Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Selma Botman and the good and bad of Wikipedia

Selma Botman had a Wikipedia page before she ever came to USM and apparently her Senior Advisor was tasked with keeping it up to date for some time.  I question, seriously, whether or not she met the notability guidelines.  The USM Presidents before and after her apparently have not as they have no pages, but that's not why I've started writing here (with two other articles waiting to be finished off in the wings which is not usually the case.)

I think she meets the notability guidelines now.  When she became the first USM President subject to a no confidence vote and that got people's attentions at least from the Czech Republic to Chicago then I think she rose to the level of notability that Wikipedia enforces, sometimes with absurd force, in an extremely uneven fashion.

I thought Botman was all in the past, I thought that Botmangate (I hate that name, by the way; there's a reason why I'd rather have an eight word long tag than use the much shorter "Botmangate") was over.

Then on the 11th, my mother's birthday, it reared its ugly head again.  This time with a relative flurry of activity on her Wikipedia page.  It doesn't take much to rise to the level of "relative flurry" because her Wikipedia page generally has exactly zero activity.

It turned out that one of her most vocal supporters decided to try to rewrite history.  It was not the usual supporter, the "Senior Advisor" with Wikipedia name Ptortx, nor did it follow the usual pattern.  In the past the standard method of Botman supporters had been to delete the entire section of the page regarding everything they themselves have not written, that section being known as "Controversy."

Now at this point I could point out that the sections they did write are mired in problems.  First, they are (or were, in the activity that followed  the Botman supporter's attempted redaction of history there has been reformatting) out of order.  Two times the word "Previously," was used to indicate that as you read further forward you were actually going back in time (until you weren't) other times you were just supposed to know by magic what the order of events were.  Second they had no properly formatted citations and the citations they did have were to editorials, the one area of newspapers even less subject to fact checking than the coverage of politics (where it has, only mildly jokingly, been pointed out that if one candidate said the earth was flat while the other spoke the truth the headline would read, "Candidates disagree over shape of world," and the article would never indicate which was right.)  Third they were out of date.  I'm going to have to look this up because unlike Botman supporters I want to make sure things are actually true before I stick them on Wikipedia, but I believe the university was in a state of financial health for all of one year when she was at it.  Yet the Wikipedia article still indicates, with citation, that she restored the university to financial health even though when she left she'd somehow managed to loose seven and a half million dollars (rounding down) with no indication as to where it went thus taking a year that should have resulted in a small surplus (half a million dollars is small when we're talking about the figures involved) based on revenue and operating costs and somehow (I don't think anyone has quite figured out how yet) managed to make it a year with a more than seven million dollar deficit.  That's not exactly restoring it to financial health, even though the Wikipedia page still says she did that.

I'm somewhat worried to point out that it has reached the point where deleting the "Controversy" section no longer erases all record of the no confidence vote as it is now mentioned elsewhere in the article.  Somewhat worried because I'm not sure that Botman's supporters have noticed that it is mentioned elsewhere yet.  (Though maybe that's the reason for the change in tactics.)

I could point out these things, but that would drag me too far into tangent land.  (One of the articles waiting to be finished is about Babylon 5 and the rhetorical technique of, "I could mention this, but I won't.")

What I instead want to focus on is this:

Wikipedia's greatest weakness is that anyone can edit it.  A few keystrokes and Wikipedia says World War II never happened.  Wikipedia's greatest strength is that anyone can edit it.  One person reverting the page and suddenly Wikipedia says we're back in a world where World War II did take place.

This is dangerous and at the same time good.

Selma Botman's supporters can keep on vandalizing the page to make her look like a saint or even to simply muddy the waters.*  That's were the danger comes in, the revisionism.  For example, the section called "Controversy" should have been called "Controversies" from the moment it was added (blame where it is due, fault of the person who added it not Botman supporters).  At some point in the editing history of the page someone removed all reference to the first major controversy to break with respect to Botman from everything on the page but a couple of external links with no mention of why they were there.  (I think the person who added the "Controversy" section didn't know how to cite references and just added their references as external links.  At the time the "Controversy" section was dominated by the pay raise controversy, now it is devoted entirely to the vote of no confidence.)  So we can see historical revisionism at work with regard to Selma Botman's page.

But everyone else (for specific examples: 67.255.220.223, Foulolron123, 130.111.129.86, 141.114.161.162, Namiba, 67.255.218.207 (note that those IP addresses are all different) ***) can set the record straight.  That's it's strength.

Now that editing Botman's page is back on people's list of things to do**, now that her two most vocal supporters (Erickson and Eagan) are both active on Wikipedia with respect to this and it's reached the point of (Erickson) introducing falsehoods instead of (Ptortx) simply deleting the truth, I think we'll probably reach the point of things being quite interesting with regard to the page.  There are already spirited discussions on two talk pages (one on one of the editors', one on the talk page of the article itself.)  The annoying thing is that the facts of the case really aren't in dispute.

This isn't conclave the rules to force a referendum are in the Faculty Senate Bylaws, freely available online, the rules for what constitute a passing vote on matters that require the intervention of the Chancellor and/or Board of Trustees (like, say, getting rid of a sitting president) are laid out very clearly (a two thirds vote of those voting) in the university's Governance Document/Constitution (which supersedes the bylaws.)  Nothing should be complicated or controversial.

One thing that interests me is whether the other things will come out/come back.  The Pay Raise Controversy, for example has been excised from the page, will this new attention on the page get it put back?  The Rosetta Stone Controversy probably doesn't have sufficient sources (as I noted in a footnote it's here and on the blog of one of her supporters and apparently nowhere else) to every make it onto Wikipedia, but various other things might.  The broken promises, the financial distress, the vindictiveness, the daycare, so on.

The day care is interesting because if you look back through the news it turns out that her position completely changed.  Find a news article from when she closed it and you'll see her saying what a heart wrenching decision it is but the money saved will go to supporting academics (most commonly cited broken promise: "The money we save via this painful cut will go to supporting academics," the cut is made, the money never shows up.  At least on the academic side.)  Find reports from the time of the vote of no confidence (I don't know if you can or if this was done entirely verbally) and they'll say that she got rid of the daycare because she thought no one was using it.  (It was always full and had an absurd waiting list.)

I'm trying to remember now whether the shit list was the work of Botman or the person before her.  If it was her then that should definitely make it onto the page, but likely won't.

The shit list happened thus:
Administrator 1: We're tight on money, we have to cut.
Administrator 2: Who should we cut?
Administrator 1: I've got an idea (esoteric formulae unrelated to anything relevant) These people!
These people: Uh... you do realize we're profitable, right?  So cutting us will lose you money, not save you money.

But there seriously was a list made up of, we don't have enough money so we'll have to cut programs, we've used these (not money related) criteria to make up a list of potential programs to cut.  What?  They're all profitable?  Who cares.

Thankfully, if I remember correctly, nothing ever came of the shit list.

I wouldn't put it passed Botman, but I think the shit list was in the previous regime.  Some vague sense of what preceded what leads to that (if it was in her regime it would need to have been right at the start) as well as the fact that the previous regime was best known to me for its leader needing to be taken aside so it could be gently explained to him that, "Yes, this program costs a million dollars a year and so cutting it will mean you're spending a million less, but it makes two million dollars a year.  Two is bigger than one.  Twice as big in fact.  Cutting the program will leave you with a million dollars less, not a million dollars more," which seemed to indicate the same kind of thinking that was behind the shit list.

Then again, Selma Botman shared in that form of thinking.

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* Some of the edits were to change the date of the no confidence vote, meaning that if anyone tried to get more information on the no confidence vote that took place that day they'd find out that there was no no confidence vote on that day.

It is sneakier than outright deleting it.  Instead it just makes all information on the page about the no confidence vote suspect because it's like getting a history book that says World War II took place in 1832.  How much are you going to trust the rest of the "facts" presented when you start with that?

No, the edit didn't change the year, it changed the month, indicating it took place in the first third of the year rather than the second and that it took place on one day rather than two, and that it took place before the petition forcing it to take place was delivered (mind you the edits also eliminated any mention of the petition.) And eliminated any reference to the almost month long process in which those tasked with organizing the vote tried to get input from all of the faculty (not an easy task since they numbered in hundreds) and constantly worked hand in hand with Selma Botman, the person the vote was about, to create a fair process.

It also indicated that there was no dispute as to the outcome of the vote, where in reality the dispute was never settled and has since become moot.  (It doesn't matter that it passed while Selma told every news source that would listen that it failed because a little over two months later, after talks with the guy in charge that were kicked off by the vote, She resigned.  Sort of.  She resigned in a way that didn't count as quitting and thus kept her huge salary while losing all the responsibilities that were supposed to have come with it.)

** I was going to do a major edit.  I was tracking down every news source including one that thought the vote was part of some grand conspiracy for world domination, and incorporating the reliable ones.  Learning how things are cited in Wikipedia (my only previous involvement in Wikipedia**** had been reverting malicious edits.  Like someone who replaced the definition of tool with the name of a person they didn't like.)  Putting things into order, tracing rumors to their source, finding out that the Rosetta Stone controversy stayed almost entirely word of mouth and never made it into a cite-able source unless you count this blog and the blog of one of her two most vocal supporters, and so forth.  But then my computer managed to crash in a highly unusual (for it, not for computers in general) way that managed to delete both the draft and the backup I had in case anything happened to the draft.

So that didn't happen, but other people were drawn in by the activity too and thus deleting and falsehood has been undone.

***  Of which I am at least one, I think I do have a Wikipedia account but since what I've done on Wikipedia is seriously limited to reverting malicious edits and occasionally correcting punctuation, I generally don't feel the need to log in.  I'd have to figure out what my account was to be sure, but I don't think I've felt the need to log in in years.

**** Unless I've forgotten something, which I don't think I have.

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