Wiki Wars and Mainstream Conservatism

You may not be aware of it but Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, is a virtual war zone, one of which most conservatives are blissfully unaware. Over at the New Republic, Eve Fairbanks explores this in the presidential campaign where supporters and critics of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton battle daily over their entries:

Back when we got basic information from encyclopedias instead of Wikipedia, politicians were at the mercy of the encyclopedia-writers' particular biases. Take the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Apparently controlled by smug British nationalists, it described the important Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell as "not over-scrupulous," "repellent," "powerful for evil," and, owing to the "mental affliction of his ancestors," probably possessing a "mental equilibrium [that] was not always stable."

Wikipedia was supposed to fix this problem. Anyone can add, delete, or massage language in its online articles, and--boom!--refresh the page to see their changes appear instantly. These volunteer contributors ("editors," in Wikipedia lingo) discuss their changes on an article's associated "talk page," and eventually (or so the theory goes) merge their different perspectives on various subjects into something truly neutral. But, after you see what happens when two warring Democratic candidates are thrown to the mercy of the Wikipedians, you kind of yearn for the 1911 Britannica.

How does a Wikipedia page get controlled exactly? Fairbanks looks at how one or two individuals can completely skew a page provided they devote enough time to it:

The battles over Hillary's and Obama's pages have been so heated because the stakes are so high. The candidates' Wikipedia pages are their second Google hits, right after their official campaign portals. And, with Clinton and Obama locked in a tight race, even the simplest adjectives seem to become powerful weapons. (By contrast, much of the editing on John McCain's page these days involves correcting formatting mistakes.) With emotions running high (at this point, is it really possible for anyone not to be "POV" on Clinton or Obama?), you would think that Wikipedia's entries on the candidates--which, after all, anyone can edit--would have long ago devolved, as the race itself pretty much has, into total chaos. But, for all the bickering, this hasn't quite happened--thanks, in part, to a 53-year-old software developer from central New Jersey named Jonathan Schilling.
Schilling is the man who protects Hillary's online self from the public's hatred. He estimates that he spends up to 15 hours per week editing Wikipedia under the name "Wasted Time R"--much of it, these days, standing watch over Hillary's page. Hardly a news event or argument over her situation goes by without Wasted Time R's input: He edited her page 77 times in the last month, mostly pruning away changes he viewed as inappropriate, such as a rant about Geraldine Ferraro or a stealthy effort to diminish Hillary's role in improving the State Children's Health Insurance Program. The fact that Schilling is married to a librarian who, he laments, "never recommends anybody use Wikipedia" (no one, no one, hates Wikipedia as much as librarians) does not diminish his vigilance. "You constantly have to police [the page]," he says, recalling the way Rudy Giuliani's Wikipedia article declined in quality after its protectors lost interest. "Otherwise, it diverts into a state of nature."

She also looks at an Obama supporter who does the same thing, noting, however, that Obama fans are far more active in protecting their candidate's entry from negative remarks. Very interesting article and higly worth reading. (Here's the link.)

Since Fairbanks works for the liberal New Republic, you can't begrudge her exclusive focus on the Democrats. It makes you wonder, though, what about the Republicans? I don't have the time to fully delve into this right now (see Dave Pierre's earlier NB post on bias at Wikipedia for a comprehensive look or this one by me on the experience of a conservative Keith Olbermann critic at Wikipedia) but suffice it to say, there is a very real problem with left-wingers bending Wikipedia to suit their agenda.

What to do about this problem, though? That's a topic William Beutler explored yesterday over at Blog, P.I.:

Conservatives grouse that the writers and editors at the national magazines lean left, and there is definitely some truth to that. Not to a man and woman, and this does not mean their reporting follows the Democratic Party line, but it does have consequences on which stories are covered and how they are covered. But I think the lessons learned are wrong, or at best incomplete.

The reaction is usually to set up an alternative forum which is defined as being explicitly conservative. The problem is that these alternative organizations often operate inside a bubble which their “liberal” counterparts do not. This can be the case beyond journalism as well. On the web we can see this very clearly: The non-partisan but in some ways “liberal” Wikipedia has been answered by the conservative-minded, low-quality Conservapedia. [...]

The liberal tilt of mainstream newspapers and magazines certainly has something to do with the professional networks within which editors find writers for their stories. But it also has something to do with conservative journalists rarely operating outside their zone of comfort. And especially in magazine articles, they tend to add commentary to existing stories rather than going out and finding new ones.

This is how it works: Liberals get reporting jobs. Conservatives get opinion columns. Look at the Newsweek masthead, liberal Jonathan Alter does indeed have an opinion column, but his full title is Senior Editor and Columnist. George Will is just Columnist. The columnist can make overt arguments the way a reporter cannot, but the columnist’s words are also unmistakably opinions. But decisions that go into how a story is reported are the product of a reporters’ opinions, too. These biases are not always obvious.

I'm inclined to agree with Beutler's analysis here. Compared to the left, the right has remarkably less interest in "objectivity." This is unfortunate because the self-described objective news sources are the ones that dominate our media age and will continue to do so. Instead of tuning out the discussion and founding our own little right-wing ghettos, conservatives should be unafraid to become mainstream--to learn to appeal to the politically inchoate, ignorant, and unaligned in addition to the right-leaning public.

This does not mean abandoning conservative principles or "selling out." What it does mean is to stop thinking we're above getting into the trenches which in today's media environment means getting into journalism, Wikipedia, YouTube, and other organs of mainstream pop culture. How do you do that? By taking time to engage in political activism: call your local media outlets when you spot bias or inaccuracies, "adopt" a MSM web site and make your voice heard there, and learn how to recalibrate what you're saying to the sensibilities of the non-political.

Why is all of this important? Because politics is really a two-front war fought by three separate classes. The most commonly followed front is the political front, fought by the political class which seeks to construct, support, and execute policies preferred by their respective sides. The right has done well at building up itself on the political front. We have numerous institutions and political groups designed to promote and lobby for conservative policies. This is the smallest class but too often it thinks it is the most important. In truth it's not.

The second front is the mainstream front and it's here that the right is in dire need of a strategic recalibration. Called the "popular front" in Marxist literature, the mainstream front is the where the wars are fought. This is a truth the right has seemingly lost sight of as its become occupied with the minutiae of day-to-day politics. Politics is not won or lost by senatorial procedure debates or earmarks. It's won or lost by who is better able to shape the metanarrative. Ever since its existence, the left has been superior at this. This superior grasp of the larger fight is why conservatives are always complaining about how America is ever-drifting toward socialism.

The war for the political metanarrative is essentially fought by two different groups, both of which the the right has not paid sufficient attention to. Most conservative elites have not effectively taken advantage of our natural core constituency other than to raise money from it. That is a huge mistake.

There is a large body of people out there who are willing and eager to help advance the cause of conservative libertarianism but because would-be activists (especially on the right) lead very busy lives, they need assistance from the political class to know what to do and how to do it. The right needs to spend the time and money necessary to cultivate this group. So far it hasn't.

The other group fighting in the metanarrative war is the partially aligned. As badly as the right has done at cultivating its activists, it's done even worse at cultivating this group: journalists, academics, libertarians, and cultural elites. Some of these people are "team players" for one side or the other but most are not. They may have affinities but most are more likely to oppose something "bad" than support something "good." The right needs to do better at developing this group, understanding it, and tailoring its message to it. This is a critical step because the partially aligned are the gatekeepers of culture. Their influence is tremendous on people who are on the fence ideologically or who are politically inchoate.

Fighting and winning the metanarrative war is not an impossible task. It can be done and was starting to get done when Ronald Reagan was in power. Here's hoping the right gets its act together and resumes this critical task.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013