Column 1: Transparency and accountability

(This column was originally posted on Conservapedia on 17 April, 2007. It has since been deleted.)

Having been here a while now, I would like to add some further thoughts about my impression of Conservapedia. I think that Conservapedia is an interesting project in a lot of ways, but it has a number of huge problems. The most immediately obvious problem seems to be one of leadership, or to be specific, transparency and accountability of leadership.

Let us, for a moment, analyze the way Conservapedia is administrated. I will be the first to admit that I do not have a clear picture of how exactly administrative decisions are made in Conservapedia. This is not for lack of research, but rather due to the fact that the administration seems to be uncommonly opaque, and if there is anyone out there with superior information, do let me know on my talk page. However, it is quite clear that mr. Andrew Schlafly is at the top of the day-to-day administration of the site. Whether there is any off-site leadership – most likely related to the Eagle Forum – is of course impossible to tell. But it is a fact that much of the administrative business takes place on Mr. Schlafly’s user talk page. Also, mr. Schlafly seems to be constantly invoked as the final voice of authority on all sorts of issues.

The source of this status is obvious – mr. Schlafly is the originator of this project, as well as – as far as I know – the owner of the site. This is not an uncommon situation for such projects while still in their infancy. They are often the result of the work of one dedicated individual or group of persons, and it is only natural that this core groups should have a large say in the running of things. Indeed, it may often be the only way to get such a project up and running.

Such was the situation two or three months ago. In the meantime, however, Conservapedia has recently attracted a lot of attention considerable interest – good as well as bad – from the media and the blogosphere. Along with this attention have come new people who may wish to contribute to the project, or who may merely be curious. However, these people often have a different vision for the project. They may disagree with the implied aims of the original group, and needless to say, this means a potential conflict.

This bring us to the other group, specifically the Sysops. The Sysops are apparently a divided group. Some seem to agree with mr. Schlafly and his aims for the site, others seem to disagree to some extent, and yet others are caught somehwere in the middle.

The requirements for promotion to the status of Sysop is equally unclear. A notice on the user page of the controversial Sysop Conservative seems to suggest that people with similar political views as mr. Schlafly are preferred. Whether this is a fact or merely wishful thinking on the part of Conservative seems to be, again, impossible to tell. But what is a fact is that Conservative him-/herself was originally promoted to Sysop in order to make a controversial edit to a protected page. Conservative’s track record since then has not been stellar.

This conveniently brings us to the question of appeals. What exactly do you do if you disagree with the actions of the leadership (and there seems to be plenty to disagree about – excessive page-protecting of controversial subjects, banning of opponents and blatant disregard for expert knowledge, just to name a few points)? Well, I’m sorry to have to repeat myself, but this is unclear. You can always take it up with other Sysops, or with mr. Schlafly himself, of course, but this is obviously not ideal. Any administrative system that involves the exercise of authority and the use of sanctions needs a clear and impartial process for appealing actions and decisions by the administration.

And this is where the enigmatic Conservapedia Panel enters the picture. The Panel is apparently the final authority on conflicts that arise in Conservapedia. However, it is entirely unclear to me who these people are. From the limited information I have been able to find, The Panel seems to consist of the group of homeschoolers for whom Conservapedia was originally created, but I have no idea who they are. There seems to exist no specific list of Panel members, no rules for how they conduct their business, and no hint whatsoever on how exactly they settle disputes. Further – and here I intend absolutely no disrespect towards the individual members, who I am sure are all very nice people – but maybe a group of teenagers with probably limited administrative experience are not ideal as the final arbiters of a project on the scale of Conservapedia.

To summarize, the adminstration and rules of Conservapedia lack transparency, certain Sysops are able to engage in what appears to be massive abuse of power with no accountability at all, and the process of appeal is enigmatic at best. In other words, Conservapedia is in desperate need of administrative reform.

I strongly doubt, however, that such reform will come willingly.

I suspect that the group of originators for the site have a very clear vision for Conservapedia. What they wish is not a conservative encyclopedia as such, but rather a site that specifically promotes creationism, biblical literalism and extreme social conservatism. The result seems to be a kind of cold cultural war between the old guard, who wish to preserve that agenda, and the newcomers, who actually take Conservapedia’s explicitly stated goals seriously: factuality, verifiability, and respect for expert knowledge.

The question seems to be if the old guard will in the end be driven out by their own success, or whether they will prevail, but in the process driving away the serious contributors and causing Conservapedia to sink back into obscurity. Only time will tell, but it seems inevitable that there will be blood in the streets at some point in the near future. I am certain that it shall be interesting to watch.

In the meantime, good night, and good luck.

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