Haymarket Riot, Truth And The World Of Wikipedia Gatekeepers

Police Marching to Disperse Anarchists - Haymarket Riot 125 - Daguerreotype
Police Marching to Disperse Anarchists – Haymarket Riot 125 – Daguerreotype

Interesting discussion with Professor Timothy Messer-Kruse regarding the Haymarket Riot and subsequent trials, and his effort to alter Wikipedia. Too bad his book is currently selling for $73 (!!), or I’d buy a copy.

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Neal Conan in Washington. Wikipedia is both ubiquitous and irreplaceable, the go-to source for quick information on almost every topic imaginable. The online encyclopedia is written and edited by volunteers. Anybody can send in a new entry or update an old one, except sometimes they can’t.

Case in point: Professor Timothy Messer-Kruse, perhaps the world’s foremost expert on Chicago’s Haymarket riot and the trials that followed, Wikipedia repeatedly rejected his repeated efforts to remove information he knew to be wrong. We’ll find out why in just a moment.

…Timothy Messer-Kruse joins us, a professor at Bowling Green State University, the author of “The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists.” He wrote about his experience with Wikipedia in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and he joins us from a studio in Perrysville, Ohio, and nice to have you with us today.


CONAN: So you have primary sources that contradict Wikipedia’s account of that trial. You enter a change on the website. So what happens?

MESSER-KRUSE: Well, I tried to change what I thought was the most glaring inaccuracy in the page on the Haymarket. The page described the actual Haymarket bombing. It described the eight-hour movement leading to it. It described the trial that came from that event.

And in that article, the description of the trial began, saying the prosecution did not offer evidence connecting any of the defendants with the bombing. Well, my research has all been about showing what exactly went on in the trial, and there was an overwhelming amount of evidence. Now maybe it’s not evidence that we today would find worthy of convicting these men and sending them to the gallows, but there was undoubtedly multiple kinds of evidence.

There was 118 witnesses called to testify, many of them involved in the anarchist movement themselves. There was forensic, chemical evidence. There was even some embarrassed admissions on the part of some of the defendants. So I thought that description in particular needed to be changed.

And I tried to simply delete that reference, and when I did so, within minutes, that page was restored, and I was instructed by whoever this volunteer editor was about some of Wikipedia’s ongoing policies that prevented my making these changes.

CONAN: And you tried it again, and basically what they said was they don’t rely on primary sources like transcripts of the trial but rather on the preponderance of secondary sources.

MESSER-KRUSE: That’s right. So I was told that I needed to come up with some published sources that supported my point of view. Simply referencing the coroner’s records or the trial transcripts or other sources that I’d uncovered was not sufficient.

So I actually bided my time. I knew that my own published book would be coming out in 2011. So I tried again and was told that I needed to represent a majority viewpoint, not a minority viewpoint, namely my own, and that Wikipedia was about verifiability, not necessarily about truth.

And if my account may have been truthful, the majority view still has to be represented on Wikipedia’s website because it needs to be verifiable, it needs to represent what is the majority opinion.

(click here to continue reading Truth And The World Of Wikipedia Gatekeepers : NPR.)

It is a big flaw with Wikipedia, actually. Primary sources are not respected, and sometimes Wikipedia editors are not open to accepting changes. For one small example, Steve Jobs was a fruitarian, but the editors of Steve Jobs Wikipedia page constantly delete any reference to this. I’ve added citations from Walter Isaacson’s book, as have other people, but since these citations are based upon primary sources that Mr. Isaacson interviewed, there is currently no mention of Steve Jobs being a Fruitarian on his biography page. Minor, but telling.

Haymarket Riot Memorial
Haymarket Riot Memorial

One final excerpt, which also echoes my experience attempting to edit a Wikipedia page:

CONAN: Timothy Messer-Kruse, I wanted to go back to you. Given what your – you’ve experienced and what you’ve learned about this process, what might you suggest as an improvement?

MESSER-KRUSE: Well, I think one thing is to make new contributors more aware of sort of the Wikipedia culture because I think one of the obstacles I ran into was that I was too easily deterred from trying to persist and make these changes, although I, you know, I try it a dozen times over two years. I sort of gave up after I was scolded and told to look at the civility policy at one point. At one point, I was branded a vandal for trying to change a page after someone had changed it back. And I kind of slunk away. And in the last week, I’ve been reading some of the comments to my article and some people have been suggesting that I was not persistent enough. So it seems like a catch-22. Either you persist and resist against these policies and accusations, or you don’t. In academia, of course, if I submit an article to an editor and I get it returned to me and rejected, I don’t then call up the editor and yell at them and insist that it be published. I just go somewhere else. So there’s that difference in culture, I think, that maybe many academics like myself would find an obstacle to really contributing.

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