Wikipedia bans edits to its Scientology pages. But at what cost?

Jonathan Alcorn/ZUMA Press/Newscom
In this 2008 photo, a new sign is raised over the Church of Scientology mission in Malibu. The online encyclopedia Wikipedia recently decided to block edits to Scientology-related articles from Internet addresses inside church headquarters.

What ever happened to neutrality?

That's the question hurtling around the blogosphere this week, days after Wikipedia banned some edits to its entries on Scientology, a religion founded by L. Ron Hubbard in 1952. (Editor's note: The ban only affects addresses based on Church property.) As Marissa Taylor writes in the Wall Street Journal, Wikipedia made its announcement only after determining that the level of "hostility" over the page had reached unacceptable levels.

For months, site administrators have sought to mediate a war between Scientologists and the organization's detractors. "Some 430 Scientology entries on Wikipedia resulted in constant battles over revisions between the two camps. User accounts were created for the sole purpose of deleting or adding information on Scientology, a practice seen as harmful to Wikipedia’s neutrality principles," Taylor writes.

A battle on two fronts
It's been a rough spring for Scientologists, here and abroad. Late last week, leaders of the French branch of the organization appeared in a Parisian court to defend against charges of organized fraud. According to Reuters, if the defendants are found guilty, they could be fined five million euros and ordered to cease their activities. Now the Church is fighting a second battle, one with equally wide-ranging consequences.

On the website Wikinews, Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis said church members had only ever used Wikipedia to "[confront] inaccuracies" on the Internet:

"The story that's being missed is there were people who were doing non-stop attacks on the church and using Wikipedia to do it. Those people have been banned." He said there had been no orchestrated campaign by church leaders to have members change Wikipedia articles: "The church is huge. Scientologists are going to say what they're going to say about their own religion."


Others disagree. Writing on the Daily Kos, "Inspector Dim" noted that the Church has been "almost ruthless" in cracking down on unapproved content. "This much is obvious if you go to Scientology's YouTube page," he writes. "Ratings are disabled on all of the videos, and in the past, even comments and related videos were disabled. Scientology also has a habit of flagging YouTube videos that are critical of them, citing a copyright violation." Dim continues:

This is why I'm in support of Wikipedia banning Scientology from editing its pages... Scientology's attempts to edit certain pages could undermine the website's claim for neutrality. Whether banning Scientology will prove to be fruitful, or whether it will simply be a symbolic gesture that Scientologists will be able to circumvent, it's a bold move on behalf of Wikipedia.

A web Switzerland?

This last concept – that of Wikipedia's purported neutrality – is especially important. The encyclopedia was founded to allow users everywhere to edit and create content – and to flag or delete false or misleading entries. Officially, Wikipedia administrators are supposed to stay out of the fray, and allow the flow of information to flow freely. Unofficially, those administrators often police certain pages. "We aren't democratic," founder Jimmy Wales once said. "The core community appreciates when someone is knowledgeable, and thinks some people are idiots and shouldn't be writing."

But who are the experts, and who are the idiots? And who gets the final say? The furor over the Scientology pages has exposed a fundamental shift in the online encyclopedia, some argue. On OSNews, a popular tech-oriented website, one user writes that "Wikipedia becomes less and less open, and more and more the playground of narrow-minded, interest-ridden 'admins.' These admins killed Wikipedia. They have too much power and they almost always bring it to bad use." The user, ido50, concludes:

I think people should get banned from Wikipedia if they continually abuse it for their own interests (That includes the so-called admins). If some Scientology followers abuse Wikipedia, they should be banned. But declaring a full ban on Scientology is entirely the opposite of the goals and ideas that once were the shiny beacon of Wikipedia.
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