It was just a little skirmish, a mere tit-for-tat in the presidential race. It made headlines for a day and it also made Wikipedia just a little bit better.
To be sure, Romney and Obama infrequently appear in the same sentence as Wikipedia, so this is worth a look. How did the-encyclopedia-that-anyone-can-edit get mixed up with a verbal spit-spat between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama? More to the point, how does this little story illustrate why Wikipedia works, and why it works so well?
Ah, therein lies a tale.
It started as a verbal skirmish
It started like most political skirmishes do, with one candidate trying to score cheap political points against another. In this case, Mitt Romney was talking about putting his hand over his heart during the National Anthem. He stressed the tradition of doing so, which dates to World War II, and for which he (incorrectly) lauded FDR.
Why was Romney doing this? Best as I can tell, this was apparently a way of questioning Barack Obama’s patriotism, or, it was some staff’s suggestion for doing so in an indirect way. As it turns out, Obama likes to stand at attention for the National Anthem, hands at his side, and Romney used this line in his speeches to allude to that.
As it turned out, Romney got the facts wrong about FDR and about the law. Those mistakes attracted attention at Wikipedia.
(Editorial aside: Before we get to events at Wikipedia, frankly, I was rather baffled by this story the first time I heard about it. First, it is beyond me why anything this childish ever gains any votes, but it surely does, since politicians do this stuff often. Second, I was baffled for another reason. I learned hand-over-heart for the Pledge of Allegiance, but hats-off-and-stand-at-attention for the Star-Spangled. It turns out that in some parts of the country hand-over-heart is the norm for both. But why would people who learned the latter assume that the rest of us are wrong? We cannot have more than one custom in the US?)
Anyway, let’s get to the facts and Wikipedia. If you had looked at Wikipedia on Feb 5th, or earlier, the entry about the Bellamy Salute stated that FDR was responsible for the law that suggested (not required) that citizens put their hand over the heart. The part about FDR is factually wrong, but the rest turns out to be mostly right. Apparently, this custom was adopted as a substitute for the standard practice at the time, which asked for a cupped hand straight out in front of the person (see the pictures).
It was known as the Bellamy salute, because it was named for Francis Bellamy, who wrote the pledge of allegiance in 1892 and who got the idea for the salute from a friend. Fifty years later this salute had the unfortunate feature that it resembled a Nazi salute. There were good reasons to find substitutes for it during World War II.
Now, to be sure, I am not saying that staff members at Mitt Romney’s campaign actually got their information from Wikipedia or Reader’s Digest or anywhere else. I am only saying that had they gotten it from Wikipedia, and had they considered it to be authoritative, they would have written the speech claiming that FDR had something to do with it, which is what Mitt Romney said. So I am just saying it is possible.
Here is the point. If anybody went to Wikipedia on Feb 7th they would have gotten a different answer. That is because a story appeared in the Washington Post on February 6th. This little brouhaha raised awareness, so a reporter, Glenn Kessler, decided to do some homework for a regular feature called the Fact Checker, which catches candidates and politicians making factual errors. He pointed out the error about FDR.
That was a minor part of the story, as it turned out. The reporter stressed that Romney’s speech did not have the history of the law exactly right. There is no law requiring anybody to put their hand over their heart during the Star-Spangled Banner. There is a law concerning the Banner and the pledge of allegiance, as it turned out, which is where we get the bit about the hand over the heart. It also is not a law, just a suggestion by Congress in 1942, which FDR signed. That replaced the old custom, the Bellamy Salute.
Here we are seventy years later, and the hand-over-heart suggestion has morphed into a widely practiced custom, known to school-children throughout the United States.
(Editorial aside again: Whew! I felt much better after reading that. For a brief moment I had visions that – along with thousands of others – have been breaking the law during the playing of the national anthem at scores of sporting events. That said, I do have some sympathy for Romney on this one, since the details are rather nit-picky and he has more important things to worry about.)
Well, here is the point: a contributor to Wikipedia took note. An anonymous contributor with the IP address, 22.214.171.124 updated the Wikipedia page for the Belamy salute. Now it no longer includes the factually incorrect part about FDR.
Who is 126.96.36.199? Nobody knows. Judging by the prior contributions, he or she seems to be a frequent contributor, having made nine contributions in 2012, and thirty-three since August of 2011. I would add that 188.8.131.52 does not seem to have a political bone in his or her body. There is no particular evidence that he or she has ever been obsessed with political articles. None of the other forty one contributions concern a political article.
Why all this attention to that little incident? As noted at the outset, this is a great illustration for how Wikipedia works, and why it works so well. A little political skirmish turned into a little fact-finding at the Washington Post, which somebody learned. Without being asked, somebody else went to Wikipedia and fixed the detail, and cited the article in the Washington Post as verification. All in all, the article on the Bellamy Pledge has been improved.
That is how Wikipedia works: knowledge advances through one accumulation at a time. Why did 184.108.40.206 make that update? Some good-natured soul decided to take a little time to fix an entry. I do not know any better than you do about why, but they did.
Now, lest you get the wrong impression. This is also a good illustration of why Wikipedia does not work well. 220.127.116.11 did not bother to update any other article related to the Bellamy article, such as the one with the title, “Pledge of Allegiance.” That omission left Wikipedia with two inconsistent articles on different aspects of the same topic.
In principle, it could have stayed this way for a while. That is the downside to having volunteers edit an encyclopedia. Volunteers do what they do. No management checks up on them. Nobody has to complete the job to beat the competition or make a deadline to satisfy a customer.
As an aside, I would add the following: The inconsistency did not last too long. On February 10th a registered user with the handle, shanegreenstein, made an update. As best as I can tell, this particular contributor also has few political bones in his body. Funny how that works out sometimes.