Wikipedia : the Modern Delphic Oracle
By Helen Buyniski
Can we trust Wikipedia as an unbiased source of truth? Can we at least offer it the same trust we place in our news media? The country is experiencing a crisis of confidence. Establishment credibility is collapsing all around us. We know that the New York Times boasts more Pulitzer-winning journalists writing in its pages than any other paper, as well as robust editorial review boards. Yet even this paper, written by experts, has become a source of politically-motivated misinformation, and trust in the news media is at an all-time low. Trust in government has similarly cratered. We fumble blindly for a trustworthy source, and where expertise has failed us, we reach now for the Vox Populi. Surely, everyone else can’t be wrong.
A 2014 YouGov poll showed that UK residents trust Wikipedia more than the news media.1 While no such poll was conducted in the US, we can safely extrapolate the popular climate of media mistrust across the Atlantic. According to Reuters, 61% of Americans think news media is doing a good job covering the most important news events, but only 56% think they report the news accurately and 58% think they cover the government well. Only 47% think they report on all sides fairly, and among supporters of the government, only 21% think the news media is fair2. A Gallup poll paints an even bleaker picture: only 32% say that they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media, and only 14% of Republicans say so.3 Meanwhile, only 33% of Americans trust their government “to do what is right,” according to Edelman, which rates media slightly higher at 42%.4 Expertise is no longer valued because the experts have failed us. The “smartest guys in the room” gave us Enron; “expert” journalists brought us lurid tales of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq; financial savants gave us the crash of 2008; and savvy pollsters and Democrat careerists brought us an election contest between the two most unpopular candidates in history.
Officially, there is no barrier to entry to editing Wikipedia, and this paradoxically contributes to its perceived trustworthiness. If one is willing to suspend disbelief and cling to a fleeting idea of the essential goodness of humanity – if one has never before visited an online forum and seen the race to the bottom accelerated by trolls, sociopaths, and other misanthropes – perhaps one can believe that an encyclopedia that “anyone can edit” will trend toward the truth in a sort of benevolent consensus reality. But would we read a peer-reviewed medical journal written by people with no background in science or medicine? Wikipedia is just such a journal. There is no guarantee an editor writing about a living person or a concept under development has any knowledge of the subject. Worse, there is no guarantee they are not concealing some bias or looking to grind their personal axe through editorial control of an article or an entire section of the encyclopedia. In what world would we allow the inmates to run the asylum?
The reality is that Wikipedia is not a grassroots collaborative crafted through the shared effort of People Like Us. Its rules are applied selectively and secretively. It is common to find articles on living persons written up as smear jobs, replete in some cases with outright libel but more often disguised as “neutral” assessments in which undue weight is given to negative evaluations and mischaracterizations of a person’s work while their defining achievements are minimalized or left out. Victims of these hit pieces have no opportunity to address the attacks on their reputation by anonymous editors whose qualifications are frequently nonexistent. Despite Wikipedia’s stated protections against character assassination – drawn up in the aftermath of a scandal which saw a journalist smeared as an accessory to the Kennedy assassination – the rules are selectively enforced and there is a clear bias toward individuals whose work supports the status quo, whatever their field.
Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales has not been shy about espousing his political philosophy. He is a devotee of Ayn Rand, whose belief in “the virtue of selfishness” survives in the neoliberalism that forms the economic core of both US political parties. While Rand is more openly championed by the political Right today, Wales’ British wife worked in Tony Blair’s Labour cabinet and he moves in centrist Democrat circles in the US. He is also an avowed Skeptic, meaning he eschews all but the most established scientific orthodoxy as “lunatic charlatanism.” Wales thinks homeopathy should be illegal5 and has expressed hostility toward users of his site who support alternative and holistic medicine.6 All his biases are on display on Wikipedia – they are the edits left in when others are reverted. Yet even as it sports the hallmarks of a dictatorship, Wikipedia embodies the pitfalls of democracy, falling prey to mob rule – with the mobs led by Wikipedia’s administrative oligarchs. At Wikipedia, expertise is given short shrift, as any amateur can edit a page they know nothing about and there are always more amateurs than there are experts on any particular topic. These amateurs can easily be marshaled to “dogpile” on a rogue expert who expresses ideas outside the range of acceptable theories. Thus Wikipedia is led by petty dictators, each leading ideologically-motivated armies to guard their fiefdoms, be they medical, political, or religious in nature. Politically, it truly is the worst of both worlds. And the reputations of living people are suffering because of it.
John Pilger is an Australian journalist and award-winning documentary filmmaker. His 1979 documentary Year Zero, filmed after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, inspired viewers to raise substantial donations for the UK’s first relief shipment to Cambodia, purchasing much-needed medicines, food, and clothes. Pilger worked as a war correspondent for the Daily Mirror in Vietnam, Biafra, Bangladesh, and Cambodia. He has also made several documentaries about indigenous Australians and exposed the 1998 legislation that deprived them of their common-law rights. His documentary on the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, Death of a Nation, scored record ratings and contributed to the massive international outcry that culminated in Indonesian withdrawal from the province in 2000. The audience response to his films has been cited as proof that humanity has not yet succumbed to “compassion fatigue.” Yet Wikipedia calls his work “full of falsehoods,”7 quoting conservative journalist Oliver Kamm, who is not an authority on journalism, international conflicts, or documentary filmmaking. Unfortunately, Wikipedia’s libels are beginning to have a real-world effect: Pilger has stated that “my written work is no longer welcome” in mainstream publications, a chilling thought given his stellar track record. His last column was dropped in 2015 from the Guardian, whose Board includes such luminaries as Jimmy Wales.8
Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and author best known for the concept of morphic resonance, which posits that “self-organizing systems inherit a memory from previous similar systems.” Organisms and groups develop or change along teleological “paths” worn by their predecessors, and patterns are imposed on otherwise random or indeterminate activity according to the previous and contemporaneous iterations of that system. The theory radically reimagines everything from memory (memories no longer have to be stored inside the brain in a fixed location) to the notion of a collective unconscious (members of a species have access to the sum total of their knowledge). Sheldrake has written 13 books and 85 scientific papers. He has a PhD in biochemistry from Cambridge University. As a Fellow of the Royal Society, he discovered the chemiosmotic model of polar auxin transport in plants (auxin is a plant hormone that influences cell differentiation). His Wikipedia bio focuses almost exclusively on negative responses to his work without giving a proper explanation of that work. But then, Sheldrake is a vocal critic of what he calls the “dogmatic materialism” endemic to much of current science, which he likens to religion. His outspokenness on this front has made him the enemy of organized Skepticism, and the outcry they orchestrated following his TEDxWhitechapel talk in January 2013 both spilled into and fed off of his Wikipedia page.
Guy McPherson is an author and professor emeritus of conservation biology and natural resources at the University of Arizona, where he has taught for 20 years. He is the leading authority on abrupt climate change leading to near term human extinction, having coined the term “Near-Term Extinction” to designate the possibility of human extinction before the year 2030. McPherson became a tenured full professor before the age of 40 and is among the most accomplished faculty members at the University. His works include Walking Away from Empire, Going Dark, and Letters to a Young Academic. McPherson is also one of the most slandered scientists in the climate change field, and Wikipedia has not hesitated to jump on the bandwagon, taking a New York Times quote that describes him as an “apocalyptic ecologist” far enough out of context to imply he’s some sort of cult leader with an “End of Days following,” then shoehorning in a quote from science blogger (and unreliable source, according to the Wikipedia rule which bars blogs and personal websites from being used as sources for the biographical articles of living persons) Michael Tobis, who accuses him of climate denialism “of a different stripe,” whatever that means – even though McPherson’s whole thesis is that mainstream climate science is itself denying the reality of humanity’s impending extinction.9
Sharyl Attkisson is an author and television journalist who currently hosts the public affairs program Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson on channels owned by the Sinclair Broadcasting Group. Her book Stonewalled was a New York Times e-book bestseller. Attkisson began her journalism career on a PBS affiliate in Gainseville, Florida, and worked at local stations in West Palm Beach, Columbus, and Tampa before moving to CNN. She moved to CBS in 1993 and spent 21 years there, working as an investigative correspondent on the channel’s Washington DC bureau. From 1996 to 2001, she also hosted a medical news program on PBS. Attkisson has won Emmy awards for her reporting on the American Red Cross (2002), the Troubled Asset Relief Program (2009), and the BATF’s “Fast and Furious” program (2012). Wikipedia drags in the ubiquitous vaccine defender Dr. Paul Offit to criticize Attkisson’s reporting as “damning by association”10 because of a piece she aired on vaccines, while neglecting to even mention a second book she wrote, The Smear. Several other awards she received are also omitted, while the better part of a page is devoted to making her claims of being hacked for surveillance purposes seem less than credible.
Jeremy Corbyn is a UK politician currently serving as Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition. A Member of Parliament since 1983, he identifies as a Democratic Socialist. Corbyn opposes military intervention and austerity cuts to public services and supports renationalizing the UK’s public utilities, including its railway network. He has proposed the Bank of England issue funds for large-scale public spending such as housing, energy, and transportation projects, calling the policy “People’s Quantitative Easing” to contrast it with existing quantitative easing policies that attempt to stimulate the economy by buying commercial banks’ assets. He has been a strong campaigner for nuclear disarmament and active in the anti-war movement since his youth. Corbyn’s public support of the Palestinian cause has led to predictable allegations of anti-Semitism perpetuated by the Israeli lobby despite his widespread support among British Jews, and such allegations have metastasized to consume a third of his Wikipedia biography – certainly more space than his actual political views – and spawned several articles of their own.
Vandana Shiva is an Indian environmental activist, eco-feminist, and author who promotes seed freedom and water rights. She has brought global awareness to the destructive effects of GMO farming in her native India, where Monsanto seeds have largely supplanted natural crops and thus must be purchased year after year, leaving farmers so hopelessly in debt that many commit suicide. She exposed genetically modified “golden rice” as a fraud with negligible health benefits and fought against the patenting of living organisms. Shiva began her activist work in the aftermath of the Union Carbide leak in Bhopal. She was also an early voice warning the public about the carcinogenic effects of glyphosate. Beloit College, honoring her with its Weissberg Chair in International Studies, called her a “one-woman movement for peace, sustainability, and social justice.”11 Wikipedia opts to focus on criticism of her work, giving half a page to a single article written in response to a New Yorker piece about her.
Craig Murray is a former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan turned whistleblower and human rights activist. While working for the UK Foreign Office in Samarkand, he informed his superiors that the Uzbek regime was torturing thousands of dissidents every year, employing such techniques as rape, asphyxiation, pulling out fingernails, and immersion in boiling liquids. Because the regime had just permitted the US military to move into a military base near the Afghan’s border to facilitate the hunt for Osama bin Laden – a privilege it was paying for with half a billion dollars in annual aid payments – it enjoyed a privileged status with regard to international human rights law; Murray was outraged at the “conspiracy of silence” perpetrated by his fellow diplomats, and spoke out against the regime’s abuses at an October 2002 human rights conference. He was subsequently drummed out of the Foreign Office with a series of fictional and trumped-up charges.12 While much of the worst material in his Wikipedia article has been removed – the editor responsible was banned from editing topics related to contemporary British politics for six months after several of his victims brought his misdeeds to media attention – the article is also missing any reference to Murray’s achievements before becoming Uzbek ambassador, including his roles brokering a peace deal in Sierra Leone, supervising Ghana’s first democratic election, and negotiating the UN’s convention on the law of the sea. The main “Craig Murray” page was even set up to redirect to the biographical article of an ice hockey player before it was fixed.
Meg Patterson developed Neuro-Electric Therapy as a treatment for drug addiction, having discovered its therapeutic effect as a side-benefit of the electro-puncture treatment a colleague used as surgical anesthesia. A tiny electrical current is tuned to various frequencies, stimulating the release of chemicals including endorphins and allowing addicts to detoxify without experiencing the most unpleasant of their withdrawal symptoms. Her patients included Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and Boy George. Patterson also received the MBE in 1961 for her work establishing and expanding clinics in India and was the only woman member of the Fellowship of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons at the time. Wikipedia dismisses NET for its “reputation based on celebrity endorsements,”13 as if these are somehow disqualifying.
Deepak Chopra is an author and speaker known for bringing Ayurvedic medicine to a mainstream audience. He is board certified in internal medicine and endocrinology and focuses on mind-body spiritual healing through multiple modalities, aiming to integrate Ayurveda with quantum mechanics to create “quantum healing,” linking shifts in consciousness to shifts in biology. Chopra runs a spa retreat featuring meditation, yoga, massage, and Ayurvedic meals. Because he was one of the first practitioners attacked by Richard Dawkins on his “Enemies of Reason” television series, he has been hounded by the Skeptics who idolize Dawkins. They flock to Chopra’s Wikipedia page to pay homage, and as a result it is cluttered with derogatory phrases in quotation marks, linked to blogger and oncologist David Gorski, who appears to take great joy in verbosely mocking alternative medicine practitioners.
Susan Sarandon is an Academy Award-winning actress with dozens of film and TV credits to her name, including Thelma and Louise, The Lovely Bones, The Hunger, and Cloud Atlas. Reading her Wikipedia page, however, you would have no idea she was also an impassioned political activist. Sarandon most recently made appearances at multiple rallies for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. Entire paragraphs detailing her history of activism for third party candidates like Sanders, Jill Stein, and Ralph Nader, against the war in Iraq and other imperialist conflicts, for economic justice with Occupy Wall Street, and against mass incarceration have been removed, with no substantial explanation given for their deletion. Does Wikipedia think actresses should confine their work to the screen, or just shut up and look pretty?
These are just a few examples of the type of reputational attacks found on Wikipedia – some quite subtle, some lying by omission, some giving undue weight to minor incidents in a figure’s life or giving space to “opposition voices” when no such courtesy is afforded voices who disagree with establishment dogma. They are not limited to politicians, scientists, journalists, or activists. There are as many ways to smear a person on Wikipedia as there are victims of Wiki smears. But to confirm that Wikipedia’s weaponization as a character assassination tool is more than theoretical, we tried to correct the record on nutritionist, investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker Gary Null, whose biography is a particularly egregious mess of libel, unsubstantiated allegations, and baseless smears.
We began by invalidating the article’s primary source as unreliable per Wikipedia’s own rules. “QuackWatch,” the personal website of discredited ex-psychiatrist Stephen Barrett, is cited no less than eight times in Null’s biography, even though as a self-published personal website it meets none of the standards of Wikipedia’s “Reliable Sources” policy. Barrett has spent most of his life railing against alternative medicine on his various websites, and his bias is so persistent that it has been called out in a court decision,14 so he also violates Wikipedia’s Neutral Point of View (NPOV) policy. Wikipedia’s policy on Biographies of Living Persons mandates editors “Remove Contentious Material That is Unsourced or Poorly Sourced”15 – yet when we tried to do so, we were unequivocally and rudely rebuffed.
Other sources used in the article include a Salon.com book review titled “Quack Record” in which the author, Peter Kurth, states in the opening paragraph that he “can’t be impartial about Gary Null’s book” – another source that must be struck for failure to adhere to NPOV. When we finally do find a reliable source, the TIME article “The New Mister Natural,” it doesn’t include the information for which it is used as a source (Null’s alleged denial that HIV causes AIDS). The rest of the sentence is not even sourced, suggesting that the article was written or copy-pasted first and sources haphazardly added later to lend the appearance of legitimacy. Another false allegation follows, citing two articles, neither of which supports the false statement that Null was hospitalized as a result of consuming his own supplement – an incorrect statement clearly written to defame Null, conspicuously placed in the introductory paragraph where it would not belong in any case even if true, being at most a minor footnote in Null’s four-decade career.
The next paragraph cites Barrett’s biography of Null as the source for negative information about Null’s alma mater, the Union Institute, even though the Barrett website does not contain any information about Union’s alleged dissolution or the restructuring of its PhD program. It is unknown where this information originates, if it was made up out of whole cloth or if the editor who added it merely neglected to include their source, but in any case it flagrantly violates Wikipedia’s policies on multiple levels. A later paragraph cites the TIME and Salon pieces as sources for Null’s alleged statements that “HIV is harmless and does not cause AIDS,” something he has never said and which even these pieces do not claim he said. Repetition does not create veracity. The article then brings in Seth Kalichman to compare Null to a Holocaust denier, ironically accusing him of “cashing in on HIV/AIDS” despite the fact (not mentioned anywhere in Null’s Wikipedia article, yet important to any unbiased assessment of Null’s work) that Null has never charged any of the AIDS patients he has treated. Kalichman’s source for his evaluation of Null? Barrett. Kalichman’s own dubious history16 should disqualify him from opining on anyone else’s credibility, and it is worth considering whether his history of assuming fake identities might extend to Wikipedia editing. The article frames Null’s fundraising activities for PBS negatively, deliberately misattributing to Null a statement about “quacks and charlatans” made in reference to a Deepak Chopra special on spiritual healing. Blogger and journalism professor Keith Kloor is quoted about Null’s documentary Seeds of Death, though he is not an expert in the scientific field and his opinions are therefore irrelevant to a serious discussion of Null’s work. The article then devotes an entire subheading to claims about an incorrectly-manufactured supplement made earlier in the article. Though Null has produced over 20 documentaries and 25 television specials, his article lists just three, adding that they are both “self-produced” and “low-budget,” unsourced adjectives that appear pejorative.17
To read his Wikipedia article, the uninformed researcher would not know that Null is a board-certified clinical nutritionist who has conducted over 40 clinical studies on lifestyle and diet, more than anyone else in his field. He hosts the longest-running daily non-commercial radio program in history and for 12 years ran the most popular show on WABC. He has published over 700 articles, many in peer-reviewed journals, and has been invited to present his findings at scientific conferences. His research showed humans could not only survive but thrive on a diet wholly devoid of animal protein. His documentaries, including Death by Medicine, AIDS: A Second Opinion, and The Drugging of Our Children, have won more than 276 awards, placing him among the country’s top documentary filmmakers. He has counseled tens of thousands of people over his 50-year career, never charging a penny. None of this information – all of which can be confirmed with reliable sources – appears in his Wikipedia article.
In our attempts to set the record straight, we were not only unable to make our reliably-sourced changes to the biography of Gary Null stick, but after approaching the matter from various angles found we were unable to make any changes at all. Worse, our attempts to add truthful and reliably sourced information to the article were met with active hostility on the part of entrenched editors, who added more defamatory material and further degraded the quality of the article. More than once, the article was “frozen” in a libelous state, preventing anyone from editing it.
Any number of people who could have had their lives changed for the better have been dissuaded from investigating Null’s work and the work of people like him who have the courage to stand up to the medical establishment. The reasons cited by Wikipedia editors in refusing to allow our edits – a bureaucratic death by a thousand cuts consisting of endless rules about “fringe” theories and “pseudoscience” – don’t hold water given the voluminous scientific proof we have on hand. Null has reversed the course of AIDS in 1,200 patients, a fact attested to by their doctors and medical charts. He has been on PBS eight times discussing his work; PBS is a reliable source even given the hyper-establishment guidelines set forth by Wikipedia.
Null has demonstrated conclusively that AIDS is not a death sentence – that natural therapies can reverse the course of the disease. His findings were published in the Townsend Letter of Medicine, a respected medical publication, yet none of this information is permitted in his Wikipedia article because it threatens the merchants of death at the helm of the medical establishment. Since the publication of this false and defamatory Wikipedia article, Null has experienced a steep drop in invitations to speak at conferences, and some academics and other professionals have refused to work with him. Had he not built a strong audience over the decades preceding the rise of Wikipedia, he would have been swept into the dustbin of history by now. No one unaccountable website should have the power to imprison people in an online gulag, unable to address the charges against them even as their reputation is put before the firing squad. Wikipedia articles appear at the top of the Google search most people run on unfamiliar names. First impressions are everything, particularly as the pace of our daily lives increases and few have the luxury of conscientious research. Wikipedia ensures that Null and people like him who question the prevailing wisdom of society are blacklisted, censored, and blocked from reputable outlets. What you don’t know can’t help you, and that’s what Wikipedia and its puppetmasters are counting on.
Wikipedia hides behind the tax-exempt structure of the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit formed by employees in 2003 to shield Wikipedia from tax requirements. As a lifelong Objectivist, Wales believes taxes are theft. Objectivists hold government interference to be a mortal sin – an institutionalized form of altruism, which they liken to mental illness – and feel no compunction about bending the rules to avoid supporting the governments they want to see wither and die.
The IRS forbids 501(c)(3) organizations like the Wikimedia Foundation from participating in political campaigns “on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office,” a ban which extends to “contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.” IRS policy clearly states that “violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.” The policy further explains that “voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.”18
The Wikimedia Foundation paid $436,104 to hire the Minassian Group,19 run by Clinton Foundation Chief Communications Officer Craig Minassian, to train Wikimedia’s c-suite employees, directors, and managers in media strategy starting in the 2014-15 fiscal year.20 In 2016, they paid Minassian $406,957 to conduct a “communications audit” and presumably continue its earlier work.21 While the details of Minassian’s activities are not public, the group did issue a report detailing its audit findings, which primarily consisted of parsing media coverage by subject, country, publication, and author and ranking outlets in terms of prestige Wikipedia was advised to focus on portraying itself as trustworthy and neutral in the media even while “seeking out and dispelling controversial issues.” The audit recommended concentrating on building a rapport with “friendly” journalists writing for what Wikipedia’s editors would call “reliable sources.”22 Minassian has a history of planting stories favorable to the Clinton Foundation in “friendly” media, as WikiLeaks revealed in its Podesta emails dump, which included a message from Craig Minassian himself boasting of favorable coverage he had secured for the foundation on the Colbert Report.23 Shortly after Minassian published the results of its audit, Wales announced the launch of WikiTribune, a crowdsourced news platform to combat “fake news.”
Some Wikipedia editors expressed their unease at the Wikimedia Foundation’s decision to spend almost half a million dollars in such a politically polarizing manner. Sashi Manek linked the Minassian hire to the arrival of militant editors on the Clinton Foundation article, which was kept clean of any mention of the billions of dollars in donations that had never been distributed to Haitian earthquake victims and the Foundation’s choice to build a lucrative industrial park in an undamaged part of the island instead.24 Clinton’s own Wikipedia article is similarly spotless, bearing only a sanitized summary of her “email controversy” and no mention at all of the revelations from WikiLeaks’ DNC and personal email document dumps. No mention is made of the invasion of Libya on false pretenses or the fallout from that invasion – indeed, reality is directly contradicted with a mystifying sentence reading “there was a trend of women around the world finding more opportunities and in some cases feeling safer, as the result of [Clinton’s] actions and visibility,” sourced to a book called The Hillary Doctrine. The article is “protected” – frozen so that only high-level administrators can make changes.25
Wikipedia’s glowing treatment of Clinton can be contrasted with its lukewarm article on Bernie Sanders, which is careful to include statements from journalists and adversarial politicians contradicting Sanders’ positions – auditing the Fed, for example, “would expose the Federal Reserve to undue political pressure from lawmakers who do not like its decisions,” and Sanders’ total neglect by the media was “proportional to his standing in the polls” despite approximately half of Democratic voters favoring him over Clinton.26 Wikipedia’s article on Donald Trump wastes no time in pointing out that many of his public statements “were controversial or false,”27 and the article “Efforts to Impeach Donald Trump” was created before he was even inaugurated.28 Trump’s article is protected now, but the 2016 election saw a huge disparity in editing activity between the two candidates29 before it was locked. In May 2016, articles relating to post-1932 American politics received an additional degree of protection in the form of “discretionary sanctions,” meaning editorial disputes can be resolved by uninvolved administrators called in for reinforcements. The measure is merely another hurdle low-level editors must jump in order to make edits without incurring penalties or being reverted, and the logic behind these “discretionary sanctions” is impenetrable, perhaps deliberately so.30
Many administrators make no secret of their political beliefs, which is not in itself an issue until one recognizes the techniques they use to freeze out opposing views. For example, admin BullRangifer wrote that non-believers in the Russiagate conspiracy “lack the competence needed to edit American political subjects.” They should be “monitored carefully,” since their political views are “at odds with the basis of all editing here,” and banned when they attempt to cite “fake news” as a source.31 Excluding information sourced from “fake news” sounds reasonable enough until one scans their list of “reliable sources,” which excludes anything to the left of the Huffington Post or to the right of The Economist.32 BullRangifer is also a proud Skeptic, displaying this affiliation on their userpage. They openly drop hints to other Wikipedia editors about how to insert biased information into political articles, recognizing no conflict of interest even as they call out the same behavior in their ideological opponents.33 Other editors use private mailing lists to enlist reinforcements when they are outnumbered in an “edit war” or administrative dispute.34 One expects this sort of behavior in online message boards, but not from the people in charge.
In the runup to the 2016 election, Wikipedia became ground zero for discussion of the “Russiagate” conspiracy. An administrator previously banned for conflicts of interest, impersonating multiple accounts (“sockpuppeting”), and hostile behavior toward other users resurfaced with a new account, Sagecandor, and proceeded to make thousands of edits on articles related to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and related talking points, from “fake news websites” (904 edits), “Russian interference in the 2016 election” (631 edits) to “Murder of Seth Rich” (275 edits), “Comey memos,” “kompromat,” and “efforts to impeach Donald Trump.” Sagecandor also participated in at least 19 disciplinary actions in just three months, resuming their previous behavioral pattern of picking fights with other editors. Instead of another ban, however, this confrontational behavior got them promoted – given auto-patrolling and page-moving powers and allowing them to edit protected entries, like Hillary Clinton’s article and some of the Russiagate material, without another editor signing off on their changes.35 A closer look at some of these pages and their frequent editors reveals a group of users working on the same controversial topics and supporting each other’s’ edits, voting in each other’s favor in disciplinary proceedings, and generally working to ideologically shift Wikipedia toward a neoliberal-Democratic position. These editors, including Volunteer Marek (a mainstay of one of the extra-Wiki mailing lists under a previous username)36, BullRangifer, Neutrality (who cleaned up Tim Kaine’s Wikipedia bio before Clinton publicly named him as her Vice President pick)37, MjolnirPants, and Snooganssnoogans, frequently overlap with the Skeptic camp. Both viewpoints are favored by Jimmy Wales.
The efforts of a clique of ideologically-motivated editors are of particular interest given the deployment of such teams on other social media sites like Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, and Twitter during the 2016 election. Clinton strategist and fundraiser David Brock’s Correct the Record (CTR) superPAC spent at least $1 million during the election to “push back against” negative posts about Clinton as part of a program called “Barrier Breakers,”38 and it’s unlikely that such an operation would have overlooked Wikipedia, which other social media sites often use as a fact-checking tool. Brock has come under scrutiny before for bending campaign finance rules – superPACs aren’t supposed to participate in individual elections, and Media Matters for America, the organization for which he is best known, is a 501(c)(3) and therefore barred from conducting political activity on behalf of any candidate.39 A former CTR contractor estimated the group’s expenditures at $5-6 million as of August 2016 in a post on an anonymous message board in which he encouraged others to sign up for easy cash, explaining that CTR employees were given high-ranked and backdated accounts on Reddit and Twitter so as to more easily blend into the discussion.40
In 2016, Wikipedia dispensed a $16,100 grant to the New Venture Fund,41 a Washington DC-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit that makes grants to “left-of-center advocacy and organizing projects,” according to InfluenceWatch, which also cautions that New Venture’s critics have called it a “dark money” organization used to cloak left-leaning groups’ donations to advocacy issues. New Venture founder and chairman Eric Kessler worked with the Clinton administration managing conservation issues and is still a member of the Clinton Global Initiative.42
One Clinton link can be dismissed as a coincidence, but when multiple links surface in conjunction with spotless articles relating to the Clintons and their Foundation – personal friends of Jimmy Wales – the facade of political noninvolvement must be reexamined. According to Jonathan Schilling, the self-appointed guardian of Clinton’s Wikipedia page interviewed by Business Insider, Wales actually contacted Clinton to find out her preferred nomenclature – Hillary Clinton or Hillary Rodham Clinton – and was told she preferred Rodham. Schilling is the ranking editor on Clinton’s page, having logged 2,269 edits in nine years.43 Minassian neglected to mention this article (which has since been removed from Business Insider’s site) or Business Insider itself in the communications audit, perhaps because of the obvious conflict of interest in attempting to treat its primary client objectively.
The Clintons are of course not the only politicians to benefit from Wikipedia’s protection, though they are the most obvious, given their high profile in the recent election and the long list of scandals that must be swept under the rug to keep their pages clean. John McCain’s Wikipedia page is a paean to the fallen war hero most Americans believe the senator to be. Reality only intrudes upon the talk page, where several concerned editors tried to insert material relating to McCain’s stonewalling of POW-MIA recovery efforts in the early 1990s. Though comprehensively documented with reliable sources – the definitive article on the scandal was written by Pulitzer Prize winner Sidney Schanberg – the guardians of McCain’s legacy ultimately ruled the material inadmissible.44 US politicians are not Wikipedia’s only beneficiaries and victims, either; one need only regard the differences between Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May’s biographical articles for evidence that special treatment for the few at the expense of the many extends to the UK and beyond.
The Wikimedia Foundation is a noted beneficiary of politically-linked funds, several of which have ties to the New Venture Fund mentioned earlier. The Hewlett Foundation donated $1.3 million to the Wikimedia Foundation in 2010 for “general operating support,” a grant the Heartland Institute (a right-wing think tank that has itself been a victim of ideologically-motivated Wikipedia editing) claims coincided with Wikipedia’s political shift.45 Also in 2010, Wikimedia received a $2 million grant from the Tides Foundation, which pioneered the “dark money” approach to political fundraising, anonymizing donors and recipients to shield both from IRS, media, and political scrutiny.46 Wikimedia donated $5,000 back to Tides in 2016,47 even as Tides continues to be listed as a “Major Benefactor” of Wikimedia.48 In 2011, the Stanton Foundation made what was then the largest gift in Wikimedia’s history, donating $3.6 million, a fraction of which was used to hire a “Wikipedian in Residence” at Harvard to make edits to politically-sensitive articles reflecting the American foreign policy point of view. The hire, Tim Sandole, even spoke at an event in support of Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, directly violating the IRS’s prohibition on political campaigning by nonprofit charities.49 Hewlett and Tides have both funded the New Venture Fund at various times.50 51
Wikipedia also uses the Communications Decency Act as a shield against legal action by character assassination victims, specifically section 230, which states that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”52 This provision enshrines the concept of neutral content platforms in internet law, preventing them from being held liable for the potentially actionable speech of their users, and is integral to the functioning of social media platforms, search engines, and ISPs. However, as Facebook, Twitter, and – yes – Wikipedia increasingly involve themselves in the curation of content, they move into a gray area in which section 230’s applicability becomes debatable. Just as Facebook or Twitter, by blocking one user for posting “hate speech” while allowing another user posting similar material to continue unmolested, violates this provision, Wikipedia, in applying its own rules unevenly, involves itself in the stream of content provision. Wales himself has edited articles on multiple occasions, including his own biographical article, from which he repeatedly excised Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger.53 He has been accused of trading edits for sex (with ex-girlfriend Rachel Marsden)54 and money (from Wikimedia donor and former Novell employee Jeff Merkey).55 Some users are rewarded with admin privileges for breaking rules that get other users banned, and these bans are heavily concentrated toward the sections of the ideological spectrum furthest distant from Wales. It is not for nothing he is referred to as the “god-king” of Wikipedia.56
Wikipedia’s editorial choices have much further-reaching implications than Facebook or Twitter. Its articles appear at the top of search engine results and are assumed to be neutral, truthful, and beyond reproach. As some of the more easily parsed elements of Wikipedia (names, dates, places) are shifted into the Wikidata project, whose Creative Commons license dispenses even with the need for sourcing (“reliable” or otherwise), the system becomes even riper for abuse. As of 2015, half the data in Wikidata was unsourced. That data feeds directly into Google, where it appears in “knowledge boxes” in response to search queries.57 Google can skew election results,58 a prospect which should alarm anyone committed to transparency, as the internet giant has admitted to manipulating search results both to avoid offending certain groups and to stop the spread of so-called “fake news” (as if every search engine query is meant to turn up nonfictional material!).59 Even when Google isn’t deliberately manipulating its search algorithm, editorial changes to Wikipedia – such as the substitution of “Nazism” as the ideology of the California Republican Party a week before that state’s electoral primaries earlier this year60 – have the potential to cause political chaos. No unaccountable anonymous editors should have this kind of power, whether or not they have the blessing of Wikipedia’s administrators.
The IRS’s rules barring nonprofit groups from engaging in political activity exist for good reason. Just as our declining trust in the news media stems in part from that news media’s dominance by six major corporations, our trust in any institution should take into account the institution’s backers. If the Wikimedia Foundation claims to be an independent charity, we should be able to fact-check its claims by examining its financials without venturing into the murky territory of quid-pro-quo political editing. When the very structure of a tax-exempt foundation is perverted to obfuscate the real special-interest backers of the “people’s encyclopedia,” it makes a mockery of the entire system.
Similarly, section 230 of the Communications Decency Act only applies when an online platform is not exercising editorial control over the content it hosts. Wales and a cabal of ideologically-motivated editors control what can and cannot be uttered by the modern Oracle of Delphi with a Kafkaesque thicket of rules that morph to suit their purposes, locking outspoken anti-establishment voices in reputational cages from which there is no conceivable escape. A governmental investigation of the Wikimedia Foundation is long overdue.
1 Jordan, William. “British people trust Wikipedia more than the news.” YouGov. 9 Aug 2014. https://yougov.co.uk/news/2014/08/09/more-british-people-trust-wikipedia-trust-news/
2 Mitchell, Amy et.al. “Publics Globally Want Unbiased News Coverage, but Are Divided on Whether Their News Media Deliver.” Pew Research Center. 11 Jan 2018. http://www.pewglobal.org/2018/01/11/publics-globally-want-unbiased-news-coverage-but-are-divided-on-whether-their-news-media-deliver/
3 Swift, Art. “Americans’ Trust in Mass Media Sinks to New Low.” Gallup. 14 Sep 2016. https://news.gallup.com/poll/195542/americans-trust-mass-media-sinks-new-low.aspx
4 “2018 Edelman Trust Barometer.” Edelman. 2018. http://cms.edelman.com/sites/default/files/2018-02/2018_Edelman_Trust_Barometer_Global_Report_FEB.pdf Accessed 21 Sep 2018.
5 Wales, Jimmy. “Homeopathy – Oscillococcinum in Particular.” Quora. 31 Jan 2013. https://jimmywales.quora.com/Homeopathy-Oscillococcinum-in-particular
6 Wales, Jimmy. “Jimmy Wales’s response.” Change.org: 23 Mar 2014. Retrieved 18 Aug 2018. https://www.change.org/p/jimmy-wales-founder-of-wikipedia-create-and-enforce-new-policies-that-allow-for-true-scientific-discourse-about-holistic-approaches-to-healing/responses/11054
7 “Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Year_Zero:_The_Silent_Death_of_Cambodia Accessed 12 Sep 2018.
8 Walker, James. “John Pilger says Guardian column was axed in ‘purge’ of journalists ‘saying what the paper no longer says.’” Press Gazette. 24 Jan 2018. https://www.pressgazette.co.uk/john-pilger-says-guardian-column-was-axed-in-purge-of-journalists-saying-what-the-paper-no-longer-says/
9 “Guy McPherson.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guy_McPherson Accessed 12 Sep 2018.
10 “Sharyl Attkisson.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharyl_Attkisson Accessed 12 Sep 2018.
11 Specter, Michael. “Seeds of Doubt.” New Yorker. 25 Aug 2014. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/25/seeds-of-doubt
12 Walsh, Nick Paton. “The envoy who said too much.” The Guardian. 15 Jul 2004. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2004/jul/15/foreignpolicy.uk
13 “Meg Patterson.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meg_Patterson Accessed 12 Sep 2018.
14 National Council Against Health Fraud, Inc. v. King Bio Pharmaceuticals, Inc. Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles. Case no. BC 245271. Revised Statement of Decision. 17 Dec 2001.
15 “Biographies of Living Persons.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Biographies_of_living_persons Accessed 20 Aug 2018.
16 Bauer, Henry H. “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll-Kalichman and Mr. Hyde-Newton.” HIV/AIDS Skepticism. 4 Apr 2009. https://hivskeptic.wordpress.com/2009/04/04/strange-case-of-dr-jekyll-kalichman-and-mr-hyde-newton-chapter-1/
17 Greenfield, Neal S. “Legal Letter to Wikipedia Requesting Removal of False Gary Null Bio.” Progressive Radio Network. 14 Mar 2018. https://prn.fm/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Letter-Wikipedia-removal-Gary-Null-Bio.pdf
18 “Requirements – 501(c)(3) Organizations.” IRS.gov. https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/charitable-organizations/exemption-requirements-section-501c3-organizations Accessed 23 Aug 2018.
19 Wikimedia Foundation. IRS Form 990. 2015. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/foundation/4/44/Wikimedia_Foundation_2015_Form_990.pdf Accessed 23 Aug 2018.
20 “Communications Quarterly Review.” Wikimedia Foundation. Quarter 2 2014-2015. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/12/Communications_WMF_Quarterly_Review,_Q2_2014-15.pdf Accessed 23 Aug 2018.
21 Wikimedia Foundation. IRS Form 990. 2016. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/foundation/6/67/Form_990_FY_2016-2017_-_Public.pdf
22 Minassian Media. “Communications Audit.” Wikimedia Foundation. September 2016. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/foundation/4/4a/Wikimedia_Foundation_communications_audit_-_2014-2016.pdf Accessed 23 Aug 2018.
23 Minassian, Craig. “CGI U – The Colbert Report Special Episodes.” WikiLeaks. 10 Apr 2013. https://wikileaks.org/podesta-emails/emailid/46703
24 X, Sashi. “Re: Some people in the comments have raised concerns…” Medium:WikiTribune. 13 Jul 2017. https://medium.com/@sashi_x/clinton-foundation-does-pr-for-the-wikimedia-foundation-6f53eb511d82
25 “Hillary Clinton.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hillary_Clinton Accessed 21 Sep 2018.
26 “Bernie Sanders.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernie_Sanders Accessed 21 Sep 2018.
27 “Donald Trump.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Trump Accessed 21 Sep 2018.
28 “Efforts to impeach Donald Trump: Revision History.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Efforts_to_impeach_Donald_Trump&dir=prev&limit=500&action=history Accessed 21 Sep 2018.
29 Alcantara, Chris. “The most challenging job of the 2016 race: Editing the candidates’ Wikipedia pages.” Washington Post. 27 Oct 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/2016-election/presidential-wikipedias/
30 “Wikipedia:Arbitration/Requests/Case/American politics 2.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Arbitration/Requests/Case/American_politics_2 Accessed 21 Sep 2018.
31 BullRangifer. “Political ideology and sourcing.” Wikipedia. Accessed 23 Aug 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:BullRangifer/Political_ideology_and_sourcing
32 BullRangifer. “The quick and lazy guide to reliable and unreliable sources.” Wikipedia. Accessed 23 Aug 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:BullRangifer/The_quick_and_lazy_guide_to_reliable_and_unreliable_sources
33 “Talk:Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections/Archive 18.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Russian_interference_in_the_2016_United_States_elections/Archive_18 Accessed 21 Sep 2018.
34 carbuncle. “Dirty tricks cabal or just idle talk?” Wikipedia Review. http://wikipediareview.com/lofiversion/index.php?t26604-0.html
35 “An Open Letter to ArbCom.” Creolista. https://ling.creoliste.fr/index.php?title=En-WP:Press_Release_/_An_Open_Letter_to_ArbCom Accessed 23 Aug 2018.
36 Wikipedia Review, op.cit.
37 Meyer, Robinson et.al. “Is Wikipedia Foreshadowing Clinton’s Vice-Presidential Pick?” The Atlantic. 22 Jul 2016. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/07/is-wikipedia-foreshadowing-clintons-vice-presidential-pick/492629/
38 Collins, Ben. “Hillary PAC Spends $1 Million to ‘Correct’ Commenters on Reddit and Facebook.” The Daily Beast. 21 Apr 2016. https://www.thedailybeast.com/hillary-pac-spends-dollar1-million-to-correct-commenters-on-reddit-and-facebook
39 Watson, Libby et.al. “Behind the Clinton campaign: Dark money allies.” Sunlight Foundation. 3 Dec 2015. https://sunlightfoundation.com/2015/12/03/behind-the-clinton-campaign-dark-money-allies/
40 “Drawing the Public Eye: The Unintentional Consequence of “Astroturfing” by Political Organizations.” Web of Slime. 10 Nov 2016. https://sites.google.com/view/webofslime/article
41 Wikimedia Foundation, op.cit.
42 “Board of Directors.” New Venture Fund. http://www.newventurefund.org/about-nvf/board-of-directors/#eric Accessed 21 Sep 2018.
43 Tani, Maxwell. “Meet the guy who has protected Hillary Clinton’s Wikipedia page for almost a decade.” Business Insider. 15 May 2015. https://web.archive.org/web/20160712180251/www.businessinsider.com/meet-hillary-clintons-wikipedia-editor-2015-5
44 “Talk:John McCain.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:John_McCain#Schanberg’s_allegations_during_2008_election Accessed 21 Sep 2018.
45 “The Hewlett Foundation.” Left Exposed. http://leftexposed.org/2016/01/the-hewlett-foundation/ Accessed 21 Sep 2018.
46 “Tides Foundation.” Left Exposed. http://leftexposed.org/2015/11/tides-foundation/ Accessed 21 Sep 2018.
47 Wikimedia Foundation, op.cit.
48 “Benefactors.” Wikimedia Foundation. https://wikimediafoundation.org/support/benefactors/ Accessed 21 Sep 2018.
49 Russavia. “Belfer report – analysis from Russavia.” Wikimedia-l (mailing list). 21 Mar 2014. https://lists.wikimedia.org/pipermail/wikimedia-l/2014-March/070665.html
50 “Grantee: New Venture Fund.” Tides Foundation. https://www.tides.org/project/new-venture-fund/ Accessed 21 Sep 2018.
51 “New Venture Fund: For The Moving Beyond Oil Project.” William + Flora Hewlett Foundation. https://hewlett.org/grants/new-venture-fund-for-the-moving-beyond-oil-project/ Accessed 21 Sep 2018.
52 “Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.” Electronic Frontier Foundation. https://www.eff.org/issues/cda230 Accessed 24 Sep 2018.
53 Cadenhead, Rogers. “Wikipedia Founder Looks Out for Number 1.” Workbench. 19 Dec 2005. http://workbench.cadenhead.org/news/2828/wikipedia-founder-looks-out-number-1
54 Metz, Cade. “Jimbo Wales dumps lover on Wikipedia.” The Register. 3 Mar 2008. https://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/03/03/jimbo_wales_rachel_marsden/
55 “Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales in donations row.” The Telegraph. 11 Mar 2008. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1581512/Wikipedias-Jimmy-Wales-in-donations-row.html
56 Smith, Wes. “He’s the ‘God-King,’ but you can call him Jimbo.” Seattle Times. 15 Jan 2007. https://www.seattletimes.com/business/hes-the-god-king-but-you-can-call-him-jimbo/
57 Kolbe, Andreas. “Whither Wikidata?” The Signpost. 2 Dec 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Wikipedia_Signpost/2015-12-02/Op-ed
58 Epstein, Robert. “How Google Could Rig the 2016 Election.” Politico. 19 Aug 2015. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/08/how-google-could-rig-the-2016-election-121548
59 Solon, Olivia. “How Google’s search algorithm spreads false information with a rightwing bias.” The Guardian. 16 Dec 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/dec/16/google-autocomplete-rightwing-bias-algorithm-political-propaganda
60 Thompson, Alex. “Google listed ‘Nazism’ as the ideology of the California Republican Party.” Vice News. 31 May 2018. https://news.vice.com/en_us/article/vbq38d/google-is-listing-nazism-as-the-first-ideology-of-the-california-republican-party