Wiki Wars: In battle to define beliefs, Mormons and foes wage battle on Wikipedia

Published: Sunday, Jan. 30 2011 1:37 a.m. MST

Most people don't really understand that they can change anything they want on Wikipedia. All they have to do is click on the "edit" tab on any page.

The way it is supposed to work is somebody posts information on a particular topic. Then other people come along and add to it and correct it.

As they make edits, people are supposed to explain why they make changes. If somebody else doesn't like your change, they can simply revert it back to the way it was. Nothing is ever lost on Wikipedia. Every change, every version of the article and every comment any editor ever made is accessible on the "history" tab on every page.

In practice, however, relatively few people make edits. Communities are created around specific articles. Some people work for years on creating and then protecting their article. They don't want people coming in and messing around with their turf.

And when it comes to Mormon topics, there are people ready to fight to make them say what they want them to say.

Back home in San Francisco, Nicholson adopted a secret identity for editing on Wikipedia — a screen name. To the online community at Wikipedia, he would be known as Bochica — a bearded hero in Colombian antiquity. Nicholson had served a mission in Colombia from 1979 to 1981.

A screen name isn't unusual. Anybody who is going to make more than a few edits on Wikipedia signs up and adopts a screen name.

So on December 10, 2006, Nicholson began making edits in various articles. A few were on Mormonism, such as the article "Nahom," about a place described in the Book of Mormon. That edit was easy — just adding a footnote. Simple enough. He tried editing articles unrelated to Mormonism such as "Laser Voltage Prober" and "Electron Beam Induced Current." Then he edited a few things on "View of the Hebrews." He thought the article was implying that an early General Authority of the LDS Church, Elder B. H. Roberts, thought "View of the Hebrews" was the source for the Book of Mormon. He didn't think that was quite accurate, so he put a tag or notice on the article saying the it needed a citation.

A volunteer editor with the screen name "John Foxe" jumped in with citation after citation contradicting Nicholson. But Nicholson didn't think they were on point. So he added a quote from Elder Roberts. Foxe shortened the quote. Nicholson put the full quote back in. Foxe shortened again. Nicholson got the underlying message.

When editors disagree, they can talk about their difference on another hidden page. Just click on the "Discussion" tab on any Wikipedia page and the underlying battles over the article are opened up like Toto pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz. Nicholson and Foxe went back and forth about their edits on the discussion page.

This is where editors fight it out and try to build consensus by recruiting other editors to back them up. Accusations and insults are not uncommon. And if things get really bad, appeals are made to other volunteer editors with admin privileges who can temporarily or permanently ban editors.

But the sparring between Nicholson and Foxe didn't go very far. Things weren't as easy as Nicholson had thought. He hadn't expected a fight and sensed that he couldn't do much on this particular article.

"Ultimately," Nicholson said, "I gave up."

Nicholson realized he wasn't the only one who wanted to define Mormonism.

Two main factions battle for control of Mormon articles on Wikipedia. On one side are Mormons who want articles to leave room for belief. They want positive facts of history to be prominent. On the other side are people who do not believe in the LDS Church. They want negative aspects of history to take precedence. Both sides think they are being neutral.

Within these factions are other factions, such as the editor COgden, a Mormon lawyer from California who likes the idea of creating an article that Mormons and anti-Mormons can't assail.

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