Wikipedia Editors Sanitize the Page of Potential Biden VP Kamala Harris

Kamala_Harris Laughs, Applauds
AP Photo/Steven Senne

An article in the Intercept last week reported that a Wikipedia editor was scrubbing the page of former Democratic Presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), considered a prominent member of the shortlist to be Joe Biden’s Vice Presidental pick. The piece mentioned changes such as removing a past campaign finance scandal and Harris’ record as a hard-line prosecutor. Changes not mentioned include removals of the alleged role nepotism played in her early political career and significant favorable additions about Harris.

Other Wikipedia editors have begun working to undo the changes made to the Harris page, although many details remain missing. On Twitter, the Wikipedia editor responsible for most removals was identified as Bao Nguyen, a former volunteer organizer for the Harris campaign. Similarly, editors previously created pages for fellow Presidential candidates Pete Buttigieg and Andrew Yang without disclosing their connections to them.

The Intercept article by Aida Chavez notes that in 2016, editors had been heavily involved in contributing to the article on Tim Kaine prior to him being announced as Hillary Clinton’s Vice Presidential pick. As a result, a user on Reddit created a script to monitor for activity about prospective VP picks for Biden and noticed significant editing of the page for Kamala Harris. Other Reddit users identified a single editor by the username “Bnguyen1114” as the primary party responsible for the activity.

Chavez delved into the editor’s activity on the Harris page and how he removed content potentially unfavorable to Harris. Among the edits noted was the removal of a paragraph regarding her defense of Orange County prosecutors implicated in widespread misconduct, which Nguyen claimed was removed for “proof-reading” yet not restored until after the Intercept piece. Nguyen also removed details about a campaign finance violation involving Harris’ campaign for District Attorney, removing most criticism of defenses Harris gave for the violation. A quote from Harris stating “it is not progressive to be soft on crime” was also removed by Nguyen, but restored shortly after the Intercept article.

Not mentioned were other removals of unflattering material by Nguyen. These included details about Harris benefiting in her early political career from a relationship with future San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, then the Speaker of the California Assembly, who she dated. Also excluded were the substantial salaries she earned at positions to which Brown appointed her and a quote from Brown’s mayoral campaign manager about how the relationship benefited Harris. Another editor subsequently removed all mention of Brown, claiming “sexist” framing. Mention of Brown’s appointments was later restored, though only noting them and briefly stating she and Brown were in a relationship at the time.

One other detail removed involved how Harris handled an investigation into the death of Mitrice Richardson, a black woman who, after being detained by the Malibu sheriff’s department for not paying her bill at a diner, was released in the middle of the night without a car or phone and was later found dead in a canyon. Harris eventually closed an investigation she had opened into the death under pressure from the public, stating there was insufficient evidence for criminal charges. Mention of the Richardson case is still absent from the article.

Many edits Nguyen made to the article on Harris also added positive material. This included significantly expanding content about her securing of mortgage settlements with the major banks, citing her own memoir for some details, and addition of material lauding her questioning of Attorney General Bill Barr during his nomination, uncritically repeating her claims Barr refused to answer her for fear of perjury. Nearly all the content in both instances remains in the article. Much of the extensive positive expansion by Nguyen was reversed by administrator Michel Aaij, or “Drmies” on Wikipedia, calling it “grossly excessive and excessively detailed” and poorly-sourced. Following Aaij’s reversal, Nguyen began cutting extensively from the article instead.

Since the Intercept article, editors have attempted to reverse a number of changes Nguyen made to the article, though have so far rejected completely undoing his removals, arguing every change should be vetted carefully. This has not necessarily fixed the issues with Nguyen’s removals. While a brief mention of the campaign finance scandal when Harris ran for District Attorney has been expanded, where the material prior to being removed noted her many attempts to excuse, defend, or downplay, the campaign finance violation, the article now only states Harris accepted “full blame” for the violation.

Readers of the Intercept article began investigating Nguyen’s identity after the piece was published. An IP address apparently belonging to Nguyen was identified due to edits made right before his account’s first edits. Combined with his use of the same account name on another social media site, online sleuths identified the editor as Bao Nguyen, a Bay area lawyer listed on LinkedIn as a “Volunteer Organizing Leader” for the Harris Presidential Campaign. Katherine Maher, Executive Director of the Foundation that owns Wikipedia, criticized Nguyen’s identification as doxing in a reply to one person posting the name on Twitter and also criticized Nguyen for violating policies on conflicts of interest. On Wikipedia, Nguyen acknowledged the accuracy of the identification, though claimed he mistakenly thought his common last name made him sufficiently untraceable.

While Nguyen has denied being “employed” by the Harris campaign, he stated that he has volunteered for Democratic campaigns and met Harris. Such volunteer work could be construed as a “conflict of interest” on Wikipedia, which editors are expected to disclose on articles they edit. His failure to disclose is not unusual, as the creator of the page on 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg also volunteered in one of his campaigns, but did not disclose this fact. More egregiously, the editor who created Wikipedia’s page on Andrew Yang, another 2020 candidate, did not disclose that she was the marketing manager for Yang’s non-profit. She later served on his campaign.

Such editing by editors with conflicts of interest, including paid editing as with Yang’s page, is a common problem on Wikipedia even when going against policies and, in cases of undisclosed paid editing, the site’s Terms of Use. However, Wikipedia’s greatest source of bias on political articles remains the site’s agenda-driven editors whose editing has become so slanted even the site’s own co-founder has accused Wikipedia of becoming too left-wing.

Update — After the publication of this article, Bao Nguyen admitted his involvement with both the Harris and Biden campaigns. On a page for discussing concerns about editors with conflicts of interest, Nguyen admitted he was a volunteer on the Harris campaign. He also mentioned briefly volunteering for Biden’s presidential campaign. In response to concerns, Nguyen committed to recusing indefinitely from further edits to the Harris page. Due to this disclosure, an administrator imposed a restriction on Nguyen prohibiting him from editing articles about Harris, Biden, and other political figures for whom he has volunteered.

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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