A Voice for Men, the controversial men’s rights Web site, sees feminist conspiracies in many unassuming places: college stadiums, women’s shelters, hospital delivery rooms.
But on Saturday, AVfM managing editor Dean Esmay published an essay decrying “censorship” and “misandry” on a new platform: Wikipedia, that sum of all human knowledge, where Esmay says editors “infected” by a “hateful Gender Feminist dogma” have conspired to silence him and other members of his movement.
Granted, Esmay’s movement is pretty controversial. AVfM advocates, among other charming things, for the abolition of marriage, the death of chivalry, and “an end to rape and DV [domestic violence] hysteria.” But even if you find those beliefs distasteful, Esmay’s accusations raise some very important questions about who gets a voice on Wikipedia, and how that voice echoes on the wider Internet. After all, Wikipedia is (famously!) the only reference that anyone can edit — and edit anonymously. But it’s a self-moderating system. It’s open to the biases of its writers and editors.
It could, to quote one of Esmay’s less inflammatory phrasings, become “dominated by ideological thugs.”
This, of course, is a side of the site casual readers never see: It’s complex and esoteric and highly bureaucratic, with layers of editors, lengthy discussion boards called “talk pages,” and many, many rules.
Anyone can edit a Wikipedia page, sure — but not every edit sticks. A higher class of trusted, registered Wikipedia editors (called admins) have the power to delete edits and pages, to block or ban users who break the rules, and to declare pages protected, or uneditable. These editors, in turn, are elected through a community-review process, and rely on an ecosystem of talk pages, editorial panels and anti-vandalism tools to both back them up and keep them in check.
It’s a sprawling, self-moderating system — and generally, it works.
“It is inherent in the Wikipedia model’s approach that poor information can be added, but that over time those editing articles reach strong consensus, and quality improves,” explains Wikipedia’s editorial oversight page.
In the case of the MRA articles, that would appear to be true. While Esmay claims that admins have unfairly overwritten men’s rights articles, or blocked MRA contributors, the talk pages tell a slightly different story.
Wikipedians have, for instance, edited men’s rights pages to remove references to blogs and YouTube videos, which aren’t considered reliable sources under the site’s current standards. They’ve requested edits and oversight from people who aren’t directly affiliated with the subject or organization at hand. And while Esmay cites several instances of feminist “bullying” and “censorship,” the talk and user pages — which record disciplinary action against Wikipedians — suggest that most MRAs were banned for edit-warring (i.e., redoing the same changes over and over), for editing a topic with a conflict of interest, or for making personal attacks against other editors — all of which are violations of Wikipedia’s terms.
But while many of Esmay’s claims may be groundless, they come at a very apt time. Wikipedia recently announced a major overhaul of its editor disclosure policy. A wave of Twitter bots have begun logging when government employees edit Wikipedia — a bit of Internet sleuthing that, among other things, revealed suspicious Russian edits to the page for Flight MH17. After years of accepting Wikipedia as some kind of miraculous human project, plagued only by the occasional error or act of vandalism, there seems to be a renewed interest in the specific humans behind the effort.
Who, exactly, edits Wikipedia? And where do they come from? And what biases or personalities may be at play behind that wall of black-on-white text that so many of us take for fact? These are questions people regularly put to traditional media, but apply less frequently to a source that looks like an impartial reference.
These are also all questions worth considering — even if they’re not necessarily worth considering in this case. As the Daily Dot’s Tim Sampson wrote in 2013:
George Orwell once said, “He whoever controls the past controls the future.” And in 2013, the surest way to control the past is to control Wikipedia.
Sampson was referencing a case in which a right-wing group commandeered the Croatian Wikipedia — gradually, over a long time, and without anyone realizing. Incidents like that lend some credence to Esmay’s accusations. Regardless of what you make of him or his movement or his claims of “censorship,” he does make a valid and oft-overlooked point about Wikipedia: Namely, that the site is shaped, often invisibly, by the collective personalities and agendas of its editors.
Esmay, for his part, has had enough of that whole consensus thing. In the same post where he denounced Wikipedia, Esmay invited readers to contribute to AVfM’s very own Wiki, which will “welcome and encourage contributions from Men’s Rights Activists and those affiliated with the Men’s Rights Movement.”
Ironically, dissenting views are only allowed on that Wiki’s talk pages — you know, the bureaucratic backwaters that readers never actually see. If Esmay or his ilk sense the hypocrisy there, they’re certainly not telling.