Jimmy Wales, or at least his mass-mailing robot, emailed me the other day on a Wikipedia fund-raising mission. I’ve donated in the past but I won’t be this year. Of all the unlikely reasons it’s the Daily Mail who are the cause of my boycott. I doubt that he’ll have the time to read my reply, given that he’ll be too busy preparing for things like his upcoming event ($250 to $25000 a go, anyone?) which make my measly £10 a year donation look decidedly unnecessary.
Dear Mr Wales
Further to your email asking for a repeat donation to Wikipedia.
I cannot in good conscience donate to Wikipedia this year. Wikipedia has for years been my go-to resource for a quick “fact” check and has sometimes been the starting point for deeper research. At a more abstract level I’m all in favour of free (as in beer and as in speech) access to knowledge, especially for those in the world who don’t have access to the same resources that I do. I fully realise how privileged I am to be an academic in a developed, democratic nation. On this basis I have been pleased to provide a modest contribution to the upkeep of Wikipedia.
But it’s the concept of free as in speech that causes my dilemma. In February of this year just 50 members of the Wikipedia community were able to place the Daily Mail onto a list of unacceptable sources. I’m not going to unpick the workings of the process that you are no doubt all too familiar with and that has already been well documented, for example: https://www.forbes.com/sites/kalevleetaru/2017/02/10/what-wikipedias-daily-mail-ban-tells-us-about-the-future-of-online-censorship/. I’m not a fan of the Daily Mail, not by a long way, but I find it hard to believe that it is the least reliable source of information used on Wikipedia. I consider that a dangerous precedent was set when 50 out of the millions of Wikipedia users were able to quietly censor the use of a mainstream news publication. To paraphrase Orwell it would seem that some Wikipedia users are more equal than others.
In your email you write: “Yes, it’s ironic that we say “knowledge must be free” and then ask you to pay for it. But the alternative is that if you–the millions of readers, editors, and contributors to Wikipedia–do not give, then the open-source principle we value so much is placed at great risk.” I find it unfortunate that a website that values free knowledge so highly can so easily allow a tiny minority of its users to decide what the vast majority can and cannot see. Especially when the discussion amongst the Wikipedia elite as to whether the Daily Mail should be prohibited includes provocative phrases such as “Kill it. Kill it with fire.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Reliable_sources/Noticeboard/Archive_220). The statement on the same page that “it should never ever be used for any support for factual content” suggests that the Daily Mail is incapable of carrying a newsworthy and true story, or that it will never be the only national UK newspaper to investigate a story of interest. Dangerous assumptions made in what I thought was a fairly narrow-minded discussion.
I suspect that I’ve wasted my time here and that you are unlikely to read this or be the slightest bit concerned about my sentiments. After all, what are the views of one puny Wikiplebian worth against the combined might of 50 of the Wikipedia elite, not to mention yourself? Just remember that great responsibility follows inseparably from great power…