Wikipedia Editors Label ICE Detention Centers ‘Concentration Camps’

Turkish officials say Wikipedia failed to remove content deemed to be false from its pages that linked Turkey with terror groups
AFP/Lionel Bonaventure

In the midst of the controversy over the detention of illegal immigrants and characterizations of it as a “family separation” policy, Wikipedia editors added a section about detention facilities for illegal immigrants to a page listing “concentration and internment camps.” Although the section violated several of the site’s policies, favorable coverage from Gizmodo and Vice followed three days later.

Media attention prompted an edit war over the section, leading eventually to its removal and the page being locked to all editing from regular users. Special rules in place for edits on American politics mean the section cannot be restored without a clear consensus in favor of restoration.

The section was added by an unregistered user from a New York City IP address on June 16. It described the Trump Administration’s zero-tolerance policy as “forcibly separating children and parents arriving at the US border” without specifying the law requires minors coming across the border illegally not be held for an extended period of time. Another unregistered user expanded the section with this information a few hours later, though without providing sources for some of the material.

The section predominantly cited sources that did not reference either concentration or internment camps, including claims about health violations at some detention centers. Wikipedia’s policies on verifiability and original research require using sources directly pertaining to the subject of the article and prohibit using unrelated sources to advance unstated conclusions.

Unaware or unconcerned about these issues, left-wing media began reporting favorably on the article. Gizmodo was the first major outlet to write about it in an article by Matt Novak, which repeatedly referred to the “Trump regime” and presented the concentration camp designation as factual. Novak described the addition in laudable terms as “our history books . . . being written in real time.” He further claimed the section was a “surprisingly unbiased entry that’s clearly presenting information without taking sides.”

Vice’s River Donaghey stated the zero-tolerance policy “is a reprehensible piece of American history and likely deserves its place on Wikipedia’s list.” In Marie Claire Zoe Harris described statements by users who opposed the listing as “shocking” and argued the fact the policy was added to the list is “something big—something horrific,” even with opposition.

Media attention prompted fighting over the section, mostly involving unregistered users at first. Editor Heat fan1 removed the section and began a discussion about it. While expressing strong disapproval of the Trump Administration’s policy, the editor also rejected the comparison to concentration camps. Administrator Ivanvector later vouched for the section claiming it was “clearly supported by given sources” and reiterated as much in the discussion. Pressed for sources, Ivanvector cited various opinion pieces and reports mentioning opinion pieces as well as a community blog post at the left-wing Daily Kos.

Another administrator argued the mere allegation from Trump critics was sufficient to include the section in the concentration camps list, and pointed to sources that briefly highlighted such comparisons. Other editors cited the Vice and Gizmodo articles on the Wikipedia dispute as potential sources as well as an opinion piece in Paste Magazine, which at one point claims “True freedom in America is a lie.” Another editor also suggested the Paste piece. Biased sources and opinion pieces, however, are generally discouraged and sometimes outright prohibited on Wikipedia for statements of fact.

Edit-warring continued over the course of a day, with the section removed every few hours and promptly added back going through various changes in the process. However, every different version used sources that either didn’t mention concentration or internment camps or merely acknowledging public comparisons to concentration camps by Trump critics.

After an editor removed the section citing a recently-imposed restriction on the page requiring consensus before restoring contested changes, the article was locked from editing by anyone who isn’t an administrator due to the edit-warring. The locking of the page expired on June 27. This removal and the locking of the page ended four days of the section’s inclusion in the “concentration camps” list.

Other issues existed with the list aside from the recent immigration controversy in the United States. Detention facilities for illegal immigrants in Spain were also recently added to the article. While cited sources used the Spanish word for internment (though not camps), the word itself is more generic, being part of the name for the Spanish agency which detains illegal immigrants. There had also been a section on the Gaza Strip as critics of Israel call the Palestinian territory a “concentration camp” due to Israel’s blockade of the region, but that section was removed after media drew attention to the list.

Wikipedia including facilities for detaining illegal immigrants in a “factual” list of “concentration and interment camps” highlights the problem with using Wikipedia as a source of information. Even as Silicon Valley firms such as Facebook and YouTube turn to Wikipedia to “fact-check” users and their sources, the site continues to suffer from bias and hoaxes. Cases such as this or Google’s “knowledge panel” temporarily branding California’s Republican Party “Nazis” show how random people can make changes to Wikipedia that last just a few days or minutes and still broadcast slander throughout the Internet.

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.