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

Published: Sunday, Jan. 30 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

It worked. Hi540 disappeared from Mormon topics on Wikipedia.

So did Nicholson.

But the Foxe remains.

Foxe wants Wikipedia's Mormon articles to be neutral, and is proud of his work on "Joseph Smith, Jr."

"I think it's the best encyclopedia article bar none. I think it is a better article than appears anywhere else in publication or anyplace. I think it is the most neutral.The best encyclopedia article anywhere in any print source. If you are talking about any encyclopedia, I think it's the best. I have no doubt about that. I really like it. It doesn't mean it can't be improved. But as far as neutrality goes, as far as completeness goes, that article is a fine example of neutrality."

But not everybody agrees that Foxe's interpretations are neutral — including the person whose book, "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling," is the most quoted in the "Joseph Smith, Jr." article footnotes.

Richard L. Bushman, who is the Howard W. Hunter professor of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University (Calif.), thinks the article is technically accurate in the sense that the facts are traced to documents from people in the 19th Century. "But we have to remember that Joseph Smith was even more controversial in the 19th Century than he is now," Bushman said. "What I think is the real failing of this piece is that it lacks scope. It just picks its way along from one little fact to another little fact, all of them ending up making Joseph Smith an ignoble character of some kind. And it never really assesses Joseph Smith's achievement. What was the significance of this person in history? After all, he was the founder of a church that is remarkable for continuing for a couple of centuries. Yet it doesn't give you any sense of how he did that. There's no explanation of how he acquired all these followers. … The article doesn't say anything about the impact of new revelation on followers or even make much of the fact that Joseph was continually receiving revelation. So it becomes a picky piece that isn't inaccurate, but it sort of lacks depth. It ends up being shallow, I think."

But people like Bushman do not spend their time editing Wikipedia articles.

A recent report from the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project found that 42 percent of all Americans 18 and older use Wikipedia to look for information. This means 53 percent of adults that use the Internet use Wikipedia. The survey also found that 69 percent of Internet users that have college degrees turn to Wikipedia to look up topics. It is more popular than instant messaging.

But popularity doesn't equate to universal praise.

In 2006 there were accusations of members of Congress having their pages fixed by their staff members. IsraelNationalNews.com complained that Wikipedia is "where the State of Israel is incessantly vilified, its leaders maligned, and its policies continuously criticized by Arabs and their third world and Western cohorts." An article by Matthew Sheffield in the Washington Times pointed out that Wikipedia had blocked, at one time, allegations that former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards had an extramarital affair. Others have complained that an article on Sen. Al Franken was right leaning. "(P)eople with enough determination to force their viewpoints on Wikipedia can do so," wrote Sheffield.

Even though Nicholson had scared away Hi540, he felt like he had failed on Wikipedia.

But Wikipedia wasn't the only wiki in town. The Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR) had a wiki about Mormon topics at FairMormon.org. Nicholson got out his frustrations by posting the text of several Mormon articles from Wikipedia and then citing every Wikipedia rule Foxe and other editors broke.

"When they became aware of that, they complained all over the place about that," Nicholson said, "but they started fixing some of those problems. So, in essence, it had the desired affect. I had more influence on those articles by posting what I did on the FAIR website than I ever did by trying to edit them directly."

NOTE: Wikipedia articles and statistics can change in a matter of seconds. Information in this story reflects the condition of Wikipedia at various points during the period this story was researched Sept. 2010 to Jan. 2011.

What is Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is the world's largest online encyclopedia, and the fifth-most visited website in the world. More than 4 million people visit it every month. For many people, especially the younger generation, it is becoming a primary source of information on new topics.

e-mail: mdegroote@desenews.com Twitter: twitter.com/degroote

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