After President Trump condemned violence by both sides in Charlottesville, a recently-created Wikipedia article about antifa highlighting the group’s violence and far-left ideology saw a spree of edits downplaying both aspects of the group.
The U.S. antifa article on Wikipedia was first created by E. M. Gregory, a few days before the Unite the Right rally. Within hours another editor, Grayfell, sought to remove mentions of the group’s violence that were backed by The Atlantic and New York Times. Following the violence in Charlottesville, disputes over the article intensified until the only occurrence of “violence” in one version was in the headlines of the article’s sources.
E. M. Gregory responded by adding numerous sourced mentions of the violent rhetoric and actions associated with the group. One editor removed some of these incidents, such as the cancellation of a parade in Portland due to threats made to marchers affiliated with the local Republican Party, though this was later restored. Also removed was mention of antifa using clubs and sticks. While some material about antifa carrying weapons remains in the article, much of the material claims antifa used them for defensive purposes.
Also involved in removing mentions of violence were Volunteer Marek and Doug Weller, a member of Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee. Marek removed reference to undercover journalist James O’Keeffe’s videos about efforts to disrupt Trump’s inauguration stating “who cares?” despite the material being backed by the Washington Post. Weller removed another incident noted in the Washington Post about a pro-Trump group canceling a rally in San Francisco after antifa followed their group around the city to block events, due to concerns it would end in violence. He defended the removal by stating the incident was not notable because the rally was never held. It was later restored.
Not content with removing incidences of violence, editors added material to portray antifa in a more favorable light. Editor Kencf0618, who identifies on his profile page as a “left-wing capitalist” who supports anarchist ideas, added several claims of antifa defending clergy from “fascist” or “white supremacist” attacks. Marek made a similar addition about antifa supposedly defending a church from a purported attack.
After an editor added material citing an AOL News report about members of antifa defending the violent acts of other members, Weller removed it, claiming the 12-word line was being given too much weight in the article. As an example of material that was given less weight, he pointed to a paragraph the editor removed months earlier from another article that cited Media Matters on a controversy at a small pro-Trump news outlet.
Due to the removal of material about antifa violence, Gregory tagged the article for bias. To this Weller responded that “a lot of the groups [antifa] oppose are Neo-Nazis” and suggested any mention of violence in the article has to be framed in the context of “the rise of Neo-Nazism” in America. Gregory, although expressing strong disapproval of President Trump’s response to Charlottesville, insisted the article should still include mentions of antifa’s violent history. Stating there was some improvement Gregory removed the tag a day after adding it.
One of the other major disputes over the antifa article concerned the group’s characterization as far-left. Citing CNN, Weller characterized antifa as simply left-wing in the intro to the article. After another editor, DHeyward, restored the description of antifa as far-left citing the BBC, Weller tagged the article for bias himself and complained about others being selective in their sourcing or ignoring sources that didn’t characterize antifa as far-left.
Seemingly not having similar concerns about the portrayal of antifa’s ideology, Kencf0618 would later add to the intro that antifa was mostly socialists, communists, and anarchists. While Weller and others still sought to minimize this characterization, the “far-left” description was later slipped into the article’s infobox at the top of the page and Weller removed it again.
Further edits mitigating antifa’s violent reputation include Kencf0618 adding claims about a “far right smear campaign” to the article’s intro, material on which Weller subsequently expanded to say it was clumsy and orchestrated. After an IP user removed the line from the intro, Ken created an entire two-paragraph section for “smear campaigns by the far right” with the section initially being larger than a section on notable incidents of antifa violence. Included as a “smear campaign” is the White House petition seeking to have antifa listed as a terrorist group. The petition material was later split off and the section changed to a criticism section.
Mentioning characterization of antifa as terrorists has been most contentious, first prompted by New Jersey’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness including an analysis of antifa under the category for counterterrorism. An editor called Clown town added a lengthy section copied from the state website listing violent antifa-related incidents and an edit war with Grayfell and Weller ensued over its inclusion. During discussion on the article’s talk page, they insisted the state website was not sufficient to include all the material, but one editor, Pudeo, was able to get support for a single line noting the state called antifa anarchist extremists.
As discussion continued, Clown town was reported by Weller and blocked for repeatedly restoring the section. One editor noted coverage in News.com.au that characterized antifa as terrorists citing the New Jersey Homeland Security report , but Grayfell discouraged using the source saying the outlet was not neutral. Weller also disputed how much the New Jersey website itself could be used for claims about antifa, arguing the site did not explicitly link some of the violence to the movement.
Despite officially having a policy of neutrality that “both sides” be treated fairly, Wikipedia continues to be plagued by concerns about political bias. The partisan activity of its most influential members can only magnify those concerns.
(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.