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

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

Jimmy Wales, from the US, co-founder and promoter of Wikipedia, attends the "Intelligence on the World, Europe, and Italy" economic forum, at Villa d'Este, in Cernobbio, on the Como Lake, Italy, Friday, Sept. 3, 2010.

Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Roger Nicholson was about to send an email, but hesitated. He was staring at his laptop computer screen in an airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, trying to decide what to do. Did he really want to send this?

Nicholson had wrapped up a business trip to Israel and was waiting to take a plane back to his home in the San Francisco Bay Area when he experienced the power of Wikipedia.org to define the world — and his faith.

The e-mail was to a relative on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Nicholson argued in the e-mail that the church was true, that Mormonism is right and that Joseph Smith Jr. was a prophet. He found he was disputing things the doubting missionary had read about the LDS Church on Wikipedia.org, an online encyclopedia.

In an earlier exchange, the missionary told Nicholson that Wikipedia was reliable because the collaborative process ensures its accuracy.

Nicholson disagreed. How could a website be accurate if anybody could change it whenever they wanted to? Somebody had to stand up to this.

He looked at the email he was about to send and made a decision.

Wikipedia could define the world — but not the way he treated others.

"I had a response and was ready to send it, but something just stopped me," Nicholson said. "I decided that I didn't want to define our relationship by contention."

But he felt something still needed to be done. If anybody could edit Wikipedia, why not him?

A wiki is a website that makes it easy for many people to edit information together in a collaborative way. There are many wikis online, but Wikipedia, which celebrated its tenth anniversary this month, is the mother of all wikis. Everything about it is huge. Wikipedia is the world's fifth most-visited website. More than 400 million people consult it every month. Almost 100,000 unpaid volunteers edit its 17 million encyclopedia-style articles in 270 languages — 3.5 million articles of which are in English.

If people don't know about something, if they want to find a quick fact, if they want to learn the truth about something, they are turning to Wikipedia. Want to learn how many Tweets-per-minute were sent out when Michael Jackson died? Look on Wikipedia (5,000). Want to know who was Will Roger's wife? The answer is on Wikipedia (Betty Blake). Want to know about the quadratic equation? Why birds fly south? Who killed President Kennedy? Who was Pope when Columbus sailed to America? Wikipedia has can provide the answers to these questions and millions more with a few key strokes. Nicholson learned that if people have questions about the LDS Church and its founder Joseph Smith Jr., they will often turn to Wikipedia for answers first — and trust what they read. Even if they use the search website Google.com, Wikipedia's articles are invariably one of the first listed responses to almost any query.

Organizations are recognizing they can't ignore the impact of the Internet. For example, Elder M. Russell Ballard, a member of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve, spoke at BYU-Hawaii graduation on Dec. 15, 2007 about challenges facing the church on the Internet. "Conversations will continue whether or not we choose to participate in them. But we cannot stand on the sidelines while others, including our critics, attempt to define what the church teaches."

For people looking into the doctrines, history and practices of the LDS Church and other religions, Wikipedia is seen as the most accurate, reliable and unbiased definition.

Wikipedia gets to those definitions by the work of its volunteer editors. People who go to the website only see the end result — paragraphs, charts, photographs, references and links on various topics. The whole aura of "encyclopedia" presents an authoritative facade.

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.

Creating a truly neutral site may be difficult, as one editor posted: "(T)here is just not much middle ground between Prophet and Imposter." So the fight wages on. Editors have to stay constantly vigilant to stop edits they don't want, relying on automatic notifications of changes sent to their e-mail and spending hours defending their positions.

Nicholson's nemesis, John Foxe, is the screen name of a professor at Bob Jones University, a Christian college and seminary located in Greenville, South Carolina that has historically been hostile to the LDS Church. In 2000 then-university president Bob Jones III called the Catholic Church and Mormons "cults which call themselves Christian." The quote was taken off the Bob Jones University's official website, but then reposted so that people would not think Jones III backed down.

"I think I first got on (Wikipedia) because the Bob Jones site was just crazy. There was just crazy stuff, non-true things," Foxe said. "And I said 'Oh, I'll fix that.' And it was kind of fun." Foxe spoke with the Deseret News on the condition that his real name wasn't used.

Foxe's personal interest in things Mormon started after he attended a summer history seminar with LDS scholars Richard L. Bushman and Grant Underwood at BYU. The topic was Joseph Smith. "It was a steep learning curve," Foxe said. "I wasn't completely ignorant, but it was limited to what you would expect from a teacher of history at a fundamentalist college. 'What do you know about Mormonism?' Well not all that much."

But that was then. Now John Foxe makes no secret about how he feels about Joseph Smith Jr., founder of the LDS Church. He has written that Joseph Smith was "the father of lies" and "embarrassing."

He sees himself as the lone non-Mormon policing LDS Church-related entries on Wikipeida like "Joseph Smith, Jr." and "Three Witnesses" from Mormon points of view.

Nicholson eventually abandoned his Bochica Wikipedia account, and took up a new screen name, Roger Penumbra. He gave up editing for the most part and became an observer — watching how Foxe and other editors interacted.

"The biggest battle I ever saw occurred on 'First Vision.'" Nicholson said. "It lasted months and months."

The battle took place on the "First Vision" article about Mormon prophet Joseph Smith's initial encounter with God. Foxe fought against Lesley Lovesee, a Mormon who lives in Houston Lake, Mo and who had the screen name 74s181.

Foxe would take phrases like "In addition to their Christian beliefs" and change them to "Although they considered themselves Christians." Other editors reverted Foxe's reversions. Foxe reverted yet again. And so it went, back and forth.

"I edited in good faith," Lovesee complained to Foxe on a discussion page. "You reverted my edits. I restored some but not all of the material you deleted, and edited again in an attempt to satisfy the new objection you stated in your edit comments. You reverted my edits. Repeat. Again. And. Again."

This was all familiar to Nicholson, and disappointing because the Foxe was winning again. He saw Lovesee try to defend his positions by pointing out where he thought Foxe violated Wikipedia rules.

"Frankly, Les," Foxe replied infamously, "every time you start citing Wikipedia rules, I tune them out as Mormon smokescreen."

Lovesee, like Nicholson, gave up.

Nicholson decided to jump ship, but not before one last shot.

One way editors win their points is by getting other editors to back them. Numbers count.

But with anonymous screen names, the temptation is to make up a double or "sock puppet" as they are called on the Internet. This way, one person can look like two editors.

Nicholson suspected that Foxe had created another account to make it look like he had more support. Nicholson confronted the alleged sock puppet, Hi540, by quoting Foxe's real life counterpart, the Bob Jones University professor on civility.

"Basically I told him I knew who he was," Nicholson said.

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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