This is an essay.
It contains the advice or opinions of one or more Wikipedia contributors. This page is not an encyclopedia article, nor is it one of Wikipedia's policies or guidelines, as it has not been thoroughly vetted by the community. Some essays represent widespread norms; others only represent minority viewpoints.
This page provides examples of situations in which editors must apply our policy governing biographies of living persons. It is intended both to spark on-wiki discussion, and also as a resource for discussion at meet-ups and the like.
A panel and audience-participation discussion of these examples took place at Wikiconference New York 2010 on August 28, 2010. Other meet-ups are welcome to use them as well.
Over the past few years, conscientious Wikipedians have developed and made increased efforts to enforce our policy on biographies of living persons. This policy is especially important because as Wikipedia pages have become prominent in Internet searches, what we write about living individuals may have real impact on their lives.
One main thrust of the BLP policy is that in order to avoid the misuse of Wikipedia to spread false or defamatory information about living persons, all negative or contentious assertions regarding a living person must be well-supported by citations to reliable sources. Almost all editors now agree on the need for this requirement, although its interpretation can lead to dispute in individual cases.
However, according to some interpretations, the BLP policy and the philosophy behind it extends well beyond merely avoiding the inclusion of defamatory or unsourced negative material. Rather, many editors urge that norms and appropriate behavior sometimes call for excluding information from Wikipedia even where the information is undisputedly true, and even if it might otherwise be considered notable under our usual notability guidelines.
Editors will inevitably continue to debate how we apply BLP norms in these types of situations. Wikipedia's conduct and guidelines on these issues cannot be evaluated in the abstract, separate from the information found on the rest of the Internet. The author of this page (Newyorkbrad) has discussed some of these issues at greater length, both on-wiki (starting here and here), in off-wiki writings such as this post and this post on The Volokh Conspiracy, and in my speech at Wikiconference New York 2009.
This page provides some examples of the types of more nuanced BLP problems that arise. There are no clear-cut right and wrong answers to these scenarios. Often the right way to handle these situations is not clear, because the right way for the Internet and the Press and Society as a whole to handle these situations is not clear either. The hypotheticals are designed for discussion either on-wiki and also as an aide to discussion of the problem at meet-ups where there is a session scheduled on BLP issues.
Each of these examples has been inspired by one or more specific real-world examples, but the purpose of this page is to allow discussion in the abstract, without fear that in discussing the examples we are disseminating questionable information regarding the people involved in the issues, and without inviting lobbying by partisans in the underlying dispute that inspired the examples. Most BLP discussions on-wiki are either highly abstract and difficult to channel into practical decision-making, on the one hand, or highly focused on a pending dispute about a particular article, on the other. These examples are intended to be somewhere in between.
Comments on these examples are welcome on the talkpage.
Example 1: Allegations Against an Entertainer
A well-known popular entertainer, who has and unquestionably qualifies for a lengthy biography about his professional career, is accused of sexual assault by an acquaintance. The entertainer denies that anything inappropriate happened and claims that the allegations followed his refusal to pay blackmail demanded by the accuser.
After a lengthy investigation, the district attorney finds insufficient evidence to warrant criminal charges. Civil litigation is pending. The allegations and related legal proceedings have received widespread coverage in the tabloid press and there are thousands of pages mentioning them all over the Internet. The existence of the allegations is indisputable, but the truth of what did or did not happen between these two people may never be known to anyone except the two of them.
What, if anything, should be said about this matter in the entertainer's Wikipedia article? Should the name of the otherwise non-notable accuser be mentioned anywhere on Wikipedia?
Example 2: The Pop Group, the Manager, and the Hate Song
Several years ago, a well-known group of popular (rock or rap) musicians fired their business manager after an extremely bitter dispute. The musicians claimed that the manager had mismanaged their affairs and defrauded them. The manager has consistently denied that he did anything wrong. There is no consensus in reliable sources from which a conclusion could be drawn either way.
Soon after the group fired the manager, their next album included a song attacking him. The song claims unsubtly that the manager is a crook and suggests among other things that he deserves to be imprisoned or even to die. Litigation between the group and the manager, including a defamation claim based on the song, ends inconclusively. There is no dispute that the song was intended to refer specifically to him. Any number of fan and other sites report without contradiction that the song was written as an angry attack on the manager's honesty and ethics.
The group is well-known and is mentioned in dozens of articles on Wikipedia. The song and the album are hits and also easily satisfy our notability guidelines for pop music articles. The business manager is reasonably well known in Hollywood but would never have risen to the level of being mentioned on Wikipedia were it not for this song.
What, if anything, should Wikipedia report about this matter?
Example 3: The Target Becomes the Plaintiff
A posting to an anonymous blog contains a vicious attack on a model. Much of the attack contains statements of opinion, but a few sentences of the posting could be construed as containing assertions of fact. No evidence is provided for the statements, however, and it is generally agreed that they are false. The blog posting is clearly not a reliable source, and at first no Wikipedia editors notice it, so there is no attempt to use it as the basis for any article content.
The model decides to sue the blogger for defamation. Because the blogger is anonymous, her attorney begins by serving a subpoena on the hosting company seeking information that will lead to the blogger's identity. The hosting company takes the position that as a matter of principle, it will not turn over identifying information about subscribers without a court order. The court considers the matter and writes a decision that establishes the standard in that jurisdiction regarding when this type of subpoena will be enforced. The decision, in order to evaluate whether an intrusion onto the blogger's privacy is warranted, discusses the statements made in the underlying blog post in some detail. The decision receives broad coverage in both the legal and the popular press.
What, if any, steps should Wikipedia take to avoid giving undue publicity to the defamatory and non-notable allegations in the original blog post, in the course of discussing the court case?
Example 4: The Young Crime Victim
A young teenager is kidnapped by a stranger and is horribly abused over a period of four days before escaping. The criminal is eventually convicted of kidnapping and sex crimes and receives a life sentence. This individual's criminal history is sufficiently egregious that he has been found sufficiently notable to warrant a biography.
Although ordinarily the names of minors who are crime victims are treated as confidential by the press in the United States, during the period in which the victim was missing, there was a massive search for him as a missing child, during which his name and photograph were widely disseminated both in print and on the Internet. The teenager has also held a press conference in which he thanked his rescuers, and has given occasional follow-up interviews, but has also expressed the wish that he be left alone to resume living a normal life once again.
What, if any, steps should Wikipedia take to avoid further injury to this youthful victim of a horrible crime?
Example 5: The Silly Video and the Internet Meme
One day a kid wanting to have some fun throws on an outfit from a favorite science fiction movie and carries on in a silly way for a few minutes, mimicking one of the characters. Someone films him doing this and posts the video to a site like YouTube. In the unpredictable way that happens sometimes, the video becomes a wildly popular "Internet meme," spreading "virally" from one person to another. Within weeks, the video has hundreds of thousands of hits, and the kid's real name is plastered everywhere online, certainly to the point that the video or the incident has arguably become "notable." Of course, the boy had given no thought to the possibility this would happen—perhaps he did not even know a camera was running—and the absurd publicity given to a random moment of silliness is damaging his life.
What, if anything, should Wikipedia report about this matter? Should an effort be made to avoid mentioning the boy's name, even if it is widely known elsewhere?