Wikipedia:The Essjay scandal

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Essjay given oversight

In early October 2005 a prominent and respected journalist John Seigenthaler Sr., contacted Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales about false and libelous content in his biographical entry. Essjay, a 24 year old Wikipedia Administrator who was advancing rapidly in the organization, was dispatched to handle the situation.[1]

Essjay wrote a professor to persuade her to allow her students to use Wikipedia as a viable source of information and posted a verbatim copy of the email for others to use. Essjay stated, "I was the administrator who deleted the inappropriate revisions when Mr. Seigenthaler contacted our founder, Jimmy Wales; it is quite unfortunate that a relatively minor issue on a relatively minor figure has provided so much negative publicity.[2]

Wikipedia "experts" called into question

On April 29-30, 2005 a conference of radical leftists to discuss the "real agenda of the Christian right" [3] was held a CUNY. Berlet spoke at the forum and Doug Ireland reported,

Nobody at the national level is tracking these Christer[4] censorship and pressure campaigns in a systematic way, to quantify them or assess their impact, so that strategies to defeat them can be developed. 'People for the American Way used to track this stuff, but they stopped doing so systematically in 1996. We at Political Research Associates would love to do it,' says Berlet, 'but we don’t have the resources. Groups like the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute or Americans United for Separation of Church and State could easily do this sort of work. But none of us has the money to do it ....' [5]

Wikipedia had the resources, Political Research Associates began tracking them, and the “strategies to defeat them” were carried into the battleground of Wikipedia. Berlet's massive, “Dominionism” series, a compendium of anti-Christian screeds best characterized by Stanley Kurtz of the National Review, who also reported on the conference, claims the "real agenda" of the Religious Right is to,

suppress other religions ...reestablish slavery. ...reduce women to near-slavery by making them property. ...execute anyone found guilty of pre-marital, extramarital, or homosexual sex and ...to bring back the death penalty for witchcraft. [6]

Ten days later on May 10 Essjay posted on his user page,[7][8]

I am a tenured professor of theology at a private university in the eastern United States; I teach both undergraduate and graduate theology.

My Academic Degrees:

  • Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies (B.A.)
  • Master of Arts in Religion (M.A.R.)
  • Doctorate of Philosophy in Theology (Ph.D.)
  • Doctorate in Canon Law (JCD)

Essjay was nominated for Admin on July 13, 2005 and in accepting he wrote, "Most of my edits have been to theology related articles; I am a theology scholar after all. I’ve added a good bit of material to articles, particularly material related to Roman Catholicism."[9] An anonymous IP commented, "I have read several of Essjay's articles on Catholicism and I am very impressed with how thorough and clear they are. Many scholars try to be "thick" in their language, but not Dr. Essjay."[10] His Adminship was completed one week later with near unanimous support.

After serving in the leadership of various Wikipedian associations such as Administrator General of Esperanza and official contact for Wikimedia with Freenode, the IRC network that hosts most of Wikimedia's IRC channels, Essjay was elected a Bureaucrat on March 31, 2006.[11]

Hoaxes perpetrated against academics and mainstream media

On April 7, 2006 one week after moving into his new role as a Bureaucrat Essjay sent an email to a professor in response to her comments on using Wikipedia as an academic source. The professor had told her students, "PLEASE NOTE THAT WIKIPEDIA is not to be considered a reliable source." The email is not of a personal nature and Essjay clearly represents himself as speaking for Wikipedia and posted a verbatim copy for others to use. The letter stated:

I am an administrator of the online encyclopedia project Wikipedia. I am also a tenured professor of theology... I find it very disturbing that you included the statement "it is my understanding that anyone can put anything there, and it is not vetted for accuracy." ... Well credentialed individuals (myself included) participate in the project in the hopes that our involvement will help to make Wikipedia a better source, and dispel the misconceptions held by the public. ...

Wikipedia has recently experienced some bad publicity over the John Seigenthaler Sr. affair (I know the issue extensively; I was the administrator who deleted the inappropriate revisions when Mr. Seigenthaler contacted our founder, Jimmy Wales); it is quite unfortunate that a relatively minor issue on a relatively minor figure has provided so much negative publicity. ...It is never the case that known incorrect information is allowed to remain in Wikipedia; we strive to provide a resource that is both accurate and expansive. As we approach one million articles (far more than any other encyclopedia could ever hope to attain) on the English Wikipedia alone (there are hundreds of thousands of articles in the projects that make up the Wikimedia Foundation in dozens of different languages), we prove ourselves as a resource like none ever known before. (bolden added) [12]

Of the two hundred thousand registered users, and the nearly one thousand administrators with powers to block others from editing, Essjay was one of only 14 with Checkuser rights, a responsibility which has always been the cause of grave privacy concerns and only given to those who have earned the trust of the WikiMedia Foundation. Essjay was recommended to Pulitzer Prize winning author Stacy Schiff of The New Yorker by a member of Wikipedia’s management team[13] and would not identify himself other than confirming the biographical details that appeared on his user page.[14] In a piece entitled, Know it all: Can Wikipedia conquer expertise?, Schiff wrote,

Pulitzer Prize winning author Stacy Schiff was hoaxed by Essjay and Wikipedia's management team.[1]
One regular on the site is a user known as Essjay, who holds a Ph.D. in theology and a degree in canon law and has written or contributed to sixteen thousand entries. A tenured professor of religion at a private university...

Wales also appointed an arbitration committee to rule on disputes. Before a case reaches the arbitration committee, it often passes through a mediation committee. Essjay is serving a second term as chair of the mediation committee. He is also an admin, a bureaucrat, and a checkuser, which means that he is one of fourteen Wikipedians authorized to trace I.P. addresses in cases of suspected abuse. He often takes his laptop to class, so that he can be available to Wikipedians while giving a quiz, and he keeps an eye on twenty I.R.C. chat channels, where users often trade gossip about abuses they have witnessed...

Wales recently established an “oversight” function, by which some admins (Essjay among them) can purge text from the system, so that even the history page bears no record of its ever having been there.

The New Yorker unwittingly published the deceptive information on Essjay's credentials in its July 31, 2006 issue. The same month Daniel Brandt pointed out at Wikipedia Review,[15] a forum frequented by prominent Wikipedians, including many who have been blocked from editing Wikipedia, "something... doesn't add up" regarding Essjay's claim of being a college professor despite editing Wikipedia as much as 16 hours per day.

In August 2006, a professional journalist who attended the same Catholic parish as Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation protested the patently false information about Weyrich. Weyrich was politically profiled as a right-wing "theocratic dominionist." Wikipedia's Dominionism entry, authored by Berlet, stated in its opening sentence, "Dominionism is a trend in Protestant Christian evangelicalism and fundamentalism."[16] There was one big problem, Weyrich is Catholic. [17] By now Essjay was becoming established as Wikipedia's leading scholar on Catholicism.[18]

The Wikipedia Review forum

On January 7, 2007, Essjay outed his own true life identity on his user page at Wikia.[19] A site administrator at Wikipedia Review posted on January 11 the Essjay user page at Wikia had been changed to include the "Staff" reference, normally given only to paid Wikia employees and noted there was no explanation given for why Essjay would leave a tenured faculty position to work as a Community Manager for Wikia. The same administrator posted further details [20] of discrepancies between Essjay's Wikia user page and his Wikipedia user page on January 19, after Essjay added still more personal-background information to his Wikia user page that bore little similarity to the credentials he had claimed on Wikipedia since April of 2005.

Essjay claimed on February 2 he provided all his real life information to Jimbo Wales and Angela Beasley, and then the same information to Brad Patrick, Wikimedia Foundation General Counsel before he accepted the position.[21][22][23] It was apparent Essjay had lied.[24] Brandt sought to contact Stacy Schiff with the information, and expressed disillusionment over the next several weeks at not receiving a response.

Brandt sent several letters regarding his own biography to the Foundation Legal Department and never received a response. On February 3 Florence Devouard, Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation announced Brad Patrick would be resuming his role as General Counsel exclusively after serving as Interim Executive Director and to now "focus on developing the role of General Counsel, and addressing a backlog of complex legal questions the Foundation faces moving forward."[25]

The 2006 WikiMania Conference was held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, August 4-6.

Ken Myers, a recent graduate of Harvard Law School and author of Wikimmunity: Fitting the Communications Decency Act to Wikipedia[26] presented at the August 2006 Wikimania conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts[27] is known in the community as Ksm10. Myers registered an account at Wikipedia Review on February 21, 2007[28] and spent several hours which included a discussion with Brandt on Section 230 issues. Brandt had been arguing for months that Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act does not provide immunity to the WikiMedia Foundation, due to the fact that the Foundation's entire structure is designed to moderate the content on Wikipedia and that the Foundation functions as a publisher rather than a service provider. Only internet service providers are immune from liability for libelous content under Section 230.[29] Brandt's efforts to get Wikipedia to remove the libelous information about him attracted a lot of attention, and was even being studied in a Cyberlaw class at Harvard.[30]

Two days later one of the lesser known occurrences in the explosive maze of events of February 23 happened when Wikipedia Administrator Yanksox registered an account at Wikipedia Review.[31] Curiously enough, Yanksox spent several hours perusing the site where the background material on Berlet and SlimVirgin's efforts to discredit Brandt is laid out but never posted anything in Wikipedia Review for still another two months. In a bizarre turn of events and without discussing with anyone, Yanksox suddenly executed what Brandt had been asking for 15 months: invoking Ignore All Rules (IAR) policy, Yanksox deleted the Brandt biographical entry.[32][33] The page had been nominated for deletion numerous times, but always failed to win the necessary support in Wikipedia's mind-numbing bureaucratic processes. Yanksox stated his reasons as "privacy concerns, more trouble than it is actually worth. Are you people even human?",[34] then performed a "kamikaze dive" by deleting his own user page.

It was now common knowledge among critics at the Wikipedia Review forum and many of Wikipedia's so-called "inner cabal" that gross distortions and lies had been used to advance Essjay within the organization and perpetrated against a mainstream news source with a good reputation for fact checking. Many of the more mature Wiki Admins now saw the wisdom of ending the dispute with Brandt which was claiming more and more dupes with no understanding of the root of the dispute. In the midst of the firestorm over Yanksox out of process deletion that same day, Jimbo Wales announced Essjay's appointment to the Arbitration Committee.[35]

Three days later, on February 26, Brandt received and posted a response from the Deputy Editor of The New Yorker stating a retraction would be published in the March 5 issue including the comment, "which comes out today."[36] Wikia’s public relations firm made Essjay’s response to The New Yorker.[37]

The scandal breaks

When the scandal broke it was international in scope with ABC News,[38] Associated Press,[39] BBC,[40] USA Today,[41] London Daily Telegraph,[42] London Guardian,[43] Le Monde,[44] The Register,[45] Newsweek,[46] BusinessWeek,[47] CNSNews,[48] Boston Globe[49] and Sydney Morning Herald[50] all reporting on it. The reaction within the Wikipedia Community was largely a feeling of shock, anger, and betrayal. Many bona fide experts and academics quit in disgust.[51]

Jimbo Wales' handpicked Arbitrator of civility began name-calling and attacked "Brandt and his Wikipedia Review cronies;"[52] however this excuse rings hollow since Essjay posted the bogus credentials long before the Katefan controversy, and shortly after the campaign against Brandt's credibility began months before Brandt was ever involved, or even aware of it. Essjay also blamed The New Yorker :

I’m also sorry the New Yorker chose to print what they did…no respectable publication would print it.”[53]
The New Yorker retraction quoted Jimbo saying, "I don’t really have a problem with it."[54] Estranged co-founder Larry Sanger, who is probably recognized as Wales most respected critic, confronted Wales,
Look, either you hired him thinking he was a tenured professor, or you hired him knowing he was a fraud. There wasn't a third option. [55]

A longtime editor from the very earliest days of the Wikipedia project, named JHK, after hearing Andrew Schlafly[56] founder of Conservapedia speak told Jimbo Wales,

he is right about there being a cadre of people who tend to get their way on editorial matters. Perhaps that's part of the social engineering experiment that is part of Wikipedia. But when a member of that cadre has clearly abused his position based in part on lies he told to get that position, and the cadre circles wagons ...?[57]

The Chronicle of Higher Education noted,

Like most of the controversies that swirl around Wikipedia, the incident has wider ramifications than a simple personal dispute....the incident is clearly damaging to Wikipedia's credibility -- especially with professors who will now note that one of the site's most visible academics has turned out to be a fraud.[58]

Six weeks after Foundation Chair Florence Devouard announced Brad Patrick resuming his role as General Counsel to focus on addressing "a backlog of complex legal questions the Foundation faces," Patrick resigned.[59]

References

  1. User:Essjay/Letter. Retrieved from WikiTruth, November 3, 2007.
  2. User:Essjay/Letter. Retrieved from WikiTruth, November 3, 2007.
  3. Public university sponsorship of conference on "Examining the Real Agenda of the Christian Right"
  4. Religious Right Watch July 10, 2005.
  5. The New Blacklist: Corporate America Caves In to the Christers, Doug Ireland, June 09, 2005.
  6. Dominionist Domination, The Left runs with a wild theory. Stanley Kurtz, National Review Online, May 02, 2005.
  7. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=User_talk:Essjay&direction=prev&oldid=112282995#Your_.22apologies.22_sound_fake
  8. http://wikipediareview.com/index.php?showtopic=2778&st=80&p=23005&mode=linear#entry23005
  9. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:Requests_for_adminship/Essjay&diff=18741394&oldid=18741092
  10. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:Requests_for_adminship/Essjay&diff=19090368&oldid=19089436
  11. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Requests_for_bureaucratship/Essjay
  12. User:Essjay/Letter. Retrieved from WikiTruth, November 3, 2007.
  13. Know It All, Can Wikipedia conquer expertise?, by Stacy Schiff The New Yorker, July 31, 2006; Editor's Note appended.
  14. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6423659.stm
  15. http://wikipediareview.com/index.php?showtopic=2778&st=0&p=12701&mode=linear#entry12701
  16. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dominionism&diff=83649766&oldid=83640075
  17. Talk:Paul Weyrich#Inaccurate information
  18. User:Essjay/RFC/Outside finding of fact by Doug Bell, 2 March 2007.
  19. http://www.wikipedia-watch.org/gifs/wmessjay.png
  20. http://wikipediareview.com/index.php?showtopic=2778&st=20&p=20992&mode=linear#entry20992
  21. Essjay (Talk) 06:07, 2 February 2007 (UTC), User:Essjay/Archives/52
  22. "his_positions_of_trust"_over_nonexistent_degrees&oldid=382962 Jimmy Wales asks Wikipedian to resign "his positions of trust" over nonexistent degrees, Wikinews.
  23. http://blog.citizendium.org/2007/03/05/one-last-brief-comment-on-the-essjay-scandal/
  24. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6423659.stm
  25. [Foundation-l] [Announcement] Executive director, Florence Devouard, Feb 3 21:47:48 UTC 2007.
  26. Wikimmunity: Fitting the Communications Decency Act to Wikipedia
  27. http://wikimania2006.wikimedia.org/wiki/Proceedings:KM1
  28. http://wikipediareview.com/index.php?showuser=1003
  29. http://wikipediareview.com/index.php?showtopic=5641&st=0&p=19429&mode=linear#entry19429
  30. Cyberlaw: Internet Points of Control, Day 3. A Potential Solution: Intermediary Liability 2007 Winter Term.
  31. http://wikipediareview.com/index.php?showuser=1014
  32. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=User_talk:Yanksox&diff=prev&oldid=110357260
  33. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Requests_for_arbitration/Daniel_Brandt_deletion_wheel_war/Evidence
  34. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:Log&type=delete&user=Yanksox&page=Daniel+Brandt
  35. http://lists.wikimedia.org/pipermail/wikien-l/2007-February/063809.html
  36. http://wikipediareview.com/index.php?showtopic=2778&st=80&p=23635&mode=linear#entry23635
  37. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=User_talk:Essjay&diff=111710102&oldid=111704869
  38. ABC News broadcast on Essjay. Retrieved on 2007-03-08.
  39. Bergstein, Brian. "Sanger says he co-started Wikipedia", ABC News, Associated Press, March 25, 2007. Retrieved on 2007-03-26. 
  40. "Fake professor in Wikipedia storm", BBC News, March 6, 2007. Retrieved on 2007-03-16. 
  41. Bergstein, Brian. "Citizendium aims to be better Wikipedia", USA Today, March 25, 2007. Retrieved on 2007-03-25. 
  42. Jardine, Cassandra. "Fount of all wisdom – and foolery", The Daily Telegraph, March 8, 2007, p. 21. Retrieved on 2007-09-29. 
  43. Finkelstein, Seth. "Read me first", The London Guardian, March 8, 2007.
  44. Wikipédia, à visage découvert, Olivier Dumons, LE MONDE.FR 08 Mars 2007.
  45. Orlowski, Andrew (March 6, 2007). Farewell, Wikipedia?. Music and Media. The Register. Retrieved on 2007-03-18.
  46. Levy, Steven. "Invasion of the web amateurs", Newsweek, March 26, 2007, p. 16. 
  47. B.L.Ochman (2007-03-22). Wikipedia's Not the Net Police. BusinessWeek. Retrieved on 2007-09-29.
  48. Bozell III, L. Brent. "Not Your Father's Encyclopedia", CNSNews.com, March 21, 2007. Retrieved on 2007-09-29. 
  49. Beam, Alex. "Tricky truths behind Wikipedia", Boston Globe, March 12, 2007, p. E5. Retrieved on 2007-09-29. 
  50. "More than just a war of words", The Sydney Morning Herald, April 21, 2007. Retrieved on 2007-04-23. 
  51. Sand Castles of Knowledge, Kyle Gann, May 5, 2007.
  52. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=User_talk:Essjay&diff=111701367&oldid=111700836
  53. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=User_talk:Essjay&diff=111847534&oldid=111838285
  54. http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/07/31/060731fa_fact
  55. User talk:Jimbo Wales/Archive 20, March 2 - 5, 2007.
  56. http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/today/listenagain/ram/today4_wikipedia_20070307.ram
  57. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User_talk:Jimbo_Wales/Archive_20
  58. Read, Brock. "Essjay, the Ersatz Academic", The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 2 2007. 
  59. [Foundation-l] [Announcement] Brad Patrick Resigns as General Counsel, Brad Patrick, Mar 22 19:01:14 UTC 2007
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