After now-former Google employee James Damore’s viewpoint diversity memo went viral, Wikipedia editors looking through its citations removed material from the online encyclopedia that he referenced in the memo.
Other editors sought to downplay or remove from the memo’s Wikipedia page statements supporting his claims about scientific research on the differences between the sexes.
In addition to citing scientific studies and news coverage on recent research into the matter, Damore’s memo included several references to Wikipedia pages about the issue. These pages also included citations to scientific studies or statistical data supporting his statements. Some of these pages were soon edited to minimize or outright remove material that had been referenced in the memo.
The most intense activity has been taking place on the article for Neuroticism, where the memo cited a section on the page about differences between the sexes. An IP near Silicon Valley, where Google and other tech companies are headquartered, was the first to edit the section by adding wiki-markup to remove the section from public view. Within half an hour the change was undone by an IP from Redmond, Washington, home of Google competitor Microsoft as well as video game developer Nintendo’s American offices.
Subsequently, editor Nanite began to expand the section, prompting an edit war to break out on the article that received coverage at Vice’s Motherboard outlet. Editor Jytdog began to remove almost the entire section, leading to other editors restoring and others again removing the content. Discussion about the material focused on whether the topic was covered by Wikipedia’s guideline for reliable sources on biomedical information, which advocates a stricter standard than that used for other articles.
While various editors contested Jytdog’s argument, Nanite presented sources and material that actually met this higher standard, and another editor began to restore details about sex differences. Even after these changes, editors suggested it should be tagged for concerns about neutrality and complained that material about sex differences was now included in a larger section on demographic patterns, making it harder to locate.
Despite having reverted six times over the course of two days, Jytdog left a warning about edit-warring after an editor made one revert to restore the neutrality tag. After that editor restored the tag a second time, Jytdog filed an edit-warring report to have the editor blocked.
On the article for occupational fatalities, editor Aquillion twice removed the two paragraphs referenced by the memo that noted data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, showing that men represent over 90% of workplace fatalities. In doing so he cited Wikipedia’s policy on use of primary sources. The policy, however, states such sources are acceptable so long as there is no effort to interpret them. He also argued that it did not belong in a section about risk factors, but didn’t explain why this meant the material had to be removed entirely.
An article on the Google memo was created soon after the controversy began, and it was quickly nominated for deletion. The first editor to comment on the nomination was Volunteer Marek who called for merging the content to the article on Google. Later in the discussion Marek compared the memo to the Unabomber’s manifesto, noting an article didn’t exist on it either. His arguments have not swayed editors, though, as the article has been kept due to resounding support for the subject’s notability.
The article avoiding deletion had not dissuaded Marek and other editors from minimizing the controversy. One article cited on the page, which contained several specialists in the field who agreed with the memo’s statements about differences between the sexes, has been removed multiple times by Marek. Falsely claiming it was a primary source, he went to the discussion page for the article to insist it was also a “fringe” source that couldn’t be cited. An editor noted the piece had received independent coverage in USA Today, but the only edit in response made no mention of the scientists.
Other edits Marek made to the article were to three times remove references to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange defending Damore and offering him a job, first stating “oh who cares” and then claiming Assange’s tweets were trolling. Marek also replaced material noting Damore had received significant support from other employees with material stating he had been criticized by current and former employees. Another editor did later add material noting the support Damore received. Even with that single line added, most of the content about employee reactions quotes current and former executives attacking the memo.
NorthBySouthBaranof, an editor who had been banned from edits about GamerGate due to his agenda-driven editing on the controversy, added to the page claims that Damore did not have a case to contest his firing by Google and added identical material to Google’s own article. The material he added described law experts as “noting” his case was “weak” and that “Google would have several defensible reasons for firing him,” including discrimination concerns. Baranof’s phrasing is inconsistent with Wikipedia’s style guidelines on words to watch, which discourages wording that presents opinion as fact. Other experts have notably argued that Damore’s case could have merit.
Incidents such as this highlight growing concerns about the neutrality of Wikipedia at a time when its leaders are promoting it as the solution to the so-called fake news epidemic. Wikipedia’s own reliance on major news media, however, leaves it exposed to sourcing bias that diminishes its factual accuracy. Many news outlets considered “reliable” by the online encyclopedia’s standards have been criticized for falsely framing the Google memo as “anti-diversity,” in contrast to Damore’s express support for measures to increase diversity at the company. Due to this problem, the article on the Google memo has a reference section littered with these false headlines.
The consequence can also be seen on the article for Google itself, where NorthBySouthBaranof added that the memo argued that “biological factors, not discrimination” explained the lack of women at tech companies. Although the statement is a gross misrepresentation, as Damore’s memo only suggested biology as one possible factor in addition to discrimination, it is fully supported by a citation to the New York Times.
According to Wired, studies on Wikipedia suggest the site has a demonstrable left-wing bias and that editors with such biases make more edits to the site than others. When biased editors are met with a media environment that largely favors their bias, the result can significantly diminish the site’s ability to provide readers with the truth.
(Disclosure: the author of this article has had disputes with several of the parties involved.)
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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