Wikipedia Editors Smeared Mark Levin in Multiyear Campaign

Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Gage Skidmore/Flickr

After radio host Mark Levin criticized the “police-state tactics” of the Obama Administration in its use of intercepts and FISA warrants in 2017, editors on Wikipedia began to attack Levin’s credibility through edits to his page on the site. The criticism, which allegedly prompted President Donald Trump’s controversial wire-tapping allegations, has since been vindicated by revelations about widespread falsehoods in FISA warrants issued against Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, seen now as part of a broader Obamagate scandal. A number of attacks on Levin eventually ended up in news articles shortly before and after the premiere of his show on Fox News.

Levin warned his audience during his show early in 2018 to “Avoid Wikipedia like the plague” after reading the content that had been added to his page. Since then, Levin’s article has been expanded with even more slanted negative material and most efforts to remove smears have been repeatedly rejected.

In January 2018, Levin hosted a segment on his radio show where he read from his Wikipedia page. Describing the online encyclopedia as a “format where people who hate you . . . can go into your page and poison it” Levin began critiquing a section entitled “Views on political issues, groups and politicians” and various misrepresentations contained in it. After going through several paragraphs and questioning the inclusion of some claims and noting the omitted context of others, he warned his listeners against trusting Wikipedia. The entire section of mostly negative material amounted to nearly half of Levin’s page at the time and, other than a single paragraph noting his support for Cruz and then Trump during the 2016 election, all of it had been added over the previous year.

In that previous year, President Trump used Twitter to accuse the Obama Administration of wire-tapping Trump Tower during the election. Media reports quickly focused on comments Levin made on his radio show stating Obama used “police-state tactics” against Trump as the source of the allegations. Despite Levin basing his criticism on reports from sources such as the New York Times regarding the use of FISA warrants and NSA intercepts to investigate alleged Russian ties, critics of Trump accused him of spreading a “phony conspiracy theory” throughout conservative media.

Revelations from DOJ Inspector General Horowitz about a FISA warrant issued against Trump campaign adviser Carter Page being littered with falsehoods, and one official accused of criminally altering a document to obtain a renewal, have since vindicated Levin. Together with other improprieties revealed in the Russia investigation, such as the targeting of Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, the scandalous revelations have been characterized as Obamagate.

Shortly after the media criticized Levin, Wikipedia editor “Snooganssnoogans” added a section to Levin’s page on Wikipedia claiming he made the surveillance allegation “without evidence” despite the Guardian article cited for the material noting Levin’s sources for the claim, though another editor soon corrected this material. The Guardian is considered “reliable” on Wikipedia and is one of the third most-cited news outlets on the site. Using the wire-tapping allegations as precedent, editor “Localemediamonitor” began including what the editor claimed were “past similar allegations [and] controversies” in the article. Snooganssnoogans also added material in this vein and both editors considerably expanded the section with more negative material over the following months.

Two parts of the section Levin specifically criticized were added by Localemediamonitor, such as a paragraph about a hoax caller to Levin’s show and a line about Levin characterizing Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) as a “radical Marxist who believes in violence.” On his show, Levin noted this remark was in the context of the Alexandria shooting targeting Republican Congressmen carried out by a former Sanders campaign volunteer. The two editors were primarily responsible for expanding the section, with others refining or removing material to try and provide balance. Although some biased edits were filtered out, such as edits by Snooganssnoogans claiming the wire-tapping allegations were false and retitling a sub-section on Levin’s views as “promotion of conspiracy theories”, most negative additions were preserved.

Under Wikipedia’s neutrality policy, material about a subject, especially a living person, needs to give due weight to coverage in reliable sources. This means whether the material should be included at all often depends on whether multiple sources have given that aspect of the subject significant attention. The material regarding Sanders, for instance, cites only Conservative Review, where Levin is editor-in-chief. Aside from omitting context from his show, a recording of which is in the article, the fact this incident did not receive independent coverage in other sources more distant from Levin goes against including it. One section added by Snooganssnoogans about “pay-to-play” charges Levin has denied cites only Politico, the source of the allegations.

Such non-neutral editing is normal for both editors, who have a history of adding negative content to the articles of conservatives. Localemediamonitor, the most active in adding negative content to Levin’s page, has made only about 500 edits. Most of those edits are about radio personalities, particularly conservatives such as Dennis Prager of PragerU, and are overwhelmingly negative. Usually, these edits have been removed due to using questionable sources such as liberal “watchdogs” Media Matters and Right Wing Watch, however, the editor has not been sanctioned for that behavior and some smears remain on other articles such as additions to the page for Dan Bongino. Two accounts with names resembling the editor’s were previously used on some of these pages for the same purpose.

Unlike Localemediamonitor, Snooganssnoogans has been sanctioned previously for his editing of pages on conservatives. In May 2017 an administrator who is a self-described right-leaning libertarian, reported Snooganssnoogans with an extensive analysis of the editor’s activity. The administrator noted of the past 400 edits by Snooganssnoogans then that 60 out of the 67 articles on living people in that period were edited to add negative information about conservative politicians. Despite the comprehensive evidence of bias, other administrators were reluctant to take action, but eventually agreed to merely bar Snooganssnoogans from making a large number of similar edits to political articles without approval.

Negative material added by both editors eventually found its way to news coverage of Levin, particularly around the time his show at Fox News was announced and premiered. An article published in 2017 at the Forward announcing Levin’s show at Fox News contains phrasing similar to that at Levin’s page and references incidents most easily found there, such as Levin’s comment about Sanders. Reached for comment, the author acknowledged he probably uses Wikipedia when researching articles, but stated he could not recall details about the specific piece.

A Raw Story article in February 2018 about the premiere of Levin’s Fox News program opened with various details that similarly mirror what would most easily be found through checking Wikipedia. The author of that piece stated that he got the information for some details from the cited links, one being the same source cited on Wikipedia, and claimed another about “death panels” was “closely associated” with Levin’s show, though a search of articles about Levin suggests the detail is not closely associated with his show. Asked if he specifically denied using Wikipedia for article research, the author did not respond. In a past article, the author directly cited Wikipedia several times.

Later in 2018, when an editor tried to remove some of the smears on Levin’s page, Snooganssnoogans repeatedly undid the user’s edits well in excess of what is allowed by Wikipedia policy in order to keep the material in the article, but faced no sanctions for his behavior. Another prolonged fight erupted in 2019 when the editor added viciously negative reviews from several left-wing outlets about one of Levin’s books. When another editor tried to add conservative praise, Snooganssnoogans sought to have those reviewers labeled conservative to downplay them, despite left-wing reviews having no such label, and, when that was rejected, repeatedly removed the favorable reviews.

He also made other negative additions throughout 2019, noting inflammatory comments Levin made about House Speaker Pelosi, a study attacking his style of commentary, and including various smears over Levin’s comments about the Trump-Ukraine impeachment controversy with one seeking to associate the Jewish Levin with what were characterized as anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about left-wing billionaire George Soros. Most of these changes remained, though the claim about Soros was completely removed and another Ukraine-related smear after removal was restored in a more moderate tone by editor “Valjean” who as “BullRangifer” was involved in slanting articles about the Mueller Report. Snooganssnoogans further added smears to the intro of Levin’s article, particularly over his role in early Obamagate claims, but most were removed.

Levin had been previously subjected to smear campaigns on Wikipedia. In 2009 an editor began a “controversies and criticism” section on Levin’s page sourced entirely to Media Matters. An edit war began over the section and it was bolstered by noting conservative critics. Despite being in the article for only about a month and a half, details from the article found their way into the Daily Beast as noted then by NewsBusters and Jeffrey Lord at the American Spectator. News media relying on false or biased Wikipedia articles is not uncommon as it has also happened with conservative black activist Candace Owens and with the GamerGate anti-corruption movement where journalists and academics pulled extensively from Wikipedia’s biased article, including for textbooks and outlets such as the BBC.

Snooganssnoogans has successfully convinced news outlets to repeat smears of conservatives. In one instance he added to the article intro for conservative news site Gateway Pundit that it was “known for publishing falsehoods and spreading hoaxes.” This line later appeared in a study for the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and then in articles at the Washington Post, Vice, and several other outlets. Washington Post articles with similar phrasing were later cited for the material on Wikipedia, an example of citogenesis. A “fake news” label was also attached to the article by Snooganssnoogans and spread by the media. Libertarian philosopher Stefan Molyneux saw an explosion of news articles labeling him “alt-right” after editors, including Snooganssnoogans, pushed to have that label at the top of his Wikipedia page.

Reliance on Wikipedia by news outlets, scientific literature, and Big Tech, has made it a popular target for editors looking to push an agenda. Wikipedia’s resulting left-wing bias has been criticized by the site’s own co-founder. Instead of addressing the bias, the site’s owners have leaned into it by announcing a code of conduct to make Wikipedia a “safe space” and “inclusive” and endorsing the Black Lives Matter movement declaring “no neutral stance” on racial justice.

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.

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