Wikipedia is hugely influential. Search online for any term or historical event and Wikipedia will typically appear within the top three results. Journalists admit to habitually using the site as a starting place for further research and most students use Wikipedia for the same reasons.
This makes it massively influential in cultural and political debates. Yet Wikipedia suffers from a fundamental flaw: an over-reliance on academic sources which are ideologically driven.
Wikipedia works because its editors rely upon what it defines as ‘Reliable Sources’. These sources can be newspaper articles, books or periodicals. Many of the behind-the-scenes arguments on Wikipedia pages debate what is or is not a ‘Reliable Source’ and assess whether it has been correctly summarised.
The founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales explained:
‘Journalists all use Wikipedia. The bad journalist gets in trouble because they use it incorrectly; the good journalist knows it’s a place to get oriented and to find out what questions to ask. … We really look for reliable sources — we’ll say, for example, that just because someone wrote something in a blog somewhere, that doesn’t mean it’s a reliable source. We need to get sources, you know, that are quite old-fashioned about it. We’re looking for good-quality academic journals, books, newspapers, magazines — we’d prefer serious newspapers to tabloid newspapers and those kinds of things’.
The gold-standard for a Reliable Source is a peer-reviewed academic journal or academic review of a book or periodical. These trump opinion pieces or articles by laymen, including journalists. In principle this makes sense: one would trust Professor Christopher Clarke’s view on WW1 over the journalist Max Hastings. But this only works so long as the academics are balanced in their outlook and committed to truth. But academia, particularly the humanities and social sciences, is rapidly becoming an echo chamber for the far left.
Professor Jonathan Haidt has demonstrated that in the 1960s US academics voted Democrat over Republican at a rate of 2 to 1. This remained the same until the 1990s, whereupon there was a rapid shift brought on by baby boomers retiring. By 2016 the ratio was somewhere between 17 and 60 to 1 in favour of Democrats. Ideological balance had gone out of the window. Worse still, many in the humanities and social sciences embraced postmodernism, where social justice replaced truth as the principal mission of the academy.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
This ideological echo chamber led in predictably radical directions, including an explosion in radical left leaning argumentation supporting identity politics and the development of disciplines such as Critical Race Theory, Gender and Whiteness studies. The teaching of these theories, and the paucity of any criticism of them in the academy, corrupted public debate.
Alongside the popular expression of these theories came attempts to shut down critique of them as racist, sexist or homophobic. Students demanded safe spaces from debate, telling critics of their beloved theories to “Check their privilege”. In short, there was an explosion of political correctness designed to inhibit debate.
This brings us to Wikipedia. Given the volume of academic material supporting controversial theories like White Privilege, the Wikipedia pages covering these topics are naturally full of reference to supportive academics as Reliable Sources. Popular criticism is almost entirely absent.
Criticism is sidelined by ideologically driven editors as bringing ‘false balance’, or woven into articles in a way that diminishes the fundamental nature of the objections. Conservative opinion pieces are belittled and critics nullified as ‘not understanding what the terms really mean’. What’s more, the ‘lead’, the opening summary paragraphs of a Wikipedia article, is almost always devoid of reference to criticism.
All this leads to the impression that controversial topics have found a consensus and are mainstream. Critics of them therefore must be suspect, perhaps even Alt-Right. Examples include pages dedicated to White Privilege, Whiteness Studies and Islamophobia. Even the page on Social Justice Warriors, meant as a term of criticism, is written from a radical left wing perspective and denigrates those who use it.
It was assumed that the greatest strength of Wikipedia was that its contributors chose which area they wanted to write about, which, in theory, means they would work co-operatively to produce content where they are most qualified to do so. On the contrary, editors motivated by social justice patrol Wikipedia purely to destroy conservative or centrist content.
Wikipedia is a wonderful resource, but its editorial practices need to be more transparent if it is to stop being a tool for postmodernists. Until Wikipedia comes down from its left-leaning ivory tower, conservatives and classic liberals should view it with extreme caution.