Analysis: Conservative Wikipedia Editors Six Times More Likely to Face Sanctions than Leftists

Turkish officials say Wikipedia failed to remove content deemed to be false from its pages
AFP/Lionel Bonaventure

In a piece for British magazine the Critic, American academics analyzed evidence of left-wing bias on Wikipedia. Noting research into Wikipedia’s left-wing bias and its increasing bans of conservative media, the authors point to a greater sign of bias: the enforcement of site policies on major political topics by administrators with special privileges on the site. They find in their analysis that editors favoring right-leaning views were six times more likely to be sanctioned than those favoring left-leaning views.

Topic areas identified in the piece are subject to a special regime of sanctions imposed by the Arbitration Committee, likened to a Supreme Court, in cases often themselves reflecting a political bias. Previous analyses have shown the top Wikipedia sources are mostly left-wing media, which were also found to be the most-cited sources in articles on American politicians.

Citing a blog post several months back in which Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger declared Wikipedia’s “neutrality” policy was “dead” due to left-wing bias, the authors queried whether his assessment was accurate. They noted a study by Shane Greenstein and Feng Zhu in 2018 had found Wikipedia has a more left-wing bias than Encyclopedia Britannica, though claimed this bias decreased with more editing. One limitation the authors in the Critic claim with the study is it focused on article contents, rather than the internal Wikipedia processes that produced slanted outcomes.

One aspect of Wikipedia’s internal operations the authors mentioned were the site’s “verifiability” standards requiring “reliable” sources and its “neutrality” policy requiring “due weight” to all viewpoints based again on “reliable” sourcing. The authors note the standard for “reliable” sourcing is decided through community discussions, such as at Wikipedia’s reliable sources noticeboard. As pointed out by the authors, most sources banned from use for factual claims or “deprecated” are right-leaning sources. Of the current list, 16 right-leaning sources are banned, including Breitbart News. A single banned left-leaning source, Occupy Democrats, was identified by the authors.

While there are banned sources often associated with the anti-war left (MintPress News, Grayzone, and Voltaire Network), they tend to be critical of the general establishment and focused more on foreign policy. Occupy Democrats, by contrast, was nominated for deprecation at the same time as Breitbart, a fact the administrator who proposed both bans has repeatedly used to claim there is no political bias in the process, even though the Facebook spin-off outlet Occupy Democrats was largely inactive at the time of its ban. The authors note that other left-leaning outlets such as AlterNet, have not been deprecated in prior discussions.

Not discussed in the piece is how ban attempts targeting the New York Post and Fox News, while not leading to deprecation, got the Post deemed unreliable and Fox discouraged as a source for contentious political claims. Each action resulted in recent revelations regarding the foreign business dealings of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden initially being censored and later downplayed as the story originally appeared in the Post and Fox News later confirmed some of their allegations, but the restrictions on their use meant neither outlet was allowed to be cited. Proposals for similarly discouraging use of CNN and MSNBC for politically contentious material after the Fox decision were rejected within a day, despite such discussions typically lasting a month.

Arguing the balance of viewpoints among editors is important to understanding how discussions could go so much against right-leaning sources, the authors describe how Wikipedia’s “anyone can edit” slogan does not genuinely apply to controversial topic areas due to various restrictions. One set of restrictions called “discretionary sanctions” are imposed by the site’s Arbitration Committee and allow administrators greater freedom to sanction and ban editors. Requests to enforce these sanctions often occur at an Arbitration Enforcement noticeboard. The authors analyzed several areas where these sanctions are used and how often noticeboard reports led to sanctions relatively for editors favoring left-leaning and right-leaning perspectives.

Focusing first on enforcement of sanctions relating to American politics, the authors analyzed specifically reports related to disputes about President Donald Trump beginning in July 2016 and ending in August of this year, totaling 114 cases. The authors divided outcomes into those affecting “pro-Trump” and those affecting “anti-Trump” editors, noting this only referred to whether their edits favored or disfavored Trump, rather than being an assessment of their personal views. The analysis found that editors whose contributions favored Trump were six times more likely to be sanctioned compared to those whose edits disfavored the President.

Gun control was another topic analyzed by the authors, who found those whose edits opposed pro-gun control views were four times more likely to be sanctioned than those whose edits favored pro-gun control views. The authors stipulated this analyzed a smaller sample of 19 reports from August 2014 through this August and thus was not statistically significant on its own. In the third topic area covering race and intelligence, the authors found of 43 cases analyzed from August 2010 through this August those whose edits favored research on a connection between race and intelligence were over six times more likely to be sanctioned than those whose edits favored the opposing view.

The last topic analyzed was abortion, where the authors stated the number of cases was too small to properly analyze with only seven beginning in November 2011 through this August. However, the authors noted not a single editor in those reports whose edits favored pro-abortion views faced sanctions, but all whose edits favored anti-abortion views were sanctioned. Arguing these four topics align well with a left-right political axis, the authors conducted further analysis of the cases in aggregate. In this comprehensive analysis of the topics, it was found that editors favoring right-leaning views were over six times more likely to face sanctions than those favoring left-leaning views.

Conceding one possible explanation for the results is that the process is apolitical and editors favoring right-leaning views are simply more likely to engage in conduct warranting sanctions, the authors further note generally negative coverage of Trump in the sources Wikipedia has deemed “reliable” for factual claims could mean pro-Trump editors may face greater risk of sanctions due to not being able to support their edits with “reliable” sources by the site’s standards. However, the authors state the consistent pattern of sanctions being imposed more on those favoring right-leaning views suggests this is not as significant a factor, and further note many site administrators openly express left-leaning views.

Future Arbitration Committee members have expressed concerns about “far-right” editors when running for seats on the body and an essay opposing “Nazi editors” endorsed by several administrators includes in a list of “pages often edited by racists” the articles on “All Lives Matter” and Ann Coulter. Also noted were administrators such as Guy Chapman, who previously argued Trump supporters should be banned as incompetent and joined a Black Lives Matter group on the site stating: “You can be one of three things: ally, enemy, or collaborator. Be an ally.” When the Wikimedia Foundation that owns Wikipedia endorsed the Black Lives Matter movement this year declaring “no neutral stance” on racial justice, the authors note administrators were most receptive to the Foundation’s message.

Many cases brought before the Arbitration Committee that lead to discretionary sanctions being applied to a topic show evidence of political bias, though this was not analyzed by the authors. The original case regarding American politics involved left-wing editors seeking to get an opponent sympathetic to conservatives banned from political articles and the subsequent case that imposed discretionary sanctions on articles about American politics was itself initiated after left-wing editors sought to have another editor sympathetic to conservatives banned. In both cases, the left-wing editors got their target banned with only one left-wing editor receiving a lighter ban. Similarly, the gun control case saw a few advocates lightly sanctioned, with mostly editors sympathetic to gun control opponents sanctioned. This same pattern was apparent with the abortion case and the race and intelligence case.

A major topic not analyzed by the authors is the dispute over articles about GamerGate, the anti-corruption movement in gaming that opposed the corrupt left-wing gaming press and their feminist activist allies. In that dispute, which this author was involved in, editors sympathetic to GamerGate have been sanctioned significantly more often over odd technicalities such as an editor banned from the topic for five months over what the sanctioning administrator described as being “too focused on literally following sources” in adding negative content to the page of a feminist indie game developer at the center of the GamerGate dispute. Opponents of GamerGate frequently avoided sanctions despite egregious breaches of site policy.

Discussing the consequences of bias on Wikipedia, the authors in The Critic highlight a case involving psychologist Linda Gottfredson, who researches race and intelligence. For over a year the Wikipedia article on Gottfredson included an apparently fabricated quote from a researcher comparing Gottfredson to the Nazis. The authors state the claimed publication where this researcher purportedly made the remark does not appear to have published the researcher that year and no evidence of the quote appears prior to its addition to Wikipedia, though it appeared in an academic book after being added. Eventually, the dubious quote was removed, but many editors contributed to the page beforehand, suggesting biased editors may have overlooked it.

Such cases are common as Wikipedia frequently spreads hoaxes and biased information. Targets have included Breitbart itself where an editor who engages in smear campaigns against conservatives, for which the editor was previously sanctioned, claimed Breitbart promoted the Pizzagate conspiracy theory that alleges Clinton associates engage in child sex-trafficking. Breitbart never promoted the conspiracy theory and the article cited never claimed it had, but the false claim remained for years even appearing in an Independent article. After Breitbart’s reporting about the hoax, a different source was cited also not making the claim, but suggesting Breitbart fueled the theory by covering late convicted child sex-offender Jeffery Epstein’s connection to the Clintons, something establishment outlets covered.

The analysis is the latest to show evidence of a left-wing bias on Wikipedia. Previously, a 2018 analysis indicated that the top news sources on Wikipedia tended to be left-leaning outlets such as the New York Times and the BBC with the heavily partisan Guardian being the third most-cited news outlet. Another analysis this year checked the sources present in articles on American politicians against sites that gauge media bias and found left-leaning outlets were the majority of outlets cited on such pages with only a small minority of right-leaning outlets cited.

Heavy representation of left-wing outlets combined with a community tilted by administrators in favor of left-wing editors is consistent with the plethora of smear campaigns against conservative figures and outlets, including against President Trump. It is also consistent with editors advancing agendas favoring Antifa and the Black Lives Matter movement. In spite of these problems, media have praised Wikipedia and relied heavily on its content as have academics and Big Tech.

(Disclosure: This author provided advice to one of the authors of the analysis on some of the details covered, but was not involved in the drafting of the piece)

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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