Silicon Valley has repeatedly proclaimed that Wikipedia is the best way to deal with “fake news” on their platforms. Co-founder Jimmy Wales and the Wikimedia Foundation that owns the site have touted its sourcing policies in agreement and been amplified by establishment media. Yet just as Big Tech suppressed prominent conservative media following President Donald Trump’s election, most recently censoring New York Post revelations regarding alleged Biden family corruption, Wikipedia’s community of editors has done the same by slowly purging conservative outlets from use as sources.
The first notable example was a formal decision to effectively bar use of the Daily Mail as a source for Wikipedia pages, which marked the start of a spree of bans focused on conservative media. Such bans and other efforts restricting conservative media have stifled major stories.
Wikipedia policy provides a list of criteria that can be used to determine if a source is reliable enough for verifying factual claims on an article. In the event editors are unable to agree on a source’s reliability during a discussion about an article, they can discuss it at a noticeboard for reliable sources and seek wider community input. In other words, “reliability” on Wikipedia is really a popularity contest among editors.
It was one such discussion that got the Daily Mail declared a generally unreliable source on the site. Editors supporting the decision often had a history of left-wing agenda-pushing, with some calling the Daily Mail a “fake news” outlet. Of 90 editors involved, close to 60 supported complete or near-complete prohibition. Under Wikipedia’s standard for consensus this was enough for a team of five prominent editors and administrators, users with special privileges on the site, to rule against the Daily Mail. The editor responsible for initiating the discussion boasted of subsequently getting the left-wing Guardian to publish a story on the decision and how the resulting media coverage damaged the outlet’s reputation.
The response of the Wikimedia Foundation, who own Wikipedia, was to cite the decision as an example of Wikipedia’s credibility in the context of the “fake news” hysteria whipped up following Trump’s unexpected victory in the 2016 Presidential election. Co-founder Jimmy Wales echoed this sentiment in later interviews as he was promoting his own wiki-style hybrid news outlet WikiTribune, which itself has been caught publishing false information in flagrantly biased articles.
Eventually, the process used against the Daily Mail, called “deprecation” by editors, became widespread a year later with Breitbart News, which faced a gradual build-up of attacks. In 2012, it was suggested Breitbart could be sourced for attributed opinion. Even this proved controversial in 2014 in several discussions over citing Breitbart News for commentary on the documentary America: Imagine the World Without Her. Discussion eventually concluded with Breitbart citations kept. By 2018, however, merely noting Breitbart News’ coverage of Wikipedia disputes on an article’s discussion page was being successfully challenged. When editors later that year proposed placing a Daily Mail-style ban on Breitbart, a group of predominantly left-wing editors voted overwhelmingly in favor.
Once Breitbart News was subjected to a sourcing ban, other conservative outlets followed. Before the end of 2018, WorldNetDaily and VDARE were both subjected to sourcing bans. The deprecation spree continued through 2019 as British tabloid the Sun, the Daily Caller, and LifeSiteNews, would all be banned by halfway through the year. In the latter half Taki’s Magazine and One America News Network would also be sources banned from use for factual claims.
A distinction editors make between sources being considered “unreliable” and being “deprecated” is the claim deprecated outlets publish “fabricated” information. Yet two other bans towards the end of 2019 significantly undermined this characterization. When editors successfully proposed “deprecating” the Epoch Times and Gateway Pundit, it was in response to their accurate reporting critical of the investigation into claims Trump colluded with alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election, later vindicated by federal inquiries into investigator conduct, or noting Democratic House Intelligence Committee member Adam Schiff expressed concern in 2017 about Ukrainian 2016 election interference.
Further undermining claims the process is motivated by concern for factual accuracy is how proposals have included false attacks or partisan criticism as “evidence” against targeted outlets. When discussing the Daily Mail ban, editors cited left-wing outlets such as the Guardian, ThinkProgress, and the defunct Gawker. In Breitbart News’ case, the initial proposal by Guy Chapman, who had argued Trump supporters should be banned for incompetence, repeated false claims from an opinion piece that Breitbart News “admitted” to publishing “fake news” on the site by being more restrained in coverage of sexual assault allegations. When an Antifa supporter this year proposed deprecating the Post-Millennial, he used smears popular among Antifa against Andy Ngo, one of the outlet’s editors.
The Post-Millennial was merely deemed unreliable due to lack of consensus for a ban, but this highlights another way the deprecation process has contributed to a purge of conservative media from Wikipedia. Fox News repeatedly saw itself threatened with the Daily Mail treatment since the latter was banned. All these discussions failed, but another failed attempt in July did achieve some success by getting Fox News discouraged as a source for politically contentious material during an election year. Editors pushing for action against Fox in that discussion cited the left-wing Media Matters group as “evidence” against the outlet, though one editor refuted many attacks.
Bludgeoning outlets with repeated discussion is one way editors have successfully got conservative outlets banned. Just as Breitbart News experienced repeated discussions gradually eroding its support, one earlier discussion of the Daily Mail at the reliable sources noticeboard suggests at least half-a-dozen ban attempts were made before its opponents succeeded. Sometimes editors forced the issue by engaging in mass-removal of citations to the outlet. A list of “perennial sources” on Wikipedia shows other conservative outlets such as Quillette and Newsbusters who avoided being expressly “deprecated” yet were still deemed “unreliable” following ban discussions this year. At the same time, outlets such as FrontPage Magazine and Daily Star still ended up banned.
Most impactful of these failed deprecation efforts was the one against the New York Post closed in September. Following the usual pattern where predominantly left-wing editors argued for action against it, the Post was deemed “unreliable” yet the decision stopped short of a formal ban. Just about a month after the decision, the Post would publish a major story impacting the 2020 presidential election, reporting it had obtained a laptop from Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden containing e-mails appearing to show him effectively selling corrupt business partners access to his father, then the Vice President.
Due to the recent ruling on the Post, editors censored any mention of the story on Wikipedia as early edits only cited the Post, Daily Mail, and Fox News. While most media sought to suppress the story, those outlets willing to confirm some of its details were outlets such as Fox, who confirmed the authenticity of one e-mail the Post reported, and were thus rejected as editors continued to prominently frame the corruption allegations as “conspiracy theories” that were “false” or “debunked” in articles mentioning the allegations.
Recently, the Daily Caller confirmed the central e-mail from the Post‘s initial reporting, called a “smoking gun” by the outlet, but editors quickly noted Daily Caller had been “deprecated” and thus could not be cited when editors mentioned the confirmation on the discussion pages of articles concerning the allegations. Sinclair Broadcasting Group reporting confirming Hunter Biden was the subject of a money-laundering investigation apparently including the laptop, was rejected as well. Though Sinclair is not clearly restricted as a source, objections at article discussion pages are the typical first step towards bans. Limits on sourcing were also a factor last year when Wikipedia administrators banned mention of the alleged name of the whistleblower who instigated Trump’s impeachment.
In addition to repeated discussions, editors prime conservative outlets for bans by adding smears to articles on conservative outlets. Breitbart News had long been subject to smear campaigns by left-wing editors and, months before being banned, its smear-filled Wikipedia page was appended to any Breitbart links on Facebook. After an NBC hit piece, Epoch Times was also subjected to smears shortly before its ban. Financial blog Zero Hedge was another outlet smeared before its largely symbolic ban following an NBC hit piece. Gateway Pundit even saw smears against it repeated in “reliable” sources, including an academic paper on “fake news” whose co-author was cited in the discussion leading to Fox News being discouraged as a political source. Fox and several hosts were also smeared prior to that decision. Many discussions then saw editors cite Wikipedia’s pages on these outlets as proof they were unreliable.
Editors have also used Wikipedia’s spam list, which blocks any edits linking to a listed site, in successful and unsuccessful attempts at banning sources challenging progressive narratives such as a GamerGate site containing a press dossier outlining perceived ethical issues in games journalism, helping keep Wikipedia’s article on the anti-corruption movement in gaming in its heavily-biased state. Whistle-blowing site Wikileaks was unsuccessfully proposed for the spam list by editor Paul Lee, who edits as “Valjean” on Wikipedia and is the primary author of the Steele dossier’s page, where Lee pushes to keep the article slanted towards portraying the dossier as credible.
Breitbart News itself was placed on Wikipedia’s spam list shortly after it was banned from use as a source for factual claims. That unilateral decision by Chapman, the administrator who initiated Breitbart News’ ban, came as he systematically removed links to the site even when permitted by the terms of the ban, such as when noting Trump endorsements published at Breitbart. Justifying the action, Chapman and others claimed one editor undoing their removals was the alternate account of a banned harasser. Invoking said harasser’s alleged involvement, Chapman deflected criticism of his action, even as one editor complained he had violated policy against administrators using their privileges to favor their side in a dispute (only administrators are able to add sites to the spam list).
Left-wing sites have not been completely spared from bans, particularly those on the anti-war left such as Mintpress News, Grayzone, and Voltaire Network. While involving left-wing outlets, ban discussions frequently referred to claims of Russian ties popular on the establishment left. When proposing a ban of Breitbart News, Chapman also got Occupy Democrats banned as well. Although largely inactive and far lower in traffic, he repeatedly cited this as proof of the “neutrality” of the process.
Some left-wing outlets were proposed for bans unsuccessfully but still deemed unreliable, such as AlterNet. However, on Wikipedia’s perennial sources list even left-wing outlets deemed unreliable or questionable are often phrased as having more leeway than conservative ones. Moves to merely treat CNN and MSNBC equivalent to Fox News have meanwhile been rapidly rejected, with discussions after just one of the usual 30 days typical for such discussions.
By systematically excluding conservative media, left-wing editors can easily slant content to the left as Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger recently declared has happened. This is made easier by administrative bias. One recent analysis showed editors favoring right-leaning views were six times more likely to be sanctioned. Analyses of Wikipedia sourcing bear out this bias as even prior to the waves of bans the top-cited outlets were often left-wing with an analysis this year showing articles on American politicians cite mostly left-wing sources. If all or most conservative outlets are considered unreliable, then only the left’s version of the truth is allowed on Wikipedia as has been the case with the Biden family corruption allegations.
(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.