In the entire month of December, three changes were made to Beck’s Wikipedia page. Last month, there were six.
But in the 38 hours since the songwriter bested Beyoncé to win the Grammy for “Album of the Year,” his Wikipedia page has been edited 107 times — not to update it with news of the win, mind you, but to argue over Beck’s legacy vis-a-vis Beyoncé’s.
“Grammy stealer,” one user changed the page to say.
“BEYHIVE WILL GET U,” another editor brayed.
It’s funny, sure, and it’s pointless and dumb. But it’s also proof of a very stubborn problem for the “sum of all knowledge”: Increasingly, it seems, Wikipedia isn’t just a work of reference. It’s also become a public battleground where larger cultural arguments are lost or won.
In recent years, the site’s highest judicial body has been called upon to settle raging factional disputes on everything from climate change to homeopathy. The committee is currently reviewing a case about “Christianity and sexuality,” where — according to some suspicious editors — a party biased against gay rights is manipulating the page by creating fake accounts, organizing off-site and otherwise “POVing.”
[On Feb. 11 at 3 p.m., Caitlin is taking your questions! To ask about her job at The Washington Post, her previous pieces and her reporting on all things Internet, submit questions here.]
Just last month, that group also ruled — in one of its more public and widely scrutinized decisions — on the months-long back-and-forth on the Gamergate page since August. Wikipedia editors on both sides of that polarized debate have played tug-o-war with the truth, each trying to imprint their own version on the page millions will see.
“Wikipedia is a reference work, not a battlefield,” that decision intoned, according to Wikipedia’s stated principles. “Use of the site to pursue feuds and quarrels … flies directly in the face of our key policies and goals, and is prohibited.”
But prohibited or not, that seems to be a whole lot of battlefield-editing going on these days. We hesitate to compare the Beyhive edits to Gamergate — that is, by all accounts, a very different case — but they’re both highly visible, very recent instances of organized factions editing Wikipedia as part of some weird ideological campaign.
It’s a difficult question to answer, exactly, but it’s one worth pondering — for Wikipedia’s editors and readers alike.
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