The Nature of Impartiality

January 24, 2007

It has recently come to my attention that a blogger was paid to edit some Wikipedia entries to more accurately reflect reality. I’m not going to say who was paid, or who did the paying, but every since the news hit Slashdot, obviously this whole thing has riled some feathers within the geek community. In particular, this entry at speaks volumes about what the fuss is all about. Essentially, Jimmy Wales, the guy who’s credited with the creation of the wiki concept, says making this kind of edit is unethical, and has had previously resulted in banning of other such infringers.

I must say that I am rather distressed by this response. But for those who don’t understand how Wikipedia works, Wikipedia is essentially an encyclopedia written and edited by its readers. The interesting thing is that for all intents and purposes, anyone can edit anything, no strings attached. The problems that arise from such a system are obvious, but most of these have been mitigated with a well thought-out system of checks and balances. Pages that are prone to vandalism are locked. Pages that are controversial are typically locked, with a talk page available for the community to reach a concensus before making changes. There are thousands of moderators from around the globe, most of whom are knowledgeable in one or more fields, constantly monitoring edits, constantly reversing the bad ones, banning users, fighting over small details, etc. The system is far from perfect. But it works, most of the time.

The key to Wikipedia is trust. We, as readers, trust in the knowledge and expertise of whomever wrote the particular article we’re reading. We trust that the people who’ve written it do indeed know what they’re talking about, and that they are not trying to trick us or play pranks on us by including bits of insinuating, misleading, or plain incorrect information. So when somebody is being paid to make edits to particular entries, red flags go up. After all, the involvement of money unconditionally implies bias for the payer. Well, not exactly. This is certainly the case often enough. But there are many who would not sacrifice their integrity for a few extra dollars. The problem is, we–the community of Wikipedia users at large–don’t know who they are.

Let me talk about bias first though. Everyone who makes an edit (that’s not sheer vandalism) in a Wikipedia entry is, in some way, interested in the topical contents of that entry. It doesn’t matter whence the interest originates. It doesn’t matter the intent of the person making the edit. That some particular person bothers to put time and energy into changing a part of the entry in a meaningful way has to indicate partiality to that topic. Otherwise, if a person was impartial to the contents, that person wouldn’t even be looking at the page, much less editing it. Thus any form of interest naturally contains bias. Interest is bias. And as human beings, we cannot necessarily see our bias, or the other perspectives. Nor should we be expected to do so. It is a reasonable expectation to not delete other perspectives, but it is unreasonable to expect anyone to represent all sides. We can only hope that there are enough editors to represent all perspectives.

The complaint Mr. Wales and other Wikipedia adminstrators charge those who are being paid to edit Wikipedia entries is essentially that the monetary exchange of goods for services causes a conflict of interest. The intent of these rules is to discourage those with artificial biases from making edits. To put it in easier terms to understand, conflict of interest is mainly targetted at PR or marketing shills to discourage them from making something seem like it is not or more than it really is. But what Mr. Wales is saying is more. He implies that they are trying to find and remove the people who make edits for unethical reasons, rather than necessarily the people who make unethical edits. The difference is that not all those who edit for seemingly unethical reasons will make unethical edits. PR spin is just that–spin. While it will take time and effort to determine what is spin and what is not, the truth, rather than the spin, will eventually prevail.

I think it foolish that Mr. Wales should be so critical of this blogger and other people that might be being paid to edit Wikipedia articles. This blogger, in particular, should be commended. If he had not spoken out and admitted to having received money, no one would’ve known, and his edits would not have amounted to anything particularly special. In fact, I say that his admission actually makes him more ethical than most people. Without this kind of full disclosure, no one would know an editor’s biases, and readers would take for granted an entry as factual when its editors might have omitted facts and opinions unsupportive of that editor’s perspective. Full disclosure should be encouraged, not only for those receiving monetary compensation for making edits, but for everyone making changes (granted, some things are trivial–like hobbies–and thus full disclosure would be unnecessary, but some things only seem trivial–like having done a Ph.D. dissertation related to the particular point in question). This kind of openness should not be shunned, it should be applauded. It should be exemplified as the ethical thing to do, for both the company and the blogger.

And at the very least, give the company credit for not having some PR person to do the edit from a home connection.

Blogger’s Blog