Strategically Editing Wikipedia

March 13th, 2012

On the same day that we see that the Encyclopedia Britannica has ceased publishing its 129-pound print version, we see, yet again, one of the downfalls of crowd-sourced electronic alternatives, such as Wikipedia.

I don’t feel like going into the details (my friend David Schraub can explain it much better than I can), but the definition of “Critical Race Theory” has been in the news of late.

A Wikipedia article devoted to Critical Race Theory, a controversial legal theory crafted to respond to the alleged role of “white supremacy” in American law, was placed on a temporary editing lockdown over the weekend after bloggers determined that CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien had relied on Wikipedia’s introductory definition of the theory — verbatim — during on an-air debate. A second lock was placed on the article Monday to protect it from politically biased editors who adjusted it following O’Brien’s gaffe.

The flurry began after editor Joel Pollak made a guest appearance on O’Brien’s show to explain a video clip depicting a close relationship during the 1990s between President Obama and the late Derrick Bell, the Harvard Law School professor credited with originating the theory.

During her show, Pollak repeatedly reminded O’Brien that Critical Race Theory was created as a backlash against perceived “white supremacy” in America. O’Brien denied this with equal force.

An editing war ensued almost immediately between pro- and anti-O’Brien partisans, alternatively removing and reinstating references to white supremacy from the Critical Race Theory article.

The article’s current lockdown, instituted by the same Wikipedia editor who froze it over the weekend — until “the media attention cools down,” he said — will last one week.

Needless to say, the page got locked down.

We saw something similar earlier this year when Sarah Palin made a statement about Paul Revere that may (or may not) have been accurate, and her supporters/antagonists took to Wikipedia to warp the record.

This is one of the major risks of crowdsourcing.