Internet

Wikipedia, Controversy, and the Myth of Neutrality

As the Gamergate controversy illustrates, Wikipedia’s call for unbiased writing is really a euphemism for the privileging of certain ideologies.

Talk about a shit-storm. The mid-January banning of certain so-called feminist editors at Wikipedia over the tug-of-war on the "Gamergate Controversy" article has become exponentially more controversial with all the confusing third party reporting about it. Does anyone actually know what’s happening? Pro-feminist news sources aren’t getting it right, that’s for sure. Take a gander at these recent headlines:

It’s not that one Wikipedia article feminists should be worried about: it’s the myth of neutrality that exists in tech-science communication as a whole; it’s an outdated metaphor of omniscience that’s been propagating for centuries.
"Wikipedia Has Banned Five Feminist Editors From Gamergate Articles & More" (The Mary Sue)

"Wikipedia Votes to Ban Some Editors from Gender-Related Articles" (The Guardian)

"Wikipedia Declares War on Women, Gives Anti-Feminist Males Control Over Gender and Sexuality Entries" (Addicting Info)

While some of these articles present a technically accurate version of events, they intentionally mislead their audiences with hyperbole that the uniformed reader might not be able to distinguish. For example, in The Mary Sue article, the author reports that:

Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, was drawn into the debate, telling a student who had emailed him over perceived bias in the article that ‘Gamergate has been permanently tarnished and hijacked by a handful of people who are not what you would hope.’ Wales’ advice for Gamergate supporters who wanted to change the Wikipedia article was to be constructive, and present a vision for the article which they wanted to read rather than engage in a war with feminist editors who were trying to maintain their vision.

In the context of the article, that makes it sound like Wales is on the side of the Gamergaters, but the text links to another of The Mary Sue’s articles from back in December where Wales explicitly called out Gamergaters as bullies and vowed not to give in to them. ("Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales Isn’t Taking Any of Gamergate’s Threats, Tells Them Off Spectacularly") The Guardian article misleads its readers in a similar way.

Even worse is the Addicting Info article. The thing is basically a riddle wrapped in a falsehood wrapped in html. Even the headline is total BS. The article claims that Wikipedia’s decision to ban five editors has given “Gamergate complete control over entries in the free encyclopedia that have to do with women.” What? No, they haven’t. Some pro-Gamergate editors were banned, too, and there are literally tens of thousands of other contributors on Wikipedia still actively editing and creating articles. What’s going on here? It would seem that these pro-feminist media outlets are intentionally vilifying Wikipedia for some reason. In fairness, the encyclopedia’s entry on the controversial subject is not the anti-feminist train wreck the news outlets would like readers to believe. It’s pretty well-written, given how many back-and-forth edits took place before being locked down by administrators.

So what’s at stake here? Is it just the veracity of a single Wikipedia article on a socio-political battle over ethics versus misogyny in video games? If that were the case, then the administrative decision to lock the article and ban certain troublemakers should solve the problem. But it’s not. The debate over the article is a symptom of a larger debate that has been going on for decades, especially among post-modern feminists: whether or not objectivity is desirable, or even possible in tech-science communication. While feminist-leaning news reports have unfairly criticized Wikipedia’s handling of the controversy, the underlying issue they bring up of what counts as knowledge in mainstream tech-science discussions is a valid one. It’s not that one Wikipedia article feminists should be worried about: it’s the myth of neutrality that exists in tech-science communication as a whole; it’s an outdated metaphor of omniscience that’s been propagating for centuries.

Underlying the Gamergate debate is an assumption on the part of the Wikipedia powers-that-be (and probably most of the contributing editors) that an unbiased article on this (or any) subject can somehow exist. The debate over the encyclopedia entry begs a larger question: What counts as knowledge? The issue over this one article may at some point be solved (or perhaps more likely forgotten), but a larger issue will remain. As Wikipedia clings to its objective ideology in the face of editing bias, its fight over “neutrality” is really a fight between rigid Modernist approaches to how human’s create and disseminate knowledge and a more inclusive Post-Modern philosophy. Wikipedia’s call for unbiased writing is really a euphemism for the privileging of certain ideologies.

The concept of neutrality—what science theorist and post-feminist pot-stirrer Donna Haraway calls objectivity—is the principle on which Wikipedia is built. But it’s a myth. No one is neutral. Unbiased objectivity is not a position humans can occupy. Knowledge doesn’t exist “out there” to be found by keen observers. It is made by us and from us in ways that reinforce or challenge what we already know. Wikipedia isn’t presenting facts free of human bias. Every article on Wikipedia is created by humans and supported by pre-existing human knowledge.

Neutrality is a euphemism for privileged truth. Feminists like Haraway have been pointing at this issue since the '80s. Wikipedia was not created by an omniscient being. Some human drew the lines for coloring inside of Wikipedia. Central to this neutrality firefight is a fundamental disagreement over epistemology of the internet as a whole. How do we collectively make knowledge?

In her 1988 essay “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective” Haraway reminds us that:

Social studies of science and technology… have made available a very strong social constructionist argument for all forms of knowledge claims, most certainly and especially scientific ones. According to these tempting views, no insider's perspective is privileged, because all drawings of inside-outside boundaries in knowledge are theorized as power moves, not moves toward truth.

In the context of Wikipedia, that database isn’t producing (or reproducing) unbiased truth, it is producing (or reproducing, i.e., reifying) a specific kind of power structure, one that privileges neutrality over experience and expertise. I find it ironic and LOL-worthy that the Wikipedia article on “social constructionism”—the theory Haraway is referencing here—is itself tagged with Wikipedia’s standard non-neutrality warning that “the neutrality of this article is disputed.” Haraway may only have dreamed of something like Wikipedia when she wrote her essay, and yet how accurate she was.

Consider Wikipedia’s “original research tag”, which warns readers that an “article possibly contains original research” and asks editors to “improve it by verifying the claims made and adding inline citations. Statements consisting only of original research should be removed.” Wikipedia disapproves of expertise as a basis for knowledge making. Even credible scholars working in academic disciplines are not considered valid sources for information. Spent your whole career researching something? Meaningless. Your scholarship is not useful on the internet, at least according to Wikipedia’s standards. This feature of what counts as evidence is why some articles are just plain confusing. A notable example is Wikipedia’s entry on Queer Theory.

Queer Theory is a complex cultural studies theory and to grasp it, one needs to have spent some time studying it. Explaining what it is without having done so is not just difficult, but impossible. The existing article on Wikipedia is close-but-no-cigar at best. Some editors don’t even understand that Queer Theory and Gay and Lesbian Studies are different concepts. However, to explain that distinction, one needs to have done some independent research. According to Wikipedia’s neutrality standard, however, that research isn’t considered valid. Queer Theory cannot be adequately explained by “neutral third party sources” because such sources do not exist.

This problem persists across Wikipedia in numerous articles that draw upon theoretical perspectives that have developed over time and across disciplines. These articles remain inaccurate in their content even when they are stylistically well-written precisely because Wikipedia privileges neutrality over expertise. Omniscience, not experience, is Wikipedia’s guiding light.

Haraway makes the point that this “god-trick of seeing everything from nowhere” is actually deadly for those outside of privileged, power positions because their experiences, even (and especially) including those relating to their own bodies and minds, don’t count as valid. But let’s be clear: Haraway isn’t arguing for the abolition of methodology in technology and science. She’s arguing that the metaphor of omniscience is ill-fitting to collective knowledge-making. This metaphor is glorified throughout science culture and mass reproduced on Wikipedia. The metaphor of omniscience reinforces binary opposition and the science fictional notion that there is one right answer.

Haraway advocates for a new metaphor: one of vision where one’s perspective is key in explaining what one can or cannot see clearly. Rather like Einstein's Theory of Relativity: The speed of light may not change but the alien mothership's velocity can only be measured in relation to how fast the human spaceship is going. Indeed, the moon looks different through a telescope than it does if I’m standing on its surface, yet both lunar descriptions would be “right”. Attempting to describe the moon as though it looks the same from every angle limits rather than enhances my understanding of it.

By using the metaphor of vision instead of omniscience, knowledge is created collectively from a variety of positions instead of rigidly adhering to the myth that there can be some neutral singular knowledge coming from outside of any viewpoint. It’s ironic that much of the pro-Gamergate voices calling for objectivity are atheists since much of their unspoken “ethics” are based on the faulty assumption that there is an omniscient point of view which can exist above any fallible human perspective. Ethics come from human consensus, not created for all time on the sixth day. An ethical violation can only occur between groups who agree on the ethical standards in the first place. Ethics don’t exist in a vacuum outside of specific contexts. Even Charlie Sheen has a particular ethos. If he’s talking about high-end vodka, I might even trust him. Simply put, there is no right or wrong, no absolute good and evil. It may work in Harry Potter, but Wikipedia isn’t Hogwarts.

Unfortunately, Wikipedia would have us believe the lie because that’s what Modern Science has taught us: There exists a neutral truth. But scientific facts are often based on the science fiction. Noted physicist and (gasp) self-proclaimed feminist, Evelyn Fox Keller explains how this science fiction works to create real knowledge. Before genes were something scientists understood, they conceived of them fictionally as the “building blocks” of life. Early scientists’ “truth” that genes were “building blocks” allowed them to proceed with their ongoing research. But genes don’t look anything like building blocks. If they did, organisms would look like Lego sets, not people or cats or creeping nematodes. “Building block” was just a metaphor—a science fiction—that scientists used to replace the “I don’t know what’s going on but something must be happening to make babies look like their parents.” By inventing a metaphor, scientists had a way to talk about something they knew nothing about.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying this is a bad thing, I'm simply pointing out that “objective truth” isn’t as timeless and universal as Modernists like to believe. Let’s not forget that Antonio Egas Moniz won the Nobel Prize in 1949 for coming up with what was the worst cure for mental health problems ever: the lobotomy. Clearly, that “truth” wasn’t timeless and universal.

Haraway wrestles with what “objectivity” means for feminists in the context of science and technology. She argues that feminists argue (she’s being intentionally vague on whether she herself is a feminist) that those in power determine what counts as knowledge. Her initial argument here suggests that feminists are anti-science, anti-technology, and not interested in truth. But this is misleading. The issue Haraway is really finding fault with here is the myth of objectivity as an inhabitable perspective. Science and technology, she says are “the real game in town” but they’re “rhetoric, a series of efforts to persuade relevant social actors that one's manufactured knowledge is a route to a desired form of very objective power.” Neutrality and ethics are euphemisms for maintaining the status quo. Wikipedia has, as Haraway says of other tech-science communication, “put the myth into ordinary practice.”

If something like Wikipedia, which consciously struggles to be free of bias, is inherently biased anyway, how can an article on something like Gamergate, which is based on a multiplicity of conflicting perspectives, even come close to neutrality? Eventually, cultural forces as a whole may pick a “winning” side in the war over misogyny in gaming versus ethics in journalism and the resulting information will be recorded for all time in our history books. To suggest that recorded history is neutral belies the very concept of how ethics works. Certainly, the ethos of the speaker (or Wikipedia editor) matters, but suggesting that ethics can be neutrally defined by only one perspective doesn’t win wars. Just ask the Nazis. (Yes, I went there. No, I’m not comparing anyone in this debate to a Nazi.)

Haraway gets to the bottom line when she notes that “only partial perspective promises objective vision… it allows us to become answerable for what we learn.” Her revision here is not in throwing out neutrality in favor of experience; rather, she wants us to acknowledge that any answer we present is relative to our position to the object we describe. The powers-that-be over at Wikipedia need to acknowledge their own partial perspectives given how powerful their role is in our collective Google-searchable knowledge making.

Subjectivity is valuable. There is no unmediated knowledge. Wikipedia articles do not exist outside of bias. The impossibility of a neutral stance is why the Wikipedia article on Gamergate will never be finished. No matter who writes it, the article will contain bias. Even if the chosen language feels neutral, the writer has made choices to include or exclude information—to cite some sources and ignore others. Despite the Wikipedia administration’s best intentions, it simply can’t defy inherent human bias.

If you want to find out who won the 1986 Emmy for best Actress in a Drama, Wikipedia’s got you covered (it was Sharon Gless) but to get a neutral account of a socio-political controversy with polarized viewpoints? Forget it. We’d all be better informed if Wikipedia left the controversial topics over on 4Chan and stuck to baseball stats and lists of Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes.

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