How one woman took on Wikipedia's Nazi fancruft

Ksenia Coffman noticed all the weirdly exonerative and glorifying turns of phrase in Wikipedia articles about garden-variety Nazis. But when she set about challenging that language, the articles' established editors opposed it. Even after showing that they were often misrepresenting primary sources, it was she who was cast as a vandal and revisionist. [via MeFi]

Not for the first time, Coffman has been removing material from the article about the [Nordic Nazi] tank division. She thinks it's full of unsourced fancruft, the Wikipedia word for fawning, excessively detailed descriptions that appeal to a tiny niche of readers—in this case, those thrilled by accounts of battle. The article tells how "the division acquitted itself well" even against "stiffening resistance," how it "held the line" and earned the "grudging respect" of skeptical commanders. One contributor has used the eyebrow-raising phrase "baptism of fire." It's as if the editors don't see the part lower down the page where a soldier uses the phrase "and then we cleaned a Jew hole."

"IMHO it is good that you are deleting citations from unreliable bloggy sources," Peacemaker67 says. "But just because material is sourced to them doesn't mean it is wrong." … "If you take this sort of action on articles on my watchlist, expect to be reverted and asked to provide reliable sources that contradict what is in the article."

The idea that you can't remove material attributed to a blatantly unreliable source unless you explicitly debunk it it with material attributed to a well-credentialed and uncontroversial one is a typical Wikipedia bro problem—especially for obscure subjects unlikely to attract the attention of well-credentialed and uncontroversial primary sources.

But it reflects an older printing-press problem that immediately stood out here. In the pre-internet age, holocaust deniers/minimizers such as David Irving would mistranslate or otherwise cook their primary sources in order to avoid scrutiny within the editorial framework of the ultimate publication and its likely critics. The argument over facts was shifted somewhere else that critics could not easily venture, such as German-language archives in East Berlin or old books even Google doesn't have scans of. You might call it "epistemic arbitrage" if you like it fancy—systematically exploiting the inaccessibility or credibility of one knowledge pool to gain strategic advantage in another.

I don't think subjects should be completely deleted from Wikipedia, even if all that's left of the article once hype is reamed out is are few bare biographical facts. But it's telling that there are so many random Nazi nobodies with articles—and so many random Wikipedians engaged in the fight to keep them there and glorify them, even to the point of absurdity.