Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia, recently spoke out on how he believes Wikipedia has become the mouthpiece of a “reliably establishment point of view” on socio-political issues as opposed to the collaborative “encyclopedia of opinion” he had envisioned it to be. As proof, he points to the fact that “you can’t cite Fox News on socio-political issues” on the site. He also believes that “a complex game [is] being played . . . to make the article say what somebody wants them to say.”
It is certainly startling to hear this enunciated by someone who founded the Internet encyclopedia. While this revelation is hardly surprising, it is concerning, and shows that Wikipedia is starting to resemble traditional academia, which has long been keen on forging and conforming to a particular orthodoxy even in fields such as history and sociology, the study of which would likely benefit from diversity of opinion and viewpoints. The idiom “the right side of history” is based on the presumption that history does eventually take a side, and that there is often a prevailing, establishment opinion that is considered “right” when historians evaluate a certain event or figure in history. Opposition to the establishment position is, almost invariably, eventually pushed out of the consciousness of academia.
For instance, while there was significant public support for congressional committees’ investigations of Communists in the government in the ’50s, such support has been unfailingly characterized as merely the product of paranoia induced by the fear-mongering of power-mad politicians. There is never any effort to explore other plausible explanations for the outpouring of support from the American people. This is not to argue that those investigations had been conducted in an entirely appropriate fashion. But academia’s sheer refusal to even acknowledge the arguments of people who supported those congressional investigations at the time is peculiar. To recognize the threat of domestic communism is practically blasphemy. It is no wonder that there are barely any historians who would dare to reappraise the validity of the crusade against communism today.
While Wikipedia is often not an accepted source in academic papers, it shares many features of academia in the humanities. Both had been intended as forums of opinion, with academics expected to examine history and argue for a thesis, and contributors of Wikipedia expected to share their points of view. Of course, there is a much lower bar to being an influential contributor on Wikipedia. The open-sourced, collaborative nature of Wikipedia makes it unique in its inclusion of opinion that would not necessarily be seriously considered in academia and perhaps, in a sense, more democratic.
However, as Wikipedia expands in readership and influence, it seems to be following the trend set by traditional academia. The contention that any forum for free exchange of opinion on socio-political issues cannot survive expansion in scale and reputation may sound pessimistic. But when opinions on hotly contested issues collide and the incentives to use such a forum to broadcast a certain narrative grow, one side often prevails. It is unfortunate that, more often than not, the victors of such struggles of opinion are unwilling to share conquered ground with their opponents, whose views they would sometimes try to discredit or suppress to lend credence to their own narratives. This is not to suggest that those with center-left opinions, which constitute the prevailing “establishment,” are necessarily sinisterly motivated by selfishness in suppressing dissenting opinion. They may simply genuinely think that the opposition is wrong and does not deserve a platform for their erroneous view. Of course, some, such as Larry Sanger, detect more sinister motives.
However, regardless of their intentions, the repercussions of shrinking intellectual diversity are real. As John Stuart Mill argued, when we are left with only one set of opinion that is deemed acceptable, not only may we never know whether that narrative is in fact correct, but we may also no longer be incentivized to thoroughly understand that set of opinion and how it had come by. Hence, truth becomes more elusive.
We should be worried that the orthodoxy of opinion, which has been prevalent in American academia for a considerable time, is seeping into the Internet, which is supposed to be more populist than academia. Wikipedia going woke is, unfortunately, just the latest example.