The NYPD has admitted that someone using an IP address registered to the department made edits to the Wikipedia page of Eric Garner, the 43-year-old Staten Island man who died last year after officers used a chokehold to subdue him. The department announced that it would investigate the edits, which it called a case of an employee using a work computer for personal purposes.
Cue the predictable howls of outrage at this attempt to whitewash the cold-blooded murder of an innocent man. The technology website Ars Technica called the edits an attempt “to sanitize Wikipedia entries about cases of police brutality.” Think Progress said they were an example of the police department’s fumbling its response to “increased scrutiny” after recent protests.
The outrage is misplaced, however. The real scandal is that anyone thinks Wikipedia is a reliable source of unbiased information.
Garner’s death was caught on a cell phone video and has been viewed by millions across the country, but what happened on the day he died remains in dispute. Reactions to the video vary. Some think the cops murdered Garner; others think he goaded them into taking him down. Some see Garner as the victim of an out-of-control police force targeting African-American men. Indeed, Mayor Bill de Blasio called Garner “a father, a husband, a son—a good man.” Others say that he was a career petty criminal with a chip on his shoulder. With so much to disagree about, it’s no surprise that Garner’s Wikipedia page has become a battleground.
The truth is, due to the way the site’s editing process works, most politically controversial articles on Wikipedia have the potential to be wrong or even libelous. Thanks to Wikipedia’s perennial spot as the topmost Google search result on almost any topic, the most politically controversial pages can become running battles between rival factions. In the process, fact, fiction, and farce get equal playing time. A 2005 entry accusing the journalist John Seigenthaler of involvement in the assassinations of both Robert and John F. Kennedy remained live on the site for four months. It only came down when the 78-year-old Seigenthaler, a personal friend of Bobby Kennedy’s and a pallbearer at his funeral, asked Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales to intervene. As Slate columnist David Auerbach put it in December, editing fights over the site’s entries can be “as ugly and bitter as 4chan and as mind-numbingly bureaucratic as a Kafka story.”
Speed, not accuracy, is the Wikipedia editor’s prime motivation and sole focus. In fact, to call the mostly anonymous volunteers who curate the site “editors” is a distortion of the term. “Journalists and scholars have learned to tediously edit over and over again before publication to get it right,” noted author Edwin Black in 2010. “Wikipedia believes there is no use waiting—every edit and version is immediately public.”
Wikipedia’s champions claim that articles benefit from their “neutral point of view,” but the site has a clear liberal tilt. Compare the pages dedicated to two recent American vice presidents—Dick Cheney and Al Gore. Gore’s reads like a New York Times Magazine profile. Cheney’s reads like a bill of indictment. If you can’t see the difference, you might make a good Wikipedia editor.
Wikipedia allows “anyone” to contribute to and edit the site. That seems a poor approach if the goal is objective truth. If, however, the goal is a kind of consensus truth gained through iterative edits and compromise among competing factions, then why object to anyone’s input? The Garner affair and its aftermath had racial overtones. Should African-Americans be prohibited from editing the entry? At best, Wikipedia is an approximation of the truth. If the philosophy is come one, come all, then the NYPD has as much right to fiddle with the entries that pertain to it as anyone else. Let the edits fall where they may.