Wikipedia Admin Unilaterally Broadens Sourcing Ban Policy

Turkish officials say Wikipedia failed to remove content deemed to be false from its pages
AFP/Lionel Bonaventure

Conservative media have been subject to an ongoing purge on Wikipedia since Donald Trump won the 2016 Presidential election. Originally, this only banned their use for factual claims with continued use permitted for citing opinions, but a policy change early last year significantly curtailed even this exemption without any discussion supporting the change, in defiance of normal practice. The change was made by Guy Chapman, a Wikipedia administrator notorious for political bias who has played a pivotal role in the sourcing purge.

Prior to unilaterally changing Wikipedia policy, Chapman had been pushing this restrictive standard by systematically removing citations to banned sources. This included Breitbart News, which Chapman added to the site’s “spam” list to block all links to the outlet.

After Trump won the 2016 Presidential election, Wikipedia editors began gradually purging conservative media from the site through a process called “deprecation” with the first outlet being the Daily Mail. In the initial discussion and many subsequent discussions, including the one on banning Breitbart News, the official rulings issued by site administrators stated deprecated sources could still be cited as sources about the outlets themselves and for opinions expressed by the outlet’s writers. These rulings only barred using the outlets to make factual claims about other subjects.

In January 2020, these exemptions were effectively eliminated when Chapman changed Wikipedia’s policy page on “reliable sources” to add a section on deprecation. While referencing the exemptions, Chapman’s section stated honoring them was “rarely appropriate outside articles on the source itself” and that “commentary on a deprecated source’s opinion should be drawn from independent secondary sources.” The section added doing otherwise “risks giving undue weight to a fringe view.” Sourcing bans have been premised on Wikipedia’s verifiability policy, but “due weight” and “fringe theory” policies are also frequently invoked to further restrict conservative views on the site.

Policy pages, like most pages on Wikipedia, can be edited by any user without discussion. However, major changes to policy pages are typically expected to be made only after a community discussion supporting the changes has occurred. Such discussions have to show a consensus in favor of the change for it to be accepted, which usually means a high degree of support beyond a simple majority vote. It is commonly expected for an independent administrator to review such discussions and determine whether a consensus for the changes has been reached before it is implemented.

When Chapman added the deprecation section, there had only been two recent discussions on how to approach deprecation. One concerned an article in Haaretz by Omer Benjakob regarding the sourcing bans, where editors criticized how restrictive deprecation was portrayed as being in the article. Several editors complained it was being treated as a near absolute ban and argued this was not the original intent. A 2019 discussion on Wikipedia’s “village pump” specifically concerning deprecation policy showed a slim majority favoring a standard treating material cited to deprecated sources as “unsourced” and therefore subject to removal. However, several editors reiterated the previous exemptions should still apply.

Neither discussion was closed in favor of a specific proposal to change the standing policy. In both discussions, Chapman participated to advocate a more restrictive practice on deprecated news sources, which would amount to an effective ban in nearly all cases, including as a source for opinions. He eventually made the policy change following the discussion about the Haaretz article without notifying anyone who participated in those discussions about his change.

Such unilateral action to enforce a near-total ban on citing conservative outlets that have been deprecated is not unprecedented for Chapman. After Breitbart was deprecated, Chapman removed nearly all citations from Wikipedia. Various editors opposed his removals as going against the decision, but Chapman seized on suspicions one editor restoring citations was a banned harasser as an excuse to add Breitbart to Wikipedia’s spam list, which blocks editors from posting links to listed sites. As only administrators can add sites to the spam list, opponents argued Chapman abused his position to prevent editors from undoing his contentious removals. In changing policy last year, Chapman essentially legitimized this prior action.

Chapman has been a major player in the ongoing sourcing purge, having participated in nearly every discussion about conservative outlets to advocate banning them. He initiated the discussion on banning Breitbart by falsely claiming it “admitted” to publishing “fake news” citing a biased opinion piece. Even when outlets were not deprecated, he played a key role as in the discussion that saw Fox News discouraged from use on contentious political topics. In that discussion, Chapman argued Fox News was “unreliable” citing a book whose author co-wrote a study that copied Wikipedia content to malign conservative sources. Chapman’s comment was cited by several voting to treat Fox as unreliable.

Other than with the sourcing purge, Chapman has actively advanced a left-wing agenda on Wikipedia. He has slanted articles concerning the first Trump impeachment by portraying Trump’s arguments as “conspiracy theories” in articles, slanted Wikipedia’s Antifa page towards the far-left group even calling a Trump supporter a “fascist” after he was murdered by a member, and repeatedly smeared Trump attorney and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani as a Russian asset when perpetuating false claims allegations about Hunter Biden’s business dealings were a “Kremlin disinformation operation.” He even joined a Black Lives Matter group on Wikipedia stating: “You can be one of three things: ally, enemy, or collaborator.”

Issues with Chapman’s political bias have caused him difficulties on Wikipedia. After Breitbart reported on its deprecation, Chapman was scrutinized over his profile page claiming all Trump supporters should be banned from Wikipedia for incompetence. The matter went before the Arbitration Committee, often likened to a Supreme Court, which advised Chapman to avoid acting as an administrator on political topics. Despite this, Chapman later banned an Antifa opponent from editing the group’s page and resigned after facing criticism, though claiming it was due to unrelated stress over the 2020 election. Chapman has been repeatedly warned about his rhetoric and hostility regarding politics on Wikipedia, most recently in May.

Due to Wikipedia’s open editing model, editors with extreme political biases such as Chapman are not only able to slant its articles, but rewrite its policies to favor their positions. Although Chapman’s issues with political bias are well-known and he has an established history of using his position as administrator to ban sites in furtherance of his agenda, including on the GamerGate anti-corruption movement in gaming, he remained an administrator in “good standing” prior to his resignation and signaled his intent to eventually return to his position by claiming his resignation was not under controversial circumstances, meaning he could regain his position on request.

Tolerance of figures such as Chapman on Wikipedia and their consequent ability to have a significant influence on the political direction of the site’s content and policy are a major factor in the site’s left-wing bias. Chapman himself was cited as an example of this bias in an academic analysis that found editors favoring right-wing views were six times more likely to face sanctions over those favoring the left, something the authors suggested may help explain the bias against conservative media on the site. Other studies and analyses have provided evidence of a left-wing bias. Even Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger has identified such a bias, including on many topics where Chapman was involved.

Sanger argued this evident bias in Wikipedia’s articles and in its purge of conservative media made the online encyclopedia an “opponent of vigorous democracy” that is more like propaganda than, as originally intended, a neutral information source. Dangers of Wikipedia’s influence are not limited to its regular readers as the site is relied on by Big Tech and has been found to shape scientific literature, with one textbook recently caught allegedly plagiarizing the site. Breitbart previously reported how media copied extensively from Wikipedia’s biased GamerGate page. Media outlets and academic publications have routinely spread hoaxes originating on the site, including hoaxes smearing Breitbart News and late radio host Rush Limbaugh.

(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.


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