Wikipedia occupies a position of unique significance on the internet. Often the first point of reference for the uninformed enquirer, its articles are inordinately influential: potentially millions will turn to them for information which they expect to be both brief and holistic, engaging yet neutral. For anyone familiar with the political climate of the University of Sydney, this mandate will seem almost laughable—barely is there a topic, from the resident ibis population to policy on campus assault, that does not attract contention. How then, on a topic so heavily contested, and in a broader political climate where the idea of truth is losing its objective underpinnings, do USyd’s Wikipedia pages come to exist?
As an institution which has come to act as the de facto repository of human knowledge, Wikipedia has an editorial policy which, at first, seems alarmingly relaxed. The vast majority of the 40 million articles hosted on the website can be edited by anybody with an internet connection, either by creating an account or logging in using an IP address.
Users are allowed to edit profiles of prominent public figures or institutions, articles with slightly more stringent, ‘semi-protected’ editing policies, after four days as a registered user and ten confirmed edits—hardly an insurmountable barrier. But, upon closer inspection, it’s precisely this democratic liberalism which tethers Wikipedia to the anchor of objectivity—competing views constrain each other in equilibrium, eventually settling on an agreed version of reality.
A large part of this process is taken up by censoring the kind of shitposting which pervades all areas of the Internet. One such example is an edit made to the article for St Paul’s College in August 2008 by an IP address registered to the Australian National University, which, amongst a slew of homophobic changes, listed the College as “Australia’s oldest gay night bar.” Only last month, this reputable paper and you, its readership, underwent similar abuse: Honi’s political affiliation was changed to read “left-wing circle jerk” and its circulation changed from “4,000” to “200 on a good day, with maybe 10 normies.”
Of course, the battle against bias on Wikipedia doesn’t begin and end in acrimony. For anyone with a stake in the public perception of a particular person or institution, the corresponding Wikipedia article can be of enormous allure. Most articles are typically within the first two or three Google results and are responsible for countless first impressions. As such, it’s hardly surprising that many have amended their Wikipedia articles to bolster public image. Such practices are pervasive in politics; the 2008 U.S presidential election saw both candidates positively amend their respective articles, while in the same year an Israeli political action committee launched a campaign to promote Zionist ideals across Wikipedia. This phenomenon represents one of the few areas where Wikipedia holds strict policy; its conflict of interest guidelines aim to prevent it from being used for marketing purposes.
Vandalism and self-promotion aside, the bulk of editing on Wikipedia is ostensibly done in the name of equity. Most users add and remove content based on a belief that the content they leave represents reasonable objectivity. The real difficulties arise when these beliefs diverge significantly.
Between July and August last year, two users, both based in Sydney, conducted a systematic revision of Australian university Wikipedia pages to include newfound statistics on campus sexual assault uncovered by Channel 7 and the Australian Human Rights Commission. A few days later, another user, registered to an IP address held by the Department of Finance Western Australia, removed the edits, commenting “not notable”, before doing the same the next week, adding “not news, not controversial — removed.” The unnamed user employed the same method across multiple university pages, punctuating each erasure with a contemptuous “nope” or “spam.”
While such censorship betrays a distinctly unjust attachment to editorial conservatism, in other cases, Wikipedia policy is supportive of similar edits. Between June and July in 2015, attempts were made to remove amendments made to the USyd article concerning the Vice Chancellor, Michael Spence. Despite being well sourced and fairly presented, details which noted the controversy of internal university budgetary cuts while Spence received bonuses to his five-figure salary were culled on the basis that they violated Wikipedia’s Biography of Living Persons policy, which guards Wikipedia’s status as an encyclopedia, “not a tabloid.” The controversy was buried for a few weeks, before it resurfaced — clearly not scandalous enough to constitute tabloid content.
As the internet writhes under the onslaught of fake news, doctored videos and divisive content, Wikipedia serves as a reminder of how consensus requires constant collaboration. Strands of radicalism and deception are destined to pervade the internet — particularly where USyd is involved. And as the inexorable tangle of stupol drama continues to unravel with USU board elections next month, it may prove wise to be on guard against those posting from an IP address near you.