Wikipedia, the popular free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, is always looking for ways to improve itself. This year they have awarded a Wikimedia Fellowship to one of their senior editors, Steven Zhang, to study dispute resolution. The efforts to reform this troubled aspect of their otherwise amazingly effective model cannot come too soon.
The most important example of failed dispute resolution came over the last several years with the Murder of Meredith Kercher article. For nearly two years the article seriously misrepresented the facts of the controversial murder conviction of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito in Perugia, Italy. Powerful Wikipedia moderators who were convinced of Knox and Sollecito’s guilt were given license to block everyone with opinions contrary to their own. Anyone who seeks to deny or diminish the extent of this corruption of their process simply has not looked at the facts of the case.
When Wikipedians have serious issues with the content of an article, how should they proceed? The answer is, “show me the reliable sources.” In the case of the Meredith Kercher article the reliable sources were presented and they were met with frivolous objections and false allegations of violations of Wikipedia policy. A dozen editors were summarily blocked because of their point of view.
The underlying problem with Wikipedia’s dispute resolution system is the lack of a credible process to address serious administrator misconduct. One of the administrators who implemented many of the blocks on the Kercher topic has published a lengthy article on the anti-Knox hate site, TrueJustice.org. He was biased to the bone. A basic principle for any democracy is that law enforcement and the judicial branch must hold the confidence of the people they serve and abide by strict standards of conduct. In the case of the Kercher article the reining moderators earned the absolute contempt and mistrust of one side of the dispute.
I hope that Steven Zhang will accept the invitation to closely examine this topic. Jimmy Wales himself has said that the article was “highly biased because one side was taken out.” Wikipedia has done so much good for the world, but in a handful of areas they need to listen more carefully to responsible voices of dissent.
Background on the Meredith Kercher Topic
Meredith Kercher was a 21 year old British exchange student who was murdered in Perugia, Italy in November 2007. Three people were originally convicted of the crime: Amanda Knox, Raffaele Sollecito and Rudy Guede. Guede’s conviction is not in dispute. The trial of Knox and Sollecito has been called Italy’s Trial of the Century and was heavily criticized by experts from around the world. In Oct 2011 an appellate court overturned their convictions and the two were released after nearly four years in prison.
The case was a tabloid sensation in Europe, mostly focused on the photogenic Ms. Knox. By the time of their first trial in 2009 the two had been demonized in the tabloid press and convicted in the public’s mind. In the US the view was different. Experts emerged who started to question the trial and police investigation. As time progressed many highly credible sources were literally comparing the saga to the witch trials and inquisitions that have plagued the region for thousands of years.
All observers believe that Rudy Guede was present when the murder took place. Prosecutors argued that Knox and Sollecito were accomplices while their defenders say he acted alone. Guede’s DNA indicated sexual penetration of the victim; his palm and shoe prints were there in the victim’s blood; he flees to Germany the next day; he has a history of knife violence; he has defensive wounds; he had no business being there and he had been involved in other break-ins where windows were broken with rocks. Always he acted without accomplices. His story is that he had had consensual sexual contact with Meredith and that somebody else killed her while he was in the bathroom. None of Meredith’s friends knew of any relationship between her and Guede. In lengthy police monitored phone calls while on the run, he specifically says that Amanda was not there. Both he and Raffaele deny ever having met each other. Amanda vaguely knew who he was because she had worked in a bar. There was no cell phone or Internet contact ever between Guede and the others.
No DNA of Amanda Knox was found in the room where the murder occurred. Other DNA in the house can be explained by the fact that Amanda lived there and brought Raffaele there numerous times. Prosecutors alleged some sort of sex orgy gone wrong and they asserted that the crime scene showed signs of a female killer. To outside experts the crime scene had lone male killer written all over it. In all but the rarest of circumstances this type of crime is committed by a troubled male, just like Guede, acting alone.
The Reliable Sources
To understand Wikipedia is to know that “reliable sources” drive everything. Wikipedia only repeats what others that they deem to be credible have said. The case has been the subject of nearly 20 books, 12 hour-long television documentaries, one made for TV movie, and thousands of television news segments (I have 1500 of them on my hard disk). Here are some of the reliable sources presented to Wikipedia. To this day none of these sources have been allowed into the article.
(1) Peter Van Sant — Long time CBS News correspondent who traveled to Perugia numerous times to report on the story: “This is a disgusting verdict. It is the moral equivalent of a mob marching down Main Street and stringing these two people up. They are absolutely innocent of these crimes.”
(2) Paul Ciolino – Private Investigator put in Italy by CBS News:“You don’t have to be an American to be outraged by this. This is an injustice of Biblical proportions.”
(3) Judge Michael Heavey – Longtime Seattle area Judge: “This is a witch trial being prosecuted by a delusional prosecutor… I am saddened that a group of corrupt and dishonest police officials have destroyed the lives of two innocent young people.”
(4) Steve Moore – Retired FBI Agent who has made two dozen appearances on major television networks to provide commentary on the case: “Two good kids who were in college were framed for a murder that they did not commit and will spend the rest of their young lives in prison.”
(5) John Q. Kelly – Legal Commentator on Larry King Live on this case and others: “It’s probably the most egregious, international railroading of two innocent young people that I have ever seen. This is actually a public lynching based on rank speculation, and vindictiveness.”
(6) Douglas Preston – Author of the NY Times best seller, Monster of Florence, a true crime book about many of the same law enforcement officials in Amanda’s case: “This is a case based on lies, superstition, and crazy conspiracy theories… and that’s it.”
(7) Judy Bachrach – Rome based journalist speaking on CNN: “I have always felt that Amanda was going to go to a kangaroo court and unfortunately I’ve been proven correct.”
(8) Timothy Egan – Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the New York Times: “The case against Knox has so many holes in it, and is so tied to the career of a powerful Italian prosecutor who is under indictment for professional misconduct, that any fair-minded jury would have thrown it out months ago.”
(9) Former FBI Agent Steve Moore: “the present [Wikipedia] page on the “Murder of Meredith Kercher” has been completely taken over by a group of propagandists masquerading as impartial editors. Their point of view is that Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito are the murderers of Meredith Kercher, (even though dozens of forensic experts, including those appointed by the court, have declared the evidence flawed at best, and planted at worst.) Their weapon? They block (exile) any poster who does not agree with that line.“
(10) Tom Leonard — Correspondent for the UK based Daily Telegraph: “If there are any lawyers in the US who actually agree with the verdict, the TV networks and major newspapers have so far failed to find them.”
The Response to the Reliable Sources
Starting in about April 2010 the Murder of Meredith Kercher article was re-written by those convinced of Knox and Sollecito’s guilt. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked on ABC This Week how the US would respond yet they saw no need to even mention that the verdict was controversial.
Most Wikipedians believe that the most serious incident of a living person being harmed by false information in Wikipedia involved the journalist John Seigenthaler. For about four months in 2005 their article erroneously stated that for a short time he had been a suspect in the assassination of both JFK and RFK. John Seigenthaler was never harmed in any significant way by the Wikipedia content. The harm to Amanda Knox, Raffaele Sollecito, and their families by Wikipedia’s irresponsible coverage of their case was 10,000 times worse than anything that ever happened to John Seigenthaler.
Here are some comments by the major Wikipedia editors on the topic:
(1) Comment about FBI Agent Steve Moore by Black Kite :”It doesn’t really matter what he claims to be an expert on, someone who posits rumor, claims or opinions as facts is clearly not a reliable source on anything.”
(2) Comment about FBI Agent Steve Moore by Bluewave: “Steve Moore in an encyclopedia? Surely not.”
(3) Comment about Douglas Preston by Black Kite: “But to give an example using Preston’s quote “this is a case based on lies, superstition, and crazy conspiracy theories” – well, nice quote. Any reliable sources showing evidence that he may be correct? No, thought not.
(4) Comment about Paul Ciolino by Black Kite: “This is an encyclopedia. We report facts, not opinions derived by our editors from other sources – that’s a violation of WP:SYNTH, which is policy, and will be removed wherever it is seen. As for the quotes above; they don’t belong in the article because they’re from POV sources (Ciolino, Kelly).”
(5) Comment by Tarc: “In case anyone needs a reminder, the prevailing, mainstream point of view is that she is guilty. Knox, Guede, and Sollecito were found guilty of raping and murdering Kercher, and at present sit in Italian jail cells…There’s been a 50-year hoo-ha over JFK’s assassination as well, with lots of reliable sources talking about a lot of possibilities and supposed evidences.”
(6) Comment by FormerIP: “Substantial physical evidence’ is true of all three killers, so it is misleading to highlight this in the case of Guede.”
(7) Comment by Black Kite: “Guede was tried and convicted of the same crime as Knox and Sollecito. But Guede’s criminal record (or lack of it) before the actual murder are completely irrelevant to the actual crime. Linking prior behavior to actual behavior is clearly synthesis – those wishing to inflate Guede’s (alleged) criminal past are basically trying to say “he was a criminal before therefore he is far more likely to have committed this crime”.
(8) Comment by Bluewave: “I think the stuff about where Guede’s DNA wasn’t found may date back to a time when a couple of editors were trying to put stuff into the article promoting a “lone wolf” theory… So I’m assuming that this theory no longer has any legs and we need neither to expound the theory, nor to draw attention to the obvious lack of evidence to support it, which the courts highlighted. I think there were also attempts to say things like ‘Guede’s DNA was all over the crime scene’ when, in fact, only a few traces were found.”
(9) Comment by Brmull: “It’s telling that you should call it witch hunting because Knox is indeed an evil witch.”
The Jimbo Wales Intervention
In March 2011 I authored and online petition to Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales asking him to look at the article. It eventually got 454 signatures. Mr. Wales accepted the challenge and took a careful look at the article. His statements stunned the community:
(1) By Jimmy Wales: “One thing I think is relevant is that sources have been systematically excluded based on what I can only term “original research” arguments.”
(2) By Jimmy Wales: “Is it true that people have been banned for completely neutral edits? Yes. Is it true that reliable sources have been systematically excluded? Yes. None of that is acceptable.”
(3) By Jimmy Wales: “But censoring the views of prominent journalists and newspapers because it doesn’t fit an agenda is the precise opposite of NPOV. CNN, CBS, New York Times. Pulitzer Prize winning journalists. Those are sources, and to pretend they don’t exist is a mistake.”
(4) By Jimmy Wales: “I recommend reading this (it is long) and taking particular note of the sections “PhanuelB’s Reliable Sources”. Compare that to what appears in the article. I have drawn no firm conclusions, but there is enough here to warrant careful examination.”
(5) By Jimmy Wales: “The number of reliable sources that are easy to find, which have been systematically excluded on flimsy grounds, is compelling evidence. Someone took them out. I don’t think it wrong to call it to attention.”
(6) By Jimmy Wales: “Again, the important thing is not just this one example. It’s systematic. Timothy Egan is a Pulitzer Prize winner who has raised specific and detailed objections… What we don’t hear is what his objections are. And what those objections are, are not conspiracy theory fodder.”
False Allegations used to Expel One Side
The de facto policy for the article has always been that anyone who questioned the guilty verdict of Knox and Sollecito was not permitted to edit the article. In one case the editor Gregmm was blocked after a single non-controversial edit. With most of the others it took some time but the result was always the same.
I hope that all dedicated Wikipedians who read this article will take a look at the Link Here. The content in question was alleged to be a Biographies of Living Person’s (BLP) violation. It wasn’t. As clearly shown in link, the content was impeccably sourced and not a BLP violation. The file below has been presented to Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee who declined to act on the matter.
In other examples editors were accused of making threats when they stated an intent to use dispute resolution. Statements that certain editors or administrators were biased resulted in blocks. See the statements above. Jimmy Wales said they were biased so is it wrong for others to say it? Always the blocks targeted only one side of the dispute.
Steven Zhang is a trusted member of the Wikipedia community who has been tasked with making recommendations in a very important area. I hope that he will take the time to speak with all of the blocked editors and anyone else he believes might help.