We’ve pointed to the pro-feminist bias of Wikipedia on many occasions. A piece in yesterday’s Telegraph:
Despite its frequent fundraising pop-ups, Jimmy Wales’ operation is flush with cash it funnels to a left-leaning ‘dark money group’
Who would you name as the most influential media company in the world? Some might offer Fox, Disney or the BBC. Or AT&T and Comcast, the largest media giants by revenue. In fact, the real answer may be hidden in plain view: Wikipedia.
The operation not only receives far more clicks (23 billion a month) than the world’s most popular news organisations, but if you ask Alexa or Siri a question, it’s likely you’ll be returned a Wikipedia-generated fact. Even if you never click on the site, you’ll be served Wikipedia entries at the top of your search page. No media company in history has ever dreamed of such ubiquity.
Given this reach and influence, it is surprising that we know so little about Wikipedia’s funding – and even more extraordinary that we don’t examine it for biases. Such questions are rarely raised. “People just assume it’s a sweet little charity that does nothing wrong, and is entirely harmless – but none of that is true,” says Michael Olenick, a research fellow at INSEAD business school who has studied the operation.
From the aggressiveness and the frequency of Wikipedia’s fundraising banners you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a cash-strapped, bare bones operation, frantically putting its last pennies in the meter to keep the lights on. In fact, each year these campaigns – which now seem to be a permanent feature of the site – raise far more revenue than Wikipedia needs to operate, by a huge factor. Wikipedia’s operating costs, its former VP of product development reckoned, are $10m a year (any large university could host the site without breaking a sweat). The fundraising so far in this accounting year has topped $142m, in just nine months.
Where that money is going is increasingly an issue for conservatives. But to understand how the money flows, we need to remember that we’re talking about two things. There’s the website, Wikipedia.org – and then there’s the registered non-profit charity, the Wikimedia Foundation, which collects fundraising cash. A decade ago, after having once put a convicted felon in charge as chief operating officer, the Foundation decided it was time to clean up its act and professionalise its fundraising. The cash rolled in.
Faced with such riches, WMF did what every bureaucracy loves to do, and expanded. The Foundation now lists 450 staff and contractors; law firms and lobbyists have been beneficiaries too. Aside from the occasional grant, the coal-face workers who create the content continue unpaid. If Karl Marx was alive today, perhaps he wouldn’t be touring Manchester slums with Engels, but peering in astonishment at the upstairs-downstairs world of Wikipedia. Instead of Das Kapital, he’d be writing Das Wiki.
By 2016, the Foundation created an endowment in which to stuff away the surplus. It’s about to hit its 10-year goal, £100m, five years ahead of schedule.
The Wikimedia Foundation has long had friendly ties to the Clintons, and these have grown closer. Since 2016 it has used the Clintons’ PR guru, Craig Minassian, whose firm became the WMF’s highest paid external contractor, while Minassian retained his full-time role with the Clintons. And it chose to lodge the endowment with the Tides Foundation. The Tides network allows anonymous donors to support left-leaning causes, and has been described as a ‘dark money group’ for Democrat Party interests.
So has any of this biased the volunteer-written ‘encyclopaedia’? So far, Wikipedia scandals have been met with a sort of indulgent chuckle, as with
the Scots language Wikipedia which was created by an American teenager who couldn’t speak Scots.
One person who certainly thinks political bias is a problem is Wikipedia’s co-founder Larry Sanger, who set up the project with Jimmy Wales, but left after a year. Last year Sanger contrasted the honeyed entry for Barack Obama – a scandal-free zone, he noted – with the peppery entry for Donald Trump.
But Wikipedia’s biases may be deeper and more subtle. It reflects the values and prejudices of Silicon Valley’s elite. For example, the Wikipedia search result for antitrust law redirected to an article that tactfully omits Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple. All the tech giants have relationships with Wikipedia – but unlike in a typical newspaper, these dealings are omitted.
And when it suits it, Wikipedia is a major political player. In 2012 the site was credited with derailing draft changes to US copyright law – by blacking itself out and rallying users against Congress’s proposed SOPA legislation. Few news organisations would dream of throwing themselves into a battle like this.
Rightsholders and media companies have been wary of angering Jimmy Wales’ army ever since.
With “facts” generated by Wikipedia worming themselves into every corner of our digital lives, such as your Alexa speaker or iPhone, perhaps it’s the ubiquity of information that’s the problem – and something that should concern us all. Olenick was astonished when on a WMF conference call he heard Wikipedia expert Andrew Lih relay that Google and Facebook had suggested that major tech companies should collaborate to support Wikipedia as a single source of information.
“There should never be a single source of information,” he says. “On many topics, is there a single truth?” he asks. For conservatives, it might not be one they recognise.
Andrew Orlowski is founder of the research network, Think of X
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