Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales believes the Wikipedia model can help salvage journalistic integrity, but in the year since Donald Trump took office as President of the United States, the online encyclopedia has instead proven unable to even restrain its own biased editing community.
A look back on five of the biggest cases of political bias that gripped the site in 2017 should discourage anyone from looking to Wikipedia as a source for reliable and neutral information on the political topics of the day.
1. Instructor at Berkeley sending students on anti-Trump editing spree
UC Berkeley instructor Michel Gelobter launched a course in January 2017 for his students to edit Wikipedia advancing an “environmental justice” narrative. Gelobter’s course description cited the importance of the course as being at “a unique moment in history…the first few months of a historically unique U.S. President whose agenda has been explicitly anti-environmental, sexist, and racist.” He encouraged his students to “edit and/or create Wikipedia articles in order to create a neutral, well-documented record of the assaults on the environment and environmental justice expected to unfold early in the Trump Presidency.”
Despite the clear bias of the course description, Helaine Blumenthal of the Wiki Education Foundation, which oversees such editing projects, posted it to Wikipedia without any alterations. After a few months, Wikipedia editors discussed the problems the course was creating and swiftly banned Gelobter from the site. While Wikipedia editors did delete some of the more egregious additions, others remained. In one of the worst examples, a lengthy section about “environmental injustices and the Trump Administration” consisting of over an eighth of the article on air pollution in the United States still remains essentially untouched, as do similar sections in the articles on food security and the Port Arthur Refinery in Texas. On Facebook, Gelobter insisted the pages were all neutral.
2. Burying CNN’s Blackmail controversy and other scandals at the network
Shortly after CNN’s blackmail controversy, an editor created a page on the topic. Other editors promptly had the story buried by moving the content into the bottom section of an article about CNN controversies. Roughly two dozen editors, mostly left-wing, supported this move citing a policy that says Wikipedia is not for news. Five of these editors showed a double standard, having previously voted to keep an article on Trump’s disclosure of intelligence about ISIS threats in a meeting with Russia where the same policy would apply.
A few editors went even further by cutting out critical information on the blackmail controversy from even the general CNN controversies article, as well as gutting nearly a third of the article’s content covering a variety of scandals that gripped the network, despite much of it being backed by sources considered reliable by Wikipedia standards. These removals included a section on CNN New Year’s Eve host Kathy Griffin’s firing from the network, which was justified by claiming it wasn’t a CNN controversy. The same argument was used to keep out mention of undercover journalist James O’Keefe’s video series on CNN, itself denied its own article by many of the same editors.
Only a small amount of the removed content had been restored after the flurry of deletions. When the situation was mentioned on the Vox Popoli blog of science fiction author Vox Day, the founder of Wikipedia alternative Infogalactic, an editor sought to restore noteworthy content about the blackmail controversy and was immediately reverted.
3. Removing evidence backing James Damore’s Google Viewpoint Diversity memo and attacking the memo’s supporters
When Google employee James Damore’s memo on the company’s diversity programs and treatment of conservative views went viral, editors on Wikipedia began removing reliably-sourced parts of articles he cited to support his positions. On the article for neuroticism, this sparked an edit war based on meeting the site’s standards for sources about medical claims. Although sources meeting this standard were provided, material favoring Damore’s perspective was moved to make it less prominent. Editors also fought to remove material from the article on Damore’s memo citing scientists supporting his position and added material seeking to discredit Damore.
Following Breitbart Tech’s coverage, these issues were mostly resolved, but editors also went after pages of Damore’s supporters. Hours after libertarian philosopher Stefan Molyneux interviewed Damore, editors began editing his page to label him “alt-right” with one adding material to suggest he was racist. An editor mentioned in Breitbart Tech’s coverage also joined the effort when Molyneux tweeted a link to the story and unsuccessfully took the effort to label him alt-right to the Google memo article as well. Attempts at removing this label or to note his statements rejecting such labels have been repeatedly undone.
4. Downplaying Antifa’s violent far-left tendencies
An article on the violent Antifa movement in the United States was created shortly before its involvement in violence at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, for which Antifa was condemned by President Trump. Even before the events in Charlottesville, left-wing editors sought to remove or minimize mentions of the group’s violent history despite reports in sources considered reliable by Wikipedia. Following the violence, this suppression got to the point where the article’s only mentions of violence was in the headlines of its sources. Claims of Antifa being far-left were also removed.
Many editors active on the Antifa article were sympathetic to the group and some even openly showed support for Antifa on their profile pages. Editors with these sympathies were instrumental in removing material from the page’s intro noting that Antifa has been characterized as a terrorist group by government agencies. These editors also added material portraying Antifa as victims of smear campaigns who ostensibly help “protect” people from far-right violence. Members of Wikipedia’s powerful Arbitration Committee were active on the article as well to help burnish the group’s image. Frustration with this conduct and the CNN controversies dispute moved one editor to back away from political articles declaring them beyond repair.
5. Enacting a “purge” of media sources critical of Russia hacking narrative
Citing a recent Associated Press report that merely elaborated on year-old circumstantial evidence, a discussion was started over whether to “purge” sources critical of claims about Russia hacking into the DNC from the article on alleged Russian interference with the 2016 election. Advocates of this purge, nearly all established anti-Trump editors, overwhelmed those opposed and thus the purge was implemented as “consensus” decision. One editor who objected to this purge was quickly attacked by its advocates then reported for “incivility” and “assuming bad faith” by criticizing the bias of those supporting the “purge” proposal. The editor was subsequently banned from discussion of U.S.-Russia relations and allegations of election interference on these grounds.
Members of Wikipedia have begun raising concerns about bias against conservatives on the site, with Wales appearing interested in examples, but the editing community’s standard response is noting that Wikipedia has mechanisms in place to address incidents of bias. Unfortunately, Wikipedia’s mechanisms have proven consistently lop-sided in favor of editors supporting left-wing positions. Editors from the left frequently get away with misconduct, while editors defending the right face more frequent and much harsher sanctions. Disputes over articles about the Alabama U.S. Senate race and outgoing FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe are other examples demonstrating this pattern.
Last week, Wales attended the World Economic Forum in Davos and participated in a panel on fake news. There he promoted the Wikipedia hybrid model of his new journalism outlet WikiTribune as the solution to the fake news problem and the partisan sensationalism permeating media, despite the same flaws already emerging there before his project even officially launched. Should the five examples above be any indicator, then Wikipedia’s use as a leading example for improving the honesty and integrity of information on the Internet is minimal. Failing to address this is likely to only prompt more on the right to seek out alternatives.
(Disclosure: The author has been involved in disputes with several of the parties referenced in the article)
T. D. Adler edited Wikipedia as The Devil’s Advocate. He was banned after privately reporting conflict of interest editing by one of the site’s administrators. Due to previous witch-hunts led by mainstream Wikipedians against their critics, Adler writes under an alias.