Verifiability, Not Truth: How Wikipedia Buries Stories Like the Biden Corruption Scandal

Joe Biden Primary Night Event at the University of South Carolina - Columbia, SC - February 29, 2020
Adam Schultz / Biden for President

The foundation that owns Wikipedia and its co-founder Jimmy Wales bill the online encyclopedia as the solution to Silicon Valley’s alleged problems with “fake news” due to the site’s sourcing standards and neutrality policy. Corporate media have echoed their narrative in touting the online encyclopedia.  Yet thanks to skewed policies, the site is itself a huge source of partisan opinion and fake news masquerading as fact, leading to incidents such as editors censoring recent revelations regarding the alleged corruption of the Biden family.

There is a long-running understanding that Wikipedia is about “verifiability, not truth,” meaning that even when corporate media and academic sources are provably wrong, the falsehood will stand on the online encyclopedia.

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki announced in 2018 that to counter “conspiracy theory” videos, the site would display links to Wikipedia articles alongside videos, to “fact-check” them. YouTube was not the first to turn to Wikipedia over the specter of “fake news” as Facebook implemented a system where Wikipedia articles show up to give users information on sources so they can vet their reliability. Many other Big Tech companies similarly rely on Wikipedia or appeal to the Wikipedia model as Twitter purportedly is doing with a proposed “Birdwatch” feature.

This use of the online encyclopedia is consistent with the messaging put out by the Wikimedia Foundation and Executive Director Katherine Maher. Co-founder Jimmy Wales cited Wikipedia’s model as a solution to “fake news” when announcing his for-profit media venture, WikiTribune. News outlets praising Wikipedia have perpetuated these same narratives about the site’s reliability. All cite Wikipedia’s policies on reliable sources and neutrality and the alleged self-correcting nature of its community as reasons for the site’s supposed value for truth-seekers.

It’s a view that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. When Wikipedia isn’t caught spreading hoaxes and fake news itself, the online encyclopedia is propagating biased information that consistently favors the political left as its own co-founder has acknowledged. Thanks to its policies, Wikipedia often draws extensively from left-wing media and excludes alternative views from conservatives leading to smear campaigns against President Donald Trump and many other conservatives while advancing the agenda of groups such as Antifa and Black Lives Matter.

“Verifiability,” Not Truth

Foremost among Wikipedia’s sourcing policies is the policy on verifiability.  Under this policy, any contentious claim made on an article must be cited to a source. Specifically, Wikipedia’s standards demand “reliable sources” defined as “third-party, published sources with a reputation for fact-checking and accuracy.” For editors attempting to present the facts on sociopolitical topics free of bias, this can be the first impediment.

Although another page goes into great detail about what defines a reliable source, a basic rule of thumb is that news sources should be of a professional nature with an editorial team and academic sources should be peer-reviewed (medical claims have even higher standards). Sources are not presumed perfect, but it is expected news outlets will have a history of correcting pieces when errors are identified.

Primary sources, such as statements of a subject or official documents, are generally discouraged and content deemed prohibited “original research” if it relies heavily on them or conducts independent analyses of them. Author Philip Roth took to the New Yorker in 2012 to have details about his book The Human Stain corrected on Wikipedia after being told he needed a secondary source. Libertarian philosopher Stefan Molyneux, after being branded “far-right” by the media, sought to refute this characterization in a video only for editors to reject it for being a primary source.

That’s also why Breitbart News’ rejection of the “alt-right” label was unable to make it onto the website’s Wikipedia page until this rejection was reported on by another outlet. CNN or the New York Times, even hyper-partisan left-wing sites such as The Week and Mother Jones, calling Breitbart “alt-right” is considered more credible on Wikipedia than Breitbart officially disavowing the label.

In theory, the requirement for reliable secondary sources is meant to allow for a wide variety of positions to be included and for claims of fact to be as accurate as possible. When put into practice, this standard leaves Wikipedia prone to demonstrating a left-wing bias due to the media landscape. For the United States it is no secret that most media leans to the left. On its own this bias means more left-wing sources exist than conservative so content favors a left-wing perspective by default.

This is not the sole issue as editors seeking to use conservative news outlets as sources for alternative viewpoints based off them having the same professional editorial review as left-wing outlets find other barriers. Editors often challenge whether a conservative outlet has a “reputation” for accuracy. Such assessments typically occur on an ad-hoc basis at discussion pages for articles. When editors want to challenge the general reliability of sources they turn to the reliable sources noticeboard, a discussion area where Wikipedia editors gauge consensus on whether sources meet the criteria for reliability.

On the reliable sources noticeboard many conservative news outlets have difficulty passing the consensus threshold. Consensus decisions by editors are technically about the strength of arguments rather than votes, but such discussions usually become a vote on whether sources are or are not reliable. Administrators expected to close these discussions rarely find consensus where there is only a simple majority and typically want a position favored by at least 60 percent of editors before claiming consensus. Even without consensus against a source a lack of consensus in its favor can get the source treated as questionable and more open to challenge in the future.

Meeting the consensus threshold can prove difficult due to bias of the editing community itself. As reported in Wired, editors who skew left in their edits make 50 percent more contributions than those who skew right. Furthermore, an analysis by American academics showed editors supporting right-leaning views were six times more likely to be sanctioned, thus discouraging their participation. Veteran Wikipedia editors themselves acknowledge that the site’s demographics tend to skew left-wing.

Stacking the deck against conservative outlets even more is that their “reputation” will be judged based off reports by the very same predominantly left-wing media as well as fact-checkers who similarly have a history of bias towards the left. Back in 2017 a lengthy discussion on the reliable sources noticeboard led to a decision barring the Daily Mail from use as a source on Wikipedia. Opposing arguments cited such leftist outlets as the Guardian, ThinkProgress, and the defunct Gawker, as evidence against the outlet. Media predisposed to ignoring conservative media’s successes to focus on its mistakes while downplaying their own failings thus helped decide the conservative outlet’s standing.

In the time since, conservative-leaning sources such as the Daily Caller, the Epoch Times, and Breitbart itself, have been barred in most cases due to strong opposition from predominantly left-wing editors. Similar attempts have been made to have Fox News declared an unreliable source. This eventually caused Fox News to be officially discouraged for politically contentious content as editors stale-mated in a July discussion on whether to declare the outlet unreliable for such content.

The implications of this campaign against conservative media became clear this month when editors initially censored mention of a controversy involving Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden and his foreign business dealings because the reporting was from the New York Post, which was deemed unreliable last month. Fox News reports confirming parts of the Post’s reporting were also excluded because of its own downgraded status and the allegations labeled a conspiracy theory. Reports from left-wing media suggesting, without any real evidence, that the reporting is Russian disinformation have, by contrast, been given significant weight.

Provided one is able to find a source defending a conservative viewpoint that can reasonably pass the threshold for reliability, sometimes only being able to argue for it as a source of attributed opinion rather than fact, another barrier comes up in the form of Wikipedia’s neutrality policy. The neutral point of view in Wikipedia parlance means “representing fairly, proportionately, and, as far as possible, without editorial bias, all of the significant views that have been published by reliable sources on a topic.”

In deciding proportionality of viewpoints the neutrality policy has a section on not giving too much space or “undue weight” to aspects and opinions receiving less reliably-sourced coverage about a subject. Claims of “undue weight” have been used to support a “purge” of reliable sources critical of the Russia hacking narrative at the article on alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election and to justify gutting an article on CNN controversies of many reliably-sourced entries. Last year editors used claims of due weight to keep the Justice Department exonerating Trump on his phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, which formed the basis of Trump’s impeachment, out of the introduction of the article on the preceding controversy as editors slanted the page in favor of the Democrat position.

Editors challenging these moves have often found themselves outnumbered as “consensus” locked in the changes. With far more media outlets willing to advance left-wing viewpoints and all with fewer obstacles to treatment as a reliable source, the due weight standards on Wikipedia favor the left. Analyses of Wikipedia have even shown left-wing outlets are heavily favored on most articles, with the left-wing Guardian being the third most-cited outlet, and are significantly favored on articles about American politicians. For many editors on Wikipedia, this process is defended by suggesting any views or aspects significant enough will be covered by other outlets.

Yet editors have long conceded the possibility that the facts will not always be present in sources meeting their standards for reliability. That is best understood by the slogan “verifiability, not truth” used on the site. It has not been without controversy since the phrase was introduced in late 2004. At one point enshrined in the verifiability and “original research” policies, the “verifiability, not truth” slogan was removed from both following a long 2012 discussion.

Despite formal deprecation, the principle of “verifiability, not truth” remains strong on Wikipedia. Editors even invoked it when arguing for excluding reports confirming the veracity of the recent Biden revelations. Another closely-related and oft-cited principle is that “righting great wrongs” is not the purpose of the site.

One of the strongest examples of how this approach can damage the site’s ability to prevent dissemination of falsehoods is the article on the GamerGate movement for ethics in games journalism. In spite of considerable evidence, Wikipedia’s portrayal of GamerGate follows predominant left-wing media coverage arguing the movement was about harassing women. Sources contradicting this false narrative are deemed unreliable or providing “undue weight” to “fringe” views.

Silicon Valley turning to Wikipedia as its solution to concerns about “fake news” while being unconcerned about its systemic political bias is not surprising given how many of these companies are already stifling conservative voices with these initiatives. Just as left-wing media propagate falsehoods and spin from Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia propagates the same from them in a vicious cycle called citogenesis. It is a phenomenon no less dangerous than any perceived threat from “fake news” sites and “conspiracy theory” videos, one for which Wikipedia’s policies provide no credible safeguards.

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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