Since Donald Trump’s surprise 2016 presidential election victory, Wikipedia editors have been gradually purging conservative media from the site claiming to fight “fake news” and leading to the recent suppression of the New York Post’s Biden corruption revelations. The Wikimedia Foundation, which owns the site, has leaned into these efforts to tout Wikipedia’s reliability, which has been echoed by mainstream media. This messaging followed a strategy recommended to the Wikimedia Foundation in 2016 by Minassian Media, a firm run by the Clinton Foundation’s Head of Communications.
Promotion of Wikipedia as a “fake news” solution encouraged Big Tech platforms to adopt the site into their own efforts against “fake news” and was cited in support of Foundation collaboration with the World Health Organization on the coronavirus pandemic. The Foundation has also become more politically active in keeping with another Minassian recommendation, prompting a further left-wing slant for the Foundation.
For years, conservative media outlets have been subjected to an ongoing purge on Wikipedia. Last month, this resulted in New York Post revelations about alleged Biden family corruption being censored as the Post was deemed unreliable. Corroborating Fox News and Daily Caller reports were rejected citing similar decisions against those outlets. Analyses show Wikipedia’s top news sources are often left-wing with articles on American politicians mostly citing left-wing media. Two American academics found editors favoring right-leaning views were six times more likely to be sanctioned, suggesting this may cause the sourcing bias. Efforts against conservative media have often invoked the “fake news” messaging from the Wikimedia Foundation.
Messaging on Wikipedia being a solution to “fake news” online first came up in the aftermath of the 2016 election. In interviews with multiple media outlets in the wake of Trump’s presidential win, Foundation Chief Executive Officer Katherine Maher first began pushing Wikipedia in connection with the emerging establishment media narrative around “fake news” and her comments dove-tailed with efforts among Big Tech companies who also were discussing strategies against the “fake news” and “misinformation” they blamed for Trump’s election. Maher’s messaging also dove-tailed with recommendations made by Minassian Media to the Foundation a few months earlier as a way to boost Wikipedia’s reputation.
Run by Craig Minassian, long-time Head of Communications for the Clinton Foundation, the public relations firm was responsible for a communications audit for the Wikimedia Foundation completed in September 2016. The report analyzed Wikipedia’s contemporaneous media reception and proposed strategies to improve its public image. While not explicitly using the term “fake news” as the report preceded its popular usage, Minassian Media cited “the continued rise of opinion-based media” and recommended the Foundation “introduce more messaging around neutrality” specifically suggesting it capitalize on this after the 2016 election with a tag-line on getting “back to the facts now.”
The communications audit came after the Wikimedia Foundation had been embroiled in controversy over the removal of community-elected board member James Heilman. Purportedly stemming from internal fighting over a proposed search engine aiming to compete with Google, Heilman’s removal and the revelations over the search engine plans sparked a wave of negative publicity for the Foundation. It also came after a year involving considerable media criticism over the supposed “gender gap” issue on the site. This included a bogus media narrative about the handling of the dispute over GamerGate, the anti-corruption movement in gaming, by the site’s Arbitration Committee, often likened to a Supreme Court.
Advancing the narrative suggested by Minassian, a Foundation staffer created a video and co-authored an article for the Foundation declaring “on Wikipedia, facts matter” and said of 2016 that “the line between truth and opinion seemed particularly blurry. Fake news spread across the internet.” Just as Big Tech employees running company efforts against “fake news” were often intensely opposed to Trump, the staffer behind the video, Victor Grigas, has exhibited an anti-Trump bias when editing Wikipedia.
On the article about President Trump’s grandfather, Grigas cited Snopes to claim he was originally named Drumpf, a popular meme used to mock the President. His edit was removed as erroneous by an administrator who explained that “Even Snopes hedges its claim” and stated the name issue was addressed later in the article. Grigas also used the Daily Kos to push a conspiracy theory into an article about an alleged Russian spy, which suggested he was murdered to cover up Russian collusion with Trump on the 2016 election.
The political nature of the Foundation pushing Wikipedia as the counter to “fake news” has been apparent in the messaging from an early stage. When Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s co-founder who retains a seat on the Foundation’s board of trustees, authored a piece touting Wikipedia against “fake news” and invoked the term “alternative facts” in reference to a term used by then-White House staffer Kellyanne Conway, his article was promoted on Twitter by Minassian with an “alternative facts” hashtag. Playing on this narrative, Wales resigned from the board of the left-wing Guardian to set up WikiTribune, a Wikipedia-style news outlet, citing concerns about the Trump Administration as one reason.
In Minassian Media’s report, pushing Wikipedia against “fake news” was about generating positive coverage of its supposed reliability. While finding coverage was more positive than negative, the reverse was true when coverage specifically focused on Wikipedia’s reliability. Since the Foundation adopted the “fake news” narrative to sell the site’s reliability, Wikipedia has received considerable praise with some journalists suggesting the site is “utopian” in nature.
Wikipedia has particularly been praised on the coronavirus pandemic, with the left-wing Center for American Progress recommending Wikipedia be incorporated into coronavirus fact-checking and the World Health Organization launching a collaboration with the Foundation to counter “misinformation” about coronavirus, though Wikipedia itself often hosted false information on the pandemic.
Benefits to Wikipedia from pursuing this strategy also included it being incorporated in numerous Big Tech efforts. YouTube incorporated Wikipedia articles into fact-checking “conspiracy theory” videos. Facebook utilized Wikipedia to provide “context” to news links, which means Wikipedia’s smear-filled page is tacked on to every Breitbart link on the social media site. Even Twitter is purportedly pursuing a crowd-sourced “Birdwatch” feature to counter “misinformation” and favorably compared it to Wikipedia in a demo of the feature.
Another strategy Minassian recommended in its report was for the Foundation to insert itself into more political causes in an effort to improve its image, seemingly contradicting the push to emphasize the “neutrality” of Wikipedia. This push for more active political involvement also became apparent early in Trump’s administration when the Wikimedia Foundation signed on as one of the parties challenging Trump’s travel ban initiative in federal court. Earlier this year, the Foundation joined many other establishment institutions in endorsing the Black Lives Matter movement. Its endorsement declared “no neutral stance” existed on “racial justice” issues.
Criticism of Wikipedia’s “diversity” was one major negative trend identified by Minassian with the reputation of Wikipedia and the Foundation. In its Black Lives Matter endorsement, the Foundation cited its decision this year to impose a “code of conduct” as one way it would work towards “equity goals” on Wikipedia and affiliated sites. The proposed code of conduct ultimately included various left-wing identity politics provisions, including requiring use of “preferred” pronouns when referring to other users.
Efforts to address concerns about “diversity” and particularly the supposed “gender gap” on Wikipedia have often included “edit-a-thons” where people mostly unfamiliar with Wikipedia are brought together by experienced editors to learn the process and create or improve articles. One such feminist edit-a-thon in 2017 hosted by the Wikimedia DC chapter organization in partnership with the Democratic Party-affiliated National Democratic Institute, showed further political bias. The edit-a-thon included numerous articles related to NDI, for whom Foundation CEO Maher previously worked as a program officer.
Some efforts to address diversity prompted embarrassing mistakes. In a talk for Inspirefest, Foundation board member and former CEO of left-wing Gizmodo Media Raju Narisetti discussed addressing “fake news” using Wikipedia, but also addressing “diversity” on the site. One approach cited was using artificial intelligence to identity “toxicity” in comments.
The program the Foundation co-developed with Google’s Jigsaw division for this purpose was later shut down after being found to treat comments towards women as more hostile than those towards men yet not identifying anti-Semitic remarks as toxic. Dario Taraborelli, then the Foundation’s Research Director who lead the tool’s development team, also supported the Sleeping Giants campaign against Breitbart News and got one company to pull its advertising. Breitbart News was one outlet eventually banned in the ongoing purge of conservative media, encouraged by the Foundation’s “fake news” messaging, with Breitbart also placed on a spam list to prevent Breitbart links from even being posted.
Discussing Wikipedia’s “reliability” on coronavirus with the Daily Telegraph, CEO Maher expressed her “big fear” was Wikipedia being captured by an ideology. However, at the same time, Maher was employing a “fake news” narrative propagated expressly in opposition to the sitting President in a strategy originally conceived by his opponent’s PR firm. As Wikipedia editors push smears against President Trump, advance a Black Lives Matter agenda, and support Antifa, some also spread hoaxes. Many of the same editors then suppress stories damaging to Trump’s current opponent invoking the same “fake news” narrative. Such extensive left-wing bias is why co-founder Larry Sanger recently declared Wikipedia’s “neutrality” policy dead.
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.