March 5, 2021

Link by Link: On Wikipedia, 9/11 Dissent Is Kept on the Fringe

AS the nation marked this terrible anniversary, people invariably turned to Wikipedia to learn about the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Nearly two million page views were registered last September for the article “September 11 Attacks,” a typically Wikipedian effort with exhaustive, even picayune, details of the events, bolstered by nearly 289 footnotes. This September, the total page view number could be something like six million.

Likewise, readers have repeatedly turned to the article “9/11 Conspiracy Theories.” The article — similarly detailed with 299 footnotes purporting to explain accusations of faked video footage or controlled demolition of the two buildings — had 400,000 page views last September, and is on pace to have more than a million views this year.

One thing is certain, however. Not one of those visitors got to the conspiracy theories page by making a hypertext leap from a link in the main article about the Sept. 11 attacks. There is simply no mention of these theories, deemed fringe ideas, which have been repeatedly and officially discredited. They are written up in a variety of articles on Wikipedia, but they are kept on the fringe of the site.

This is no accident, but rather a Wikipedia policy concerning a topic as fraught with emotion as the Sept. 11 attacks. Thus the so-called gatekeepers of the media world — prominent newspapers, television news programs, newsweeklies — have an unlikely ally in Wikipedia, which bills itself as the encyclopedia anyone can edit.

“Certainly you would get dissent from a lot of our critics that we are responsible,” said Ira Brad Matetsky, a lawyer and member of the arbitration committee that resolves disputes over the editing of articles. But, he added, “one of the reasons that the 9/11 article has been fairly pushed in a conservative direction — and I don’t mean politically — is because so many people are reading this article.”


Over the last 10 years, the site has developed elaborate rules and standards, including creating the arbitration committee, a 17-member supreme court of sorts for Wikipedia.

In 2008, doubters of the official account of the attacks — sometimes called truthers — were told by the arbitration committee not to edit the main page on the attacks after so-called edit wars over what should be included there. (Mr. Matetsky, as a New Yorker who well remembered the attacks, recused himself.)

Since then, any mention or link to conspiracy theories from the main account has been scrubbed from that article: there is no description of the celebrities who have endorsed the view; no mention of poll results on the subject that show some support among the public; no account, even, of the attraction of conspiracy theories in a time of crisis.

The move has been supported on the discussion pages accompanying the Sept. 11 article, though one Wikipedia contributor, Arthur L. Rubin, a former aerospace engineer who is beginning law school at Western State University in Fullerton, Calif., has been trying to push back.

He does not believe the theories, he said, but says they are part of the Sept. 11 story. “Although the theories are fringe, the fact that there are theories is a mainstream phenomenon,” he said in an interview as he prepared for class. “Even in law school one of the students I was talking to was in the truther side of the matter — it really is a widespread phenomenon.”

His latest unsuccessful effort was to include the conspiracy theories article on the template for Sept. 11, a list of articles on the subject that appears on the bottom of any of those entries. It is a way of packaging Wikipedia’s work on a topic; the prevailing view at Wikipedia is that including the conspiracy theories would make the ideas seem more mainstream.

In response to Mr. Rubin, a commentator on a Wikipedia discussion page, Tom Harrison, wrote: “Like most fringe subjects it has been unduly (and unintentionally, in most cases) promoted, giving readers and maybe search engines an impression of cultural significance that isn’t supported to that extent in reliable sources. I don’t want to Suppress the Truth, I just want to give due weight.”

This consensus on Wikipedia certainly is not what an outsider might expect from a site that prides itself on its free expression views. In the past, Wikipedia editors have reveled in publishing material that others have considered better left unseen.


In the case of the ink blots used in Rorschach tests, complaints that publishing the material would threaten the psychology profession only emboldened the editor who put them there.

The phenomenon even has a name, the Streisand effect, a result of Barbra Streisand’s failed effort to suppress in court an aerial photograph of her home for privacy reasons, which only seemed to stoke interest. The photograph now illustrates Wikipedia’s Streisand Effect article.

Wikipedia, created in the year the Sept. 11 attacks took place, was profoundly shaped by those events. According to the article “History of Wikipedia,” the attacks spurred “breaking news stories on the homepage, as well as information boxes linking related articles.”

A look back at the page from December 2001 about the attacks, including its gray In Memoriam banner, is to be transported to a rawer time — for the United States and Wikipedia. The writing is more emotional than one might expect from a site that now prides itself on a just-the-facts prose style. The article’s opening words describe the events as “what might well be the most devastating terrorist attack in the history of the world.”

The links from that December 2001 entry to other Wikipedia articles also tell a story, especially the ones like Missing Persons, Opportunists, Collective Trauma, and Misinformation and Rumors.

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