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Wikipedia head addresses Pontifical Academy

According to a Vatican website, “The co-founder of Wikipedia told a Vatican audience that his online encyclopedia could contribute to peace by promoting “a more thoughtful world,” even as the site was under fire for how it referred to those who oppose and support legalized abortion.

Jimmy Wales, who co-founded Wikipedia in 2001, was invited to address the annual assembly of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. The meeting at the Vatican April 27-May 1 focused on Blessed John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical “Pacem in Terris” and continuing challenges to promoting peace and justice in the world.

In an interview after his speech, Wales also spoke about Wikipedia’s arbitration process to determine the correct Wikipedia use of the terms “pro-choice,” “pro-life,” “abortion rights” and “anti-abortion” to describe individuals and movements.

Wikipedia, which allows almost all entries to be initiated, updated and edited by almost anyone, had received complaints about an inconsistent use of the terms, which some people felt unfairly tended to use the negative “anti-abortion” to describe the pro-life position while almost always using the positive “pro-choice” label to describe those who support legal abortion.

The online site conducted a “community consultation” of users March 23-April 23, asking them to discuss the terms, their implications and list in order of preference the terms they thought were most appropriate. Wikipedia administrators were scheduled to review the discussion and votes before issuing a final ruling May 1 that would be binding for three years.

Wales told Catholic News Service he had not had a chance to read the online discussion or the final decision. But in general, he said, Wikipedia recognizes that certain words or terms “are heavily loaded” and the goal always is to find “a single, simple, neutral term.”

One of the Wikipedia principles is that “you can refer to people as they refer to themselves,” Wales said. “Certainly the most common terms in the U.S. in this discourse are pro-life and pro-choice, but both sides have complaints” about the accuracy of the other’s description.

Wikipedia also wants to be careful about using terms that implicitly imply a judgment, for instance by using the term “pro-abortion,” he said. Those supporting legalized abortion “may be pro-abortion relative to a Catholic priest of course,” he said, but most people who support legalized abortion would not say they promote abortion.

In his presentation to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Wales explained how Wikipedia pursues its goal of promoting “a world in which every single person on the planet has free access to the sum of all human knowledge.”

While most pages of Wikipedia can be edited by anyone, the edits are reviewed by other Wikipedia users and can be referred to Wikipedia administrators — usually longtime contributors who volunteer their time and are elected by Wikipedia users — and to an arbitration committee.

Wales said he believes the online encyclopedia “has a significant role to play” in peacemaking because it encourages participation, has a broad reach, makes information accessible and is available in about 280 languages. The English, German, French and Dutch pages each have more than 1 million articles posted, he said.

Wikipedia is a “mediating and moderating influence on the discourse on the Internet,” he said, because each article is open to review, discussion and correction. Much of the information people access through the news media tends “to be inflammatory. That doesn’t contribute to peace at all,” he said. His goal is to have Wikipedia be “calmer, slower and more reflective than that.”

Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa told the meeting that while people today are better educated and have greater access to information than in the past, they are becoming less human because education is focused so heavily on hard science, that it leaves aside questions about the meaning of human life and destiny.

“I would say the signs that I see are much more hopeful than that,” Wales told CNS. When he speaks at high schools and universities, the young people cheer — “they love Wikipedia” and love reading it.

“I think there is a real passion among young people today to be better informed,” he said.

Wales said the Catholic Church must use the Internet and social media to engage in discussions with young people and it must do a better job of allowing them the space to comment and discuss.

Church sites, though, need to have filtering software and participants who can exercise “social control” on those who misbehave.

“If you invite 20 people over to your house for a party and somebody starts making obnoxious and racist and sexist comments, you may ask them to leave, but at the very least, you don’t invite them back,” he said. An interactive website must do the same with unruly guests.

“The same spirit you would have at a church supper, you ought to have online,” Wales said.

Cindy Wooden

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