While several prominent internet voices have banded together to protest the SOPA and PIPA legislation, none have done so in a bolder, more assertive voice than Wikipedia. While Mark Zuckerberg’s post detailing Facebook’s opposition has been liked by almost 500,000 people and Google’s black-out Doodle was undoubtedly seen by millions, these protests pale in comparison to what Wikipedia did. For one whole day, Wikipedia completely blacked out its English language website and directed all incoming visitors to a page detailing their stance, asking users to “imagine a world without free knowledge.”
The move was bold, sure, and effective to a degree. It was seen by over 162 million people, the US Congress was flooded with calls, the blackout trended globally on Twitter, and Wikipedia found itself in newspaper headlines across the world. But as the reaction to the blackout starts to filter in, it is important to look at the cost that the blackout might have caused Wikipedia – particularly from a PR perspective.
The biggest issue, already emerging from the cracks of the internet, relates to Wikipedia’s neutral image and how this political protest might taint how they are perceived as a credible source of information.
The Accusation of Bias
As an encyclopedia, one of Wikipedia’s greatest strengths is its perceived neutrality. The website has often faced accusations of “unreliability” in the past due to its user-generated content, but this politicized blackout could bring into focus accusations of an explicit, internal bias that could color articles. Can, for example, Wikipedia’s article on the SOPA (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stop_Online_Piracy_Act) be considered fair and balanced? What about its page on Congressman Lamar Smith (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lamar_S._Smith), the politician who introduced the SOPA act into the US House of Representatives? Will they start voicing themselves politically on other issues as well?
The Reply: We’re Biased, Our Content is Not
To avoid a PR crisis generated by a change in their perceived image, Wikipedia need to directly address these accusations of bias hurled at them. Instead of trying to deny their political positions, they should work to separate the policies of the larger organization from the editorial policies in place. This is a tricky proposition – one which requires some careful tight-rope walking – but Wikipedia should try and make sure that their content doesn’t necessarily reflect the anger and emotions that their community might be feeling. Particularly for sensitive topics and pages related to the protests and legislation, the website’s administrators should “lock” the pages and be very vigilant of even slightly biased edits on those pages.
While Wikipedia has tried to put out this message, they have been compromised by dissenting voices within the organization itself. Founder Jimmy Wales tweeted that “articles must remain neutral. The community need not;” Wikipedia editor Scott ManDonald wrote a blog entry titled “Wikipedia should remain ideology-free: Protecting the death of a neutral community.” One of the disadvantages, from an organizational standpoint, of open source communities, is that you will always have diverse, sometimes clashing opinion. But Wikipedia needs to make sure that the central message from their leadership is loud enough – and united enough – to get them adequate coverage in the right channels.
Ultimately, an encyclopedia is not where users go for opinion. Wikipedia’s protest is different than Reddit’s or Boing Boing’s because their “product” is neutrality, reliability, and unbiased facts. It remains to be seen if this protest will have any long term affect on how Wikipedia is perceived or if it will be just one small blip on their undoubted growth story. But protecting their image – and perceived neutrality – should be a key focus of Wikipedia moving forward.