Wikipedia and the Biography Problem:

My thanks to everyone who has commented on my first two posts about Wikipedia, the collaboratively edited online encyclopedia. (For those coming in late, I’ve contributed to Wikipedia for about three years and am an administrator of the site and a member of the in-house Arbitration Committee; my username there is Newyorkbrad, after New York, where I live, and Brad, my middle name.)

Tonight I’m going to continue discussing the impact that the content of Wikipedia’s biographical articles can have on their subjects. (By the way, I’d like to thank those Wikipedians, and Wikipedia critics, who have helped me hone some of my thinking in this area. I would thank them by name, or at least by Internet pseudonym, but since I may not be in full agreement with their recommended solutions, they might not appreciate being named.)

As is widely recognized, if someone notable enough to have a biographical article about himself or herself on Wikipedia (and doesn’t happen to have a very common name or a name that is also a word), that article will be one of the very top Google hits on a search for that person. Indeed, the Wikipedia article will very often be the highest-ranking Google result for anyone who is the subject of an article. The most common exception is if the person has his or her own website, in which case that site will often be number one, with Wikipedia right behind it.

Let’s try the experiment with a randomly chosen well-known person … how about, say, Eugene Volokh. I’ve just typed Eugene’s name into Google, and the first two hits are pages from this site, which counts as Eugene’s website; the third and fourth hits are his faculty bio and publication pages at UCLA; and the fifth hit is [[Eugene Volokh]], his biography on Wikipedia, which could use a little updating and sadly fails to mention [[HCSSiM]].

When Wikipedia was founded in 2001, no one involved anticipated that it would become as successful as it has, and no one anticipated the interplay between the link structure of Wikipedia and the algorithms used by search engines, which would raise Wikipedia biographies (and other articles) to such prominence. More generally, I don’t think anyone anticipated, and certainly no one thought through, all the implications of the fact that what was meant to be a harmonious, educational, collaborative corner of the Internet would be used to hurt people. Whether the site would have been set up differently had that outcome been predicted is destined to remain in the realm of thought experiment.

In the intervening years, though, it’s become more and more clear that malicious or simply thoughtless content added to Wikipedia BLP’s (“Biographies of Living Persons”) can be very damaging. A series of serious and widely reported incidents have brought the problem to public attention. Among these: the [[Siegenthaler incident]], in which an article was vandalized to accuse a completely innocent person of suspected complicity in an assassination, and no one caught the problem for four months; the incident in 2007 in which a Turkish academic was detained for several hours by immigration officials in Canada, reportedly based on an inaccurate allegation in his Wikipedia article that he was a terrorist; the lawsuit brought by a prominent golfer against the person who added defamatory content to his article; the blatant attack page created against a well-known California attorney, allegedly as part of a negative public relations campaign launched on behalf of one of the companies he was suing.

The Wikimedia offices have been contacted often enough by subjects of BLPs that apart from the usual network of on-site discussion pages and noticeboards, there is now an elaborate e-mail network (called OTRS) to which article subjects are referred. Concerns about defamatory BLP content are only a fraction of the inquiries received by OTRS and by administrators on-site: ironically, for every article subject demanding that his or her page be deleted or retracted, there is another inquiry by someone wanting to know why his or her page was not kept on the site. (Usually, the answer is that the person was judged not to be notable enough to warrant an article.) I think it is certainly fair to say that when Wikipedia was dreamed up, no one realized it would someday need a round-the-clock complaint desk.

In 2006, the English Wikipedia adopted a new policy on Biographies of Living Persons. It urged greater sensitivity to the effect that articles can have on the subjects, and in particular, provided that no negative or controversial content discussing a living person should be contained in an article unless a reliable source for the information is provided. Edits to enforce this policy were exempted from some of the usual editing regulations, particularly the “three revert rule,” which forbids changing any article back to a previous version more than three times in a 24-hour period. The policy is considered one of the most important we have, and it’s helped, but only some.

Articles about notable individuals suffer from the greatest amount of inappropriate or disputed editing — frequently to score points in political campaigns or other real-world disputes. One example was discussed in an article in The New Republic discussing the primary campaign between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, here: http://www.tnr.com/story_print.html?id=4f0c6aa3-3028-4ca4-a3b9-a053716ee53d . Another prominent dispute (which resulted in an ArbCom decision that I wrote) arose last September over whether various allegations belonged in [[Sarah Palin]] and related articles. But the most serious victims of BLP violations are not prominent people whose articles may watched, so that bad edits are quickly corrected, by hundreds of people; they are articles about less well-known people, on which libels or mistakes may go unrecognized or linger for weeks.

There have, of course, been lots of discussions about what to do about all this. Clearly, at this stage of its evolution, Wikipedia is not simply going to drop all the biography articles. (Even if it did, statements about living people would come up in hundreds of thousands of other articles. BLP applies on every page of Wikipedia, not just in the biographical articles themselves.)

A solution sometimes proposed is to allow subjects unhappy about the existence or content of their articles to demand their deletion. This will surely never be implemented in full; Wikipedia will not delete [[Barack Obama]] or [[George W. Bush]] or other articles about high-profile people even if the subjects were to ask for it.

On the other hand, in cases involving people at the margins of notability, which is subjective enough anyway, there can a place for taking the subject’s own feelings about the article into account in deciding whether or not to retain it. Sometimes this has become a de facto tiebreaker (in either direction) in close deletion discussions. (A few Wikipedians have urged that giving this factor even tiny weight in deciding what to keep or what to delete violates a philosophical principle that notability exists independent of the subject’s views, a view I would find more persuasive if application of the notability guidelines weren’t so often subjective in any event.)

Related to that is a proposal that subjects be allowed to “opt out” of Wikipedia if they aren’t prominent enough to have attained notability as measured by a well-defined, objective standard, such as having been the subject of offline “dead tree” biographical coverage such as a book or a hard-copy encylopedia.

Out of curiosity, if anyone reading this happens to be the subject of a Wikipedia article — please tell us in the comments whether you would exercise the option to have your article deleted on request, if that option existed, and why or why not.

I’ve gone over the recommended word limit for one of these posts (which won’t surprise anyone who’s come to know Newyorkbrad on-wiki), so I’ll write about semiprotection and flagged revisions and Section 230 tomorrow.