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Wikipedia Is Making Us More Political
Information gatekeepers train us how to think.
Wikipedia is the fourth-highest trafficked website in the world. It is the only non-search enginge in the top 10 that is information-centered, rather than video or image-centered. As such, Wikipedia is probably the most influential hub of data in the world. Gone are the days when your high school teacher would deduct points for citing Wikipedia. The site has become such a central touchpoint of information in the digital age that high-level academic papers now rely on it to establish basic definitions and supply key data. And because Wikipedia is a website, rather than a printed encyclopedia, it is epistemologically active on behalf of the Internet. Its design aesethetic is training us how to look for and process information. What Wikipedia says is important is what we learn to think of as important. Whether we like it or not, we live in a Wiki world.
One very significant way Wikipedia has transformed the public mind is in the kinds of information it chooses to include. Just like how the Britannica’s choice of particular dates and events created a kind of standarized view of history, Wikipedia’s choice of information likewise shapes how we think about public figures. One small but very important example of that is how Wikipedia treats personal political views.
A large percentage of Wikipedia articles about celebrities includes information about that celebrity’s political views. Some celebrities have entire sections on their page dedicated to it. Taylor Swift’s page features a “Politics and activism” section that is about as long as the section analyzing her musical style.
If you read through this section, you’ll notice some interesting things. There are no direct references to Swift’s own political accomplishments or ambitions. It is entirely about her views. The second sentence of the section is about how some of her critics viewed her. Public statements she has made are blended almost seamlessly with interpretations of her music or music videos by media outlets. Finally, the list of “politics” becomes more and more granular throughout the section, eventually transitioning away from big-picture issues like feminism to the removal of Confederate monuments and Juneteenth.
By virtue of its role in a digital society, Wikipedia tells us what we should know about a public figure. And here, what Wikipedia tells us we should know about Taylor Swift is a significant departure from how encyclopedias historically would have let us know about famous singers. From this article we can only walk away believing that Swift’s political views are perhaps equal to or maybe even of greater importance to her public platform than her music. Further, the blending of personal views with public statements, and the weaving of her artistry with intepretations of it, creates the impression that we cannot or should not listen to her music without pondering its political meaning. Simply due to what information it chooses to emphasize, and how it emphasizes it, Wikipedia has given politics a privileged position in Swift’s career and life—even if this impression is certainly not what the vast majority of her fans would know about her.
Consider J.K. Rowling. Rowling’s example is different than Swift’s, since the former has been much more vocal about political topics in the past. But it is still significant for how we think about our public figures that Rowling'‘s political views have their own Wikipedia article. Eve more significantly, the article heavily emphasizes Rowling’s tweets and the controversy around them.
If Swift’s Wiki entry illustrated a reduction of personal artistry to mean “politics,” this page illustrates a reduction of “politics” to mean “political tweets.” There is simply no parallel to this with any other period of media history; the digital age is the very first to say that we should have access to a repository of a person’s most controversial sentences, permanently accessible through their biographical data. There are entire books written about the controversial views of authors like George Orwell, but these are separate from the repository of biographical data about the man. Wiki collapses this distinction almost entirely. There is no clear point in which information about Rowling, by virtue of her fame as an author, ends, and information about her as a political thinker or poster begins. Everything runs together online, to a pedagogical effect. This is how we come away believing we are supposed to think of Rowling: equal parts Twitter provocateur and author of the bestselling novel in human history.
Another example is Tom Brady. Brady’s Wiki entry includes a relatively lengthy section named, “Politics.” But this is a misnomer. The section is not really about Brady’s political philosophy, because there is no such thing on record. What Wiki is calling “Politics” is really a section about one particular thing: Brady’s friendship with Donald Trump.
It’s hard to imagine any pre-Internet encyclopedia featuring this material. From this section one gleans virtually zero information about Brady’s political worldview. Here the word “politics” is being defined down to mean, “Any part of a person’s life that causes political controversy.” You may think I’m being naive, and that Brady’s friendship with Trump is absolutely reflective of his worldview. But here’s the point: Should an encyclopedia entry really presume to make that connection? Of all the examples in this post, Brady’s is the clearest illustration of how Wikipedia’s content choices have epistemological power. Brady now becomes a political figure, a person with a critique-able position (even though no such position is presented). The political has absorbed the personal in a very explicit way, on the very web page that many people will access to learn who Brady is.
All of these examples amplify the role of politics in culture, by making partisan opinions a vital part of a person’s biographical data. There is no distinction any more between the person who, through their vocational or personal choices, decides to become a political figure, and the person who is perceived as political. What we know about the one is pretty much what we know about the other. Thus, hyper-politicization of everything feels much more normal. We are used to seeing politics infused into personalities, and moreover, we are used to seeing politics reduced to mean the most mundane or epheremeal comments. There are progressively fewer places to turn to learn about the world that don’t work this way. It’s no wonder that we feel politics has cannibalized our imaginations. We literally cannot imagine anything without politics.
Wikipedia’s curation and presentation of information matters to how the emerging generation of Westerners will think, not only about the lives of famous figures, but about their own lives. Seamless inclusion of even minute, offhand comments about political matters is a conscience-training mechanism, reinforcing the notion that politics should “weigh” as much as one’s vocation or relationships. It’s not hard to see how the anointing of Wikipedia as the gatekeeper of information in a digital culture could matter very much to what kind of information we think is valuable about ourselves. This too is another example of a digital liturgy.