Paid Wikipedia Editor Sanitizes the Page of Biden Coronavirus Czar Jeffrey Zients

Mandate Jeffrey Zients and Joe Biden
Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Politico reported last Thursday that a paid editor earlier this year had scrubbed and fluffed the Wikipedia page for Jeffrey Zients, an adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden recently named as the “Coronavirus Czar” for the prospective Biden Administration, to burnish his progressive credentials. The company behind the edits did not disclose their connection to Zients at the time as required by the site’s Terms of Use, and the account used for the edits has since been banned from Wikipedia by a site administrator.

The effort to sanitize the Biden adviser’s page is merely the latest case of Wikipedia editors with conflicts of interest editing articles on prominent Democrats to burnish their images. Biden’s Vice Presidential choice, Kamala Harris, also notably saw her Wikipedia page sanitized earlier this year by an organizer for her campaign.

Zients was recently announced by Biden to be his choice as the coordinator of his Administration’s response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Biden had earlier chosen Zients as co-chair of his Presidential transition team. He previously served as head of President Obama’s National Economic Council. In its December 3 report, Politico noted that edits to the Wikipedia page belonging to Zients earlier this year had scrubbed numerous details from his page about his corporate ties and portraying him as less progressive.

Many of the details were added by editor “User341992” who contributed similar material to numerous other articles, at times not citing sources considered reliable on Wikipedia for such claims. These additions included quotes from Zients about his work at corporate consulting firm Bain & Co., affiliated with Bain Capital where Senator Mitt Romney formerly worked, and how he did not talk about it much yet “fell in love” with the company culture. As Politico reported, details such as his comments about Bain were removed by an account called “Saguarostrat” under the guise of removing inaccurate information. A Democratic consulting firm Saguaro Strategies admitted being tied to the account.

While details removed by the account sometimes violated Wikipedia policies, the account added information that also violated site policy. In an edit removing one of the Bain quotes, the Saguaro Strategies account significantly expanded material about Cranemere Group, where Zients was CEO, without citing sources. Much of it was promotional in nature and apparently plagiarized from company press releases. In an apparent effort to burnish his progressive credentials, the account also significantly expanded material about labor policies supported by Zients during his time in the Obama Administration, heavily citing the Obama White House blog and uncritically repeating Administration claims about the effectiveness of those policies.

The account further added information about Zients being involved with the Children’s National Hospital Center, touting its work in treating children with diseases, citing a press release from the organization. Politico also reported on other edits regarding Zients and his support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP). Criticism from progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), arguing the agreement favored corporations over average citizens, was sandwiched between several paragraphs both at the beginning and end of the section on the TPP, which cited Zients praising the agreement and calling it “the most progressive trade agreement there’s ever been.”

Changes made to the page on Zients largely came before he was officially announced as transition co-chair, though he was reportedly becoming involved with the transition plans at the time the editing spree began. After the announcement, the Saguaro Strategies account made another edit to his page removing a remaining Bain quote from Zients and adding praise of his time running the National Economic Council claiming he was “a voice and an ally for measures to reduce poverty and inequality and support low-and-moderate income families” rather than favoring the wealthy.

Saguaro Strategies describe themselves as “experts at building digital programs from the ground up, leveraging data to maximize your impact and utilizing our design expertise to make your content stand out.” The group claims to have “helped flip some of the toughest congressional districts in the country” and as helping “elect governors, mayors, state legislators, county supervisors and city council members.” While staff at the firm acknowledged their ties to the Wikipedia account, they did not discuss their connection to Zients and the Biden team similarly did not respond to Politico’s report.

Edits by the Saguaro Strategies account were made without clearly disclosing the company’s connection to the firm, a violation of the Terms of Use on the site, which prohibits users from making contributions for pay without disclosing their ties to the client or employer. Due to Politico’s reporting, the account was renamed from Saguarostrat to “Cactus78910” because of site policy prohibiting corporate account names. The article was subsequently mentioned at a noticeboard for administrators, users with special privileges on the site, and the account was eventually banned for violating the Terms of Use by engaging in undisclosed paid editing.

Although some changes were removed shortly after being made, many lasted until right before the Politico article went up and others were only removed after Politico’s story. Editors previously noted the account apparently having a conflict of interest, citing edits about lawyer Jeff Andersen who helped expose child sexual abuse among Catholic clergy and the resulting cover-ups. The Saguaro Strategies account created the Wikipedia page about Andersen and another about his law firm with the latter page being proposed for deletion. Numerous additions to both articles were removed after Politico’s reporting due to violating site policy.

Prior to Politico’s report about a paid editor scrubbing the page for Zients following his involvement with Biden’s campaign, the Intercept had also reported on editors sanitizing the page for Kamala Harris amid speculation she would be Biden’s choice for Vice President with editors similarly removing less progressive aspects of her political career. Breitbart subsequently reported on the story and that the main editor responsible was an organizer for the Harris campaign. The editor eventually acknowledged his prior volunteer work for the campaign and the Biden campaign, after which he was banned from their articles, though some problems with the content of the Harris page have not been addressed.

Such editing by individuals not disclosing a conflict of interest is not unusual as people who worked for the campaigns of Democratic presidential candidates Andrew Yang and Pete Buttigieg had also been involved in authoring their articles. Undisclosed paid editing remains common despite Wikipedia’s Terms of Use prohibiting it, with editors earlier this year banning a firm for engaging in the practice. Disclosed paid editing is allowed with certain restrictions, but this has been controversial as such editors often bend the rules to get slanted content approved by the site’s amateur volunteers.

Wikipedia’s problem with paid editing and editing by individuals with conflicts of interest is merely one of many issues afflicting the site. It has regularly been subjected to vandalism and hoaxes, as well as its associated sites, which have at times seen systemic problems with falsehoods. The site is also known for having a left-wing political bias as borne by out numerous studies and analyses to the point it has been criticized by its own co-founder with biased editing including editors supporting Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and the Biden campaign. However, the site is still relied on by the media, academia, and Big Tech.

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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