As many ambitious young Yalies before me, I spent my summer working for a political organization in Washington DC. Jokes about the tech-cluelessness of politicians aside, I was amazed by the serious lack of reliable information on Capitol Hill. Congressmen got nearly all of their facts from lobbyists, either in direct conversations or in pseudo-objective policy papers written by those same interest groups. The voices of true experts and average citizens were completely drowned out in the cross-shouting of lobbyists and extremists.
That’s why I was so intrigued when my think tank started working on Progressive Map, a Wiki that is designed to provide Congressional staff with (left-leaning) reliable information on issues, organizations, and people. The project follows the trend of political Wikis, like conservapedia, liberapedia, and Rational Wiki, in creating collaborative information gathering projects dealing with political issues. Progressive Map differs in hoping that average citizens will be able to bypass lobbyists and the money-buying-access problem to tell their Congressmen the full truth about the people and policies they are dealing with.
Sounds like a pipe dream, right?
On first glance, politics seems like the least likely field in which a Wiki format could work. For starters, the self-conscious norm for objectivity and consensus that make Wikipedia work are completely absent from politics. While Wikipedia relies on the basic notion of trusting your neighbor, politics encourages people to form adversarial groups that prove that their particular viewpoint is correct. If the average Wikipedia writer comes to engage in a common enterprise with other users, the average participant in politics just wants his policy to win, and consensus created on the Discussion page is not the way to do that.
Furthermore, the basic rules of Wikipedia are particularly hard to apply to politics. The no-original research policy is tricky in a field that deals primarily with people’s conjectures and expectations. For example, to say that the user thinks that the war in Afghanistan is hopeless would have to involve polling data specifying the demographic that believes in that argument, or else a link to a prominent commentator making that claim.
Meanwhile, the requirement of verifiability will inevitably run into disputes over credibility and representation. For example, is it appropriate to say that Republicans question the existence of global warming just because conservative Christian fundamentalists don’t believe in it? Political groups are by nature heterogeneous, and it is very hard (and potentially very anger-provoking) to generalize about their views.
Finally, the neutral point of view standard would require hard choices about what due and undue weight, as many very prominent political groups (e.g. LGBT groups) have small numbers of clear members and a much wider undefined support network.
Most damning, however, is the problem of editing by vested interests. Wikipedia works in part because few people care whether zucchini is a fruit or a vegetable, but questions of politics have lives and livelihoods at stake. The incentive to try to cheat the system is thus incredibly great.
Already, instances of interference abound in Wikipedia. Marty Meehan raised public outcry when he edited his own entry to delete a reference to a campaign promise, and staffers for many Congressmen admit to doing the same. The entry for President Obama had to be blocked from further editing, after too many birthers edited the page to question Obama’s birth certificate and sparked editing wars . Meanwhile, some blogs claim that there is already a conservative slant to Wikipedia because right-wing advocates are more willing to devote time to promoting causes.
These problems are not exceptions. A political Wiki would have to deal with more than just bored teenagers; it would have to face people who bomb abortion clinics, donate millions of dollars, and spend countless hours demonstrating for the sake of getting their viewpoint out there.
And yet for all of the obvious challenges, there is a glimmer of possibility that enough individuals who care about accountability and bipartisanship will join in on the project and make it work. The requirement for some final result may create a new culture in which users agree to represent others’ views fairly if they get the same treatment. Groups wishing to push their views will simply add a sentence that a particular person believes and advocates for a particular policy, while leaving the debate over the correctness of the beliefs to other spheres. Given how many voters seem disgusted with partisanship, the Wiki should have plenty of users who have a desire to preserve neutrality.
So how could we make Progressive Map work?
Wikipedia’s current format is clearly too trusting and open to prevent sabotage. An alternative could come from a system like Slashdot’s, which uses carefully chosen moderators among logged in and regular long-term users. They would be chosen, and would enforce, a system of Karma, in which comments are ranked from “Most Fair” to “Disruptively Biased.” Additionally, users could rate other users as “Disruptive,” alerting the moderators that a user is abusing the openness of the system. After a user makes a maximum number of disruptive changes, he or she would be blocked from the website.
Progressive Map has the chance to work, but it requires rules and sufficient participation to succeed.