Whose Point of View?

You're the proverbial alien on our planet, fresh off the UFO. You found a job -- congratulations! -- and you've just received your first paycheck. On the stub, you notice that something, or someone, named "FICA" is skimming 6 percent off the top. "Oh, that's Social Security," your new colleagues tell you. But what's that?

You turn to Google, which refers you to Wikipedia -- the free online encyclopedia that "anyone can edit" and that increasingly serves as our culture's reference source of first resort. There, you learn that Social Security is "a social insurance program" that is "funded through dedicated payroll taxes." In 2004, it "paid out almost $500 billion in benefits." It is, "by dollars paid ... the largest government program in the world and the single greatest expenditure in the federal budget."

The "Social Security (United States)" Wikipedia entry includes the long history of opposition to Social Security, from the 1930s to the present, a litany of philosophical criticisms of the program (it "discriminates against the poor," it's a Ponzi scheme, it might be unconstitutional), and dire bottom-line budget analyses that suggest it will run out of money by 2018, 2041, or 2052. Finally, you've got it figured out: The peculiar tax you're paying funds an 80-year-long argument about the role of government.

Of course, Wikipedia doesn't really say that. But its article does a lousy job of telling you what that money actually pays for, including most of the positive side of the ledger -- you know, the stuff about helping people.

Social Security scholar Eric Kingson, professor of social work at Syracuse University and co-director of the organization Strengthen Social Security, reviewed the article for me, subsection by subsection, with mounting exasperation. The factual details weren't erroneous, for the most part, but the overall portrait they created was badly skewed.

"There's absolutely no discussion of what the purpose of social insurance is, of how it's a form of protecting against lost wages -- it's one way societies deal with risks that families and individuals face," he said. Wikipedia says virtually nothing about the system's role as a safety net, its baseline protections against poverty for the elderly and the disabled, its part in shoring up the battered foundations of the American middle class, or its defined-benefit stability as a bulwark against the violent oscillations of market -- based retirement piggy banks.

Wikipedia's 'neutral' point of view is a close relation of he said/she said reporting -- and it can lead to a bitter loop of intellectual tit for tat.

This is a problem -- not just for Social Security's advocates but for Wikipedia itself, which has an extensive corpus of customs and practices intended to root out individual bias. But there just may be something we can do about it.

One of Wikipedia's guiding principles is the idea of "neutral point of view," or NPOV. Under the rule of NPOV, contributors should not inject opinions into Wikipedia articles. Even more, they should not insert anything unless it is verifiable by some putatively reliable third-party source (usually media reports or acknowledged experts).

The encyclopedia has several other foundational tenets: "assume good faith," "don't bite the newbies," and, as an exhortation to people who complain about an article's deficiencies, "SOFIXIT." Wikipedians also espouse the practice of "writing for the enemy" -- which author Joseph Reagle defines in his book about Wikipedia, Good Faith Collaboration, as "the process of explaining another person's point of view as clearly and fairly as you can."

"The intent," Reagle continues, "is to satisfy the adherents and advocates of that POV that you understand their claims and arguments." These catchphrases are as much about promoting the health of Wikipedia's community of online collaborators as they are about improving the quality of its content.

Even most of Wikipedia's ardent critics will admit that the project has succeeded in corralling the energies of an impressive-sized crowd and directing it toward an estimable goal -- providing "free access to the sum of all human knowledge." Today, Wikipedia operates in 281 languages. The English version includes 3.6 million articles. With about 400 million visitors worldwide in March, it ranked, according to Comscore Media Metrix, as the fifth most visited Web service in the world -- right behind Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Yahoo and ahead of Amazon, AOL, and Apple.

Wikipedia has always handled disagreements among its multitude of semi-anonymous contributors by enforcing the NPOV neutrality standard. So how does it end up with a distorted article like "Social Security (United States)" -- and what can be done about it?

For starters, Wikipedians readily admit that their encyclopedia is full of flaws and omissions -- from raw "stubs" (sketchy placeholders awaiting substance and elaboration) to relatively mature entries like "Social Security (United States)" that paint a trees-accurate but forest-deficient picture. NPOV and writing for the enemy help ensure that opposing arguments receive airtime and fair treatment, but they only get you so far. As policies, they can resolve specific factual claims and balance rhetorical scales, but they can't correct for collective blind spots or provide a contextual sense of the weight of an expert consensus. Wikipedia sometimes has a hard time stopping crazies at the door, as long as those crazies can cite third-party sources.

The most contentious public issues often foster painfully repetitious "edit wars," in which one editor will insert a change and another will revert it (rolling back the clock on the page to remove the change), over and over, in a bitter loop of intellectual tit for tat -- an inadvertent byproduct of the NPOV mandate. The NPOV turns out to be a close relation of the sort of he said/she said reporting that so often substitutes for reality-based judgment in American journalism. "The 'neutral point of view' is a big fat endorsement of what most journalists believe their own perspective is," explains Jay Rosen, a New York University professor of journalism who memorably defined that perspective as "the view from nowhere."

"Now, I think that's a defensible and practical choice for 'the encyclopedia that anyone can edit,'" Rosen continues. "But it also has consequences. One of them is that the Wikipedia system frequently breaks down over extremely contested subjects. For example, when it's unclear what to call things -- Did the Bush government use torture? Is the Ryan plan Medicare reform or its destruction? -- the Wikipedia method is out of ideas. The best it can do is reproduce the same debate the culture cannot resolve on its own."

We may ask too much of Wikipedia in expecting it to be anything more than a mirror of the polity. As Reagle puts it, "The encyclopedia, at any moment in time, is simply a snapshot of the community's continuing conversation." (Indeed, writing about any Wikipedia article, as I have here, introduces an inevitable Heisenberg-style problem: By focusing attention on an article's inadequacies, media coverage often inspires editors to remedy the problem. "Social Security (United States)" may already be a better article by the time you read this.)

Wikipedia, then, is a social product, and any particular article's quality and fairness depends on the composition of the participants in the conversation. So, for instance, given Social Security's broad popularity, what accounts for the article's slant? Could it be a product of manipulation by conservative activists and think tanks?

One strength of the Wikipedia system is the "history" record it keeps of every single change to each article, along with the "talk" record of the backstage debates over those changes. This voluminous archive offers extraordinary documentary opportunities (e-publishing innovator James Bridle published a 12 -- volume, 7,000-page chronicle of 12,000 edits to Wiki-pedia's "Iraq War" article). The archive also lets you see which editors left the biggest marks on any particular entry.

But trying to walk back from those editors' online identities to their offline affiliations is difficult. Wikipedia contributors are as anonymous as they choose to be; anonymous edits are identified only by numerical IP addresses (which can sometimes be traced back to an institution or locality), but most substantial contributors register accounts under pseudonyms, which can't be traced at all, and it's up to them whether they reveal any more of their identities. Editors aren't supposed to make changes when there's an obvious conflict of interest. But how do you enforce such a rule on an anonymous population? Sometimes editors have a stronger incentive to hide their identities than to reveal possible conflicts -- as representatives of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare discovered when they tried to add some basic information to the Wikipedia article about their organization; their attempts to do so openly were reverted, so they finally made the changes with an account that didn't reveal their affiliation.

Andrew Lih, author of The Wikipedia Revolution, says there's no question Wikipedia has become a reputational field of conflict. "Certainly there are think tanks and for-profit corporations that absolutely see Wikipedia as not only a battleground but as the primary way people get their news or information about an organization. There are full-time PR people who have a constant watch on the Wikipedia article about the companies that they take care of. ... I have no doubt that there are certain articles watched over like a hawk by folks out there who have a certain POV that they want to push. Sometimes if they put the effort in, they can game the system."

In other words, we can't know whether the organized right has specifically targeted "Social Security (United States)." Maybe the article has simply been shaped by random libertarians or Tea Partiers or FDR-haters working independently. But in a way, it hardly matters who, specifically, they are: Wikipedia's consensus-based decision-making gives sway to the side that brings the most bodies to the fray. It may be time for the defenders of Social Security to form their own Wikipedia posse -- after an appropriate intro to local habits and customs.

I asked Kingson if he'd ever edited a Wikipedia page. "I haven't thought of it," he said. "Now I'm thinking, yeah, I'd like to do that."

Progressives who care about how we talk about Social Security -- and every other flashpoint of controversy in our political culture -- can't just decry Wikipedia for its flaws or opt out of the argument. They need to make sure their perspective has sufficient weight in the equation that produces, and is constantly recalibrating, Wikipedia's NPOV. That doesn't happen on its own. SOFIXIT!

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