Corporate Media Heaps Praise on Wikipedia, Ignores Longstanding Problems

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Jemal Countess/Getty

For years, the corporate media have touted Wikipedia as a tool against “fake news” and “conspiracy theories” in line with the messaging of the Wikimedia Foundation, owners of the site. Media recently praised the site’s handling of political controversies, where editors favor establishment media narratives such as when censoring and downplaying recent Hunter Biden revelations. The media also advanced Wikipedia as a credible source on the coronavirus pandemic and even as a general medical source, prompting wide use by Big Tech and a partnership with the World Health Organization, but in reality, Wikipedia comes up short in all categories.

To celebrate the upcoming 20th anniversary of Wikipedia’s founding, Esquire published an article gushing about the online encyclopedia. Touting the site’s non-profit nature, its community of volunteers, and its “reliability” as a counter to “fake news” online, the article quoted heavily from Wikimedia Foundation Chief Executive Officer Katherine Maher and site co-founder Jimmy Wales, who both praised the site and its community. Describing Wikipedia as “the most eloquent and enduring representative of the internet as a force for good” and largely downplaying its myriad flaws, it is just the latest media piece to echo themes easily rebutted by reviewing the site’s recent history.

Corporate media praise for Wikipedia fits into several categories:

Addressing fake news and conspiracy theories

Efforts by media to promote Wikipedia as a solution to “fake news” and “conspiracy theories” began after the 2016 presidential election, faulting them for Donald Trump’s election. Foundation CEO Maher praised Wikipedia’s “transparency” as helping it address “misleading” content in a Financial Times article discussing how to address the “fake news” issue. A Foundation staffer interviewed by Vice that month promoted Wikipedia against “fake news” and later produced a video and co-authored an article along those lines for the Foundation. Wales boasted to NPR in 2018 that “it’s very difficult to fool the Wikipedia community” with misinformation. In reality, Wikipedia often generates fake news when major media outlets repeat Wikipedia hoaxes.

One article late in 2016 for California public radio quoted Maher praising Wikipedia as a tool against fake news. The same article favorably referenced Wikipedia’s handling of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which accuses Democrats associated with the Clintons of being involved in child sex-trafficking. YouTube has responded to Wikipedia’s favorable treatment in media on handling conspiracy theories and “fake news” by using the site for “notices” on “conspiracy theory” videos, a move hailed by the Washington Post. Wales capitalized on praise for Wikipedia as a solution to fake news by launching WikiTribune, a news outlet incorporating Wikipedia-style collaborative editing. The site from its inception has been plagued by the same bias issues afflicting Wikipedia.

Though generally effective at dealing with anti-establishment conspiracy theories, predominantly left-wing Wikipedia editors have pushed conspiracies promoted by corporate media. Such theories pushed on Wikipedia include those about Trump colluding with Russia to rig the 2016 election, which editors pushed long after being debunked in one of many Wikipedia smear campaigns against the President. The primary author of the site’s Steele dossier article, being a dedicated believer in the dossier’s claims, still has the article frame the largely-discredited document as credible. Editors also smear criticism of left-wing politicians as conspiracy theories as they have done previously and recently with corruption allegations against former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden.

An early 2017 NPR article touted professors conducting Wikipedia editing courses in cooperation with the Wiki Education Foundation, a group affiliated with the Wikimedia Foundation, saying it introduced students to the supposed utility of Wikipedia’s methods against fake news. One course that year, run by a UC Berkeley professor, launched an anti-Trump editing campaign focused on “environmental justice” and, despite inflammatory course language attacking Trump, was approved by the Wiki Education Foundation. Though the professor’s account was eventually banned, much of the anti-Trump content his students added remains. Another course that same semester sought to promote the Black Lives Matter movement, though the articles created as part of the course were deleted as advocacy.

Handling of political topics

Wales and Maher have leaned into the narrative of Wikipedia’s effectiveness against “fake news” by citing bans on using conservative media outlets for factual claims as proving the site’s commitment to factual accuracy, starting with the Daily Mail ban at the beginning of 2017, which ultimately extended to Breitbart News in 2018. An article in left-wing Israeli outlet Haaretz earlier this year praised the banning of conservative media as helping Wikipedia “become an island of sanity in a sea of digital disinformation.” Haaretz was dismissive of implications for political bias on Wikipedia. Despite selling this as addressing “fake news” on Wikipedia, proposals to ban sources often involve left-wing editors making false claims against the outlets or targeting them for truthful reporting those editors found politically unfavorable.

An article in Wired touted the political effect of such ban efforts, favorably noting editors censored mention of House Representative Karen Bass previously praising Cuban dictator Fidel Castro due to the edits citing Fox News. Bass was a proposed Vice Presidential choice for Biden (Wikipedia’s page for his ultimate choice, Kamala Harris, was also whitewashed in advance). Fox News was downgraded as a source in July with its use for contentious political content discouraged, a decision competitor CNN lended credence to by stating Wikipedia’s disapproval reflected poorly on Fox.

New York Post revelations regarding Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings were also recently censored due to editors deeming the Post “unreliable” last month, with Fox News corroboration of the Post’s reporting similarly blocked citing its downgrading, though characterizations of the allegations as “Russian disinformation” were permitted given the media only suppressing the former narrative. Yet another Wired article yesterday again praised Wikipedia over actions favoring Trump opponents after editors first removed then buried the common meaning of the term “86” as referring to killing someone after Trump’s campaign cited the page to justify criticism he made of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer for having an “86 45” sign on display during an interview with “45” seemingly referring to Trump. Wired claimed in the piece that Wikipedia “largely escapes being bogged down by crackpot theories or partisan hackery.”

Fast Company called Wikipedia “the web’s best weapon against misinformation” earlier this year yet, while mentioning political bias concerns, primarily quotes anti-Trump editors. Administrator “Muboshgu” is quoted raising concerns about editors believing “right-wing news media” as he described protecting articles on the Bidens and Clintons from unfavorable editing, before baselessly suggesting Russian involvement on Wikipedia. An editor identified as “P.” claimed to “leave his politics at the login screen” while concealing his username, though Fast Company mentions three articles he edited. The only editor who made non-trivial edits to all three pages was “Objective3000” who helped gut Wikipedia’s “CNN controversies” article of negative information about the left-wing outlet, even when sources deemed “reliable” on Wikipedia were cited.

Coronavirus resource

The current coronavirus pandemic has prompted the most significant increase in favorable media coverage of Wikipedia, with outlets ranging from Wired to the Washington Post reciting a familiar refrain that Wikipedia’s open-editing model makes it effective at reining in “misinformation” on the site. Outlets have noted the high traffic Wikipedia’s pages on the pandemic have received as emphasizing its importance. Slate credits Wikipedia’s “extensive framework of editorial policies, guidelines, and norms” as helping it handle coverage of the pandemic and even argues the site will be relied on by future historians.

Describing Wikipedia as becoming “the go-to source for COVID-19 information” in an article early in the pandemic, Haaretz referred to Wikipedia as having “acquired infodemic immunity.” The term “infodemic” was adopted by the World Health Organization to describe “misinformation” on the virus. Characterizing Wikipedia as “immune” to “misinformation” has been a frequent point in news articles praising the site’s handling of pandemic content. As with previous cases, Foundation Director Maher has eagerly received and played into the praise Wikipedia has received in media interviews on the topic. The left-wing organization Center for American Progress described Wikipedia as having “invested resources in creating quality informational processes” and advocated its use in helping fact-check coronavirus claims.

Such promotion of Wikipedia may have contributed to the Foundation forming a collaboration with the W.H.O. on the coronavirus pandemic to address the “infodemic” of “misinformation” on the virus. However, just as the W.H.O.’s reliability has been called into question due to its early parroting of misleading information from the Chinese government, Wikipedia has also frequently had problems with its handling of information on the pandemic. The article on the illness caused by the virus once had the fact it first emerged in China scrubbed from its page. While this error was corrected, editors have since agreed to avoid using terms such as “Wuhan virus” and “China virus” prominently in the articles on the virus.

Partisan bias also hampered Wikipedia’s handling of pandemic details. Entire articles have been dedicated to attacking the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic, while only sections of pandemic articles concerning the W.H.O. and China mention criticism of them. Conservative figures and outlets have also been smeared over criticizing dire and discredited predictions about the virus and harsh measures using those predictions as justification.

Reliable medical information

Some media went further than praising Wikipedia as a coronavirus resource by promoting Wikipedia’s general use as a medical source. CBS News published a story on “The Rise of Wikipedia as a Source of Medical Information” in which they quote Dr. James Heilman, an ER doctor who founded the Wiki Project Med Foundation and serves on the Wikimedia Foundation’s Board of Trustees, speaking favorably of Wikipedia’s use for medical information. Heilman was widely cited and interviewed for articles praising Wikipedia’s handling of coronavirus articles. While including some modest caveats, the piece quotes Heilman and CEO Maher touting Wikipedia’s use of “reliable sources” and its community’s “vetting” of information on the site concerning medical topics.

Heilman himself has elsewhere expressed concerns about Wikipedia’s medical coverage, particularly as academics often copy Wikipedia, something Heilman has previously exposed. According to Heilman, drug companies have paid Wikipedia editors to insert information favorable to their products and unfavorable to competing products. Other concerns include Heilman suggesting editors were helping the drug industry by removing pricing information from drug articles. The Arbitration Committee, often likened to a Supreme Court, banned Heilman from editing about drug prices not long after the CBS story. Medical hoaxes have also been spread on Wikipedia, such as one claiming a fictional condition “glucojasinogen” was caused by diabetes. The fake condition later appeared in medical journals in several countries, even after the hoax was revealed.

A model for Big Tech

Given praise from media outlets, it is not surprising many also suggested Wikipedia should serve as a guide to Big Tech as early as shortly after the 2016 election. An article in Wired last year argued Wikipedia should be looked to for “How to Build a Better Democracy” citing a story about rampant paid editing on Wikipedia. The story concerned the openly-disclosed paid editing Wikipedia permits, which Wired suggested meant misconduct is more readily exposed and addressed by the community, even though slanted content added by such editors often stays up. It contrasted this to Facebook, stating only powerful figures can force change there adding: “Perhaps the just-the-facts folks at Wikipedia can teach us all something.”

Left-wing outlet Mother Jones declared Wikipedia a “hero of the 2010s” in a similar effort to contrast it with the Big Tech sites, who they faulted as allowing “offensive” content. Big Tech has taken a similar attitude to Wikipedia in recent years as in the case of YouTube using Wikipedia articles for “conspiracy theory” labels or Facebook using them to describe news sources, thus repeating Wikipedia smears against Breitbart when its articles are shared. Twitter is one of the few not using Wikipedia itself, but a “Birdwatch” function purportedly planned by Twitter to “crowd-source” their “misinformation” tagging efforts has been favorably compared to the Wikipedia model in official company demos.

Wired went further praising Wikipedia as “the last best place on the Internet” and arguing “Wikipedia shines by comparison” to other Big Tech sites, even suggesting the site is almost utopian. Wired celebrated Big Tech utilizing Wikipedia and its affiliated site Wikidata, particularly for intelligent data assistants such as Google Home or Apple’s Siri. However, Big Tech sites relying heavily on Wikipedia often meant they disseminated false information added by vandals and the same is true for Wikidata, which once labeled First Lady Melania Trump a “porn star” for nearly a week without correction.

Criticism on identity politics

One criticism raised frequently by media amidst the praise focuses on “representation” of “marginalized” identity groups, particularly the site’s perceived “gender gap” in contributors and other alleged over-representation of editors primarily from ostensibly “privileged” identity groups. Pressure on making Wikipedia “welcoming” to “marginalized” groups has pushed the site’s Foundation owners to take actions such as imposing a code of conduct advancing left-wing identity politics with media such as Gizmodo, the Verge, and the BBC, validating these moves and echoing the Foundation’s rationalization of creating a “safe space” on Wikipedia. Editors even prohibited profile pages from expressing opposition to gay marriage citing a desire to be “welcoming” to gay editors, arousing criticism from Christian media and family organizations.

Media pressure also intensified in tandem with Black Lives Matter activism following the police-involved death of George Floyd. A Slate article hailed a Black Lives Matter group on Wikipedia editing articles relating to Floyd and the movement. One administrator, Guy Chapman, in joining the group stated: “You can be one of three things: ally, enemy, or collaborator.” The group has helped advance the movement’s agenda on Wikipedia and some involved have also pushed pro-Antifa content. Slate’s report, however, also favorably cited a Wikipedia critic arguing the site should favor “knowledge equity” over neutrality. Knowledge equity is a social justice concept the Foundation has advocated since 2017 and cited as part of making Wikipedia more “inclusive” in a statement endorsing Black Lives Matter earlier this year, which also cited the code of conduct as furthering that goal.

Executive Director Maher, in a Daily Telegraph article about Wikipedia’s use as a coronavirus pandemic resource, claims her “big fear” is significant portions of Wikipedia being captured by an ideology. Yet the messaging of the Foundation in echoing the media’s praise on “fake news” in line with progressive narratives popularized following Trump’s election, and its repeated bowing to left-wing media criticism on its “diversity” has only aggravated an existing and widespread left-wing bias on the site. Co-founder Larry Sanger has cited such bias as rendering the site’s neutrality policy “dead” even as the media and academics increasingly rely on the site in response to those among them and the Wikimedia Foundation hyping up the “encyclopedia anyone can edit.”

(Disclosure: The author has previously been involved in disputes on Wikipedia with some parties referenced in this article)

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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