20081109

I Was a WikiWarrior for Barack Obama by Barry Wellman

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November 8, 2008, ver. 1a

"Were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not be president," Arianna Huffington asserts ("How Obama's Internet Campaign Changed Politics" New York Times, November 7, 2008). She mentions blogs, YouTube videos (Will.I.Am, Obama Girl, et. al), citizen journalists catching gaffes, online community organizing, and direct email fundraising. But she doesn't talk about Wikipedia, my field of action.

As a dual US/Canadian citizen living in Canada, I wondered what I could do to help Barack Obama. Of course, I sent money; of course I sent in an absentee ballot. But more was needed - for me and for Barack - more than slogging through the streets of Buffalo (which was in pro-Obama New York State anyway).

I'm a computer guy, so I decided to become a WikiWarrior. I had become enthralled with Wikipedia a year earlier, and had done over 1,000 edits to new and existing articles. I decided to keep my eye on stuff about the Obamas. I felt that if I blocked non-sense from these articles, and added a bit of sense, I might help bring some light to curious and often-ignorant voters.

I shied away from the main Barack Obama article (or the John McCain): too many people were fighting there about large and small issues. Instead, I focused on Obama's mother - Ann Dunham - and step-daddy, Lolo Soetoro. I wanted to edit them honestly in a fair and balanced way and to keep pernicious propaganda out. I put them on my Wikipedia "watchlist" along with about 50 others articles, such as "social network", "The Bronx" and "Barry Wellman". I also "watched" articles about other members of the Obama family, but they rarely had major issues.

It was easy to deal with one recurring problem with the Ann Dunham article. Vandals kept inserting gross insults, such as: "She started sucking his cock. She had never seen colored cock before and became addicted immediately." (October 8, 2008)

These juvenile gross-outs were always made by unregistered Wikipedia users, identifiable only by their IP addresses. They were easy to fix by deletion (what Wikipedia calls "reversion"): I used a Wikipedia tool called Twinkle to do this in one key click. Often, I - or other editors - didn't have to bother. Automated program scripts. "Bots" (such as Huggle's VoABot II in this case), quickly found many gross-outs within minutes and revert them.

A more subtle problem was that some editors wanted to emphasize that the residential candidate was born only six months after his parents' marriage. After much editing and re-editing, the weary compromise was that the dates of marriage and birth were left in, but the article leaves it to readers to do the math. Similar situations happened when some editors tried to point out the age gap between 2008 Republican presidential aspirant Fred Thompson (born in 1942) and his second wife, (born in 1966), and when I tried to insert a sentence into the Sarah Palin article pointing out that she had transferred among five universities and colleges in the five years of her undergraduate education.

Some editors also kept wanting to show what they thought was her sexually-liberated and atheistic persona. These were editors registered at Wikipedia, usually with an alias name, rather than the hit-and-run gross-outers. Dealing with these recurrent edits was more difficult, as those who emphasized atheism were able to find a documented quotation from her early years suggesting this. (The criterion for including a fact in Wikipedia is that it be backed by a verifiable document.) However, a number of editors, including myself, were able to show that Ann Dunham was generally more broadly supportive of the humanist quality of religion. The clinching documentation came from her son's book, Dreams of My Father. There is an entire difference in tone between calling someone a "secular humanist" and an "atheist".

I kept wondering why some editors worked so hard at inserting such sexual and religious "facts". Instead of "Assume Good Faith", a key Wikipedia tenet, I came to "Assume Republican Faith" as the motivation of such efforts to demonize Obama ("socialist", "traitor") and his family.

This editing process goes on. Right now (November 8, 2008: 1213 EST), the section that gathers a variety of Ms. Dunham's spiritual beliefs is located near the end of the article. I just changed the section's heading from "Religious beliefs" to "Spiritual beliefs". I wonder if my edit will stick.

The issue with Lolo Soetoro's article was somewhat different. Recurrent demonizations of Obama by the dark side have asserted that he is really a Muslim (not that there's anything wrong with that). While the many warring editors fought this one out on Obama's own Wikipedia article, I faced a subtle challenge with his stepfather's article. Several editors wanted to emphasize Lolo Soetoro's Muslim-ness, which might well affect how people thought about Barack Obama. While there were documentary sources showing that Lolo was nominally a Muslim, they also showed that he wasn't actively practicing. That didn't stop several editors from attempting to make his Muslim religion a main focus of the article. One recurring attempt, still present, states that Lolo Soetoro is a member of the "Indonesian Muslim" category. I kept trying to reason with this editor, noting that few Wikipedia articles about Americans say that they are members of the "American Christian" category. I don't know if the editor was trying for anti-Obama propaganda or was just bull-headed. I finally gave up this skirmish, because the text of the article currently does not emphasize Soetoro's Muslim-ness, and the category that does mention it is buried at
the end of the article.

In none of these debates (sometimes called "edit wars") did I - or anyone else - ever say they were acting to help Obama or McCain. All phrased disagreements in terms of Wikipedian norms: "the article would be tighter without that," "you're providing undue emphasis," "we need to make the article more complete," "please document your facts," and "removed unencyclopedic writing about Sarah Palin" (i.e., too hagiographic). Without such civil discourse, cooperative editing couldn't take place. Once a Wikipedia administrator threatened to block me for a day, when I violated the "three revert rule" by repeatedly re-inserted my topic sentence about Palin's multiple collegiate hegira. (The sentence is still not in the article: maybe I'll try again.)

This is not to say that all editorial debates about these articles were clear-cut. My WikiComrade, Tina Vozick (who edits under the name "Tvoz") and I disagreed about whether Lolo Soetoro should have his own article in Wikipedia or be included in the portmanteau article, "Family of Barack Obama". I argued that a lot of people would go to Wikipedia for information about Lolo, and that it was important that there be a visible and accurate article about him. Tvoz argued that Lolo was not notable in his own right - "Notability" is a key Wikipedia criterion - and therefore should only be in the Family article.

So far, Lolo retains his own article as well as a cross-link from the Family article, but I am curious as to what the future will bring now that the election is over. I predict a lot more detail will arise, more calmly, about Ann and Lolo, but I will only notice this intermittently. I have taken Ann, Lolo and the Family off of my watchlist to get some rest. There were 84 edits of the Family article on a single day (November 7 2008): an overwhelming volume to track. So, I am taking something of a WikiBreak. After doing more than 500 edits on Ann Dunham, Lolo Soetoro, and the Family of Barack Obama in the past few months, I have removed all Obama-related articles from my watchlist. I need to bask in Obama's victory and get back to life. However, the dark side is always with us, so perhaps you could put some key articles on your own watchlist.

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