Ministry of Truth

Imagine you work for the Australian government. There you are, sitting in your work cube in front of your PC, staring into space. You’ve finished estimating next year’s value of Western Australian lamb exports per acre. What will you do in the seemingly infinite 40 minutes till lunch-time?

Ah ha. Skim through Wikipedia. Try for the “random” entry. See something you know something about – your specialist subject, in fact – the development of the Perth Railway Modellers’ Club, 1990 to 2002.

But the entry shows the name of the 1997 Chairman as Ken Brewster and you know it was Ben Baxter!…. Blimey, you can’t allow this blatant misrepresentation of the facts. Future historians of the Perth Railway Modellers Club will be completely misled. So you make a quick correction.

Go forward a few weeks. Wikiscanner becomes available. Everyone can find out what organisation’s IP address has been used to make a wiki-edit.

This sparks a media-led conspiracy frenzy over evidence that people from various corporations or government agencies have edited encyclopeadia pages.

Oh look, surprisingly (not), people from the CIA have edited entries. People working for the BBC. And, – oh my Poseidon! – people working for the Australian government have edited entries. Oh dear…. You get called into the boss’s office and shouted at. …Misusing your internet privileges…. Bringing the government into disrepute, and so on…..

Largely because some people eitehr never learned, or are incapable of applying, the most basic tests to judge the validity of information. E.g:

  • Does this seem inherently reasonable?
  • Who said it?
  • Is this information contradicted or supported by other sources?
  • Who benefits if I believe this?

Are you surprised that CIA employees have edited pages that concern the CIA or that workers for the Australian government have toned down critical articles?

If so, then it’s about time you took some courses in critical thinking and analysing information. Because you lack even the most basic skills at identifying propaganda.

Indeed, Wikiscanner might serve as a basic tool for identifying potential misinformation or propaganda, going some way towards giving an answer to the second question above.

But even so, some people sit in work reading, even editing Wikipedia, Some of these people work for corporations or government agencies. Some of them are carrying out their master’s instructions. Most are just bored workers tryng to interject some purposeful activity into the boring functionary’s day.

Some are even acting as whistleblowers.

Do we want to shut up the whistleblowers just because we are too idle to develop the thinking skills to detect spin or outright lies?

The outcome of this editing-Wiki frenzy is, surprise, surprise, that more workers get their internet access circumscribed.

In a BBC story, the Australian Prime minister reacted to the story that government employees had made edits by ruling that:

…. the department said on Friday that it had acted to block staff from editing the site.
“Defence has closed personal edit access down, though employees will still be able to browse Wikipedia for information purposes,” a spokesman said.

Throughout the world, internet access is getting curtailed for employees. In the UK, for example, at the beginning of August, the Defence Department ordered members of the armed forces to get the permission of superior officers before they blog.

The Ministry of Defence last week ordered British soldiers to stop blogging, putting videos on YouTube, joining online chats or sending text messages without a superior officer’s permission. But the soldiers carried on regardless, posting caustic commentary on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was a mini digital mutiny.
I’m surprised the MoD has taken so long to deal with the problem of khaki samizdat. Censorship is part of military life. Imagine if Tommies had been able to blog about the trenches in October 1914. There would have been an outcry back home. The war could well have been over by Christmas.

“Oh look, this is from a government computer. It must be part of an evil government plot!” Come on. Let’s learn to evaluate information properly to protect ourselves from propaganda, rather than shut people up or jump at the first half-baked conspiracy theory that fits our prejudices.

Will ill-judged kneejerk conspiracy theory reactions based on the IPs of Wikipedia editors become the pretext for more internet censorship? Well, yes, it looks like they have. What a great win for free speech…

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