Earlier this month, we learned about the kidnapping and subsequent escape of Times reporter David Rohde in Afghanistan. But did you know Wikipedia was in on it, too?
Back in November of 2008, Rohde was taken near Kabul and held for nearly seven months- all the while, the Times managed to execute a surprisingly successful media blackout, which very well may have saved Rohde’s life. But yesterday the Times ran a piece detailing how they worked behind the scenes to kill the story on Wikipedia, with the help of founder Jimmy Wales, time and time again.
It’s an interesting conundrum for Wikipedia. The site is kind of a mascot for new media, how our concept of citation and fact has been shaped by the ubiquitous source, the benefits of crowd-sourcing versus the possibly biased opinions of one or a handful of crusty old academics. I’ve often argued that while vandalism on Wikipedia happens, undetected bias or other academic pollution is just as likely in traditional sources for citation and learning- and arguably more dangerous because people don’t use the “grain of salt” rule there. It even famously spawned a Colbert segment on “Wikiality.” (Colbert is a known and shameless Wikipedia vandal.)
But as Wikipedia struggles to maintain legitimacy as a source for reliable information, this story casts a new light on the issue. Luckily for Wikipedia, this issue was clearly life or death. But what if it isn’t? Or what if it’s just a ho-hum person and not a NY Times reporter? And how can you stop the crowd from releasing possibly harmful information- and should you? If so, when? In the Times piece, Jimmy Wales said in reference to a particularly fervent editor who tried repeatedly to edit the Rohde entry:
“We had no idea who it was,” said Mr. Wales, who said there was no indication the person had ill intent. “There was no way to reach out quietly and say ‘Dude, stop and think about this.’ ”
But the crowd is not necessarily sympathetic to the nuances of these particular gray areas. Wales unfroze the page personally that Saturday, the day Rohde’s release was finally reported.
When the news broke Saturday, the user from Florida reposted the information, with a note to administrators that said: “Is that enough proof for you [expletives]? I was right. You were WRONG.”
A professor at NYU who studies Wikipedia commented on the controversy in the piece as well.
“Wikipedia has, over time, instituted gradually more control because of some embarrassing incidents, particularly involving potentially libelous material, and some people get histrionic about it, proclaiming the death of Wikipedia. But the idea of a pure openness, a pure democracy, is a naïve one.”