The battle to define Hillary online.
Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic
Published: Wednesday, April 09, 2008
Back when we got basic information from encyclopedias instead of Wikipedia, politicians were at the mercy of the encyclopedia-writers’ particular biases. Take the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Apparently controlled by smug British nationalists, it described the important Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell as “not over-scrupulous,” “repellent,” “powerful for evil,” and, owing to the “mental affliction of his ancestors,” probably possessing a “mental equilibrium [that] was not always stable.”
Wikipedia was supposed to fix this problem. Anyone can add, delete, or massage language in its online articles, and–boom!–refresh the page to see their changes appear instantly. These volunteer contributors (“editors,” in Wikipedia lingo) discuss their changes on an article’s associated “talk page,” and eventually (or so the theory goes) merge their different perspectives on various subjects into something truly neutral. But, after you see what happens when two warring Democratic candidates are thrown to the mercy of the Wikipedians, you kind of yearn for the 1911 Britannica.
There was the day in February when an editor replaced a photo of Hillary on her Wikipedia page with a picture of a walrus. Then there was the day this month when a Hillary supporter changed Obama’s bio so that it referred to him as “a Kenyan-American politician.” But such sweepingly hostile edits are usually fixed quickly by other Wikipedia users. Often, it’s the most arcane distinctions on the candidates’ pages that provoke the bitterest tugs-of-war. Recently, an angry battle broke out on Hillary’s page over whether to describe Clinton as “a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination” or just “a candidate,” since each phrase implies a different shade of judgment on her chances. Five minutes after an Obama supporter deleted “leading” just after 11 p.m. on March 8, another editor put it back. Seven minutes after that, the word was deleted again. Some thirty minutes after that, it was put back. On it went, with different Wikipedia editors debating the significance of Hillary’s delegate deficit on her talk page and accusing each other of introducing the dreaded “POV”– or “point of view,” a violation of Wikipedia’s most fundamental principle–into the article. At around six in the morning, completing the atmosphere of pandemonium, somebody replaced Hillary’s whole page with “It has been reported that Hillary Rodham Clinton has contracted genital herpes due to sexual intercourse with an orangutan.”
The battles over Hillary’s and Obama’s pages have been so heated because the stakes are so high. The candidates’ Wikipedia pages are their second Google hits, right after their official campaign portals. And, with Clinton and Obama locked in a tight race, even the simplest adjectives seem to become powerful weapons. (By contrast, much of the editing on John McCain’s page these days involves correcting formatting mistakes.) With emotions running high (at this point, is it really possible for anyone not to be “POV” on Clinton or Obama?), you would think that Wikipedia’s entries on the candidates–which, after all, anyone can edit–would have long ago devolved, as the race itself pretty much has, into total chaos. But, for all the bickering, this hasn’t quite happened–thanks, in part, to a 53-year-old software developer from central New Jersey named Jonathan Schilling.
Source: The New Republic