Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito have now had their convictions overturned for the November 2007 murder of British exchange student Meredith Kercher. Their original trial, often called Italy’s Trial of the Century, is now widely recognized to have been a miscarriage of justice. With the two former college students now free, the focus turns to how history will be written about the case. Probably the most important outlet is the free online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, a normally authoritative source with a long, deeply troubled history of reporting on this particular story.
The Amanda Knox Case: A Rare Failure at Wikipedia
At the height of the controversy, Wikipedia’s content was being repudiated by the authors of four different books about the case and had made local news in Seattle. Even Wikipedia founder, Jimbo Wales, using uncharacteristically strong language, had joined in the criticism. He talked of “censorship” and “systematic exclusion of reliable sources” to promote an agenda – an understatement.
Over the last two weeks the article has been completely rewritten by a “Super Administrator” called Slimvirgin who is thought to be the second most powerful figure at the online encyclopedia behind Mr. Wales. Slimvirgin has done a stellar job. The article now, for the most part, accurately represents the facts of the case.
But it hasn’t always been that way. For the last two years the article represented little more than a soapbox where those with an agenda of hate could use the good name of Wikipedia to promote their warped opinions about the sensational trial. Powerful Wikipedia moderators who saw Ms. Knox as guilty had hijacked the article and proceeded to break every rule in the book. They were able to ban fully a dozen editors from participation solely because they held the point of view that Ms. Knox might be innocent. If Wikipedia has simply followed its own well defined rules, the article would never have had the problems it did.
To be clear, Wikipedia is a marvelous institution and its founder Jimbo Wales is a great man. Wikipedia’s contribution to the education of our children is profound and it has never cost the taxpayers a cent.
With over 3.5 million articles, some will be in trouble and a very small number will be in big trouble. Based on the volume of talk page comments, the Murder of Meredith Kercher article may well be the most troubled and controversial article in the online encyclopedia’s history. A careful search of other articles about Israel, feminism, abortion, and other contentious topics does not produce an article of similar controversy.
Wikipedia has a unique model which has proven to be amazingly effective. With a few exceptions, anyone can sign up for a free account and edit any article. No one is required to disclose their real name. There are complicated rules and an arcane subculture that draws its fair share of, let’s just say, unique individuals. Editing can be tricky so only those with a certain degree of education can handle it.
Those who contribute can only repeat what “reliable sources” have said about a subject. You can’t argue that something is true; you have to have heard it from a reliable source. Content is expected to be written from a “neutral point of view” and they’re strict about not insulting other editors. They also worry about so-called “sock puppets”, people who seek to vote more than once through the use of multiple accounts.
In April 2010 shortly after the conviction in the original trial, a group of mostly European editors replaced the existing Murder of Meredith Kercher article with one they had written. The new article seriously misrepresented the case against Ms. Knox and in a number of other ways did not meet accepted standards. Since some of these people had achieved administrator status they were able to carefully control who would be allowed to participate. They will say that those that they blocked didn’t play by the rules or were too contentious. Don’t believe a word of it. The editors were blocked because of their point of view.
On numerous occasions these agenda driven administrators would falsely accuse other editors of defaming living persons, harassment, threats, disruptive editing, personal attacks and anything else they could dream up. Each and every one of these allegations used to expel the pro-innocence editors was completely and categorically false. Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee has been derelict in its duties for not having moved against those who had taken control of the article.
In March 2010, I authored an online petition which carefully detailed the problems in the article. The petition now has 454 signatures including the authors of three books about the case and the director of the pre-eminent television documentary on the subject, Garfield Kennedy.
Previous versions of the article had made false assertions about bloody footprints of Ms. Knox’s at the crime scene. In fact the footprints had tested negative for blood, weren’t definitively Ms. Knox’s, and weren’t significant in any way because Ms. Knox lived there and had walked around in bare feet shortly before the victim’s body was discovered. The article deliberately downplayed information about the criminal histories of both the true killer Rudy Guede, and of the controversial prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini. The commentary of numerous reliable sources including a retired FBI agent, a sitting Seattle area judge, a CBS news correspondent, and a private investigator paid by CBS to study the case were deliberately omitted.
Worst of all was an entire section entitled “The Knox family’s public relations campaign.” A public relations campaign entails advertising and the lobbying of outside organizations. Knox family members were interviewed about the case, but always it was at the request of news organizations. They never once sought out others to speak or write in their behalf and they never paid a dime to anyone else to convey the message of their daughter’s innocence. They did hire a consultant to help them better speak for themselves about the case.
The Hate Campaign Finds a Home
As close observers of the case know, the claims of a million dollar PR campaign are the distinctive signature of the online hate groups who have plagued the case from the beginning. At least two Wikipedia editors regularly comment at these sites under their same Wikipedia usernames. It cannot be proven that other Wikipedia participants frequented these areas but the detailed information about the history of the Wikipedia dispute in their discussion areas suggests they are there. On these sites, both Jimbo Wales and I are accused of taking an interest in the case because of a sexual interest in Ms. Knox – utterly false in both cases. Both of our photographs along with those of a number of other Wikipedia editors have been displayed without our consent and are often altered in derogatory ways. In the case of British journalist Amy Jenkins, one of these hate sites shamelessly displays images of her minor child right next to a lengthy diatribe about her.
The Wikipedia article is important because it invariably shows up first or second on a Google search for “Amanda Knox.” In addition, the false information from the past versions of the article has taken on a life of its own. Large sections of two Kindle books currently available on Amazon (Yarminkus and Hull) are simply plagiarized from these older versions of the Wikipedia entry.
Wikipedia’s Failure to Enforce its own Rules
Wikipedia has a reasonably well conceived set of guidelines regarding biographies of living persons. In short, they require careful sourcing of any material that criticizes living persons. Their enforcement of these regulations as relates to Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito has been a sham. Clear and straight forward examples of violations of this policy against Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito were presented to the Wikipedia Arbitration Committee without a substantive response. While the Wikipedia coverage of the case probably never rose to the level of defamation under US law, the inherent immorality of their actions cannot be forgotten.
According to Wikipedia, the most serious violation of their biographies of living persons policy to date was their article about the journalist, John Seigenthaler. For a short period in 2005 their article erroneously stated that he had been a suspect in the Robert Kennedy assassination. When identified, the content was quickly removed and a retraction issued. John Seigenthaler was never harmed by the fallacy in any significant way. Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito have both been terribly harmed by Wikipedia’s irresponsible coverage of their case.
While Wikipedia has done incredible work in many areas, questions remain as to how well their model works with contentious subject matter. Of course under US law, Wikipedia has no obligation to publish anything or to be fair to anyone; they have every right to select one party and not another to write about a subject. But their current guidelines require fairness and balance within their community; real questions exist as to their commitment and ability to enforce their own laws.
Wikipedia designates certain people as administrators to enforce their regulations. The problem is that many of these administrators were not chosen based on their potential to be good cops or judges. All too often they are drunk with power or full of themselves. They are only dimly aware of the ethical obligations sometimes faced by law enforcement officials or judges who come to know of misconduct within their own ranks. In the case of the Meredith Kercher article, their system suffered an almost complete breakdown. There was no effective enforcement of their-own guidelines.
Starting in March 2011, Wikipedia senior management had known that the Murder of Meredith Kercher article was unacceptable. Last week they finally drew the line and sent in a trusted envoy to correct the problem. But their work is not yet complete. Many good Wikipedia editors were expelled because they challenged the neutrality of an article in language no stronger than Jimbo Wales would later use. Wikipedia should now discipline those who perpetrated this outrage upon their community and they should reinstate all those who challenged it.