Every professor tells her students that Wikipedia is not a viable source, which stops no student ever from first going to Wikipedia to learn about something. It’s not that it can be trusted, but that it is the digital keeper of our times.
No more so than when Capital New York revealed that certain pages had been edited by computers with IP addresses at 1 Police Plaza.
Computers operating on the New York Police Department’s computer network at its 1 Police Plaza headquarters have been used to alter Wikipedia pages containing details of alleged police brutality, a review by Capital has revealed.
Computer users identified by Capital as working on the NYPD headquarters’ network have edited and attempted to delete Wikipedia entries for several well-known victims of police altercations, including entries for Eric Garner, Sean Bell, and Amadou Diallo.
Three highly controversial cases, all involving allegations of brutality by the New York Police Department, have been changed. By someone at the headquarters of the New York Police Department.
Here are some of the five changes Capital says an NYPD-affiliated IP address made to the page about Garner, who was killed in 2014 when officers detaining him on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes put him in a chokehold (no officers were charged with crimes related to the incident):
“Garner raised both his arms in the air” was changed to “Garner flailed his arms about as he spoke.”
“[P]ush Garner’s face into the sidewalk” was changed to “push Garner’s head down into the sidewalk.”
Different, and maybe some would argue designed to change the tone if not the fact, but hardly significant. And now that whoever did it has been caught, there is nothing to stop someone else, you, from going back into Wikipedia to change it back or modify it otherwise. Or whoever knows how to use a computer at 1 PP to go back in and change it again.
Does it matter that the edits weren’t outrageous, and maybe even a bit more accurate than what was there before? Does it matter that the NYPD is sneaking into the recorder of current history to tweak it? Aren’t we doing the same, with people who believe that Eric Garner was murdered by Daniel Pantaleo making his Wikipedia page reflect their beliefs?
My initial reaction upon learning of the 1PP shenanigans was that it presented such a flagrant conflict of interest, such an obvious effort to rewrite history to reflect the police perspective, that it was irrelevant whether specific edits this time were benign or abusive. They shouldn’t do it.
But the lingering question remained, why are the cops not allowed their say in the writing of history? Because we don’t trust them? Hey, they don’t trust us either. Because they’re facially conflicted and biased? And we’re utterly without bias and completely objective?
One argument that was well-grounded was that the edits shouldn’t come from 1 Police Plaza, if for no other reason than that’s a building built by the people of New York for the use of their police force. When in there, when using its computers, when wearing its uniforms and carrying its shields, they’re on our time, our dime. They shouldn’t be wasting it rewriting history, whether to cleanse it of their misconduct or, from their perspective, correct it.
But what if the same fingers that tapped out the edits did so from a computer on Staten Island, or Massapequa? Would that be okay? I couldn’t think of any reason it wouldn’t. Are cops, sitting at home on their own time, any less allowed to put their two cents into history than, say, criminal defense lawyers?
Of course, some of the changes to Wikipedia were not quite so innocuous.
At one point a One Police Plaza user attempted to delete the entry for “Sean Bell shooting incident” altogether. The NYPD says it is investigating Capital’s findings.
Capital also found that One Police Plaza IP addresses had edited the page about British band Chumbawumba and edited a health-related page to add a reference to “gay man on man butt sex.”
Which just goes to show that whoever figured out how to turn on the computers at 1PP can be just as big a jerk as anyone else. Yet, Capital New York figured it out, and the nature of crowdsourced history allows the next guy to undo the edits and return the Wikipedia page to its rightful place in our history.
There isn’t much dispute that the use of police computers and time on the clock shouldn’t properly be spent on cleansing Wikipedia of unpleasant police references or editing in a derogatory description of anal sex. But these same people have just as much right in their individual capacity to frame history as it exists in their eyes, and serves their interests, as anyone else.
That’s why students shouldn’t cite to Wikipedia. Then again, knowing what I do about the inherent bias of scholars, there really isn’t any source that is so pure as to stand above its author’s bias.
It’s not clear yet who the victor on the internet will be, as the battle is still being fought on pretty much every front. Indeed, there may never come a time when a Wikipedia page is finally complete, never to be edited again, and so unquestionably accurate that a professor will allow her students to cite to it. It’s unclear how one would even know who the victor is, and so who gets the final say on history. Maybe the last person who cares enough to edit the page?
But should there be a definitive history of such controversial matters as Eric Garner, Sean Bell and Amadou Diallo, as painful as it is for me to say, the perspective of police may well deserve to be in there. As long as it’s noted as opinion and not fact.