Paul Krugman notes an interesting phenomenon in his Sunday NYT article here – every major contender (save Mitt Romney) for the 2012 Republican nomination who doesn’t currently hold a political office is a paid contributor to Fox News. There’s undeniably a connection between the network (and its parent News Corporation’s other holdings, like the Wall Street Journal) and the Republican establishment, and there has been for years, but the much more worrying phenomenon is their ability as of late to craft a symbiotic relationship with the populism manifested by the Tea Party movement. Politicians like Sarah Palin and Christine O’Donnell and personalities like Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck have developed an almost messianic aura, and their followers often display cultish devotion to ideas that have only the most tenuous grasp on sanity, chief among them the belief apparently held by a fifth of this country that “Obama is a Muslim!” (forget for a moment the implicitly bigoted suggestion the tone with which such statements are uttered conveys) .
These leaders aren’t just far-right nutcases, they’re far-right nutcases with rather serious and powerful backers. In return for supporting policies that probably end up hurting the middle-class Americans they claim to work for but benefit the war hawk (hopscotch from Afghanistan to Iraq to Pakistan to maybe-soon-Iran, anyone?) and business tycoons types, they get massive amounts of network coverage and make their election (and implementation of said policies) all the more likely. Some commentators have suggested this populist movement is a temporary quirk, a function of the economic situation that will blow over quickly after the 2012 election. I disagree. I’m worried it has a little bit more staying power than that, and I’m worried it could be the end of democracy as we know it.
Okay, so maybe that’s a little bit melodramatic. But a culture war is surely coming, and the next battleground may well be Wikipedia.
Constituents in this country rarely reward the candidates who take nuanced and charitable positions on topics. The televised presidential debates rarely explore the intricacies of the topics they engage on; candidates instead turn to pre-prepared statements and catch-phrases, all in a ceaseless kowtow to the 24-hour news cycle. The public simply loves to deal in absolutes. Either we should go into foreign countries and spread democracy by force in every case because damn it, freedom and justice and apple pie demand it, or our last administration was full of sadistic torturers and Christian zealots plucked right out from the Inquisition or Crusades. By and large it’s the academics who flesh out arguments for or against these policies more thoroughly in research papers – but it isn’t the academics who govern Wikipedia. It’s the mob. And there’s no reason to think they won’t turn to Wikipedia to serve their political interests.
Wikipedia has already seen attempts at manipulation by self-serving interests, of course. Zittrain’s “The Future of The Internet and How to Stop It” discusses MyWikiBiz, a company devoted to polishing other companies’ public image on Wikipedia by editing articles. Similarly, politicians have an obvious incentive to make themselves look better by tweaking articles before elections, and some have. Thankfully, it’s fairly easy to stop that kind of thing. There are not many of these people, and it is easy to spot them.
But we’re not talking about these aberrations or random vandalism here – we’re talking about concerted nation-wide efforts made to change the entries surrounding political events and people, to subtly influence the perception that everyone who ever reads those articles will have. If 20% of the country thinks that Obama is a Muslim and even 1% of those people are committed to influencing Wikipedia, that’s still 6.2 million people who might be willing to edit the Obama article once a day. People can of course change it back, but I’m not talking about the kind of thing that is blatantly obvious – I’m not suggesting that these people will successfully permanently convert (get it?) the “religion” box on the page to Muslim. But there are other ways to impact perceptions. What if people worked together to get the structure of the page changed so that greater emphasis was devoted to the speech in Cairo, statements condemning Israel for a variety of policies, and bowing to the king of Saudi Arabia? The way you present facts is just as important as the facts themselves for the conclusions people draw. The neutral point of view policy can be invoked, certainly, but it won’t hold in all instances, only the most egregious changes; similarly, no original research means you merely have to turn to one writer or pundit or another on the Republican payroll to provide your backing. They have scientists who proclaim that global warming doesn’t exist, remember.
I realize I’ve created somewhat of an apparent contradiction with my suggestion that political stances are polarized but that Wiki edits will be subtle. My resolution to this is to suggest instead that the polarized political stances provide the necessary motivation to make tedious and subtle Wikipedia edits, but nevertheless ones that can add up to create a definite political advantage in a world where Wikipedia is increasingly viewed as an authoritative institution of information. Readers beware.