Last month, The Review reported from the vaults of Wikipedia’s Museum of Defamation, otherwise known as the Biographies of Living Persons Archives. We examined the ease by which character assassinations and misinformation against individuals can be propagated via the power of Wikipedia.
Most of our sample findings from the archives detailed obvious problems eventually resolved after repeated demands for attention from administrators; but many other complaints concern more subtle forms of defamation, not easily identifiable to the average Wikipedian.
In January 2008, the Australian journalist Ed O’Loughlin wrote a long response that appeared in the deletion debate of his Wikipedia biography. In the correspondence, O’Loughlin stated why he was requesting deletion, and why he, like many others, would rather not have his reputation tested by a project as volatile and prone to abuse as Wikipedia.
Ed O’Loughlin is not a notable subject by traditional encyclopedia standards. Information on the journalist is scarce, but his role as a Middle East Correspondent naturally places him under scrutiny from right wing pro-Israeli groups. This meant that Wikipedians with agendas were able to create an article on the writer which included little else but a series of loose criticisms sourced to a partisan pro-Israel website.
During the “deletion debate” over the article’s future, O’Loughlin’s found himself doing battle with a host of anonymous critics demanding that the biography remain against his wishes. This led O’Loughlin to bring up the issue of Wikipedia’s peculiar culture of anonymity:
My point about anonymous contributions is that, in terms of justice, people have the right to know who is making accusations against them. Otherwise we are back to the Star Chamber, Spanish Inquisition etc model of anonymous denunciation. Anonymity is only a good thing if it protects free voices or whistle-blowers from oppression, which is clearly not the case here.
Despite the biography finally being deleted from Wikipedia on the grounds that it was little more than “a coat rack about various criticisms that have been made of him“, it remains easily discoverable on various external sites that mirror Wikipedia’s content — yet another disturbing consequence of Wikipedia’s lax attitude to controversial content.
Below is Ed O’Loughlin’s posting to the deletion debate, where he accurately describes many of Wikipedia’s core flaws.
Dear whoever you all are
My name is Ed O’Loughlin - this is my real name, I stress - and I am the subject of this article.
The article as it has appeared in its various manifestations in recent months is a starkly one-sided attack on my personal and professional character which is based entirely on highly partisan sources and falsehoods. The moving forces behind it are anonymous people who do not have the integrity to reveal their identities or interests, and whose malicious intent is quite clear from their contributions to the discussion pages and their vandalisation of posts expressing differing views.
I note that the article has already been deleted once on precisely these grounds, and I am puzzled as to why it has now been re-instated. If it were published in the “old media” - which is to say, by people who have to publicly stand over and justify what they say and suffer the potentially severe personal consequences, such as loss of livelihood - it would clearly be actionable.
Please note that my work has been repeatedly critiqued in the public domain in Australia for the past five years and in that time not one factual error or instance of bias has been substantiated. Please also note that every newspaper reporter covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has to stand up to a level of vexatious attack from interest groups and ethnic partisans unknown in any other posting. Nevertheless, all the complaints against me to our internal ombudsmen and to the Australian Press Council have been dismissed as entirely without merit, including one (Press Council number 1305, December 2005) which went to full arbitration. My employers, whose commitment to truth in journalism comes second to no media organisation in Australia or indeed the world, has seen fit to extend my contract here from the original two years to five years and counting.
I am, overall, an admirer of the Wikipedia project but I am disturbed to see how easily it can be manipulated by those hell-bent on imposing their personal beliefs, without regard to balance or empirical truth. I recently watched an episode of the Colbert Report in which the presenter demonstrated the pitfalls of what he terms “wikiality” by editing the page on African elephants to assert that their numbers are exploding. I now understand what he meant.
I am requesting that this article be deleted. If anybody wants to write about me in future I would expect them to at least have the courtesy and guts to put their real name to their writing, as do I. If the article is not deleted I expect this letter be prominently displayed both on the front page and on the discussion page, and that the letter be protected from the vandalism which has been such a marked feature of this supposed debate.
Yours, Ed O’Loughlin, Middle East Correspondent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age