Home Wikipedia in Tug-of-War Over Palin’s Version of Revolutionary War (UPDATED)

Wikipedia in Tug-of-War Over Palin’s Version of Revolutionary War (UPDATED)

Last week, former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin gave a highly idiosyncratic (read: inaccurate) portrait of American revolutionary figure Paul Revere to the media. Now, a struggle has broken out on Wikipedia over Ms. Palin’s version of history.

Her version was that Paul Revere rode through Boston, ringing a bell, to announce to the British that the colonials were preparing to fight. This is not remotely true. He rode silently, to let the revolutionaries know the British were en route.

Update after the jump.

When she was braced for the mistake on Fox News Sunday, she refused to admit she was wrong.

“I didn’t mess up about Paul Revere. Part of his ride was to warn the British that we’re already there – that, ‘Hey, you’re not going to succeed. You’re not going to take American arms. You are not going to beat our own well-armed persons, individual, private militia that we have. He did warn the British.”

It’s true that Revere did tell the British the Americans were ready to fight. Later. After the ride. After he had been captured. Without bells. And had firearms pointed at him. In an attempt to rattle and mislead his captors.

So, you know. Palin was right.

As Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs noted, this rearrangement of history has been playing out on Wikipedia’s Paul Revere page.

Pro-Palin contributors have been changing, and others reversing, language justifying her comments, as can be seen in the Revisions page for the entry. Here is a discussion centering on the controversy.

Anyone who has written an article or a paper or just done a search in the last few years can tell you how important Wikipedia is as an initial (alas, all too often also an only source) for information. The give-and-take built into the Wiki process seems to be keeping the boat upright, but only just.

Imagine pulling up the entry on deadline for a school paper. Depending on when you tune in, you might be making Paul into a Ninja messenger or a bell-ringing Muppet. Naturally, anyone who accepts a single source as Gospel is not doing the job of a thinking person, but it happens.

The really awful thing, though, is that we live in an age where, on every level, it is considered a sin to be wrong. From advertisers to kids on the playground to the world of corporate PR to politicians, the all-too-common wisdom is to defend the indefensible. That’s what Palin is doing and that is what her renfields on Wikipedia are doing, and that’s sad, because as anyone remotely successful in Silicon Valley can tell you, without owning our mistakes we cannot learn from them and without learning, we cannot win.


Jay Walsh, Head of Communications for Wikimedia Foundation clarified the situation from his organization’s point of view.

“The article is right now in semi-protection, which means that only registered editors (those who have a registered accounts on Wikipedia, specifically those who have had an account for more than a few days) can make changes to the page. Only a fraction of pages on English Wikipedia are actually in any sort of protection mode, but this isn’t uncommon when the article in question is about an emerging news topic and/or a living person…I think it’s something in the order of 1500 or so of the 3.5 million-plus articles on English Wikipedia.

“Right now a group of smart, experienced Wikipedians are having a civil discussion about the article, and as is pretty much always the case with devoted Wikipedians, they want to ensure the article is of the highest possible quality. I expect some new Wikipedians came to this article in an effort to share their views on the topic, either by making edits or participating in the discussion. On the article’s talk page you can see where contributors are sharing views and discussing the whole affair. This is 100% normal for Wikipedia and

it’s a sign that passionate people are working towards an inclusive but factual article.”

Sarah Palin photo by Roger Goun, Paul Revere house photo by Boston Public Library | other sources: Boston Globe

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