Saturday, June 9, 2007

A Whitewash on Wikipedia and some other sites are featuring an excellent in-depth article on local wonder Rachel Marsden. If you haven't read the article yet, it's a good one. You might remember Marsden from Vancouver's summer of 1997, when she, then an SFU student, accused swimming coach Liam Donnelly of sexual harassment. Donnelly was fired, then re-hired after he produced evidence that she had been harassing him.

The case was a media sensation and led to the resignation of SFU's president. Marsden went on to plead guilty in 2004 for criminally harassing a different person. In recent years, Marsden has become a right-wing political columnist in the Toronto Sun, and makes regular appearances as a political commentator on the Fox News Channel.

For those who care to look, reports about Marsden's past are easy to find. The recent article, by Rebecca Traister, says, "One need look only at Marsden's Wikipedia page to find reference to the Simon Fraser case. Nexis her name, there are hundreds of stories."

She doesn't know the half of it. Google "Rachel Marsden," and the fourth result is Wikipedia:Requests for Arbitration/Rachel Marsden. Last September, Marsden wrote the the Wikipedia Arbitration Committee to complain about the encyclopedia's coverage of her. She wanted the "slanderous" claims removed, or her biography deleted outright. Wikipedia heard her complaint, and responded with a level of finesse resembling that of the SFU administration in 1997.

Marsden, the Media, and Wikipedia

To understand this story, it helps to have a bit of background on how Wikipedia works.
  • First, contrary to popular belief, Wikipedia is not a free-for-all. Wikipedia has an extensive set of policies and guidelines editors are expected to follow. The Neutral Point of View policy requires each article to represent all significant points of view on a topic fairly, proportionately and without bias. Wikipedia content is also required to be based on reliable sources, and the better articles have extensive footnotes to high-quality publications. Following a 2005 scandal in which a libelous hoax had been found in a Wikipedia article, Wikipedia adopted a Biographies of Living Persons policy, emphasizing the need for accuracy, respectful tone, and respect for privacy when writing about living people.
  • Second, in addition to editing articles, most regular Wikipedia contributors discuss articles using Talk pages (to see a Talk page, click the "Discuss" tab at the top of any article). Controversial articles often have many screenfulls of Talk, a permanent record of the questions and debates that have arisen over the article. For difficult controversies, Wikipedia also has pages devoted specifically to dispute resolution, including mediation and arbitration.
  • Third, changes to Wikipedia articles are generally easily reversible. If someone adds incorrect information to an article, someone else can restore the previous version in a few clicks. The entire edit history of most articles is preserved indefinitely (you can see this by clicking the "History " tab at the top of any article).

    However, site administrators can, and do, delete articles entirely. Every day, administrators delete about two thousand articles, most of which are spam, hoaxes, nonsense, or articles about not-yet-famous people who wish they were famous. Articles can be deleted after a period of community discussion if there is a consensus to delete, and administrators can "speedily delete" the most obvious cases without discussion. Deleted articles can be restored, but doing so usually requires another period of community discussion.

Marsden’s own relationship with what Wikipedia would classify as reliable sources goes back a long way. A walk through the newspaper archives reveals a level of interest from the press which has produced stories in at least eight of the past ten years.

1997: Mainstream Canadian newspapers, and a few U.S. and overseas papers, run over 100 articles on the SFU story, some of it front-page. The coach, Liam Donnelly, is fired by SFU, but rehired after making his own hair-raising allegations of stalking by Marsden, and producing erotic photographs and emails that Marsden sent him a month after she said he had raped her. Later, Patricia O'Hagan, a former SFU sexual harassment policy co-ordinator who had handled Marsden’s case, also tells the Vancouver Sun that Marsden has harassed her.

1998: Newspapers run about a dozen articles on how SFU has rewritten its harassment policies, and on the how the furor over the case has affected other campuses. Marsden's father, Claude Marsden, is the subject of several articles after he is charged with sexual exploitation of a 16-year-old girl and later convicted.

1999: Newspapers from various provinces run about twenty articles on Marsden. After a two-year leave from her courses, Marsden says she has been unable to find work and has nowhere to live except SFU’s campus. SFU criminology professor Neil Boyd becomes the third person to report that Marsden, now one of his students, has harassed him and has asked the married professor for dates. The behaviour, which she describes as "just being friendly," stops after a warning from the RCMP. Marsden is allowed to move into a residence, but SFU security later warns her to stay away from Donnelly and from Boyd. Marsden is also ordered to remove all references to Donnelly from her website, saying that they consider “the unsubstantiated allegations contained on your Web page to constitute a breach of reasonable standards of acceptable behaviour."

The Fraser Institute releases a 56-page report on the Donnelly case, slamming SFU’s handling of the case. "The ethical failure here is immense," writes the paper’s author.

2000: A few more articles mention the fallout from the Donnelly case. The Vancouver Sun reports that "Rachel Marsden, the Simon Fraser University student whose sexual harassment claims against swim coach Liam Donnelly led to president John Stubbs taking a dive, now assists ABC-TV co-anchor Connie Chung in New York.”

2002 – There is a brief mention of the SFU case in the Montreal Gazette, and then quiet unti November, when Marsden makes front page news in November after being charged with criminal harassment of an ex-boyfriend, Michael Morgan. Canadian newspapers run dozens of articles covering the charge; it’s one of those cases in which the media peitions for the lifting of a publication ban and there are articles on the scheduling of court appearances. Marsden’s unusual bail conditions include one forbidding her from speaking to reporters or writing about the case on her website, in order to prevent further injury to the victim. The Victoria Times-Colonist describes Marsden’s website at the time as featuring “pictures of Marsden in a variety of seductive poses alongside opinion articles that place her somewhere to the right of George W. Bush.”

2003: A 1500 word article in the National Post reports that a New Jersey-based GOP website has named Marsden "Republican Babe of the Week." The website features photos of Marsden in lingerie, previously published on her own website. The article discusses Marsden’s harassment scandals and also covers her political columns, which “rail against feminists and liberals,” in some depth. “Marsden's essays are tough, at times even nasty,” it says, “ but they are undeniably lively, and for the most part, they read well.” The article also investigates claims on Marsden’s resume and website. Her “writing” that she says has appeared in Macleans magazine and the National Post turns out to be letters to the editor. Her “work” for BCTV news was a volunteer student research position. As for her “assisting” of former ABC news anchor Connie Chung, an ABC News spokesperson says she was never employed at ABC.

2004: In the spring, about 20 articles describe how Marsden, still on bail, has been working in the constituency office of Member of Parliament Gurmant Grewal under the name “Elle Henderson” (nobody seems to notice that Marsden's bail conditions at the time forbid her from sending e-mails under any name other than her own). Grewal says, "If some individual wants to be a productive member in our society, and nothing is proven against an individual, in my judgement, I think the person should be fairly treated."

In October, Marsden makes her court appearance, pleads guilty, and is given a conditional discharge for criminal harassment of Michael Morgan. Newspapers from across the country cover the story, Also in October, the Vancouver Sun reports that a press release from Marsden says she managed the political campaign for the Grewals after her work for his constituency office ended. Gurmant Grewal describes her campaign work as, “She helped a bit as a volunteer, but not much.”

2005: In January, the CBC runs an award-winning documentary, Sticks and Stones, on the political polarization of the American media. Marsden, a regular correspondent on Fox News, is interviewed, comparing Canada's moral standards to Sodom and Gomorrah but saying her own personal background was "not relevant to what I do." The documentary points out that 80% of people whose primary news source is Fox News believe the U.S. found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and believe that the Iraq was directly involved in 9/11. Marsden is an ardent promoter of both beliefs.

In the summer, Marsden, still serving a year of probation from the Morgan case, starts writing a twice-weekly political column for the National Post; this lasts for two months. During this time, the conservative Western Standard magazine runs an article titled, “The strange allure of Ms Marsden: How does a serial stalker, convict and fraud artist end up Canada's hottest young conservative pundit? Quite easily, actually. It pores over evidence that Marsden has padded her resume and features other conservatives saying things like, "It’s just amazing that any employer would take a risk on, and associate
its credibility with, somebody with such a record of cruelty and hysteria." The article also mentions the front-page picture on her website which consists of Marsden's face Photoshopped onto a photo of Julia Roberts's body.

In November, there are a few articles saying a federal Conservative Party organizer had asked Marsden to run in the upcoming election in the riding of Toronto-Danforth.

2007: Several articles on Marsden's brief period as co-host of the new Fox News program Red Eye with Greg Gutfield. Articles include Traister's, and this summary in a review of Red Eye in the New York Times:
"They would be joined later by Rachel Marsden, a columnist for The Toronto Sun in the venomous vixen style of Ann Coulter. She’s a well-known figure in Canada, not just for her conservative punditry, but also for her controversial past: in 1995 she accused a college swim coach of sexual harassment. He was later cleared of any wrongdoing by the school. And in 2004 she pleaded guilty to harassment of a former Vancouver radio personality.

Asked what brought her in, Mr. Gutfeld said: “I think they just thought she would be a good kind of lightning rod. We did one or two rehearsals, and I know for a fact that people liked her legs.”
Rachel, meet Wikipedia. Wikipedia, Rachel.

About a year and a half ago, someone created a Wikipedia article on Rachel Marsden. It quickly grew to something described Marsden's past misadventures in detail. Those versions have all since vanished for reasons described below, however, to readers of Traister's article they would come as no surprise. The section on the SFU harassment case grew so long it was spun off into a separate article, titled Marsden-Donnelly harassment case.

A user who identified herself as Marsden tried, through the usual channels, to have her article deleted. It was noted that before this attempt, the same IP address had been used to repeatedly blank the unflattering parts of the page. With the Wikipedia community refusing to delete the article, and immediately reverting page blankings as vandalism, Marsden went to the Arbitration Committee (ArbCom). By this time, the Rachel Marsden article was described this way by one Wikipedian: "Based only on our article, a casual reader would have to conclude she is either an insane lying psycho stalker, or that our article is written by people who think she is, and have worked hard to collect and maintain material to prove it."

The Arbitration proceedings were initiated by a different person (who is now indefinitely banned from all of Wikipedia). Marsden submitted a statement and participated in the discussion. Her complaints included the following: Many editors of the article, she noted, were from Vancouver and therefore "may well be either SFU staff/alumni and/or political enemies of Grewal and/or friends and associates of Liam Donnelly." No evidence was produced about these claims, beyond the observation that one of the editors had a blog criticizing Grewal's own list of misdeeds (the contributors to the article describe themselves as coming from various parts of the country). The CBC's documentary coverage of her had to be removed, she argued, because the CBC was "the most left-leaning media entity in Canadian journalism" and was therefore biased against her. Meanwhile, a highly critical article in the Western Standard should not be used as a source, she said, because the magazine is a right-leaning publication and therefore her direct competition. The Western Standard had "a hate-on on me inspired by competitive jealousy" - not just an opinion, mind you, a hate-on.

The most recent contributors to the Marsden articles defended them as accurately reflecting credible news coverage, and conforming to Wikipedia's policies.

ArbCom bought Marsden's story. The news reports on Marsden, they said, consisted mostly of allegations against her which had not been verified. One of the ArbCom members, a retired American lawyer, equated the Canadian concept of "conditional discharge" with a state of Colorado "deferred prosecution." This is not correct; a Canadian conditional discharge requires the court to have determined that the defendant is guilty of a crime, whereas an American deferred prosecution involves no plea or verdict. (Other notable cases which resulted in a conditional discharge include Todd Bertuzzi and Svend Robinson.) Marsden's biography, said ArbCom, contained too much negative information in relation to the amount of positive or non-negative information. One editor pointed out, as politely as possible, that the absence of positive information in the article was due to lack of positive information about Marsden in any reliable publication.

ArbCom concluded that the article was "grossly unbalanced" and that negative information could be removed to restore balance to the article. A grossly unbalanced biography of a living person, they ruled, constituted an "attack page." Inclusion of a link to the Western Standard article was identified as the symptom of a "negatively biased version" of the article. The committee made no indication of how a biographical article was supposed to be evaluated for balance. Any article relating to Marsden, the committee ruled, could be speedily deleted if at any time it violated the Biographies of Living Persons policy. In most Wikipedia articles, if an error or balance problem appears in a previously clean article, the response is that someone makes an edit to correct the problem. As of November 2006, in articles relating to Rachel Marsden, the response may be to speedily delete the entire article and its Talk page.

Before the ArbCom case closed, a respected editor took a scalpel to the Rachel Marsden article, culling many details of Marsden's harassment controversies. I thought that that version would be an acceptable compromise to everyone and hoped the dispute was resolved. It had only just started.

A Moral Panic

I remembered the SFU scandal. I didn't have a newspaper subscription or a TV in 1997 (still don't, actually), but I remember walking by the newspaper boxes in the summer and reading those headlines. After that, unaware that she had become a journalist, I forgot all about Rachel Marsden until I started following this most colourful ArbCom case. As I don't enjoy writing about negative subject matter even when I think it's important, I left the Rachel Marsden debate largely to others. But what happened over the next few months eventually got me into action.

As a casual reader of the ArbCom case, I agreed with ArbCom that something needed to be done. It has been pointed out that Wikipedia articles on people tend to read like biographies, starting with a photograph and "John Doe is a....", but are often compiled by stringing together news clippings. Wikipedia "biographies" can therefore come across as if they are well-rounded accounts of a person's life, even though all that is known about the person is what has made it into the headlines. And what makes headlines is, unfortunately, usually negative and often freakish. My preference, after pondering the issue over several weeks, would have been to include a summary of each episode, while using a writing style that would not make the article read like a biography. However, the idea of solving difficult problems with a style-based approach never got a chance.

Shortly after the ArbCom case closed, an intense argument broke out at the Talk page of the Rachel Marsden article. An administrator speedily deleted the article as an attack page on Rachel Marsden, saying that not enough source material existed for a neutral article to be written about her. A shorter version was recreated from scratch; fighting continued on the Talk page. The new version had a single sentence on the 1997 SFU case and a single sentence on the 2004 case for which Marsden had served a year of probation. The second sentence has been repeatedly blanked by established Wikipedians who have called it "intrusive" or an "attack" on Marsden. Months later, a previously uninvolved, experienced editor rewrote a longer version of the article from scratch using 45 different reliable sources, and posted it. It lasted two minutes before another administrator speedily deleted it and restored the previous, shorter version.

The speedy deletion of the Rachel Marsden article was markedly out of keeping with consensus on Wikipedia. The wider Wikipedia community has voted overwhelmingly, on threeoccasions, to keep the article. Even the Arbitration Committee said they wanted an article on Rachel Marsden to exist. I could have tried to get the deletion overturned, but decided it wasn't a battle worth fighting. What peeved me more was the deletion of a second article, this one at the time titled Marsden-Donnelly harassment case.

While the article about Rachel Marsden is of debatable importance, the article about the 1997 SFU controversy is clearly important. This is part of our social history, an event which helps to explain why the world today is the way it is. One commentator noted that it drove a stake into the heart of the politically correct sexual politics of its day, leading to overdue overhauls of the way sexual harassment claims were investigated. It has been pointed out that because of the case, SFU male faculty may no longer close the door when they are alone with a female student. Marsden herself, despite years of attention, is still mostly known for the events from a decade ago: Careful reading of the media's blow-by-blow coverage of the Morgan case from 2002 to 2004 indicates that they treated very much it as an extension of the SFU scandal. The vast majority of media coverage, to this day, has introduced articles not with, "Political pundit Rachel Marsden..." but along the lines of "The woman who falsely accused a swim coach of sexual harassment in the mid 1990s..."

Wikipedia recently changed its Biographies of Living Persons policy to say that if a person is mostly known for a single event, it is more appropriate to have an article on the event than on the person. This change strikes me as perfectly sensible, but with the Marsden articles the opposite philosophy nearly prevailed: Many of the people who wanted some version of the Rachel Marsden article kept (including many ArbCom members) wanted Wikipedia's Marsden-Donnelly harassment case article deleted.

Administrators have twice deleted Marsden-Donnelly harassment case (each deletion was followed by a ten-day round of community discussion leading to overwhelming consensus that the deletion should be overturned and the article kept). Advocates of deletion said its only reason for existing was to focus on a negative episode in Marsden's life, and that the article was based on tabloid journalism and local gossip. Another Wikipedian took it upon himself to read 100 kb worth of articles in Lexis-Nexis and said:
"If we require triple-sourcing for every claim made the article would look functionally the same. If we require that each claim be sourced to only the three or four most reputable media sources in Canada the article would still look the same. If [we] require that no local newspapers be used to support the claims the article would still be functionally the same."
My off-wiki friends have often asked me why Wikipedians were so anxious to defend the person whom readers of The Province voted 1997's "Female villain of the year." My initial response was that there have always been people who feel sorry for her, but after re-reading the original sources I must say that sympathy for Marsden is a peculiarly Wikipedian phenomenon. I believe it amounted to a moral panic within the Wikipedia community, fuelled by a poor grasp of the facts, a Marsden-as-journalist frame of reference, and internal Wikipedia politics.

The frame of reference often used on Wikipedia has been that Marsden is an up-and-coming journalist who has a few skeletons in her closet, someone who like all of us has made some personal mistakes. Outside of Wikipedia, the typical frame of reference is that she is an attractive serial stalker whose false rape claim set the women's movement back by years. Eyes pop when you tell people she's now a political commentator on Fox News. Wikipedia's Marsden-centric frame of reference was most striking in the deletion debates over the Marsden-Donnelly harassment case article, which advocates of deletion argued was a "fork" of the Rachel Marsden article.

Marsden's defenders came, as far as I could tell, from across the political spectrum. However, there was a concentration of contributors who had clashed bitterly over other articles with the radically leftist, pro-Palestinian creator of the original Rachel Marsden article. This person was banned quite a while ago. However, emotional baggage continues to haunt the articles he created.

The moral panic was evident on Wikipedia's discussion pages about Rachel Marsden and the SFU case:
From a deletion advocate: "Almost all support for this article comes from Canada, and most notably Vancouver, and is apparently all male... I see the earlier versions as feminist-bashing, women-bashing, and a sort of retaliatory rape of Marsden's reputation for having made this accusation [against Liam Donnelly]."
From another deletion advocate: "Here we have a right-wing young woman being criticized almost entirely by left-wing young men, and at times being viciously and personally attacked, and her sexuality discussed."
Response from one of the previous contributors to the Rachel Marsden article: " and at times being viciously and personally attacked — would you mind terribly enlightening me where and when this happened? Citing chapter and verse of what was said about her that somehow constituted an attack? And would you mind terribly backing up that unsupported assertion that gender bashing had anything to do with it? I'm quite demonstrably one of the most ardent pro-feminists anywhere on Wikipedia, male or female, so you are hereby invited — no, actually, I take that back, it's a flat-out order, not an invitation — to retract the insinuation, intended or not, that my interest in this article had any kind of "feminist-attacking" basis. You're certainly free to think whatever the hell you want, but I'm most certainly not going to stand silent while you spread outright lies about any group of people on Wikipedia that includes me."
Response to the above contributor, from a third deletion advocate: "You mean you never supported the inclusion of a newspaper article named "The Strange Allure of Ms. Marsden: How does a serial stalker, convict and fraud artist end up Canada's hottest young conservative pundit? Quite easily, actually"? ... Hmm. If the inclusion of an article of that name isn't a 'vicious and personal attack', then I want to know what is."
From a deletion advocate, in a separate discussion: "I'm concerned that your comment implies you feel this article is important because the case sent the message to women that "if you're being sexually harassed, keep it to yourself." But your interest in this has been to criticize, or even attack, the woman who made the complaint. That's why a number of people have felt uncomfortable."
Ouch. So the people who want to cite the well-known facts about Rachel Marsden are a group of vicious, woman-bashing, left-wing anti-feminists. How many left-wing anti-feminists do you know? It is, shall we say, an uncommon combination of ideologies, but people with these beliefs have converged to write about Rachel Marsden on Wikipedia, apparently. Wikipedia has a policy, usually followed, that contributors are expected to be civil to each other. It is not OK to call another contributor an asshole, for example, and when that kind of obvious incivility has arisen in Marsden-related discussions it has been condemned or removed. However, the above comments were allowed, even though any normal person would consider it less of a chilling effect to be called an asshole than to be accused of wanting to discourage legitimate reports of sexual harassment.

Contributing to Wikipedia is a volunteer job. It is amazing that there are learned people willing to spend unpaid hours writing encylopedia articles. There are hot-topic articles with a dozen or more significant contributors, but for most articles the pool of contributors is extremely small: often only one or two people. We are incredibly lucky that good writers volunteer to write for Wikipedia; asking them to do so amongst nasty insinuations about their motives from established members of the community, while knowing that adding too many facts to the article would put it at risk of being speedily deleted, is too much. Several previous contributors to the Marsden article, and several more potential contributors, have said they have stayed away because of the hostile environment.

Canadians are not a nationalist people. But between seeing my fellow Canadian contributors lambasted, an episode of local history swept under the rug, and the best news outlets in the country dismissed as "tabloids", my apathy was chipped away: It was I who took Marsden-Donnelly harassment case twice through the process of getting it undeleted. Being female, previously uninvolved, and having even had some conflicts myself with the creator of the Rachel Marsden article, I thought I would be a good person to bring a peaceful resolution to the dispute. I was dead wrong: the last of the above quotes was directed at me.

Censorship at the Water Cooler

Wikipedia covers many controversial topics. Heated debate happens, and sometimes it is unpleasant. However, controversial articles often stabilize into good articles, with contributors able to come to agreement on fair representation of all significant points of view on the topic. Wikipedia's Talk page on the Abortion article has 27 pages of archives. Talking things out publicly works; when debate reaches an impasse someone new often arrives with a fresh perspective and helps to mediate.

In the Rachel Marsden debates, the practice of talking things out reached a snag: The Biographies of Living Persons policy applies to all pages in the site, Talk pages as well as articles. So when it came to content about Rachel Marsden that people felt was objectionable, not only was it possible to delete the content and cite Biographies of Living Persons as a justification – it was also possible to delete discussion about the content.

On Talk pages, people very rarely change each others' comments, except for cases of obvious vandalism, harassment, or libel. However, since the Rachel Marsden ArbCom case closed, contributors have taken unusual liberties in blanking legitimate and thoughtful postings from others. Here is one excerpt from a long comment which was blanked and has never been restored:
"If we apply the criteria that a scandal merits an entry only if it leads to resolution or a legal precident, it would also invalidate the entry on Stephen Glass, a journalism scandal that was not criminal but dealt with in the institution and media industry but relevant to those interested, not simply gossip to destroy one persons career--although relevant to his future credibility as a journalist."
The offices of any newspaper or journal see, every day, staff members loosen their neckties and cut loose debates that their libel lawyers would never allow outside the front door. But the very public-ness which makes Wikipedia discussions effective is also its Achille's heel when it comes to sensitive biographies: The Wikipedia community has no private staffroom, no water cooler, no place to have an uncensored discussion.

In December, an experienced Wikipedia contributor wrote on the Talk page of the Rachel Marsden article:
"One approach to article construction that has long served me well is to collect the sources first, and then to expand the article with a whole bunch of sources in hand... I suggest that editors collect a lot of good sources and cite them here before doing any expansion of the article."
Right, sources. Debates on Wikipedia should be resolved by having everyone put aside their own prejudices and focusing on what reliable sources have to say. There being no objections to this excellent suggestion, I sat down a few weeks later with my library card and searched its news databases for articles mentioning Rachel Marsden. The hundreds of results would overwhelm the main Rachel Marsden Talk page, so I created a Talk subpage and pasted the results there.

In one of the sorriest chapters of this tale, a member of the Arbitration Committee saw the subpage and speedily deleted it as a violation of Biographies of Living Persons. It was an Orwellian inversion: The Biographies of Living Persons policy, created to ensure absolute thoroughness in referencing reliable sources, was used to justify unilateral deletion of a page which consisted entirely of references to reliable sources.

Sanitized Articles

As of today, the Rachel Marsden article on Wikipedia remains stripped of key facts. In some ways, I think simplicity is better. People are more likely to read short articles, and an understated style has a certain dignity. However, the article leaves too much out. There is barely a hint that Marsden has what some people consider to be a credibility problem. The Western Standard story and the CBC documentary are essentially banned as sources by the Arbitration Commiteee; nearly half the article is sourced to and

The Marsden-Donnelly harassment case article is also in poor shape. To put an end to the delete/restore cycle, an editor retitled it to Simon Fraser University 1997 harassment controversy and removed many details. The intention, which was a good one, was that the article would be rebuilt to focus on the institutional and social impact of the case rather than the lives of the participants. It was a good intention, but has not yet been acted upon, perhaps because no reasonable editor is willing to work under the current conditions. No summary has been added to replace the details removed. The article on Gurmant Grewal does not currently mention Marsden and it probably should, but adding something there would make the entire article subject to the ArbCom remedies including speedy deletion.

Is this an indication for the future of Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is not known for sanitized articles. Wikipedia policies call for neutral articles with complete coverage of their subject matter, and as its top 100 list demonstrates, Wikipedia is not censored for minors or for religious sensitivities. However, Wikipedia's handling of the Rachel Marsden case is not entirely surprising.

The Arbitration Committee, a volunteer group appointed by Wikipedia founder Jimbo Wales, generally comments on the conduct of Wikipedia writers and administrators without commenting on content. Rather than dictate what articles will say, the committee usually sticks to answering questions such as, "Are users being civil to each other?" "Are users working together towards consensus, or endlessly reverting each other's edits?". The philosophy is that if conduct problems are kept in check, better content will naturally be the result. Keeping a distance from content enables the Arbitration Committee to resolve disputes on a range of subjects that no normal person could be an expert in: everything from the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict to alternative medicine to pagan music festivals.

In this ruling, the Arbitration Committee stepped beyond its usual boundaries. ArbCom usually does not dictate content and does not set policy. Except here. Did ArbCom know that they were acting beyond their mandate? Probably yes, and my guess is they felt they were justified in doing so because of a belief that biographies of living people are different.

Of course biographies of living people are different. The consequences of getting an article wrong about a real human being are legally and ethically far more serious than with articles about, say, polar bears. Jimbo Wales has said, "We must get the article right." The question is, on a wiki, how do articles about living people become right? For nearly all articles, they become right through the unintuitively effective method of letting anyone edit them and practicing civil, egalitarian discussion when conflicts occur. But for contentious articles about living people, as happened here, there is what amounts to a declaration that the method doesn't work.

I want to emphasize that the basic premises of the Biographies of Living Persons policy, which are accuracy, neutrality, and respect for privacy, are sound and important. For the crackpot libel that Biographies of Living Persons was designed to deal with, it works well. However, its recent interpretation is creating an environment favouring the suppression of legitimate criticism of public figures, and not just Rachel Marsden. Contentious speedy deletions of biographical articles happen quite frequently, often at the request of the subject. Recent examples include an article about Canadian white supremacist Melissa Guille and an article about Giovanni di Stefano, best known for being Saddam Hussein's lawyer. (Both articles have since been rewritten from scratch).

The Biographies of Living Persons policy applies only to individuals, not to institutions such as corporations or governments, which would be comforting were it not for the fact that institutions are made up of living people. The policy has been cited, for example, to successfully justify removal of content which was critical of a corporation named for its proprietor.

So here we are. In an icon of openness and intellectual vigour, we have top-down censorship, fact-checking that consists of raising one's eyebrows and murmuring, "She can't be that bad," and a subculture promoting ignorance. I know of no way to change it from within. Until the pendulum swings back, I believe there will be a gradual erosion of Wikipedia's reputation for telling it like it is. As a Wikipedia reader I consider that reputation to be already gone.


Canuckle said... for thought. I may not agree with everything you say, but I sure wish I had read this before putting effort into trying to make her wikipedia article neutral, balanced and sourced. Despite the yards of debate on the article, no one has even troubled to write a brief assessment summarizing what the article's needs are or its minefields. There's little hope that a new editor like myself could fathom where it's safe to make changes that won't get deleted.

oliver said...

Very astute observations. I haven't heard of the term "moral panic" before but it fits a lot of comments that fuel this drive to purge Wikipedia from objectionable material.

tierry said...

Thanks for an excellent article. It`s truly a disgrace how Marsden manipulated Wikipedia around her finger to whitewash her documented, factual scandal-ridden past.

There is so much I want to say about this.

Michelle said...

I used to—and still want to--see Wikipedia as a beautiful force. It literally brings “power to the people” – by making knowledge available to everyone and taking the creation of knowledge away from “experts”.

The case of the Marsden article is disappointing, to say the least. It shows that Wikipedia is subject to manipulation by a small group. Instead of being a beacon of hope, Wikipedia now looks as vulnerable as every non-profit organization that I’ve ever been part of or reported on (as a former journalist). They all end up self destructing, often because of a small group.

The motivation behind the censorship may be a “moral panic” among editors, but the motivation isn’t important. It is simply the tool available to this particular small group who wants to control what people know about Rachel Marsden.

What is important about this case is that the systems that Wikipedia created were not solid enough to withstand an attack by a lone individual (and her insane or deluded followers). Just like SFU, Wikipedia needs to take a long look itself to make sure it can never be scammed again.

Marsden is an embarrassment to Canadian and BC women of our generation. She damaged women’s credibility with her false claims, she hurt the individuals she stalked, and now she’s damaging the noble institution of Wikipedia. Please, Wikipedia, rise above this manipulation.

michelle said...

Others seem to have the same idea that Wikipedia is too vulnerable to crazies.

See Citizendium, which I stumbled across at The Tyee.

Any thoughts?

oliver said...

From a quick glance, I don't think Citizendium will solve the festering problem that became manifest in the fight about the Marsden/SFU article, although it might solve other problems, e.g. reduce the rampant vandalism on Wikipedia. The main activists trying to remove the Marsden/SFU article had admin privleges on Wikipedia or even more elevated positions. There is no formal requirement for adminship, but on average they tend to be better educated than the random Wikipedia editor. The problem in this case is probably better characterized as the "vested contributor" problem. Wikipedia is governed by editors who spent a significant portion of their day on Wikipedia for a considerable timespan. During that time, vested contributors tend to internalize the Wikipedia ruleset and lose touch with the outside world. This creates a very common group dynamic which in its worst case scenario leads to a groupthink situation which pitches vested contributors against the Wikipedia footsoldiers. The ongoing "moral panic" that tries to suspend Wikipedia's content policies and notability requirement is just an example of such a standoff. And as the number of vested contributors increases this problem can only be expected to get worse.

Kla'quot said...

There were highly educated people on both sides. Citizendium doesn't exclude crazy people, only less-educated crazy people.

The Arbitration Commitee, and the people who were trying to get the article on the SFU scandal deleted, included many intelligent people who are dedicated volunteers. It is inevitable that very intelligent and well-educated people sometimes make inept decisions, and what makes Wikipedia interesting is that the wisdom of the masses usually manages to correct the errors of individuals.

The Wikipedia community is actually pretty resilient when it comes to dealing with crazies, as demonstrated in its science articles which are mostly free of pseudoscience and creationism. In the Marsden case, several factors led to the breakdown of the usual self-correcting tendency of a wiki.

I think the Wikipedia community can figure out how to better deal with cases like this. The Wikimedia Foundation recently hired Mike Godwin as its legal counsel, who might be a breath of fresh air. The community will only solve the problem though if it recognizes that it has a problem, which might not happen without strong criticism from the mainstream media and academics.

Kla'quot said...

However, I should say that what happened in this story is not an isolated incident. The themes here touch on some systemic problems in the Wikipedia community, such as people uncritically following respected leaders rather than evaluating facts for themselves, and the "vested contributor" problem that Oliver described. These problems exist in the Wikipedia community as they do, well, in every organization.

oliver said...

The purge has reached the Ward Churchill scandal:
Deletion review (after speedy deletion) | Follow-up deletion discussion

Anonymous said...

The Toronto Sun has just fired Marsden.

Anonymous said...

Wikipedia says she doesn't exist anymore, as of Jan 6 or 7, 2008. Nor can anyone create such an article.

The latest widely-reported stalking allegations by Tony Backhurst seem to have been the impetus.

Kla'quot said...

Yup, welcome to the world of speedy deletion :)

It's being challenged here.

I haven't gotten around to commenting yet. My feeling is that it's better to have no article than to have a sanitized one. The other Google results are better than what the Wikipedia article usually contained.

Anonymous said...

You mention Mike Godwin, but consensus then and now seems to be that this is an ethical rather than a legal issue.

You should expand this blog entry to include recent events. Would be resourceful as a comprehensive BLP case study.

Kla'quot said...

Thanks for your note. Recent events have indeed been interesting -- would you like to write a posting yourself? It's the wiki way :)

Anonymous said...

Why are you obsessed with Marsden? You seem very psycho, spending all this time writing anonymous things about her on the Internet. Not healthy at all.

Filll said...

This is all interesting. The more I read about this woman the more disgusted I am. I am a Canadian who lives in the US, but I have not heard of Marsden until just now. However, what I think Canadians do not quite realize when they read Wikipedia articles of living people, is that there is a substantial litigation risk. Wikipedia does not have the types of resources that can help it survive American-style litigation, which is far different than lawsuits in Canada. I suspect that Wikipedia is treated differently than real news organizations in the eyes of American law as well. And it does not matter if the person bringing the suit has no case; just the expense of dealing with a baseless case can destroy an organization like Wikipedia. And so, you end up with behavior that looks ridiculous from the outside, as Wikipedia struggles to avoid serious legal exposure. And as long as Wikipedia is an American company, this is going to be reality.

Kla'quot said...

Maybe the Wikimedia Foundation could seek a big donor who doesn't release any cash up-front, but who pledges to cover the legal costs of frivolous lawsuits if needed. Then we could just follow the law instead of having to jump at the mere prospect of a lawsuit.

oliver said...

The Foundation retains the right to remove material that would subject them to lawsuits. There is in fact a mechanism where individuals can request removal of objectionable material, including from the edit history, and it happens routinely. But there is a difference between an objectionable edit, which is a static thing, and a whole article, which on Wikipedia is a dynamic thing. The decision on which subjects are covered in an article generally remains with the community, or at least has in the past. The Marsden story on Wikipedia is an example of the ArbCom, and a group of entrenched administrators, trying to usurp that power from the community at large by intervening in content discussions and using their status and tools to push through their decisions.