Numerous Wikipedia users working for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) have been persistently adding references to the group in various articles. The scheme included attempting to mention ADL claims about antisemitism in the article about the reddit-driven stock market boom in video game retailer GameStop. The ADL editing campaign is another example of rampant efforts by paid editors and those with conflicts of interest to exploit the site’s open editing model.
Several ADL accounts directly edited the group’s Wikipedia page with one’s edits heavily slanted in favor of the group and including attacks on former President Donald Trump. Edits mentioning ADL on Wikipedia pages about free speech tech sites and Antifa were removed by critics of the editing campaign, but sympathetic left-wing editors restored the mentions. The ADL has now ended its Wikipedia campaign amidst a wave of controversy.
Accounts claiming affiliation with the ADL have been active on Wikipedia since May of last year according to a page set up for their efforts. The effort was described on the page as being about “Adding ADL content to Wikipedia, in line with the conflict of interest policy and in collaboration with the Wikipedia community.” Nine accounts are listed as participating in the campaign. One included the ADL in his username, while another used a full real name and claimed to be editing on behalf of the ADL’s communications team. Every account disclosed affiliation with the ADL.
In a statement to the Forward, a representative for the ADL Todd Gutnick confirmed the accounts were paid ADL staff, stating the organization had hired “an experienced Wikipedia editor” to train its staff. Gutnick claimed all policies were followed stating “ADL staff members who contributed were fully transparent,” citing their disclosures of affiliation consistent with Wikipedia guidelines on users with conflicts of interest. “ADL experts have extensive knowledge to offer this public discussion and several of them saw an opportunity to contribute that expertise, particularly based on years of tracking extremism,” Gutnick said, according to the Forward.
The editing campaign by the ADL was noted in late March by editor “Graywalls” at a community noticeboard for reporting accounts with alleged conflicts of interest. While stating the ADL is considered a “reliable” source on Wikipedia, Graywalls objected to the accounts inserting ADL links repeatedly into articles and argued this could create issues with neutrality by giving undue weight to the group’s perspective and insisted this would apply even if they were employees of the BBC or New York Times, the two most-cited media outlets on Wikipedia.
Graywalls removed several instances of edits made by ADL accounts when reporting their activity, including ADL edits emphasizing claims of bigotry related to the coronavirus pandemic. In one case undone by Graywalls, a brief article on a hate crime bill had nearly half its contents cited to an ADL press release. Some ADL changes had already been reversed before the campaign came to wider attention, such as those smearing protests about 2020 election fraud and one that added a section on “extremist disinformation” during the election, which heavily quoted from an ADL report.
One edit mentioned “extremists” praising teenager Kyle Rittenhouse, who last year in Kenosha, Wisconson, shot several Black Lives Matter supporters attacking him and killed two. That edit was apparently undone inadvertently when moving content from the Kenosha unrest page to an article about the shooting. Another edit cited the ADL for a “conspiracy theorists” section on the article about the GameStop short squeeze, where redditors fueled a surge in the video game retailer’s stock price. The section focused on antisemitic comments, particularly by neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin. Following a fight over the section, it was removed by editors arguing the comments received undue weight.
Removals by Graywalls were contentious due to the ADL being considered a “reliable” source on Wikipedia. Editor “Beyond My Ken” restored many of the edits using the anti-vandalism rollback tool, which is not supposed to be used for contentious edits. However, in several cases, Graywalls removed the material again without incident. Among the edits Beyond My Ken tried to restore was one inserting three paragraphs about antisemites and white supremacists supposedly praising Ashli Babbit, an unarmed protestor who was shot dead by police during the storming of the Capitol in January.
More intense feuding took place regarding edits citing the ADL blog for attacks on Epik, the domain provider for alt-tech sites such as Gab and BitChute, with the ADL smearing the services as “right-wing extremism” outposts. Much of this content was restored by “Grayfell” as well, an editor previously involved in pushing a left-wing agenda on Wikipedia such as by smearing conservative documentary filmmaker Lauren Southern. The material was eventually removed both inadvertently by an editor moving BitChute material to the Epik page from the site’s main article and an editor removing the material about Gab for mostly being about Epik CEO Rob Monster.
In many cases, the edits were ultimately kept as on the article about the Three Percenters militia and on the article for Black Lives Matter, where an ADL account inserted a “disinformation” section cited entirely to the ADL that focused on obscure social media trolling campaigns. The Oath Keepers article saw a contentious discussion and fight over the ADL material, which ended by including a less inflammatory version. On the article about the far-left Antifa group, an Antifa supporter and self-proclaimed Marxist restored an ADL account’s material, which called journalist Jack Posobiec a “conspiracy theorist” in one sentence. Another editor condemned the initial removal during a discussion as “wrong-headed” and accused Graywalls of “disruption” for undoing ADL edits.
Edits by an ADL account to the page on Parler, a free speech Twitter alternative, were undone and restored prior to discussion about the editing campaign, but a fight resumed after Graywalls removed the material again only for it to be restored again. The edits cited the ADL for claims about “calls to violence” on the site prior to its temporary shutdown over such claims of inciting violence at the Capitol. A fight also occurred at the antisemitism article with discussion leading to the ADL account material being restored. Some material added to the antisemitism page was left untouched with other pages that saw edits promoting ADL completely untouched.
ADL accounts also edited the group’s page directly. While one account’s edits were minor, editor “Hersei” made extensive contributions expanding the article by nearly 50 percent. In a flurry of edits prior to the broader ADL editing campaign, Hersei expanded the ADL page introduction to portray the group as non-partisan citing left-wing criticism of pro-Israel stances and right-wing criticism of its “civil rights agenda” mostly citing opinion pieces. Other changes included a section on “fighting antisemitism” loaded with emotionally-charged language about hate crimes often citing the ADL itself or sources not mentioning the group. Hersei also removed some criticism of the ADL’s prior reluctance to acknowledging the Armenian Genocide.
Other edits touted ADL opposition to “anti-LGBTQ+ laws” and labeled its pro-abortion stance “support for women’s equality and reproductive choice” in one section. Edits highlighted ADL support for Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), briefly noting criticism of remarks they deemed antisemitic. Aside from noting support of Trump’s pro-Israel positions, many edits involved criticism of Trump, noting ADL complaints about Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination and describing the ADL “calling out” Trump for “use of antisemitic tropes” as well as referencing the “Charlottesville hoax” by claiming Trump gave “support” to white supremacists. Further edits criticized Trump’s “incitement of anti-Asian American hate” referring to comments about the coronavirus pandemic.
Hersei’s edits to the ADL page were being rejected at an early stage in several cases with numerous edits being undone after the broader ADL editing campaign was brought to wider attention. One edit reverted had called the police shooting of Rayshard Brooks a “murder” and been present in the article for half a year. Wikipedia editors poring over the ADL page identified numerous unrelated instances of inappropriate additions to the article and removed them. Despite these efforts, a large portion of the edits by Hersei remain with the remaining material by the ADL staffer being roughly a quarter of the page’s contents.
Discussion of the editing campaign saw many editors, including those who otherwise support the ADL, criticizing the efforts and insisting they cease. Others noted guidelines on Wikipedia only strongly discourage editing about one’s employer and no policy explicitly prohibits it when it is disclosed and other policies are followed. Some editors suggested the ADL formalize a relationship by establishing a “Wikipedian-in-residence” position. Responding to criticism, one ADL account defended the efforts claiming they believe it followed policy, but committed to not editing the ADL page further and better adhering to policy. Eventually, the ADL staffer stated they were ending the effort, but were considering a “Wikipedian-in-residence” position.
Paid editing has been an ongoing problem where many Wikipedia editors are paid to protect articles on figures in politics, media, and tech. Site policy allows it provided it is disclosed with paid editors strongly encouraged to not edit pages directly, but undisclosed paid editing occurs regardless with one recent case involving an adviser to Joe Biden. Editors with conflicts of interest yet not paid for edits are similarly discouraged from editing pages directly, though policies are more permissive. In several cases, 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate pages were created or fluffed up by paid and volunteer campaign staff, including the page on Kamala Harris prior to Biden announcing her selection as his Vice President.
Wikipedia’s issues with paid editing are merely one facet of the site’s myriad issues. The site is often relied on for information by media, academia, and Big Tech, and this has led to the spreading of hoaxes. Numerous controversies and cases of bias afflicted the site in its 20th year with its left-wing bias of particular interest as site co-founder Larry Sanger has repeatedly criticized Wikipedia’s left-wing bias, which has also been identified in several studies and analyses. Despite these issues, corporate media have widely praised Wikipedia and the site’s owners have capitalized on this by introducing a commercial service to deepen their relationship with Big Tech.
(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.