 at 19:28 | Posted in Collaborative work, knowledge, Politics, Web 2.0, Wikipedia policy | 3 Comments
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Notes These are the first few paragraphs of an article I write about the concept behind the editing of Wikipedia and how it has changed. I will publish the next ones shortly. In the mean time, comments are welcome. Please note that this is a draft, so it might include mistakes or inaccuracies. If you find one and would like to correct me – I’d be grateful.

The three principles of Wikipedia

Wikipedia's puzzle piece stands between Veritas, the goddess of Truth, and the Mouth of Truth, which she holds in her hand.

Veritas, the Mouth of Truth and Wikipedia

Wikipedia has three basic rules to govern its editing policy, namely Neutral Point Of View (commonly known as NPOV), Verifiability and No Original Research (commonly known as No OR). The first rule, which, for many years, was also considered the most important one, was NPOV. The other two were added during the early stages of Wikipedia’s emergence. No hierarchy was set for these three rules. Perhaps they were considered harmonious, and in some respect they are indeed. For example, the “No OR” rule caters for neutrality and verfiability by screening out new analyses and views that were not subject to thorough examination and criticism, hence, are likely to be unreliable or biased politically, commercially, ideologically or otherwise. The Verifiability rule requires that every statement be attributed to a certain person or body, so that controversial statements would not be presented as commonly accepted facts.

And yet, quite often do these three rules contradict one another. For example, in case a place or a phenomenon have two names, each of which carries some political or emotional meaning. In such cases, using any of these names harms the NPOV principle, while inventing a new neutral one is a violation of the “No OR” rule. Most of the examples for this problem come from the field of geopolitical conflicts. Is it “the Malvinas” or “Falkland Islands“? Should the leading name be “the West Bank” or “Judea and Samaria”? Is this port city on the Baltic Sea called “Danzig” or “Gdansk“? In the latter case, Wikipedians on the English-language Wikipedia debated for months and eventually developed a scheme matching between periods in the city’s history and the appropriate name to be used in the certain context. They figured that neutrality would be better served if the city be called “Danzig” when referring to it in the time between the two world wars (for example) and as Gdansk in the post-World War II era. Such a solution would be futile for the West Bank/Judea and Samaria and for the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, since the conflict is ongoing and any choice could be interpreted as siding with one of the parties.

The term “massacre” is sometimes used to denote events that did not involve mass killing. The Boston Massacre in 19770 is a good example. The loss of lives is regrettable ofcourse, and yet the number of people killed is not considered a massacre by commonplace standards. The name “Boston Massacre” is, however, the name by which this event has come to be known, and after so many years, and after time healed most of the wounds, no one really cares  any longer about the title given to this event. This, however, is not the case with recent events, especially those which still have political, emotional or ideological significance.

Sometimes, even using or rejecting a certain terminology in an article about seemingly innocent subject might be problematic in terms of NPOV. Is Pluto a “planet” or a “dwarf planet”? You may ask, who cares, but I won’t be surprised if this issue touches sensitive nerves in the astronomical community. If you are in the business of Linguistics, think of terms like “pro drop” versus “null subject”. The two describe the same phenomenon. The former is a Generative Linguistic term that assumes the existence of an abstract “pro” element in certain languages. Linguists who reject the Generative (Chonskian) theory might frown upon such a title for an article about what they prefer to call “null subject”. In all of these cases, you cannot satisfy both neutrality and the “no original research” principles.

Problems exist anywhere. If they are not too harsh, they make our life more interesting. The issue here is not whether Wikipedia encounters problems. Sure it does. It is bound to encounter problems. The question is how Wikipedia resolves these problems, and more generally, what is the new concept (if any) behind its editing policy. Such concept is, and will always be, reflected in the way Wikipedia solve such contradictions as the ones I mentioned above.

There is another principle, never formulated explicitly but very much present, especially in the early days of Wikipedia. This is the principle of collaborative work. Now, most of our lives we work with other people and cooperate with them. There is no other way to live, let alone build projects. But Wikipedia, especially after its inception, presented the idea of building a systematic corpus of knowledge without a strict blueprint or editorial line, but rather by constant productive negotiation among the various editors. This constant negotiation was supposed to be the solution, or at least one of the major solutions, to the abovementioned problems. Productive negotiation would highlight the points on which all agree, single out the controversial issues and lead to an accepted decision on how to present the controversies fairly. This concept is somewhat utopic, and in my humble opinion, it indeed failed. However, I also believe it was not given much chance. Wikipedia took a sharp turn and adopted a different concept before a system of real collaborative work could evolve.

TO BE CONTINUED

First Wikimania report: Achal R. Prabhala’s project: “People are Knowledge”

9 August, 2011 at 10:35 | Posted in Collaborative work, Israeli-Arab conflict, knowledge, Web 2.0, Wiki systems, Wikipedia policy | 3 Comments
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Achal Prabhala speaks to the group

Achal R. Prabhala, image via Wikipedia

It has been a long intensive week of fascinating events and this time,  this enchanted intellectual and social experience landed at home. Well, almost. I’m not a Haifa guy, rather a Tel Aviv one. To be more precise, I’m from a southeastern suburb of Tel Aviv, which makes me a “Tel Aviv wannabe”. Anyway, I came to know Haifa in the past several months and it is a beautiful well organized city. Tel Aviv has a lot to learn from Haifa.

I’m talking of course about Wikimania 2011, the annual Wikimedia conference that ended two days ago. My job at the organizing team was relatively minor, and yet I do feel part of this great success. Luckily there is plenty of pride to share… Pride is often said to be a sin, but in this case we truly worked hard for it, and the fact that people enjoyed and enriched themselves through this conference fuels this pride, so let’s allow it at least for the time being.

This year I served as an organizer, a presenter and a participant. It was way too optimistic and ambitious to think that I can play all these roles in one single conference, so actually I missed many interesting presentations. I gave three rather brief talks about Wikimedia Israel’s cooperation with the Africa Center of the Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, a cooperation that brought offline versions of the French-language Wikipedia to rural regions in Cameroon and Benin, and also about the flaws in the current editing system of Wikipedia and how they came to be (in my opinion). I also had many interesting talks at the conferences’ lounges and during its parties and tours. As for the “formal” schedule, I am waiting to see the video films of the presentations.

I will publish more information about the ideas raised in the conference, especially about issues related to my presentations and the topics I am interested in. In the meantime, I strongly recommend this film by Achal R. Prabhala, a veteran Wikimedian from India. He presented this film during Wikimania 2011, and I admire this initiative of his (and him personally): “People are Knowledge“. You can also read Noam Cohen’s report about Achal’s presentation.

Suska Döpp from Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR, West German Broadcasting) interviewed me about the Israeli-Arab conflict as it reflects on Wikipedia. It is not the first time I am interviewed about this issue, but Suska Döpp did a wonderful job and produced a concise straight-to-the-point report. Unfortunately my German is very basic, so I had to read it with machine translation and some help from German-speaking friends. Other reports about Wikimania and Wikipedia from WDR are available in this link.

Dostor-Wiki – A very modest attempt to “wikify” the Egyptian revolution

1 July, 2011 at 09:53 | Posted in Arab spring, Collaborative work, Israeli-Arab conflict, Politics, Web 2.0, Wiki systems | 3 Comments
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The "Dahd" maze on the web

The "Dahd" maze on the web (the "Dahd" letter is a symbol of the Arabic language and its speakers; image via Wikipedia)

The Arabic-language Wikipedia has a mailing list, in which some very interesting information is occasionally exchanged. The mailing list is public, and yet Modern Standard Arabic, despite being the language of some 20 countries, an official UN language, and used by more than 250 million people (at least to some extent), is still considered a “secret language”, unintelligible by people who enjoy rain in August…

By the way, this is an opportunity to warn all of you who carry their umbrellas well into July, that Wikipedia has two Arabic versions – the bigger more established one is ar-wp, which is in Modern Standard Arabic (a.k.a Fuśħa “the purer language”), the other one, arz-wp is written in Egyptian Arabic (a.k.a. Maśri, which is in fact the dialect of Cairo, Alexandria and the surroundings). Egyptian Arabic is the language you would probably hear in dialogs of Arab films and plays, but its use as a written language is still controversial, so many Egyptian Wikipedians prefer to write on ar-wp rather than on arz-wp.

Egyptian Wikipedians to establish Wiki project for collaboratively writing new Egyptian constitution

In a recent thread on the Arabic-Wikipedia mailing list, one of the Wikipedians suggested opening a Wiki project for drafting the new Egyptian constitution. This project is not supposed to be related to Wikimedia, but he tried to recruit people to the mission through the Wikimedia mailing lists (after all, this is where you would find a large group of Wiki-system enthusiasts).

Hello people,

This message has been sent to two mailing lists, that of the working group of the Arab celebrations for Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary and that of the Arabic Wikipedia.

I came to know a person who encouraged me to undertake the idea of a Wiki for the Egyptian constitution, so that the Egyptians use the Web for writing a constitution collaboratively. We could bring forth a draft (or drafts) to the Egyptian constitution, as the Egyptians think it should be. I liked this idea a lot and became very enthusiastic about it. I was also encouraged by the fact that the brothers in Tunisia had already started such a Wiki for the Tunisian constitution, about three months ago, and it was very successful.

What do you think? Who should take part?

As this Wikipedian said, the idea is not new. In fact, he himself mentioned the Tunisian Wiki project – destour.org  – last March, which made me curious enough to look at it and report about it in the general mailing list of the Wikimedia Foundation.

The reactions to the idea were very welcoming, and a temporary website was soon set by another veteran Egyptian Wikipedians. A special domain name was later registered – dostorwiki.org – leading to the same temporary website. Dostor or Destour, by the way, is the Arabic word for “constitution”. There is not much to read on this website at this point, even if you can read Arabic (and by the way, it is Modern Standard Arabic, this is a political revolution, not a linguistic one…) And yet, as someone pointed out in a response to my report to the general mailing list, and another person, in a respond to the recent discussion on the Arabic mailing list, Google groups for the purpose of collaboratively drafting the new Egyptian constitution have already been established. These are the two mentioned in the aforementioned mailing-list messages:

http://www.google.com/moderator/?hl=ar#15/e=581e0&t=581e0.40&f=581e0.1501bd

https://groups.google.com/group/dostorna

Some of the debates on these groups seem quite naïve. For example, an article currently brought  to a virtual vote says “Limiting working hours to prevent abuse of workers. Setting a clear system for extra hours, and improving working conditions and salaries. Providing official bodies that would look into complaints within the shortest time”. There is also an invitation to a “real life” meeting about the status of women under the new regime and how it can be improved.

The “good guys” are always a step behind

So, do we witness a real Web 2.00-induced revolution in Egypt? I doubt it. Most of the Egyptians do not have access to this new medium, and it is well reflected in the relatively small number of participants, and the fact that almost all of them come from the same background more or less. And yet, even if the Internet became the new medium of communication of Egypt, and even if we adopt the assumption that Wiki systems and Google groups allow debates which are more democratic than those held in other media, at the end of the day, it is not the medium that makes the revolution. Iran uses the Internet as a main medium of communication, and yet the abundance of Iranian blogs, forums and FaceBook accounts did not make the recent protests there successful. The Iranian regime quickly learned how to control this new medium. Also, what we currently hear and read on Egyptian websites is a lot of antisemitic and anti-Israeli commentaries and conspiracy theories.

The Islamist movement of the Muslim Brothers has been using Media-Wiki systems to spread their propaganda for several years now. Here is one example called in Arabic “The Wikipedia of the Muslim Brothers” or “Ikhwan-Wiki” in English. Jihadist web-forums in Arabic teaching people how to carry out terrorist attacks are also hardly new. The “bad guys” are always one step ahead.

There is an Egyptian FaceBook group called “I am the first volunteer to the Egyptian Army in case of a declaration of war against Israel“. 141,950 people “liked” this group. Surely not all of them fully understand the idea behind this group, but still, comparing this number to the number of participants in those Wiki and Google projects is depressing. There is an Egyptian website which translates reports and articles from the Hebrew press into Arabic and adds harsh anti-Israeli propaganda to them, occasionally also hideous anti-Semitic essays. The talkbacks are always supportive. No criticism is heard below these writings.

So the future does not look too promising. The new medium is there, its use is often inspiring, but those who make positive use of it are still quite scarce. On the other hand, we should seize and encourage every sign of hope, shouldn’t we?

“Manufacturing” or “engineering” of consents – A follow up on my previous post

30 June, 2011 at 08:18 | Posted in knowledge, Politics, Web 2.0, Wikipedia policy | 4 Comments
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This is a follow up on my previous post about the 25-January Revolution in Egypt and the way it was introduced into Wikipedia. First of all, I saw that post was cited by the Wiki-Watch blog in German. My German is very basic, so I had to consult some friends and machine translation tools in order to read it, and I might not have got all the content accurately. In any event, I appreciate this reference and the initiative to start a broad discussion about this issue. I also stand corrected, the term “manufacturing consents” was coined by Walter Lippmann, later to be used and redefined by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman.

I learned Chomsky’s theories from Tanya Reinhart at the Tel Aviv University. Perhaps, I should play fair and say in advance that I am rather reserved about many of Chomsky’s, as well as Reinhart’s, ideas, and yet I value some of their observations. I totally reject some of the moves Noam Chomsky took as an implementation of his theories, but then again there is a huge gap between any theory and its implementation, and it is important not to judge a political theory or an ideology only by the attempts to implement them, because other practical interpretations of the very theory might also be feasible.

Edward Bernays - "Engineering of consents"

Edward Bernays - "Engineering of consents" (Image via Wikipedia)

The lessons taught by Tanya Reinhart at the Tel Aviv University about Noam Chomsky’s political theory were recorded and printed after her death in a short book in Hebrew. The English title (every book published in Hebrew has an English title for the sake of foreign catalogs and libraries) is “Written in the Paper, Language Media and Ideology“. It was edited by Tanya Reinhart’s disciple Ran HaCohen. In this book (page 12) Reinhart mentions the term “Engineering of Consent” coined in 1947 by Edward Bernays. Apparently, he thought of this process, which might as well be called propaganda, as a positive, even vital, part of a democratic discourse. According to this book, Chomsky heavily criticized this approach, and claimed that the academy and institutions of scholars were used to preserve the mainstream political positions, hence limit the democratic liberal debate.

In my opinion, this is a terrible exaggeration. After all, Bernays wasn’t that wrong. “Engineering of consents” is legitimate and part of any democratic society, if (and only if) it is done in a fair manner, namely without brainwashing and without limiting the right and opportunity of others to make their own “engineering”. But, coming back to the issue of Wikipedia, the academy has lost much of the power Chomsky and others attributed to it during the 1950s and in the later decades of the 20th century. In the late 20th century (not so long ago, actually), television was considered the “devil” that can turn people’s opinions from one side to another, and many times this was the case indeed. The Web 2.00 “revolution”, brought a promise of decentralization that would render the “engineering of consents” a thing of the past, but that was too much to hope for. People with interests simply learned how to use this new medium in order introduce better “engineering” of this kind. Wikipedia, despite its initial attempt to be a scene of creating factual objective accounts through dialogs and negotiations among people who bring various pieces of knowledge, is gradually turning into a new, somewhat more sophisticated scene, for “manufacturing consents” or “engineering of consents”. The main problem is the fact that Wikipedia is left alone in this arena. It has some competitors, but for most of the world, especially the vast English-speaking world (including countries where English is spoken as the main foreign language), it is the main source of knowledge for the past five years or so.

True, Wikipedia offers the opportunity to use its texts as a basis for new texts. Namely, I can alternate and manipulate the texts of Wikipedia and create a new source that would better reflect my views, as long as I give reference to the original text. This is a great opportunity to create fruitful debate, and this is the essence of “free content” or “copyleft”, and yet no one seems to seize this opportunity. Instead, people with special interests do their best to penetrate into Wikipedia and manipulate it from within.

Parallel “online” and “real world” Egyptian revolutions, or Wikipedia’s Tahrir Square

25 June, 2011 at 15:36 | Posted in Arab spring, Politics, Web 2.0, Wikipedia policy | 7 Comments
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Illustration: PC-keyboard with arab letters, fotographed by ...

Keyboard revolutionists (Image via Wikipedia)

For the initial discussion of this subject see here.

The article about the Egyptian Revolution on 25 January 2011 is an example on how the editing of Wikipedia is sometimes used for sheer political interests. Of course, the events themselves are worthy of a Wikipedia article, no doubt about this, but the way the article was initiated and written demonstrates a serious problem in the editing policy, which allows users to promote events and opinions through Wikipedia rather than merely documenting and reporting about them, as the encyclopedic nature of the project requires.

The 25-January protests were planned at least a week in advance, mainly through FaceBook groups (see Is Egypt About to Have a Facebook Revolution?, by Abigail Hauslohner, reporting from Cairo for Time Magazine, 24 January, 2011), but these protests did not become a real actual event before around noon (Cairo time) on Tuesday, 25 January 2011 (see this news blog on the Guardian‘s website), when thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to demonstrate.

The first version of the Wikipedia article about the demonstrations was uploaded on 25 January 2011 at 13:26 UTC (i.e. 15:36 Cairo time), by an editor who calls himself “The Egyptian Liberal“. Hence, the protests were “perpetuated” as a Wikipedia article 3-4 hours after they had been launched, and only an hour or two after their real extent could have been realized. Interestingly enough, only the English Wikipedia had an article about the protests at this point in time. Other major Wikipedias followed suit only about 24 hours after the onset of the events, and when their magnitude was already realized. The first few sentences of the Arabic-language equivalent (on ar-wp) were recorded about seven hours after the demonstrations started, by the same user who initiated the English-language article, and the Egyptian-Arabic Wikipedia (arz-wp) started its own version only on 28 January.

In fact, “The Egyptian Liberal”, who also has an account on Wikimedia Commons (Wikimedia’s media file repository), prepared the ground for them in advance, when he uploaded on the 24th of January some political cartoons calling on Egyptians to overthrow Hosni Mubarak on the 25th of January (see here and here for examples; the caricatures also depict the face of Khaled Mohammed Saeed, an Egyptian youth who died in June 2010 following his arrest while surfing the Internet, and whose birthday was on the 27th of January). Unlike Wikipedia, the Wikimedia Commons website, which is supposed to serve other Wikimedia projects, allows the upload of purely political images providing they are free-licensed.

Going back to the article about the recent Egyptian unrest on the English Wikipedia, its first version is short, but includes relatively advanced Wiki syntax. It would be fair to assume that this stub was prepared in advance, because the upload process lasted only one minute. The second version, by the same user, brought the article to its full initial shape. A single Egyptian user (he voluntarily revealed his identity) expanded the article for about two and a half hours. Within this period of time he made 14 edits, i.e. an edit every 10 minutes, in average. From the third edit onwards he merely added updates and journalistic references. In fact, he acted as a journalist rather than writer of encyclopedic article.

The person behind these first versions of the article, namely “The Egyptian Liberal” is somewhat mysterious, despite waiving his “Wikipedian right” for privacy. He offers quite a lot of details about himself, according to which he is English-Arabic bilingual by birth, he lives in the center of Egypt and defines his political-ethnic-religious affiliation as Pan-Arabist, Muslim and liberal. He is quite veteran on the English language Wikipedia, having edited articles since September 2009. In one of the older versions of his userpage he mentions that he started editing Wikipedia much earlier, but under a different username. Following the link to the allegedly alternative userpage shows a statement that the user has an intermediate level of English, which is contrary to the newer allegation that this editor is bilingual.

Anyone can suggest any kind of lesson to draw out of this interesting, somewhat amusing, Wikipedia affair. Many newspapers prepare reports about upcoming events in advance, in order to publish them as soon as the event occurs. I know about one case where a duty editor was fired, having accidentally uploaded a ready-made report about the happy ending of an event, seconds before that event ended in a tragedy. The poor editor removed the wishful-thinking report immediately, but it was intercepted by one of the news website’s readers who decided to go public with his outrage…

But Wikipedia is not a newspaper and the motivation here is not time saving or improving business efficiency. In this case the motivation is political and ideological, and the idea is to use Wikipedia for influencing the public opinion. There is an assumption here about average reader of Wikipedia, as if s/he attaches special significance to events described by the online encyclopedia. Whether this assumption is true or not, I cannot tell, but I do feel that Wikipedia is the new scene of “manufacturing consents“. This political process, described by Noam Chomsky, basically aims at limiting the public debate by instilling the notion that certain views and positions are inevitable. In this case – the fall of Mubarak’s regime in Egypt is a fait accompli even before the actual protests started. It is not as if it should fall, it has already fallen, and we have Wikipedia to prove it.

It has indeed fallen eventually, but who is going to remember that Wikipedia played a role in this Egyptian revolution rather than describing it after its completion.

How do you pass an elephant through the eye of a needle? With force of course.

8 November, 2010 at 22:31 | Posted in Israeli-Arab conflict, Wikipedia policy | 1 Comment
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If you feel frustrated about the Middle East conflict, you are not the only ones. Well, yes, President Obama seems quite frustrated too, but even more than that, the admins on the English-language Wikipedia feel helpless in face of endless cyberspace wars between pro-Israeli and pro-Arab editors on Wikipedia. The admins have been called to convene on yet another “Project Page”, let off steam and comment on some suggestions about the matter.

The “Arbitration Committee” of the English-language Wikipedia has already addressed this issue in January 2008, and decided that “Wikipedia is a project to create a neutral encyclopedia” and that “Wikipedia users are expected to behave reasonably, calmly, and courteously” and also that “Wikipedia works by building consensus. This is done through the use of polite discussion”. In short, the Arbitration Committee had nothing to say about the matter accept shouting “behave!” at the wayward children. It did, however, provided the admins with new “rules of engagement”, regarding the use of the lethal cyberspace weapons they already possess. Consider the following article in its decision (emphases added).

Any uninvolved administrator may, on his or her own discretion, impose sanctions on any editor working in the area of conflict if, despite being warned, that editor repeatedly or seriously fails to adhere to the purpose of Wikipedia, any expected standards of behavior, or any normal editorial process. The sanctions imposed may include blocks of up to one year in length; bans from editing any page or set of pages within the area of conflict; bans on any editing related to the topic or its closely related topics; restrictions on reverts or other specified behaviors; or any other measures which the imposing administrator believes are reasonably necessary to ensure the smooth functioning of the project.

The admins used the weapons handed to them abundantly as can be seen in the log kept for recording the course of events. If you look at the names of the administrators who impose the bans and restrictions, you will notice that there are no longer “uninvolved administrators”. Actually, I am sure there are, but they are unwilling to enter this hot kitchen. Those who are willing, have by now become involved in this cyberspace conflict up to their neck, and it is hard to treat them as impartial at this point.

Looking at their suggestions to lower the ever growing flames, you will see much more of the same. If solving the conflict is as hard as passing an elephant through the eye of a needle, the admins suggest to force the elephant even harder into the tiny hole. Well, admins, take a deep breath and realize that what you have been doing so far is wrong. There are politically motivate editors who have been gaming the system. Show them the door. They do not deserve the benefit of the “assume good faith” principle. Many good editors were blocked, but peculiarly not these ones. Do without the edit war phobia. Edit wars are often a blessing. Let people argue and fight about the right phrasing and the right way to put things. If they act in good faith, this “war” might end with an interesting solution. If you see an edit war, do not look for the person who initiated it. Look at the content and think if you can rewrite it in a way that would solve the problem. A good admin is first and foremost a good editor, not a virtual policeman.

A Tale of a Tub on Wikipedia, or from the Heights of Golan to Wikipedia’s Lowest Point

31 October, 2010 at 16:45 | Posted in Israeli-Arab conflict, Wikipedia policy | Leave a comment
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Some are still left on the Golan Heights, some are being planted on Wikipedia - Beware of the mines. (Image by Randall Niles via Flickr)

Some are still left on the Golan Heights, some are being planted on Wikipedia - Beware of the mines. (Image by Randall Niles via Flickr)

Anonymous user introduces changes to the article about the Golan Heights

An anonymous user, known only by his IP, enters the English-language Wikipedia and makes some edits to the article about the Golan Heights (a geographical region of disputed sovereignty that straddles the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria). The changes are not too radical.  The term “occupied”, which entails support to the Syrian position is changed to the more neutral “administered”, the politically-charged term “settlements” is replaced by “post-1967 communities”. The words “Internationally recognized as Syrian territory occupied by Israel” are toned down to “Administered by Israel, claimed by Syria, subject to UN Security Council’s resolutions 242 and 338”. Whether or not you like the new phrasing, the edits are quite in line with Wikipedia’s policy known as “Neutral Point of View”, namely that Wikipedia does not take sides in disputes, and accurately describes the facts on the ground (the Golan Heights are under regular Israeli civil administration since 1981).

An editor fond of controversial topics intervenes and reverts

The edits are naturally contested, some of them maybe rightfully. The term “post-1967 community” does sound a bit enigmatic, and perhaps settlement is the preferable term here. The user who quickly reverts the edits is “Unomi“. Unomi is an interesting figure on the Wikipedian scene. He is relatively new to the English Wikipedia (since March 2009), although he claims to have been using the nickname “Unomi” on Wikimedia projects for several years. He is very much concerned about the ambiguity of Wikipedia’s policies and lack of neutrality, and indeed most of his edits are on controversial topics. He also contributes quite a lot on Middle East-related articles and usually sides the pro-Arab line in the description of the Middle Eastern conflict.

Two pro-Arab advocates end the discussion

Even though “Unomi” is an eloquent mouthpiece of a certain view of the Middle-Eastern conflict, he seems to have found an equal rival. The debate between the user identified by his IP address and Unomi gets longer and longer, several users even support the anonymous user’s edits. “Nableezy” and “Supreme Deliciousness” soon come to the rescue. These two users are Wikipedia’s worst nightmare. They have no interest in free content or free access to knowledge. They sensed the reputation Wikipedia enjoys as being comprehensive and impartial source of information (well, that’s the reputation, you’ll be the judges whether or not it is justified). Both Nableezy and Supreme Deliciousness are political advocates that realized that the introduction of their political perspective into Wikipedia worths thousands of articles in blogs and newspapers. Of course Wikipedia has some mechanism to make their work hard, but they diligently learned how to manipulate the system. When all fails, they resort to blocking. Look at this dialog from RolandR’s talk page (a personal page dedicated for posting messages to a certain editor). RolandR, by the way, is a self-proclaimed anti-Zionist, so he has a common language with “Supreme Deliciousness” and “Nableezy”. The former is an obsessive reader of Israeli sources in English, and he informs RolandR that he was mentioned in some talkback on an Israeli English-language website. Nableezy then raises the issue of how to “eliminate” the anonymous user that makes edits to the Golan Heights article. The solution is easy – alleging that he is a “sock puppet” of yours humbly (DrorK is my username on Wikipedia).

The cabal convenes

You are mentioned

  • Hello, just wanted to make you aware that you were mentioned by the first poster in the comments section in this news article:[1] —Supreme Deliciousness (talk) 09:45, 19 August 2010 (UTC)
  • Thank you. It’s clearly more of the same harassment I have encountered on- and off-Wikipedia for several years now; it doesn’t bother me. These juveniles are wasting their time, but at least this keeps them out of mischief. RolandR (talk) 21:19, 19 August 2010 (UTC)
  • What harassment have you encountered off-Wikipedia? –Supreme Deliciousness (talk) 21:27, 19 August 2010 (UTC)
  • The same person who stalks me on Wikipedia has created an offensive blog about me, and has sent countless comments in my name to loads of internet forums and blogs, trying to smear me as an antisemitic, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab terrorist with homoerotic and anal fantasies. It says more about him than about me. Most websites (even thoise unsympathetic to my political views) delete them on sight. If you email me, I can tell you more; I don’t want to give more details here. RolandR (talk) 21:43, 19 August 2010 (UTC)

Return of Drork?

  • Hi Roland, I wasnt around when most of the IPs Drork was using were brought to SPI, but what do you think the chances are that this IP is another sock of Drork? nableezy – 06:37, 21 August 2010 (UTC)
  • I don’t think so. The IP is in the same range as several of Drork’s blocked socks; but these seem to be assigned to Bezeq, so many editors in Israel could be usiung them. Drork never edited the Golan article, and the style of argument does not sound like him. It is reminiscent, though, and I will see if I can recall who it reminds me of. RolandR (talk) 11:16, 21 August 2010 (UTC)
  • Drork edited that article, see here where the same argument over “settlement” is made. Or here where a “retired” Drork edits as an IP and makes the argument that “occupied” cannot possibly be an accurate or neutral description (collapsed section on that page), a continuation of this (also collapsed). nableezy – 12:52, 21 August 2010 (UTC)
  • Oh, I missed that. You may be right; but the tone and obsessions do not seem the same as Drork’s. Certainly no smoking gun there, as far as I can see. RolandR (talk) 13:00, 21 August 2010 (UTC)
  • Im not sure either. The arguments over “occupied” and “settlement” have a Drork taste to them, but a lot of people are opposed to using those words. Combined with other factors such as a clear familiarity with wiki syntax though this is clearly not a “new” editor. nableezy – 13:14, 21 August 2010 (UTC)
  • I’m sure of that. But proving it is another matter. RolandR (talk) 13:20, 21 August 2010 (UTC)
  • Drork returned some days ago on wikimedia [2] –Supreme Deliciousness (talk) 17:52, 21 August 2010 (UTC)
Final remarks

All the information given above, including the conversation from RolandR’s talk page, is available to anyone through Wikipedia and its mirror sites. All users I have mentioned could have been great contributors to Wikipedia had they come with a genuine objective to enrich this source of knowledge. In fact, they are all very diligent and possess information and perspective that I, as well as many other people, could benefit from. However, they do not care much about enriching Wikipedia. They have a political battle to fight, and Wikipedia is just another mean to carry on this fight. Such conduct was a threat to Wikipedia from its very beginning. Right now, the project is unable to protect itself from this kind of conduct because there are many rules, but little spirit. When breaking trivial rules like avoiding more than two reverts in 24 hours becomes the most punishable offense, then it means that the basic ideas behind the project are forgotten and the door is open to all kinds of manipulators.

The Tyranny of Decentralization (“Quo Vadis Wikipedia” part 2)

27 October, 2010 at 11:29 | Posted in knowledge, Politics, Wikipedia policy | Leave a comment
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Jo Freeman, tyranny lurks in the least expected organizations (Image via Wikipedia)

Jo Freeman, tyranny lurks in the least expected organizations (Image via Wikipedia)

As promised, I am continuing my “Quo Vadis” post about Wikipedia (and Wikimedia projects in general). This time I would like to focus on one of Wikipedia’s chronic illnesses, which I call  “the tyranny of decentralization” after Jo Freeman‘s “Tyranny of Structurelessness”. Three or four years ago it seemed to me like a passing syndrome, but it has grown since to become a major and poorly treated problem.

Some background

Jo Freeman’s “Tyranny of Structurelessness”

Taking part in the “Critical Point Of View” (CPOV) group, I brought up some of my ideas about the better and worse in Wikipedia. One of its members directed me to a well-known essay by Jo Freeman, from 1970, entitled “The Tyranny of Structurelessness“. The essay deals with the deliberately unregulated nature of women’s feminist groups at the time it was written, and, in a way, it echoes Cicero’s renowned saying “We are slaves of the law so that we may be able to be free”. Freeman basically brings another evidence to proof the notion that anarchy is impossible. We, human beings, cannot do without rules and regulations, and even if we consciously try to avoid them, we are going to develop some kind of regulatory system sooner or later. And yet, letting such a system develop “naturally” leads too often to tyrannical atmosphere characterized by constant struggles for power, oppressive acts in order to achieve power and maintain it, cabals and “secret councils” formed knowingly or unaware in lieu of the forbidden regulated decision-making forums and so forth. The conclusion drawn from Freeman’s essay is simple – Since rules and regulations are unavoidable, we might as well make them, and keep them, in the right way, namely through  open transparent processes. If we want our laws to be phrased accurately and enforced in a gentle, assertive and consistent way, we must deliberately and consciously design them and the mechanism surrounding them.

Tyranny lurks

This observation might seem trivial to those of you who studied social sciences; however in every epoch of history people argue the plausibility of unregulated human interaction as an alternative to the alleged burden and oppression of rules and laws. Jo Freeman brings yet another example, this time of reformative feminist women’s societies, to show us, once again, that the lack of agreed written rules is as catastrophic as having bad rules or a system of arbitrary law enforcement. Tyranny lurks in all of these three possibilities.

Wikipedia: Rules there are, but no consistency

Trying to apply Jo Freeman’s observations on my experience in Wikipedia seemed frustrating at first. I recognized many of the phenomena she described, and yet I could not say there were no rules or regulatory structure in Wikipedia. Quite the contrary. Wikipedia has an abundance of policy pages and many administrators to enforce them. Wikipedia used to have a rule saying “ignore all rules“, but it has long been neglected and almost forgotten. On the other hand, it would be an absurd to claim that Wikipedia has been taken over by tyrants. The problem seems to be lying somewhere else, but not so far from Jo Freeman’s theory.

Wikipedia is not about anarchy

Wikipedia was never meant to be anarchist. Quite the contrary, it is a conservative project in the way it perceives its own goals and modus operandi. If you look at the first propositions for Wikipedia’s policy, you can see how liberal they are, but still very much within the traditional framework. In fact, the academic resentment toward Wikipedia, at least in its early days, might be due to the similarities between its method of work and the academic way. Wikipedia basically wanted to do what the academy does but slightly different, hence the feeling of threat by academics. When it comes to real post-modernist or anarchist projects for spreading knowledge and information, the academy simply ignores them. And despite this promising starting point, with the right dosages of liberalism, modernism, conservatism and high spirit, Wikipedia seems to have fallen into the trap of rigidness that in certain cases even amounts to tyranny. Not tyranny of stucturelessness, but tyranny of decentralization.

Needed: A single source of authority

It is not enough to design a structure of transparent and liberal regulatory system. There must also be a single source of authority to interpret the rules (i.e. applying them to real-life events) and to enforce them. This regulatory structure can have plenty of room for diversity, but at the end of the day, there should be clear boundaries supervised by a single authority. If you think “boundaries”, “supervision” and “authority” are frightening terms, you should remember that in a liberal democratic society, rules are not demands directed from the authority to the members of the community, but a system of bidirectional orders and understandings between the authority on the one hand and individual members and subgroups within the community on the other. If we indeed want to create an open community of encyclopedia editors, we cannot just write policy pages, appoint some administrators and hope everyone will do her/his best. It simply doesn’t work that way. The United States has various legal systems, at least one for each of its fifty states and one district, but it has one single constitution that governs all these systems, and a single transparently elected authority to interpret the constitution.  All this in order to ensure that the local diversity does not come on the expense of consistency with the greater political structure known as the United States.

Two implications of the problem

Upon which terms should I read Wikipedia’s texts?

This problem I call “the tyranny of decentralization” has two major implications. The first has to do with the encyclopedic content itself. Due to the lack of centralized rules and style system, it is hard to put the text of a Wikipedia article into context. “A text is read in its own terms”, the old saying goes, meaning that a text without its context is almost meaningless. And yet, while names like “New York Times”, “The Guardian”, “Al-Jazeera” or “Amnesty International” direct to a rather clear context upon which the texts of these institutes should be read, the name “Wikipedia” does not hold enough context to ensure that I understand its texts correctly.

I cannot know for sure whether the Spanish-language Wikipedia should be read upon the same terms as the English-language one, and if not, what the differences are. Wikipedia does not even commit to full consistency of terminology and style within the articles of a single language-based project. One could suggest that Wikipedia is something similar to the “WordPress” website through which I publish this post of mine, but this is not the case, because on Wikipedia the articles are never signed. Of course, it is possible to know who has written what (by nicknames and IP addresses) when browsing the “history” of the articles (the article’s “talk pages” are also useful for this purpose) but the article itself is presented unsigned, or better said, it is signed by “Wikipedia”, without a strict definition of what this signature stands for.

Conflict resolution and policing

Another implication of the decentralization policy of Wikipedia has to do with the interaction between members of the community of editors, particularly when conflicts develop. While there are rules for conflict resolution, their implementation is highly dependent upon arbitrary interpretations of one administrator or another. There is no “supreme authority” to which one can appeal. The word of the administrator whom you were unlucky enough to encounter is final. The best way to protect oneself from arbitrary enforcement of the rules is to enter the “inner circle” of one of the more powerful administrators, a phenomenon which, in its turn, enhances the problem.

— TO BE CONTINUED —

 

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