Larry Sanger, co-founder of the most popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia, is not a fan of the site and has become one of its most vocal critics.
Last year, Sanger wrote a scathing critique and analysis of how biased Wikipedia articles are, specifically those related to political figures or hot button issues.
“Examples have become embarrassingly easy to find. The Barack Obama article completely fails to mention many well-known scandals: Benghazi, the IRS scandal, the AP phone records scandal, and Fast and Furious, to say nothing of Solyndra or the Hillary Clinton email server scandal—or, of course, the developing ‘Obamagate’ story in which Obama was personally involved in surveilling Donald Trump.” Sanger wrote, “In short, the article is almost a total whitewash.”
When Sanger contrasted that article with former president Trump’s, the disparity in how each subject was covered became glaringly obvious.
“Meanwhile, as you can imagine, the idea that the Donald Trump article is neutral is a joke. Just for example, there are 5,224 none-too-flattering words in the ‘Presidency’ section. By contrast, the following ‘Public Profile’ (which the Obama article entirely lacks), “Investigations,” and ‘Impeachment’ sections are unrelentingly negative, and together add up to some 4,545 words—in other words, the controversy sections are almost as long as the sections about his presidency. Common words in the article are ‘false’ and ‘falsely’ (46 instances): Wikipedia frequently asserts, in its own voice, that many of Trump’s statements are ‘false.’ Well, perhaps they are. But even if they are, it is not exactly neutral for an encyclopedia article to say so, especially without attribution.” Sanger continued, “You might approve of Wikipedia describing Trump’s incorrect statements as ‘false,’ very well; but then you must admit that you no longer support a policy of neutrality on Wikipedia. More to the point, Republican, Trump-supporting views are basically not represented at all in the article on Trump.”
The ex-Wikipedia founder hasn’t stopped his criticism there. In a recent appearance on a podcast with journalist Tim Pool, Sanger suggested that Wikipedia allows biased, unreliable sources to often publish unconfirmed conjecture as encyclopedic fact – which he says goes against the site’s original vision when he helped create it.
“It’s very clear that Wikipedia takes sides in the culture war now. It didn’t used to. Any topic you can think of that is important in the culture war, from you know, topics like abortion, to subjects like religion, or figures like Hillary Clinton or Ronald Reagan, to philosophies and everything else. Anything that has a connection to the culture war, Wikipedia now takes the left’s side of the dispute.” Sanger said. “It was biased five years ago, but at least they allowed the other side the say. And fifteen years ago it was still running off the original steam of real neutrality. And it was striking back then to me to compare Wikipedia to things like CNN or for that matter Fox News at the time. You could go there and you could learn, really in-depth, all these different sides of these different issues. That is no longer the case.”
In the nearly three-hour discussion with Tim Pool, Sanger also suggested the site has been co-opted by outside forces to push certain narratives and agendas, or massage the public’s perception on important topics.
“Some of them work for PR firms. And companies that specialize the management of their reputations via Wikipedia. I think there’s got to be a fair number of people who work for spy agencies doing battle with each other to make sure the articles are reading the right way. I think there’s a lot of corporate shills. There has to be. They would be irresponsible, frankly, given the nature of the system not to spend some money to just make the truth as represented by Wikipedia reflect what they want it to be.”
Sanger said he first noticed the site begin to change early on, but that it has gradually gotten worse over the years.
“I didn’t really get an idea of just how much the whole procedure might be controlled by various powerful forces until just in the last, I’d say, five years. Because it really turned from a well-meaning public service aimed at the neutral point of view, to a slightly left-leaning reference in 2005 or so, then to a clearly biased but still reference work in 2010, and then basically in the last four years or so it’s just been nothing but propaganda. At least when it goes into political topics or whenever it goes into anything that has a socio-political aspect to it.”
Towards the end of his discussion with Pool, Sanger also warned of the dangers of allowing anonymous Wikipedia editors the power to smear individuals.
“It just introduces all sorts of evil into the world that should not be permitted in a civilized society.” Sanger opined, adding that “This wasn’t the case back in 2001, but it is now. Wikipedia has a reputation. If something appears on Wikipedia now, a lot of people assume that it’s factual, right? And… what are people supposed to do when really damaging lies occur in that sort of situation?”
For his part, Sanger actually left Wikipedia just a year after it launched in 2001. At that time, he observed “the inmates were running the asylum” and already felt the site was losing its way.
Now he is working on a new online encyclopedia called Encyclosphere that he hopes will preserve its NPOV (Neutral Point of View).