Future Tense

The Debate Over “Devil’s Triangle” Shows Wikipedia at Its Best

Supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on September 27, 2018. - University professor Christine Blasey Ford, 51, told a tense Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that could make or break Kavanaugh's nomination she was '100 percent' certain he was the assailant and it was 'absolutely not' a case of mistaken identify. (Photo by MICHAEL REYNOLDS / POOL / AFP)        (Photo credit should read MICHAEL REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)
Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday. Michael Reynolds/Getty Images

If the rest of the internet is lawless, Wikipedia stands out. Over the past 17 years, the community of Wikipedia editors has established a formal framework of policies, guidelines, and explanatory supplements to advance the goals of the project. Dutiful Wikipedians often refer to one of these rules when they remove something inappropriate from the site. If you “listen to Wikipedia” for a few minutes, you’ll see that edits like this happen all the time. What is unusual—and heretofore unprecedented—is for the objectionable content to play a role in a hearing about allegations that a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court committed sexual assault while in high school. The subject came up on Wikipedia after Thursday’s Senate hearing, in which Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse asked Kavanaugh a series of questions about “Devil’s Triangle,” a reference in his high school yearbook that had raised eyebrows. Kavanaugh claimed that Devil’s Triangle was a “drinking game” played with “three glasses in a triangle.” He said that “it’s a quarters game,” i.e., a drinking game where players bounce 25-cent pieces off the table and into cups of beer. It was an answer that many dismissed as unbelievable.

Soon after Kavanaugh offered his definition, an anonymous Wikipedia editor added the following text to the Devil’s Triangle disambiguation page,  which lists and describes various meanings for a given topic: “Devil’s Triangle, a popular drinking game enjoyed by friends of judge Brett Kavanaugh.” The text was quickly removed with this warning for potential editors: “DO NOT ADD the hoax about a ‘drinking game’, especially as related by Brett Kavanaugh. We do not dignify such hoaxes with mention.”

Outlets such as CNN and USA Today covered the Wikipedia story as yet another anecdote from a bizarre and disturbing confirmation process. But it’s perhaps worthwhile to reflect on the Wikipedia principles involved in deleting this content, and how specifically they apply to the “case” of the Devil’s Triangle.

The policy known as What Wikipedia Is Not defines by counterexample. The list includes “Wikipedia is not a newspaper,” “Wikipedia is not a blog,” “Wikipedia is not a battleground,” and “Wikipedia is not a soapbox or means of promotion,” which specifically disallows political advocacy. At least one fact from the incident suggests the Devil’s Triangle edit was politically motivated: The edit was made anonymously from an IP address on Capitol Hill, as captured by congress-edits, a Twitter bot that tracks Wikipedia updates from congressional IP addresses.

Another policy that was breached in this case is known as biography of living persons. “BLP” was specifically cited by the Wikipedia administrator who removed the Devil’s Triangle edit from the public archives. Drafted after the 2005 John Seigenthaler biography incident, in which the esteemed journalist was the target of a hoax article claiming that he was a suspect in the JFK assassination, the gist of BLP is that editors must take special care when adding information about living persons to any Wikipedia page because it could negatively affect subjects during the course of their lives. BLP also states a presumption in favor of privacy for living people—one of many reasons why it was completely inappropriate for an anonymous Wikipedia user to add Sen. Lindsey Graham’s phone number and home address to his page earlier this week.

Then there’s the policy of verifiability, which gets to an essential question: What is the Devil’s Triangle, really? The main entry points to the Bermuda Triangle, where aircraft and ships are said to have disappeared mysteriously. Alternative definitions include a sexual threesome and an episode of NCIS. Even if Brett Kavanaugh and his high school friends referred to their quarters drinking game as Devil’s Triangle, that alone would not justify adding the content to Wikipedia. Under the principle of verifiability, reputable third-party sources would also need to use the same name in their regular coverage.

The edit also violated the Wikipedia principle of notability. At first, one might think that the notability standard was met because the Supreme Court confirmation hearing was a high-profile event. But notability on Wikipedia means something slightly different, requiring “significant coverage” of subjects with long-term significance. Many in the Wikipedia community are adamantly opposed to a phenomenon known as recentism—the skewing of content toward recent events. The long-term focus of core Wikipedians was illustrated by a humorous debate earlier this year about the word Tinder. Some editors felt that Tinder should direct users to the popular dating app because that’s what most people were researching, by a margin of roughly 10 to 1. But the community ultimately decided that Tinder should continue to direct to the material used to start a fire because the latter usage had more long-term significance.

Most people have an intuitive sense that Wikipedia should not have an entry for Devil’s Triangle that describes the “drinking game enjoyed by friends of judge Brett Kavanaugh”—it just feels wrong for an encyclopedia. But why is it wrong? Whether it’s on-Wiki or off, we are increasingly being asked to defend basic policies and processes. Although it’s sometimes exhausting, it’s helpful to think through the underlying reasoning. To push back on so many bad faith arguments, we must know the principles and why we have them.