Wikipedia: Long on Cash & Conflicts of Interest. Short on Transparency.

Follow-up thoughts about my INET article about Wikipedia.

Monday, the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) published an article I wrote about Wikipedia and its insatiable appetite for funding, hidden conflicts, and other issues including troublesome ties to Big Tech. Lots of research went into it: click and check it out.

The piece ran Monday evening Central European time. Tuesday, while daytime grocery shopping thanks to COVID curfews, I got a series of tweet replies long on ad hominem attacks but short on answers to my questions from Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales. When pushed to answer what Tides or Miaissain Media, the Clinton Foundation connected PR firm they pay actually does, Wales answered:

I’ll take the attention to mean Wales admires the enormous amount of work that went into the piece and accuracy in the details. It’s a shame neither Wales nor anybody at Wikimedia, when repeatedly asked, will answer basic questions:

  • What is the relationship to Tides? Why is Wikimedia stashing a hundred million dollars at Tides when Wikimedia already handles a large reserve of funds?

  • Why is Tides not disclosed as a benefactor in the Wikimedia annual report being a large donor?

  • Why is a separate business being built to charge Big Tech for a Wikipedia feed rather than just charging for services like other non-profits do (ex: schools, universities, and hospitals)?

  • How much work is Wikimedia currently doing with Big Tech? Guesstimate how many paid people-hours are spent each week working to Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft.

If those questions hadn’t been ignored, I’d follow up with:

  • What specifically does Tides do?

  • What specifically does Minaissain Media do and what have they done? Who from Minaissain is working with Wikimedia?

  • We were told Big Tech desires a commercial arrangement with Wikimedia, a service level agreement (SLA) and contract. Which company(s) specifically asked for that?

  • Please describe any coordination, formal or informal, between Wikimedia and Big Tech including Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft.

And, of course, one overriding question I asked during a Q/A session but never did get an answer for:

  • Why does Wikimedia do with all this money?

A transparent organization would have answered these questions without being asked. None of them are non-obvious. Instead, Wikimedia has repeatedly ignored them, their only response a string of attacks from Wales.

Like a couple of billion other people, I like Wikipedia. I use it for entirely objective information. Want to know the CEOs of a business in the order they “served” (which, come to think of it, isn’t “served” a really strange term to use for CEOs)? Wikipedia is a great source. A piece of scientific equipment? It’s also usually a good source.

The problem comes when we segue into information that has political or economic ramifications. Want to know a piece of historic information? Wikipedia becomes iffier, especially if there are people with an agenda who want to alter history and have the time to fight and push their version of events. Want to know what’s missing or where there’s a conflict of interest? Wikipedia becomes a black hole.

Despite these obvious issues, Wikipedia is virtually always the first result for nouns in Google searches unless that noun is a business, then Wikipedia’s usually second. Why? Only Google knows. Schoolteachers and professors warn against using Wikipedia as a solid reference but Google, arbiter of information quality, has no similar qualms.

Back in the early days of the web, there used to be lots of reference websites, large and small, typically run by a small number of people. Wales knows that because he ran a website, Bomis, that linked them together.

Today, those little sites are replaced by a single behomouth filled with anonymously written entries, Wikipedia. And where those websites had all sorts of different viewpoints, often with disclosures about who wrote what, Wikipedia has none beyond meaningless pseudonyms. The identities of the so-called editors writing the entries — the people behind the logins — are entirely unknown. This has led to a few openly embarrassing episodes when editors are outed as frauds. I won’t bother linking because they’re easy to find and, more to the point, almost certainly just the tip of the problem.

This lack of transparency would be a problem for anything but it’s compounded by the objective tone of Wikipedia articles, the standard Wikipedia refers to as a Neutral Point of View. That objective tone, coupled with Google’s tacit endorsement of Wikipedia as a purveyor of truth — creates real problems when the articles contain errors of commission or, more likely, omission. Conflicts of interest, like that referenced in my INET article, are given minimal lip service. If a New York Times reporter tweets they favor a political candidate, their job is at risk. If a Wikipedia editor works for a political campaign, it’s no problem. And that’s a serious problem.

I’m pessimistic that anything will change or that awareness of the problem will even be spread. There’s a deep-seated human need, a comfort, in the idea of a single absolute truth and access to it. Grey is, after all, a drab color. Questioning the notion there is no one overriding source of truth is likely to be no more popular than challenging religion way back when, hopefully, sans the burning at the stake part.

I’ve been building websites since the beginning, the earliest days of the Mosaic browser. I remember walking into Barnes & Nobles looking for a book on the web or HTML and there was nothing. Obviously, there was also no Amazon to order it from.

So we, the earliest pioneers, figured it out on our own. I registered my first domain, with the help of my ISP — a small company run by a couple of friendly nerds — by writing to the Department of Defense. We built sites ourselves and taught others to do the same. Our goal was to share and spread knowledge, the more viewpoints the better.

Those were heady days filled with the idea of millions of sites containing an abundance of information. Many sucked but nobody cared; there was a feeling they’d coalesce into a new age of enlightenment. Instead, we’ve ended up with Wikipedia, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and a small number of other monopolies either pushing targeted ads for cheap crap from China and insane politicians or enabling those who do the same. This wasn’t how the web was supposed to turn out.