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The Biographies of Living People problem

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Wikipedia Reviewer DocGlasgow wrote this essay on Wikipedia last week, attempting to address the major problems facing Wikipedia’s treatment of Biographies of Living People (BLPs). These articles are at the front line of Wikipedia’s culture of defamation and anonymous revenge. DocGlasgow’s full study can be found here.

DocGlasgow : To solve or mitigate a problem, you must first define it. This page is a workshop with the intention of trying to answer “What is the BLP problem(s)?”. Suggestions on the talk page are very welcome.

Ways in which a biographical article can be harmful to the subject

By harmful I mean either legally or ethically: that which may cause unjustifiable and avoidable harm or distress to the subject.

1. Un-reverted nonsense

(Including bad-faith personal attacks, and patently obvious untruths).

Vandalism is probably the aspect most easily understood by Wikipedians, it includes articles which have been blanked, filled with nonsense, or include obvious abuse. Although this is perhaps the category on which most article patrolers focus, it is usually the least harmful to the subject. Contrary to popular opinion, abusive commentary (”tom smith is an asshole”) or patent untruth that would deceive none (”Britney comes from mars” “Prince Philip is really a woman”) are highly unlikely to be legally actionable, and although it may embarrass or annoy the subject, actually reflect worse on Wikipedia than they do on the target. Verdict — whilst the crime-prevention element of vandal slayers are obsessed with it, it is in fact mostly harmless.

2. False allegations

Here we are talking about the untrue, but credible, allegation inserted into an article. Some of these may be intended as vandalism, others may have more malicious intentions. Whatever the case, these may cause the Foundation legal concern (it is not the point of this examination to consider the Foundation’s immunity). More importantly, they can be distressing to the subject, or indeed patently damaging to the reputation, career, or commercial interests of the individual. Whilst false allegations and rumours are the stuff of the internet, the fact that Wikipedia is a self-described “encyclopedia” which protests a commitment to factual accuracy, may lend credibility to untruths. Mirrors and google may perpetuate the lies even if it is removed from Wikipedia. Verdict – highly harmful.

3. Biased editing

Here we are talking about an article or section which may be factual at any given point, but presents a false or misleading overall picture. This is the hatchet job. Hatchet jobs are not always self-evident, since the tone that describes each item can appear neutral and well-referenced. However, undue weight may be given to minor negative facts, and/or positive counterbalance omitted entirely. “Nelson Mandela is a convicted South African terrorist, who spent many years in the criminal justice system, and, for many years, advocated violence.” It may also include articles that extensively quote critics and criticism.

Although Wikipedia has a strong commitment to NPOV, certain aspects of Wikipedia can work in favour of the biased editor. Wikipedia’s reluctance to remove verifiable facts means that a detractor can insert a list of unflattering information, and providing it is well-sourced and neutrally described, it is unlikely to be challenged. The view that negative weight is best countered by positive information being added rather than information being removed can result in bias, as the detractor is not obliged to insert the positive, and no-one else may have the motivation or knowledge.

Such articles are probably not libellous, but are certainly harmful to reputations, and can be highly distressing. Again, Wikipedia’s claim to neutrality may lend a credibility to a hatchet job that might be dismissed as biased if appearing on a less-credible website. Also particularly dangerous is the fact that clever, sourced and apparently neutrally worded, biased editing is less likely to fall foul of Wikipedia’s checks and balances than simple unsourced untruths. Verdict — highly harmful.

4. Privacy violation

This is information which is true, but not generally broadcasted. It may include dates of birth, birth names, contact details, school records, family details, and other information not generally available. Often this information is either unverifiable, or only verifiable from primary sources not easily found. Often this information is placed in the article from the personal knowledge of the editor concerned, who may or may not have malicious intent.

Although unverified information is not permitted on Wikipedia, it is not always obvious to patrollers that the information is not of a public nature. Thus this information may remain in the article until the subject complains, by which time it is effectively published. Verdict — highly harmful.

5. Undue broadcasting

This is where information that is verifiable, but is only published and notable at a local level is effectively broadcast through Wikipedia. Wikipedia ought to be about recording what is already notable, not about making notable what is otherwise still parochial. To take an example, a story published in a small-town paper with careless fact checking may be ignored by larger newspapers, and rejected by biographers, but it may be hard to eliminate from Wikipedia, as an “according to the small town gazette …” story is sourced and verifiable. Verdict — somewhat harmful.

Why Wikipedia struggles with BLPs

In theory, Wikipedia shouldn’t have a problem with BLPs. If it maintains its biographies in a neutral and verifiable fashion, then the subject can have no cause for complaint. He doesn’t want the truth published? So what?

However, there are certain aspects of the way Wikipedia generates and maintains content that cause it particular problems with biographical subjects.


Wikipedia is generally eventualist. If an article subject is deemed in principle worthy of an article, Wikipedia prefers to keep the article, in the hope that “eventually” someone will improve it. Bad articles can be currently embarrassing, but Wikipedia excuses them as “works in progress”.

This just doesn’t work well for biographies. A bad biography now is damaging the subject now. Plus, whilst a neutral editor may “eventually” turn up and fix it, retaining the article is often simply an invitation for the determined non-neutral editor to persist.

BLP patrollers are often frustrated with inclusionists saying that “this needs to be fixed, not deleted”, because a) no-one steps up to fix it, b) even if bad material is removed, the patroller is left to watch the article indefinitely, while the keep voter moves on. Whilst people reverting simple vandalism can avoid content disputes, people watching for BLP find themselves continually dragged into “what’s wrong with my edits?” debates that wear them down, and tie them up from continuing their patrolling.

Lack of eyes

Wikipedia works by a theory that articles reach neutrality by a wide number of editors working on them. If someone edits Scientology in a biased way, there are plenty of people ready to revert or improve – and they won’t all despise Scientology. Equally it works by the idea that knowledgeable people will look at articles, so that non-apparent falsehoods will be spotted.

However, the less notable the article is, the more prone it is to fewer people being interested, and the more chance there is that the few interested parties will all be biased. Further, if the bias is not immediately obvious, there is less chance with less notable subjects of anyone knowledgeable spotting it.

Many of our biographies are of low-notability subjects, and thus incredibly vulnerable to the motivated biased editor. Further, if the biased or false editing is clever (and particularly if it understands Wiki rules, and includes apparent sourcing), it is unlikely to be spotted on a low-notability biography. At the same time, low-notability biographies are often potentially the most damaging when got wrong, as they may be the only accessible on-line source of biographical information on the subject, and thus opinion-forming in a way that Wikipedia’s entry on George W. Bush is unlikely to be.

This is where notorious Wikipedia BLP cases such as articles on Daniel Brandt etc. are bad examples of the problem. When an article becomes that notorious, it will have a host of eyes on it, and a higher chance of bias and untruth being removed.

The less notable the subject:

  1. The less alternative information online. Thus the damage of the bad wiki-bio becomes proportionately bigger.
  2. The less eyes (watchlists) on the article and the greater chance of bad stuff remaining unspotted.
  3. The less chance of Wikipedians knowing enough about the subject to spot less obvious bias or untruths.
  4. The more chance that a POV pusher will be left unchecked.
  5. Once problems are identified, the less chance of anyone caring enough to monitor the article.

Anonymous (and pseudonymous) editing

The Wikipedia Foundation claims that it is not legally responsible for any libels in articles, but that the user posting the libel is. However, most people posting to Wikipedia hide under pseudonyms or at best identifiable IPs (who are ironically less “anons” then most other users). Now, anonymity does not unnecessarily protect against libel liability, as court orders can, in theory, retrieve information from ISP and WMF.

However, the feeling of immunity that anonymous editing allows can remove one of the basic deterrents against the publication of libellous material on Wikipedia. Anonymity, in this regard, mitigates not only against the subject but can also work against neutral editing. This seems particularly problematic when the reputation of the subject is at stake, but that of his detractor (who may be a notable critic outside Wikipedia), is not.

Obstacles for the harmed subject

The first problem for the subject is that complaining about an article is “after the fact”. No one should be libelled, harassed or abused by Wikipedia. However, if a subject is making a legitimate complaint that has already happened, Wikipedia has an ethical, if not a legal obligation to make sure its powerful web-presence “does no harm” - yet the community tends (and then only grudgingly) to allow methods to remove and mitigate against harm once caused. The community does not accept arguments that would curtail its editorial freedom in order to prevent harm.

The second problem for the subject with a legitimate complaint is that no-one is required to do anything to assist him. The Foundation rejects any legal responsibility, and no-one in a volunteer community is under any obligation to help in any way. The libelled subject is, in effect, begging for charity.

The third problem is that, even if willing, no individual has any power to adjudicate his case and offer mitigation. There is no centralised authority or editorial control. An OTRS op must work within set policies, and even if personally convinced by the subject of the justice of the case, can pretty much be reverted by someone who sees things differently.

A subject unhappy with his biography may pursue two methods to attempt resolution. 1) e-mailing OTRS 2) interacting on wiki.

Difficulty with OTRS

The primary difficulty with OTRS is often the mismatch between the complainant’s reasonable belief that he is corresponding with an “editorial authority” and the fact that OTRS volunteers have little actual editorial control.

Where an article contains obvious libels, or unsourced negative material, it is reasonably simply for the OTRS volunteer to remove the material under the BLP policy. However, the apology offered for the libellous article cannot be accompanied with any promise that the offence will not reoccur.

There is an imbalance between a hard-pressed OTRS volunteer, trying to be helpful, but dealing with dozens of articles per day, and an often highly-motivated agenda-pusher (or multiples) who are likely to return to the scene of the crime hours, days, or months later. If the article is low-notability, or the issues complex, it is almost impossible to interest neutral Wikipedians to become involved, and certainly to sustain involvement to the level that the motivated detractor is likely to sustain.

Where an article is a reasonably written and sourced hatchet job, the problems are greater. First, the OTRS volunteer has to be willing and able to take the time to acquaint himself with the subject, read and assess the sources, and decide whether the article is neutral. This is difficult as

  1. the complainant is often listing numerous alternative sources which the volunteer is invited to consider
  2. it is often difficult to distinguish a complaint about a plausibly written hatchet job from a complaint about a fairly neutral article which is not written the way the subject wants
  3. if the OTRS volunteer intervenes, he will be viewed as a content editor and need to constantly explain his edits and argue the case - this is really asking a lot

Difficulty with wiki involvement

The other option for the subject is to personally edit the article or otherwise complain on wiki. This poses a number of problems.

  1. Why should he have to do this?
  2. He will be expected to play by the wiki-rules. His detractor may well-know these already, whereas he does not. He is playing at a disadvantage.
  3. The community is far more likely to react negatively to any lack of civility, legal threats, blanking or out-of-process approaches, than to investigate allegations of libel or bias (particularly if these are apparently sourced and well-written). A libelled subject begins by being angry, not knowing the protocol, feeling legally offended, wanting immediately to remove all harmful content, and having no wiki-friends. It is not much wonder he quickly find himself in the role of bad (or banned) user. See WP:DOLT.
  4. Conflict of interest rules play against him.

The Need for permanent vigilance

Even if the subject manages to obtain a correction, there is no guarantee the correction will persist, since at any future time, any editor (or the same motivated character assassin) can reintroduce false or harmful material. No long term monitoring of the article can be guaranteed by OTRS or the community, and the only way the subject can ensure that the article remains fair is to daily monitor it himself, and then go through the same stressful processes if problems re-occur.

Permanent vigilance may seem an unreasonable burden to place on the subjects of a quarter million BLPs. And is certainly not required if one obtains a correction from any other publication.

Underlying issues

Lack of responsibility

a. attitude of entitlement: Wikipedia’s users often seem to exhibit a belief in the right to publish anything that isn’t specifically illegal or actionable. Wikipedia demands little or no responsibility from those who are given the power of publishing information on perhaps the world’s largest reference source. Calls for responsibility and restraint are routinely dismissed as censorship or an infringement of free speech. Whereas most large publications are restrained by journalistic codes of ethics in addition to legal advisers. Matters of taste, decency, fairness, and considerations such as what may displease the reader/customer also limit effective freedom. Wikipedians consistently reject such considerations.

b. lack of community responsibility: The notion that the editor publishing libel is legally responsible for that publication, and the Foundation’s rejection of any vicarious liability, often leads Wikipedians to the conclusion that Wikipedia bears no corporate responsibility for harm caused and is under no real moral or legal obligation to engage in harm reduction. Thus, when changes are proposed that might alleviate harm to subjects, the focus immediately falls on the perceived harm to the project, or to the ‘wiki’ principle of free editing, rather than the potential benefits to BLP victims. The tendency is to think “not our fault, and not our problem.” However, if individuals publish libels, it is Wikipedia’s structures that allow them to be published, and there is a moral onus on the Wikipedian community to put in place the correct checks and balances to minimise harm.

Privileging of wiki-norms over real-norms

Breaches of wiki-norms such as civility, consensus and process tend to be of more concern to Wikipedians than issues that affect real people in the real world. The treatment of a justifiably angry subject who after being libelled attempts to amend his biography is a clear example of this. Far more concern is exhibited over the fact that someone is threatening to sue for slander, than the (perhaps obvious) fact that they are being slandered.


Wikipedia has 250,000 biographies on living people. It never asks “can we maintain these?” or “are we taking all reasonable steps to ensure they are not harming people?” The assumed benefits of allowing anyone to create an article, and anyone to edit it, and keeping articles on thousands of low-notability individuals (even after previous libels have been identified) are assumed to outweigh the cost in terms of damage to the subjects. However, no risk assessment is ever made, because Wikipedians do not bear the risk. In any cost/benefit analysis, the cost are to others, and the benefits to the editors.

“This article can be fixed” syndrome

Almost any subject can be written about in a broadly neutral and factual manner. Almost any article can be “fixed”. However, this obvious fact is often used to effectively negate any mention of the systemic problems. Those concerned about BLPs damaging people are challenged to be specific, and then the specific case is fixed, and the complainer told that no problem remains.

However, the fact remains that we have thousands of unreferenced bios. A percentage of them will be libellous, and a larger percentage grossly unfair. Where is the urgent task force fixing that?

Some statistics

User: B. Wolterding : Doc asked for some number crunching regarding the maintenance tags on BLP articles. Well, here are the top 10 maintenance categories that BLP articles fall into. (All data as of March 12, 2008.)

Maintenance category # articles percentage
Total BLP articles (Category:Living people) 259210 100.00%
Category:Articles lacking sources 13908 5.37%
Category:Articles with unsourced statements 13740 5.30%
Category:Articles needing additional references 5475 2.11%
Category:Orphaned articles 3157 1.22%
Category:Articles to be expanded 2511 0.97%
Category:Articles with topics of unclear notability 1971 0.76%
Category:Articles lacking reliable references 1918 0.74%
Category:Articles with trivia sections 1510 0.58%
Category:Wikipedia articles needing style editing 1420 0.55%
Category:Articles lacking in-text citations 860 0.33%


Written by The Review

April 15th, 2008 at 9:03 am

Posted in BLP Issues

23 Responses to 'The Biographies of Living People problem'

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  1. This article is well-written and explains exactly why my friend Allan Mattsson and I were so upset when we removed some libelous materials and added references, only to have “shutterbun” who has regularly libelled me and those like me on newsgroups, revert and then report me and Allan as bad-tempered and threatening, etc. The upshot was that my biography, which was a good source for many who sought information about Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy conspiracy issue, to be removed after some five years on Wikipedia, during which half that time the article (written by a detratctor) had been rife with inaccuracies and slanderous statements 9which still exist on these writers’ websites). My friend Allan was editing on many subjects, and I helped him with English, but it made no difference–he was told not to rely on me for help with English because that meant we ’shared’ his account, which was never the case…if he did not comply, he would be kicked off as an editor. So even though Allan is world traveled and was doing some fine editing as truehistoryjvba, he resigned.

    Thsi article clearly states the difficulties those who find themselves libelled have to edit their own biography (not allowed!) when others who actively libel them elsewhere ARE allowed to revert to former statements.

    it is too late for me: no matter how many books and movies and documentaries will be made concerning my biography, if it shows up on Wikipedia again, you can be sure it will once again be written by my detractors, whose own books, movies, etc. will be less popular if mine become better known, and any attempts by me or Allan or anyone else to correct slander and libel will only result in our being kicked out and the biography removed.

    Perhaps a solution would be for Wikipedia to send a copy of the biography to the subject, who can then express approval and suggest corrections. the person writing the biography must supply a means to contact the living subject to obtain their approval. One must make sure the contact information really does reach the subject of the biography.

    If changes are made to the biography after its approval, once again the subject should be notified. Any corrections made by the subject of the biography could be in bold face, and their references should be acceptable (let the reader decide if the references are sufficient to back the correction or addition made by the subject). In this way, living biographies can be corrected where they are in error or being biased deliberately, but the reader can ascertain the corrections (which should also include the date). I believe corrections should be limited to a paragraph or so, with footnote comments — and the same should apply to any editors’ changes. In this way, these biographies can inform the public and Wikipedia could regain some of its presently tarnished reputation due to vandalism, libel, and reverting of the desperate attempts made by us who have been slandered/libelled to correct the damage done.

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