When your anti-conspiracy filter starts spawning conspiracies where none previously existed, it's time to throw in the towel on the uncritical worship of "artificial intelligence." If our soon-to-be robot overlords are telling us all burning buildings look alike, what other anti-human biases do they harbor? Remember, kids: AI doesn't laugh.
April 15: Propaganda platform adds insult to Notre Dame injury; Assange affidavit exposes void at case's center
April 16: Japan politely asks US to stop wiping its ass with Okinawa, so Trump wipes it with Cuba instead; world's oldest 18-year-old
April 17: Reanimated pig brains mean hope for braindead cops; why burn books when whole libraries will do; worst smartphone design ever
April 18: No bodily integrity for you; CIA dying of Trump Derangement Syndrome; You Had One Job (tm)
April 19: Militia does Border Patrol's job, because it won't; here's a little bit of grandma in that pie, literally; tone-deaf != color-blindAdd a comment
It's a dark day for human rights when Bibi Netanyahu wins a fifth term & Julian Assange is hauled off in chains for "conspiring to hack a computer." Though given the Pentagon's history of shabby opsec, the password was probably "password" anyway. The arrest of Assange was a message to those who would publish material embarrassing to empire: you have nowhere to hide. If you find a friendly country to shelter you, we will regime-change their government & strong-arm the new guy into selling out his national sovereignty for an IMF loan. Not a peep from the mainstream media, while alt media is too busy gossiping about Assange's possible intelligence agency connections to understand what his arrest actually means for press freedom. Do we even need the ruling class to play divide & conquer anymore, or are we just going to do it to ourselves? Pay attention or suffer the consequences.
April 8: Americans (& Israelis) can't handle failure, while Brits are being taught to love it
April 9: Netanyahu to nation: How's my occupying? Would anyone else bribe you with stolen land while under investigation for bribery?
April 10: Alexa's humans hear you get screwed, literally & figuratively; Texas wants to criminalize abortion; Tasmania tries to criminalize misgendering; Brexit doomed
April 11: Assange arrest sets chilling precedent - but so does barring BDS founder from US; comedy from the Clinton corpse
April 12: Georgetown raises white (guilt) flag; pigs burn Burning Man; Pompeo denies bears shit in woodsAdd a comment
Former president and smooth (war) criminal Barack Obama paid a visit to his old pal Angela Merkel in Germany this week, reminiscing about the good old days when NATO could declare a no-fly zone in order to wipe out a Middle Eastern nation without a whiff of protest - and collecting a fat check for a speech at a "leadership conference."
Merkel looked pleased as punch to see her old pal from the pre-Trump era, flashing an unusually genuine smile during their embrace as he left the chancellery. Obama, for his part, has called Merkel one of his "favorite partners" during his two terms in office. Her "hands-off" style of governance dovetailed perfectly with his "speak suavely, but carry a big drone" model of foreign policy - the velvet glove placed over the Bush-era iron fist in order to repair the damage done to the US' international standing by Dubya's uncouth stampede to make his daddy proud by finishing off Saddam Hussein.
The pair reportedly discussed "trans-Atlantic relations" during their meeting. The nostalgia session must have proved therapeutic for Merkel after being taken to task by Obama's successor Donald Trump over Germany's failure to cough up the two percent of GDP expected from NATO member countries as tribute to the aging military alliance, which just celebrated 70 years of standing tall against an enemy that no longer exists, but remains very much alive in the minds of the military-industrial complex and its media enablers.
And trans-Atlantic relations aren't in the best shape, with the Trump administration promising recriminations for Germany's resistance to the non-stop flood of US sanctions against trading partners like Russia and Iran. Certainly, Obama has been much better than his successor at buttering up the German leader, giving her a Presidential Medal of Honor in 2011 - while Trump infamously chucked Starburst candies in her direction during the most recent G7 summit.
But what did they really talk about during their meeting? Merkel could have allayed her fears that Germany would be cut off from US intelligence over its determination to purchase Huawei 5G tech, with Obama reminding her that US intel isn't all it's cracked up to be - with the NSA's notorious "Stellar Wind" program failing to stop a single terrorist attack even as it had Merkel's own phone tapped for over a decade. And most of the "terrorism" that takes place in Europe is committed by NATO's Operation Gladio stay-behind networks anyway, so joke's on whoever's tasked with sifting through the "chatter" in the name of national security! They could have shared a big chortle over that one.
And speaking of "terrorists" real and imagined, Obama could have congratulated Merkel on finally admitting that the US was running its drone warfare operations out of Rammstein air base - how brilliant of her to drop that bombshell after Trump's election and thus focus popular anger on him, as if the drones hadn't been coming and going for over a decade, mowing down wedding parties and journalists alike as they ticked names off Obama's infamous "disposition matrix!" He may also have dispensed some sage advice on defanging the local anti-war movement, which got a shot in the arm from the news that Germany was implicated in the extrajudicial US killings that skyrocketed under Obama's watch.
And Obama might have given Merkel some friendly advice on her love life, advising on her burgeoning relationship with the Obama-like pretty-boy-with-Wall-Street-ties president of France, Emmanuel Macron (we already know he has a thing for older women - you go, Angie!) - or just advised her how to relax and learn to love Germany being permanently swamped with refugees created by the wars his administration began or continued.
If the talk drifted to intra-EU politics, Merkel could rely on Obama to lend a sympathetic ear to her complaints about Greece's failure to show gratitude during her recent visit for the austerity measures imposed by the EU with Germany at the helm, which have placed one in three Greeks in poverty or close to it, ten years later. Under Obama, most Americans never recovered from the 2008 crash either, with nearly 4 out of 5 reporting in 2017 that they were living paycheck to paycheck. But Wall Street is doing better than ever, and that's what's important, Obama could have consoled her - what's the little guy gonna do, blog about it?
But Obama wasn't just in town to flirt with the outgoing German chancellor - he had a paycheck to collect, courtesy of the World Leadership Summit in Cologne, where attendees paid anywhere from €85 to €5,000 for the chance to hear the former president pontificate on such pressing issues as climate change, feminism, activism, and - of course - leadership.
The €5,000 VIP ticket not only gave them a chance to watch a person who used to be president eat, but a chance to be photographed alongside the last US leader to enjoy teen-idol levels of international celebrity, on the off-chance some of that fabulousness would rub off on them. Those unable or unwilling to shell out the big dollars reportedly crowded toward the stage, attempting to selfie their way into the president's aura. As is to be expected from an event billed as a "global leadership summit," Obama had plenty of vague platitudes for the audience, which lapped them up graciously.
"A good leader is someone who listens and feels what people feel. What drives you forward as leader is the work, not the applause, so focus on what you want to do and not what you want to be," Obama told the packed hall, to thunderous applause.
He continued his pattern of passive-aggressive treatment of Trump, refusing to speak his successor's name while making it clear exactly on whom he was throwing shade. "I'm a friend of the facts," he said, to applause from the similarly fact-loving audience. "This is a table," Obama then said, indicating the object next to him that was indeed a table. "If somebody says it's a tree, what, yeah, what should I say?"
Obama was also asked to weigh in on one of the more controversial aspects of his presidency, the 563 (known) drone strikes he oversaw that left between 384 and 807 civilians dead, not including the thousands of casualties inflicted in "active battlefield" countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and Iraq - or deaths not reported as civilian casualties, a persistent problem during his presidency, with records showing up to 90 percent of those killed in such strikes were not the intended targets. Obama admitted the decision to rain fiery death hadn't been an easy one, but said that ultimately he believes drones led to less collateral damage than if he had sent troops into all the places he bombed. Refraining from bombing at all apparently didn't cross his mind.
"To be effective today, people have to relate to you," Obama told his adoring fans, and nothing says relatable like a €5,000-a-head VIP dinner. No wonder the ruling class is nostalgic for the days the American Way had such a smooth salesman at its helm - for all Trump's determination to sell the US out, he can barely get his foot out of his mouth long enough to seal the deal.
(originally published in heavily-abridged form at RT. photos © Reuters)Add a comment
The myth of American exceptionalism has been busted. An era of global hegemony, fueled by rapacious growth and backed by military muscle, built the world’s largest echo chamber, reassuring Americans of their greatness even as their country crumbled into a shadow of its former self. The ruling class became complacent, relying upon an increasingly threadbare series of clichés, magic words and images without substance (democracy! humanitarian intervention! tolerance!). These talismans worked to keep us alienated and powerless: too busy to notice the bodies piling up in the street, and too demoralized to speak up when we did.
Then came 2016. Too late, the ruling class realized that the powers they had harnessed after 9/11 to shred the Constitution and impose police-state totalitarianism could not be taken for granted and might even have escaped their control, particularly with the rise of social media facilitating the dissemination of alternate narratives even as it enabled the unprecedented growth of the surveillance state. In an effort to stop reality from poisoning the narrative, President Barack Obama authorized the establishment of a Ministry of Truth as he walked out the door in December 2016, his parting gift to a government in the throes of utter existential panic - but it was too little, too late. Narrative supremacy has become such a crutch for our foreign and domestic policies that the country is no longer capable of functioning if when we say jump! the rest of the world does not obediently shout how high?
Thus, what was supposed to be a morale-boosting quickie regime-change operation to cheer up the rank and file on the road to Tehran - the overthrow of Nicolas Maduro’s sanctions-starved socialist state in Venezuela, the oil-rich fly in the ointment of “our own backyard” - has become just another entry on a long list of ignominious failures. Even the truest of true believers can no longer pretend that the US is in the business of spreading democracy - not when all the evidence and information available points the other way. The only remedy left for the “sole superpower” is to cut off the flow of information entirely and build an informational Iron Dome, an epistemological missile shield capable of withstanding all truth.
Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?
Lazy propaganda is largely to blame for the lapse in narrative superiority. The same tawdry psy-ops are recycled again and again, as we see now in Venezuela, where Iran-Contra felon and smirking genocide enthusiast Elliott Abrams has been wheeled out of cold storage to work his death-squad magic on a population we’ve already tried and failed to hypnotize with the promises of neoliberalism. Just as the one-two punch of fake Iranian revolutions made the fatal error of running the same script twice in most “protesters’” lifetimes, the attempt to overthrow Maduro comes less than two decades after the US-backed effort to overthrow Chavez – also led by Abrams – and it’s not fooling anyone. It doesn’t help that the total nobody they picked to lead the charge was a stranger to 80% of all Venezuelans, or that John Bolton couldn’t even keep from blurting out the truth - that this entire pantomime of humanitarian intervention is being conducted to pillage Venezuela’s sweet, sweet oil, which has the gall to sit beneath one of the last socialist holdouts in the western hemisphere. The Milton Friedman-style, “make the economy scream” model that worked so well in Chile and Argentina fell flat in Venezuela in 2002 - the people did not trust an opposition movement willing to tank the economy in order to take over, and refused to vote for the barbarians at the gate, no matter how slickly produced their “revolution.” With even Washington’s subservient allies in the Lima Group refusing to back military action, elections would be Trump’s only way to climb out of this hole gracefully, short of Libya-style indiscriminate slaughter - and that option is far too tempting for a country whose very existence is an affront to neoliberalism, as evidenced by the chillingly sociopathic tweets of Marco Rubio.
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) February 24, 2019
With Abrams at the helm, we know what's next. There will be no graceful extrication. Trump has said over and over that there's no going back, and the loss of face after such a public coup attempt would make him a laughingstock among his neocon pals, if not his dwindling base. Abrams’ Central American genocides of the 1980s are not forgotten, and the same old script is playing out - Venezuelan authorities have already caught a CIA-linked airline unloading crates of weapons bound for the opposition in Valencia. Buying elections is not an option - Venezuela's electoral system is markedly less corrupt than the American model, and the slickly-produced Juan Guaido - who might as well have been grown in a vat at Langley - would never prevail in an electoral contest. The Lima Group - a body created with the sole purpose of de-legitimizing Maduro's government! - will not green-light the military invasion the US is so desperately itching to conduct as its regime-change operation melts down. Even Brazil - whose leader, Jair Bolsonaro, served under the last crop of military dictatorships imposed on the country and prefers such a model to democracy - has categorically refused to allow US forces to use its borderlands as a staging ground for invasion. A UN resolution calling for Maduro to step down was blocked last week. Absent a spectacular false flag - not really Abrams' specialty - only a sustained, high-level propaganda campaign can win the hearts and minds of the “broad coalition” Bolton now says the administration wants.
One must give the establishment media credit for working with the few scraps of plausibility they’re thrown - CNN has featured entire segments on Venezuelan military defectors who are neither Venezuelan, nor in the military. We are told again and again they are eating dogs, they are eating zoo animals, they are eating rats (the “babies flung out of incubators” Wag the Dog myth of the 21st century). Wikipedia, Facebook and Instagram all stamped their seal of approval on Guaido the moment he became the Emperor Norton of the southern hemisphere - sometimes before. Richard Branson was pressed into service, bringing his (uneaten) dog-and-pony show to town as soundtrack to the Standoff On The Bridge that was supposed to be Maduro’s Waterloo. The myth unraveled quickly as the opposition was caught on film fire-bombing a USAID truck, then trying to blame the conflagration on Maduro’s forces. Maduro staged his own musical intervention to drown out Branson’s sparsely-attended PR stunt. Colombian hirelings and provocateurs threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at the looming squadron of US aid delivery vehicles (cluelessly labeled USAID - as if everyone in South America isn’t aware of what it means when USAID shows up in your country) while Guaido’s “human avalanche” evaporated into a trickle when the Boy Wonder himself vanished at the height of the action. The Abrams brigade was caught disguising themselves as Red Cross workers, lest a distinct brand lead to White Helmets-style infamy if one were to be caught mid-atrocity.
Venezuelan foreign minister Jorge Arreaza accused the US of staging the bombing of the aid convoy and exposed the "humanitarian" fraud for what it is - a pastiche of photo-ops, “crumbs” of spoiled food, expired medicine, barricade-construction materials, and weapons for the opposition framed as manna from heaven; the Venezuelan regime depicted as selfish and self-sabotaging, valuing their pride over the full bellies of their people. Meanwhile, millions of dollars in aid continues to pour in from Russia, Turkey, China, and other countries that aren’t interested in installing a pliable puppet to plunder petroleum. The Potemkin aid supply operation - complete with fake crowd numbers for Branson’s concert, fake atrocities to protest against, even fake terrorist collaborators (watch Rapture Mike Pompeo bloviate about Hezbollah) - would have been laughable if it were not so deadly serious.
The UN human rights rapporteur Alfred De Zayas has exposed the fraud that is the Venezuelan “humanitarian crisis,” demanding the US answer for its own violations of international law in creating the situation. “I see human rights more and more being instrumentalized to destroy human rights,” he told Abby Martin - not the UN, which isn't interested in hearing his recommendation to haul the US before the International Criminal Court for the sanctions he calls a "crime against humanity" as well as its violation of Venezuela's sovereignty. This is to say nothing of Venezuela’s stolen gold, a crime which bodes ill for every other country that has ever stored its bullion with the Bank of England. Even Australia, one of the Five Eyes, has never been permitted to fully audit its gold reserves there, raising the question: does the City of London no longer care, with the dollar due to collapse at any minute, whether its customers find it trustworthy? Or has the gold long since been sold or traded to points east?
“Progressive” stooges are deployed at home to sell this war to Americans, and the 2020 hopefuls (except Tulsi Gabbard) have all scored media points shilling for regime change. Bernie Sanders, whose last act as a 2016 candidate was to sell his supporters out to his erstwhile enemy Hillary Clinton, has dragged his feet jumping on the regime-change bandwagon, but at the same time refuses to support Maduro - despite ostensibly sharing his socialist values. Even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressives’ Great Brown Hope, has been less than forthcoming in her support for Maduro and the poor Venezuelans whose interests he represents. But then, she’s more Guaido’s hue anyway. Not even the most virulently anti-Trump US lawmakers are willing to publicly question the idea that putting a loaded gun to a country’s head and demanding they swear fealty to a total stranger is “democracy.” Twitter, ever the helpful servant of the ruling class, deleted thousands of pro-Maduro accounts in January in an effort to manufacture consent while permitting doxxing and hacking attacks on pro-regime entities and even the Venezuelan currency itself by a dodgy group of Venezuelan expats called DolarToday - the very “coordinated inauthentic behavior” Maduro’s supporters are blamed for. Facebook and Instagram signed off on Guaido’s legitimacy with blue check-marks they withheld from Maduro - and Wikipedia declared Guaido President before Guaido had a chance to do it himself. The propaganda operation is running at full capacity, 24/7 – so why isn’t it working?
Crisis of Quality
When you tell a population the sky is orange, they must never be permitted to look out the windows, lest they catch even a glimpse of blue. With the quality of American propaganda at an all-time low, the delivery systems are on overdrive, with the knowledge that full Orwellian totalitarianism is the only way the ruling class can ever hope to regain control of the narrative. Mainstream media is taking a cue from the politicians it protects to shore up its dying credibility, hoping the illusion of a personnel shakeup will inspire renewed trust. Mass layoffs - over a thousand in one week alone at Buzzfeed, Vox, Gannett, Verizon, and Vice - gave the impression of clearing out dead wood, even as nervous Mockingbirds framed the losses as a crisis of democracy. They may be untrustworthy as hell - a Gallup poll found just 33% of Americans trust journalists, while 34% don’t - but they’re still doing better than Congressmen, who have an 8% trustworthy-58% untrustworthy ratio, worse than used-car salesmen. Edelman’s yearly “trust barometer” bristled with pearl-clutching about a “distrust crisis” last year, with 20 of 28 countries studied soundly in “distruster territory” and the US experiencing a sharper decline in institutional trust than any other country. Worse, the sharpest declines were among the “informed public,” who apparently know when they're being lied to. Pollsters from the Knight Foundation were dispatched to tell Americans that 2/3 of them still rely on TV news “a great deal” for staying informed, despite record-low ratings across networks, and that TV and newspapers are “most trusted.” Despite rumors that the Center for Information Analysis and Response - the American Ministry of Truth - had run out of cash, there’s always money in the budget for war, and the Pentagon itself has said lies are cheaper than bombs. We can expect a closer-than-ever collaboration between cash-strapped mainstream media and their Defense Department sugar daddies.
Given the shoddy quality of official propaganda, the average internet user must be prevented at all costs from reading the truth. The blacklist model that was debuted after the 2016 election - “other,” smear, deplatform - is fraying at the edges, having fallen far since the fake news panic of 2016 convinced the gullible that there were Russian bots and Macedonian spammers lurking behind every off-brand Facebook post. There’s still a fake news panic - Edelman says 73% of us are lying awake at night worrying fake news is being weaponized against us - but mainstream credibility is so devastated that merely declaring a site blacklisted, as Washington Post attempted to do by uncritically republishing the infamous Ukrainian “PropOrNot” smear of the 200 most popular independent media sites as Russian stooges after Trump was elected, is not enough to keep people away. Indeed, that list served as a resource for those who, distrusting mainstream media (which after all had just predicted a landslide victory for a losing presidential candidate), weren’t sure what else was out there. Two years later, with Russiagate so thoroughly discredited even its biggest cheerleaders are quietly backing away, a new battle plan is needed.
Weaponizing "Fake News"
Facebook attempted to leverage the Fake News panic early on by adopting the Wikipedia model of propaganda, sheep-dipping approved neoliberal narratives in the wisdom of "the crowd" by allowing users to flag “untrustworthy” stories. They soon realized users were more likely to flag stories they didn’t like, or stories posted by users they were feuding with, than news they thought was fake, and had to modify the algorithm and bring in third-party fact checkers like Snopes and the Associated Press to lend their imprimatur to the checks. Even then, users actually clicked on flagged stories more, not trusting the scandal-soaked social media firm. So Facebook hid the "trust" ratings altogether, down-ranking or boosting content based on "user surveys" they may or may not have actually conducted concerning those outlets' trustworthiness - a black-box model perfect for squelching dissent. At the same time, they officially partnered with the Atlantic Council - the shadowy NATO-backed think tank that has pushed Russiagate and other recycled Cold War cold cuts - to ensure no wrongthink slipped through the cracks.
With NATO’s goons at the helm, armed with their “Digital Forensics Research Lab” in which every post not toeing the line of western imperialism is the work of Kremlin agents, the Great Deplatforming began. It was chillingly effective for a while, because those deprived of a platform are necessarily unable to refute whatever slander the ruling class and its media mouthpieces perpetuate about them. Alex Jones served as an ideal test case - while enormously popular among Trump supporters, most of the mainstream media’s core audience only knew of him secondhand, and it was easy to put the most abhorrent words in his mouth and induce cheers for censorship from the Left - once the most stridently anti-censorship part of the political spectrum. After Jones, hundreds of other users winked out of existence as Facebook covered up the carnage with some bland language about inauthentic behavior and a report on Iranian spam accounts from a captive cybersecurity firm. The deletions were coordinated - users took to Twitter to complain their Facebook was gone, only to be locked out of there as well. Those without millions of followers were un-personed as effectively as if Stalin himself had purged them. Jamie Fly, of the neocon Alliance for Securing Democracy, proclaimed this was “only the beginning” in an ominous soundbite clearly meant to be whispered about in underground meetings.
Mass deplatformings work well to spread panic and induce self-censorship in some content creators, but they only work on one end of the information consumption circuit. NewsGuard went live in December as the ultimate individualization of the police state, a pocket-snitch that lives in your phone and decides what sites you can and cannot access. NewsGuard’s blacklist does not offer the user a choice. It inhabits their browser, silently recording their browsing habits and location and reporting back to a command center whose advisory board includes such gargoyles as Michael Hayden - the former CIA and NSA director who’s never met a civil liberty he didn’t want to squash - and Tom Ridge, the former secretary of Homeland Security who devised the color-coded terror warning system that eventually exhausted the American amygdala in the aftermath of 9/11. While color-coded warnings were poorly suited to a concept like “terrorism,” in which it’s wise to maintain fear levels at a low boil lest one’s target run out of fear and cease quivering abjectly at the mere mention of Muslims with boxcutters, they’re ideal for a “trust rating” system like NewsGuard, where it’s desirable to create a Pavlovian aversion to “fake news.”
As if the presence of these two police-state thugs isn’t ominous enough, former Time editor Richard Stengel - now a “distinguished fellow” at the Atlantic Council, where Hayden is also a fellow - sits on NewsGuard's advisory board. Stengel, who also worked as undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy during the Obama presidency, described his duties as “chief propagandist.” “Every country creates their own narrative story. I’m not against propaganda. Every country does it, and they have to do it to their own population, and I don’t think it’s that awful," he told the Council on Foreign Relations, further lamenting that “the [news] cartels don’t have hegemony like they used to.” In light of these comments, NewsGuard’s slavish adherence to the primacy of death’s-door dinosaur media over internet news sources makes perfect sense.
At a Council on Foreign Relations forum about "fake news," former Editor at Time Magazine Richard Stengel directly states that he supports the use of propaganda on American citizens - then shuts the session down when challenged about how propaganda is used against the third world pic.twitter.com/ClAT5POv7G— William Craddick (@williamcraddick) May 11, 2018
MintPress has done the hard work of digging up the dirt on NewsGuard, and there are several bulldozers’ worth. One of its major investors is the Publicis Groupe, whose subsidiary Qorvis took $6 million in 2017 to whitewash Saudi Arabia’s odious human rights record as the kingdom starved half the Yemeni population to the brink of death. Publicis also represents Monsanto, Merck, Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Procter & Gamble, and the government of Australia, among other dystopian conglomerates. Another major donor is the Blue Haven Initiative, run by the Pritzker family, the second-largest donor to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. The site’s investors and advisors couldn’t be more cartoonishly evil if they tried - yet they hope to sit in judgment of what is Truth.
Armed with a made-to-order poll declaring 89% of users thirsted after a built-in browser babysitter, NewsGuard was midwifed into the American consciousness by Microsoft, whose unconditional support includes packaging the plugin with its “Edge” browser in all new Windows 10 installations as part of its not-at-all-Orwellian “Defending Democracy Program.” Why a software company should be involved in defending democracy is never explained, but it doesn’t have to be. Microsoft’s operating system runs the lion’s share of the world’s computers, and even though its browser - a zombie revamp of Internet Explorer - is not popular, it’s worth remembering that Microsoft was also the first to join the NSA’s PRISM program, way back in 2007 when Big Tech still hesitated before running roughshod over its customers’ civil liberties. It was soon followed by Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Apple. Now that these companies know they face no repercussions from trampling on their users’ rights - that indeed they will be rewarded handsomely with government contracts for doing so – it’s easy to see how widespread adoption of NewsGuard might not be far behind.
PRISM has been largely forgotten in the wake of more recent NSA/CIA scandals, but at the time of its exposure, Facebook and Google were in the process of creating secure portals to allow the NSA to more easily access their data, and it’s absurd to think they halted that project because of a silly leak. The Snowden revelations managed to change precisely nothing about how Americans interact with the security state, except to erode the expectation of privacy we once had. A browser plugin, backdoored to the NSA, tracking one’s un-American activities, is the setup for the worst kind of Minority-Report-esque pre-crime detention. And thanks to the same National Defense Authorization Act that allowed the Pentagon to turn its venerable propaganda apparatus on American citizens, the security state can detain us indefinitely without a warrant should the mood strike - even mow us down like dogs in our homes if it doesn’t like our web history.
NewsGuard itself is supposedly staffed by “real journalists” as opposed to the algorithm that protects us from conspiracy theories on YouTube, and it has already been exposed as hopelessly corrupt. Those in the mainstream media who’ve heard of NewsGuard were perplexed by its rating of Fox News as “trustworthy,” believing a right-leaning network could not possibly rate the coveted green checkmark. All was made clear when Fox broadcast a puff piece hailing NewsGuard as the “killer app” that would save journalism - a clip NewsGuard immediately added to the list of "endorsements" on their website. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.
This corruption became even clearer when NewsGuard was persuaded to change its “untrustworthy” rating of the Daily Mail, the British tabloid which was also the first mainstream news source to be declared untrustworthy by just a handful of editors on Wikipedia. The Mail, for all its flaws - and there are many - has more traffic than any other online news outlet (not counting aggregators like Drudge). When an anonymous Mail editor wrote a polite point by point refutation and sent it to NewsGuard, their rating was changed to green, ensuring the Mail would not publish a scathing attack on the noble censor - which could have smothered it in its cradle - while also making the plugin look eminently reasonable (see, they do change their ratings if they’re wrong!). Everybody wins! MintPress, of course, tried the same thing months ago, only to be ignored and vilified.
Breitbart, miffed after being slighted by the NewsGuard team despite their diligent cheerleading for every neocon regime-change operation, compiled a telling list of proven hoaxes the extension has approved. More than anything else, the list highlights the obvious perils of a blacklist - scare stories like the Washington Post’s infamous “Russia hacked Vermont utilities” are never properly retracted because they’re designed to percolate in the reader’s subconscious so the next time they read about Russian malfeasance they’re more favorably inclined toward the idea. Facts are stupid things that merely get in the way of a good narrative. In the same way, a story published on Breitbart or RT - even if it came from ur-Reliable Source the Associated Press - gets the scarlet shield of shame through guilt by association. NewsGuard is laughably, irredeemably flawed, and no intelligent person would ever download it.
Locked in the Echo Chamber
That’s why they don’t have to. It isn’t just Microsoft’s built-in browser that’s forcing the new extension down users’ throats. NewsGuard has been diligently targeting libraries and school systems across the country for the better part of a year, trying to force its browser extension on unsuspecting students (hook ‘em while they’re young, etc). Libraries in Hawaii and Illinois have installed the extension, and other states are sure to follow. NewsGuard itself is quite certain of its success, and given its impressive pedigree, why shouldn’t it be? These are individuals familiar with all the dirty tricks that enable American power. “NewsGuard will be available on mobile devices when the digital platforms such as social media sites and search engines or mobile operating systems add our ratings and Nutrition Labels directly,” newsguardtech.com predicts - meaning Facebook, Google, Twitter, and so on are next in line to integrate the app into their very fabric.
When Snopes and AP both announced they had ended their fact-checking partnerships with Facebook last month, releasing carefully-worded statements that left open the possibility of future collaboration, Facebook was deep in the throes of a multifaceted PR disaster that has been raging for months. It was easy to think the companies were merely extricating themselves from a sinking ship. But Snopes VP Vinny Green spilled the Orwellian beans when he told Poynter that rather than checking individual “facts” - an inefficient, time-consuming model that allowed metric tons of misinformation to slip through - “fake websites” should “just be reported through other means” - accompanied, of course, by “a body of evidence that these people shouldn’t be on your platform because of their nefarious activity.” This is NewsGuard’s business model - all that remains to be seen is whether the erstwhile Facebook fact checkers are building their own NewsGuard for the platform or merely integrating into the national security state’s version. The social media platform has already admitted it has developed a “trust rating” for users, and Zuckerberg has let slip on more than one occasion that he wants the site to be an “internet drivers’ license.” The dots are not difficult to connect here.
But there have been hints that all is not going well for the 21st century blacklist. In a presentation last month before EU authorities, Brill attempted to sell NewsGuard by claiming it had already been sold - alleging it would be fully operational in the UK, Italy, France and Germany by April while at the same time expressing hope that EU-funded and -connected fact checkers would sign on and lend their credibility to the platform. It’s very likely this is the same kind of psychological operation they deployed to sell the plugin in the States, in which the intolerable prospect is presented as a fait accompli and the brain sets to work reframing it as a tolerable, if undesirable, reality. Still, Brill's desperation glistened – had someone called his bluff, all those surveillance-state backers’ cash would have gone up in smoke, and he’d probably end up succumbing to a mysterious heart attack.
NewsGuard isn’t completely DoA in the US, of course - it merely hasn’t found much love among the big tech companies whose financial backing is necessary for it to turn a profit. Microsoft’s good example has not been followed by Facebook, Google, or Twitter - perhaps because they too remember PRISM, see NewsGuard’s NSAesque collection of location and browsing-history data (totally unnecessary to operate the plugin, but perfect for a surveillance state looking to target dissidents for special attention) plus the presence of Mr. NSA data-collection himself, Michael Hayden, on the board, and think better of taking on another guaranteed PR disaster. And if it is adopted by the EU, American tech companies could be forced to embrace it anyway, having signed on to the EU's Code of Practice on Disinformation, a formal promise to curtail the spread of "fake news" on their platforms. At any rate, Microsoft’s operating systems are installed on the vast majority of the world's computers, and most people are too lazy or tech-illiterate to take the time to install a second browser or find a workaround if NewsGuard is integrated into the default setting. When an option is presented as the default, the lion's share of humanity does not question it or even realize there is something to question.
For now, NewsGuard is a mere visual annoyance, dogging wrongthink sites with its patronizing nutrition labels. It would be too Orwellian even for the most oblivious individuals to start out by blocking all access to dissident sites. But once all devices and new computers are running this literal spyware, this Pocket Stasi, there is nothing to stop the developers from forcing an “upgrade” that blocks devices from accessing the blacklisted sites altogether. Facebook has already intimidated the mainstream media into paying it protection money - now it has to deliver a VIP experience. NewsGuard make no secret of its affection for the police state, either - “A SWAT team of NewsGuard analysts operates 24/7 to identify suddenly trending purveyors of unreliable news among sites that NewsGuard has not yet rated and warn internet users about them in real time." Nor does it conceal its ambitions regarding world domination: "After launching in the U.S., NewsGuard will expand to serve the billions of people globally who get news online.”
Stopping the Content Before It's Created
Content creators, don’t think the ruling class has forgotten about you. The Department of Homeland Security began building its global database of journalists and media professionals last year, and the Anti-Defamation League is hard at work with UC-Berkeley to stop dissenters in mid-sentence with the dreaded “hate speech” label. Like quicksand, being smeared as a “hater” only destroys you more quickly if you struggle - best to go under gracefully, or so this anti-speech mafia would like us to believe - maybe they'll let you back on social media after you've served an appropriate time-out. The next step is to criminalize so-called “hate speech,” the definition of which changes daily, making it the perfect crime. Like the witch trials of old, all a hate speech case needs is an accuser. Stalin would be kicking himself for not thinking of the idea first.
France is serving as a testing laboratory for some of the most extreme measures. With his approval rating at subterranean levels, it is no wonder President Emmanuel Macron has tried every weapon in the ruling class arsenal to dispose of the Yellow Vests, now in their fourth month of protest against his soulless sellout regime, from tarring them as Putin's puppets to smearing them as virulent anti-Semites. Last month, his psychosis crackled with genius, as the media declared a wave of antisemitism had crested over Paris. Anti-Zionism, the Rothschild puppet declared, would now translate to antisemitism. He would rewrite no laws - even “Jupiter” knows his limits - but the dictionary was fair game. Police and educators would be advised that millions of antisemites had just been created out of whole cloth, and the time had come to silence them. Now, finally, here was a weapon to crush those protesters' pesky populism, and ensure their rebellious spirit would not infect other nations. There are some talismanic words that haven’t lost their effect, particularly in Europe.
Because Macron doesn’t just want to criminalize the movement - he’s already tried that, with a law passed earlier this year that makes non-state-sanctioned protests and the wearing of masks illegal. Thousands of protesters have been arrested and thousands more injured, some gravely, but still they protest as his approval rating declines further with every eye blown out by a gendarme’s rubber bullet. Macron sees no way out but depriving these unruly plebeians of the social media they use to organize. Now, those convicted of "hate speech" - which now includes anti-zionism - will be banned from social media entirely, if the measure passes Parliament in May.
In a groveling, sycophantic speech before France's largest Jewish organization CRIF, Macron likened such an unprecedented ban to barring football hooligans from stadiums, declaring the internet had to be re-civilized, and the EU's own heavy-handed crackdown on "hate speech" was moving "too slow." When his minister of digital culture piped up with an admission that France lacked the technology to stop someone from merely creating another account to circumvent the ban, he declared social media platforms should demand identity documents from individuals creating accounts - even suggested France do away with anonymity on the internet altogether. His sinister proposal has elicited drools of envy from across the Atlantic, where groups like the Alliance for Securing Democracy helped him smear his enemies as Russian bots. Of course all he’d really need to keep tabs on social media users trying to create new accounts to get around a ban is a little browser plugin, maybe one that tracks users’ browsing history and reports back to NSA HQ…
It was Macron, after all, who was able to do what US elites could not, barring "antagonistic" media like RT and Sputnik from his press briefings on the grounds that they were (what else?) "fake news" - his hands unchained by any Bill of Rights, his ego free to run roughshod over his people's liberté. The ominous “fake news” law passed in France in November was openly aimed at RT and Sputnik and allows any candidate or party to appeal to a judge to silence any media outlet in the three months preceding an election; while it was perceived as largely unenforceable, even counter-productive, it demonstrated the lengths the government would go to silence all dissenting narratives.
Not to be outdone, the UK has actually proposed criminal charges for social media platforms that don’t remove wrongthink quickly enough, taking the already-draconian German hate speech law - which calls for €55 million fines for those who don’t dance to the hate speech tune - and throwing in a pair of handcuffs. The UK law doesn’t stop at “illegal hate speech,” either - “problematic” content and “misinformation” are also fair game for soaking Facebook, Google, or whatever platforms pop up to replace them for up to 4% of their global revenue and hauling their executives into court. While the likelihood of Mark Zuckerberg spending one second in a London dungeon over some Facebook user’s post, we can be sure this law will be used to silence dissent on both sides of the Atlantic, just as Israel and the US’ own deplatforming demands have resulted in enforcement far beyond their borders.
Coming Soon to the Land of the Free
The US, for now, can only dream about such power. Hampered by the Bill of Rights, it must collaborate with the social media companies instead of threatening financially-ruinous enforcement measures. For this reason, every tough-talking prosecutor who talks about grilling Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey over their horrific abuses of users’ privacy, or their privileging of the neoliberal center over the Left and Right, is spitting into the wind - even if they’re sincere, their bosses know they need Silicon Valley’s cooperation to do an end-run around the First Amendment and silence those nasty dissidents. For now, the US must settle for cooperating with the corporations like the fascists of old.
Perhaps ironically for a state embracing the governing style made famous by the Nazis, the US has decided it has its own “problem” with “antisemitism.” Despite all the money flowing in from the Lobby that dare not speak its name, Congress can barely pass a law shredding the Constitution in order to ban participation in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement! AIPAC’s lackeys shot themselves in the foot when they pounced on Ilhan Omar for accusing the lobby of doing its job too well, revealing where their true loyalties lie, and thus another hasty round of legislation was prepared to try to bring the American definition of antisemitism in line with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition. This sprawling gag order not only conflates anti-zionism with antisemitism but also forbids comparison of Israel to apartheid or Nazism (though, it's true, the Nazis only had a few years to experiment on their concentration camp inmates - Israel has been using the Palestinians as pharmaceutical guinea pigs and outdoor weapons labs for over half a century) and the questioning of lawmakers’ dual loyalty. AIPAC, meanwhile, launched a fundraising campaign on Omar’s back, and both houses of Congress introduced resolutions handing Israel sovereignty over the long-occupied Golan Heights - a parting ‘fuck you’ to Syria in retaliation for vanquishing the might of the best mercenaries Israel’s money doesn't have to buy.
The constant hammering at hate speech has crowned groups like the ADL and SPLC, which rely on bigotry to fill their coffers, as the arbiters of what can and cannot be said. PayPal is openly collaborating with the SPLC to deplatform “haters,” while Chase Bank has picked up the baton and actually started closing the bank accounts of “haters.” We are well on our way to a two-tiered society and lest you think yourself safe because you do not “hate,” YouTube has declared war on “borderline" videos - those that don’t break any rules but express some form of wrongthink - and declared that even playing host to off-color comments can get one booted from the platform. Facebook and YouTube have both announced a crackdown on vaccine-skeptical content (are pharmaceuticals a protected class, now?). This has nothing to do with hate speech (whatever the definition is today), yet it is enough to get one deplatformed, now that all the haters have been driven underground. Freedom of speech is a distant memory. The question becomes whether we have the courage to take it back before AI prevents us from even expressing such a possibility.
Because the next step is for this censorship to operate in real-time. Facebook has been using AI to “more effectively block fake accounts” alongside its government collaborations, while Google’s shadowy “Jigsaw” arm recently conducted a successful behavior-modification experiment, ostensibly to redirect potential ISIS recruits to more wholesome pursuits through gentle suggestion in the form of Google AdWords. A later incarnation of that program even included online “social workers” masquerading as their fellow forum members, and the program’s director openly admitted to assisting law enforcement in apprehending these “dangerous” folks for their wrong-think google searches. They proudly announced their next target was American far-right extremists, and with "alt-right" rivaling "Russian bot" for most frequently-misapplied epithet, the collateral-damage body count is sure to be immense. The ADL is collaborating with Berkeley in order to redirect “haters” in real time, though its methodology has not yet been made public; we can assume, fed reams of comments sections from Wikipedia and Reddit, that it has internalized a strong pro-establishment bias, and the friendly lady in the instructional video says the next step is to turn it loose on “targeted populations,” other social media platforms, and use it “more broadly” (even though it is only 85% accurate at best). Like Macron, the ADL just wants to “bring more humanity to the internet” - no matter how many humans are sacrificed in the process.
While we wait for our AI overlords to tell us what we cannot say, different strains of fascism compete to silence us in the interim. Rania Khalek and Anissa Nouai's pages were booted off Facebook without warning after a desperate-sounding non-story report by CNN based on publicly-available information revealed that their company, Maffick Media, was 51% owned by RT video agency Ruptly. Despite everything about the company being legal, Facebook took its cue from CNN's “journalists” and silenced the immensely popular duo, allegedly because it did not disclose that ownership, even though this was not mandated. Maffick was only able to get its pages back by agreeing to include ownership information in their bio, a line which no other state-backed media has ever been forced to include. They are not the first to be deplatformed for breaking a rule that didn’t exist at the time they were silenced, nor will they be the last. CNN had acted on a “tip” from the Alliance for Securing Democracy - the same group behind the notoriously bogus Hamilton68 “Russian bot” dashboard whose own creator has since disavowed it. The ASD is backed by the German Marshall Fund, which is funded by the US and German governments. This kind of collaboration is the definition of fascism: governments and corporate interests working together to silence opposition, manufacturing consent through absolute control of all information channels. When the process is complete, you will not realize 2+2 could equal anything other than 5.
No matter what well-intentioned rationale individual governments give for this crackdown, no matter how high a legislative wall they build out of hate speech codes, the core act of censorship remains an intellectually dishonest, craven cosmic copout. The ruling class has lost control of the narrative, and this full frontal assault on freedom of speech is their panic as they try with all their might to regain it. Once tasting freedom, who would voluntarily return to servitude, unless they were unaware it was happening?
The US’ support for Venezuelan National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó’s coup may not be as solid as it looks. While Vice President Mike Pence personally gave Guaidó the go-ahead to declare himself president in a phone call earlier this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo apparently doesn’t even know the American puppet’s name, referring to him as “interim president Juan Guido.”
“We’ll have announcements from…other places later today, talking about how we anticipate interim president Juan Guido will have the resources he needs to lead the government of Venezuela forward,” Pompeo announced in a press conference, looking somewhat dyspeptic while mangling the name of the man Washington has chosen to lead the Venezuelan people into a shiny, democratic future - minus the actual democracy.
“Guido,” once a racial slur used in the US against Italians, has more recently been reclaimed by reality TV fans to describe tanned, over-muscled hair-gel aficionados of all ethnicities, but no one ever looked at the cast of Jersey Shore and thought, "That's who I want to lead my coup!" Until now.
Even mainstream media admits Guaidó was an “unknown figure on the international stage” until last week, and it’s entirely possible no one had heard of him in Washington until then, either. Pompeo and equally rabid anti-Maduro national security adviser John Bolton have a bad habit of rushing to support literally any group willing to oppose a regime they dislike, which has led to some questionable alliances in Iran, Syria, and everywhere else they’ve chosen to aim their peculiar brand of ‘freedom.’
However, it’s important to make your chosen patsy feel needed - loved, even. Hence Bolton’s chummy speeches to Iranian-exile terror cult Mujahedin e-Khalq and the late John McCain posing for photos with "moderate rebels" linked to al-Nusra in Syria.
Pompeo seems to understand on some gut level that Guaidó isn't going to be around for too long. Why bother learning his name when he's destined for the scrap-heap that has claimed so many others anointed by Washington to lead the Venezuelans out of the frying pan of socialism into the towering inferno of neoliberalism?
Guaidó's first act as self-appointed leader - to apply to the IMF for a loan with the promise of privatizing Venezuela's vast oil reserves (the largest in the world) - bears this theory out. Even he knows he has a limited window of opportunity. The Venezuelan army remains loyal to President Maduro, who recently won his second term in an election the opposition boycotted in order to deem it illegitimate. As former Venezuelan minister Moises Naim told a Davos panel, "guys with guns" are largely responsible for what happens next in Caracas. While Pompeo has blustered that "no options are off the table," the US is unlikely to run a full-scale ground invasion in Venezuela when their usual Latin American takeover model has worked so well in the past, especially now that they've gotten Iran-Contra ghoul Elliot Abrams out of cold storage and named him "special envoy" to the country.
Still, Pompeo isn’t the only one tongue-tied over the Venezuelan boy wonder. Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benítez also struggled to get Guaidó’s name out, and he speaks the same language and lives on the same continent.
The speed at which the western hemisphere recognized Guaidó without, apparently, knowing who he is raises a few questions. Did the State Department send out a chain letter to South American governments warning “Forward this to five other countries or Trump will sanction you?”
(a version of this article appeared on RT.com)Add a comment
Wikipedia is one of the most popular websites in the world. It’s free, it’s educational, and it’s democratic — what’s not to like? The average user has no reason to think the material it publishes is anything but true, and it has become the go-to authority for anyone looking to quickly educate themselves on a topic. Qualifications and expertise are beside the point — this is an open-source repository of all human knowledge, and surely the cream rises to the top; if information is wrong, surely editors are standing by to correct the record.
But as Andrew Lewis said, “If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”¹ Our in-depth investigation has found that everything we’ve been led to believe about Wikipedia is a lie. Wikipedia serves as a warning that if something sounds too good to be true, it isn’t true. Scratch the surface of the “free encyclopedia anyone can edit” and you find a finely-honed propaganda machine manipulated by experts and used to destroy the reputations of those who dare question the status quo.
The casual user sees the “edit” button next to an entry and assumes all users can make changes on an equal footing. In reality, many areas of the encyclopedia are tightly controlled by ruling cliques operating with the blessing of Jimmy Wales, the co-founder and self-styled “benevolent dictator” of Wikipedia. The experience of trying to correct information about oneself on Wikipedia is akin to being trapped in a Kafka novel — enclosed by an impenetrable thicket of unevenly-enforced rules, subject to the whims of powerful groups that officially do not exist, helpless to stop millions of Wikipedia users from happening across false and even libelous information about yourself or your work. For those trapped in Wikipedia’s internet gulag, there is no escape — not even deletion. Wikipedia, Wales gloats, does not believe in the right to be forgotten.²
While Wales has said he considers his role akin to that of a constitutional monarch — largely ceremonial but ultimately powerless³ — he has the ability to override the actions of any other user and has deployed these godlike powers to shape the narrative. Favoritism, rules enforced unevenly, pay-for-play editing, ideological hit squads, hundreds of factions conspiring to various degrees of secrecy to game the system — all this goes on with Wales’ blessing. A case can be made that the Wikimedia Foundation has violated its charter as a non-profit and stripped itself of the immunity conferred by section 230 of the Communications Decency Act by involving itself editorially in the content it hosts, by choosing which editors are allowed a platform, and by choosing when and where to enforce its rules.
Jimmy Wales did not create Wikipedia, though he has edited his biographical article more than half a dozen times to give the impression that he did. Larry Sanger, whom Wales attempted to airbrush out of history, left Wikipedia in disgust soon after its launch: “Wikipedia never solved the problem of how to organize itself in a way that didn’t lead to mob rule. On the one hand, it isn’t a mob at all. It’s highly organized and structured and there’s a lot of rules…But on the other hand, the way that the community is organized isn’t codified or decided upon in any type of constitutional way. So there might be some people who selectively apply rules according to positions that other people take on their pet issues. And that’s inherently unfair.”⁴ The inmates have taken over the asylum, and they are running it with the blessing of Wales himself.
Wales may not have founded Wikipedia, but as its public face he has influenced the character of the site more than anyone else. It is his face users see during the fundraising campaigns that bring in far more cash than the site requires to operate — $89 million last year⁵ — fueling the growth of an unaccountable bureaucracy, top-secret projects hidden from the Wikipedia rank and file, and an increasingly detached sense of responsibility for the very real harms caused by its contents. Wikipedia has allowed itself to be weaponized to do the dirty work of the ruling class, and anything that deviates from the establishment line is fair game to be smeared, attacked, and destroyed.
Wikipedia’s elite operates in secrecy. In general, the more a user or group on Wikipedia protests that there is no “cabal” of powerful editors running the show, the more likely they are to be members of it. Wales himself joked about forming a “cabal” to enforce policy back in September 2001 when the site was just getting off the ground.⁶ His idea became the Arbitration Committee, which some have likened to Wikipedia’s “supreme court.” Skilled in navigating the dense thicket of rules that has grown up around Wikipedia, ArbCom and the hundreds of administrators who form the next layer of bureaucracy are able to control what remains on the encyclopedia and what (or who) is deleted. If these powers were wielded fairly, their influence would be welcome — but the rules are instead used as a cudgel to enforce ideological conformity.
Wikipedia isn’t just dismissive of expertise –it’s actively hostile to experts. While one of the site’s many policies discourages editors from removing something just because they dislike it (WP:IDONTLIKEIT), Wales and the ruling don’t-call-it-a-cabal have made an exception for themselves. From the beginning, Wales surrounded himself with a cadre of admirers willing to do his bidding — editing his biography when his own self-editing was exposed (and then editing it again to remove a paragraph about the self-editing),⁷ or attacking his enemies when they ask difficult questions on his talk page — and these internet hitmen became Wikipedia’s ruling class — shaping narratives made to order and serving them up as more real than reality.
ABUSE OF NONPROFIT STATUS
The IRS forbids 501(c)(3) organizations like the Wikimedia Foundation from participating in political campaigns “on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office,” a ban which extends to “contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.” IRS policy clearly states that “violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.” The policy further explains that “voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.”⁸
The Wikimedia Foundation has dipped its toe into political waters on several occasions. Management is aware of the perils of getting politically involved — one of the first major Wikipedia scandals broke in February 2006 when it was discovered that US Congressional staff were scrubbing the biographies of their politicians — removing broken campaign promises,⁹ scandals, and other undesirable details and adding “glowing” tributes and favorable information.¹⁰ At the same time, negative information was appended to the biographies of their opponents, and some ambitious staffers were replacing their candidates’ biographies wholesale with staff-authored versions. Wikipedia responded initially by banning Congressional IP addresses, lest the site appear to be complicit in the political self-promotion, which would have torpedoed their nonprofit status.
When Google search results returned “Nazism” as the ideology of the California Republican Party just a week before that state’s primaries earlier this year, Google blamed Wikipedia, explaining that the Google “knowledge box” that contained the offending term is often populated with Wikipedia text.¹¹ The “vandalism” had remained on the party’s Wikipedia page for six days before it was corrected, hidden in a “piped link” where the link text and “alt text” read differently; meanwhile, other edits were reverted within a few minutes, suggesting this one was allowed to persist, deliberately hidden so it would only appear in Google search results.¹² Whether or not it was deliberate, it is not the first time Wikipedia has appeared to promote the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party.
Such apparent political bias makes more sense in light of the fact that the Wikimedia Foundation contracted the Minassian Group, run by Clinton Foundation Chief Communications Officer Craig Minassian, to train Wikimedia’s own C-level employees, directors and managers in media strategy for the year 2014–2015.¹³ Minassian was further tasked with conducting a “communications audit” in 2016.¹⁴ Some editors among the Wikipedia rank and file were unhappy about having their territory politicized,¹⁵ particularly given how much of Wikimedia’s money was going to Minassian — $436,104 in 2015 and $406,957 in 2016.¹⁶ While the details of Minassian’s activities are not public, the group did issue a report detailing its audit findings, which primarily consisted of parsing media coverage by subject, country, publication, and author and ranking outlets in terms of prestige. Wikipedia was advised to focus on portraying itself as trustworthy and neutral in the media even while “seeking out and dispelling controversial issues.” The audit recommended concentrating on building a rapport with “friendly” journalists writing for what Wikipedia’s editors would call “reliable sources.”¹⁷ Minassian has a history of planting stories favorable to the Clinton Foundation in “friendly” media, as WikiLeaks revealed in its Podesta emails dump, which included a message from Craig Minassian himself boasting of favorable coverage he had secured for the foundation on the Colbert Report.¹⁸
Wikipedia editor SashiRolls linked the Minassian hire to the arrival of a crew of militant editors on the Clinton Foundation article who kept it scrupulously clean of any mention of the billions of dollars the Foundation took in for victims of the Haitian earthquake but never distributed to victims, opting to construct a lucrative industrial park in an undamaged area of the island instead.¹⁹ Clinton’s own Wikipedia article is similarly spotless, bearing only a sanitized summary of her “email controversy” and no mention at all of the revelations from WikiLeaks’ DNC and personal email document dumps. No mention is made of the invasion of Libya on false pretenses or the fallout from that invasion — indeed, reality is directly contradicted with a mystifying sentence reading “there was a trend of women around the world finding more opportunities and in some cases feeling safer, as the result of [Clinton’s] actions and visibility,” sourced to a book called The Hillary Doctrine. The article is “protected” — frozen so that only high-level administrators can make changes — and includes the option to listen to it as audio, indicating it will stay frozen in that state.²⁰
The efforts of a clique of ideologically-motivated editors to whitewash political entries are of particular interest given the deployment of such teams on other social media sites like Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, and Twitter during the 2016 election. Clinton strategist and fundraiser David Brock’s Correct the Record (CTR) superPAC spent at least $1 million during the election to “push back against” negative posts about Clinton as part of a program called “Barrier Breakers,”²¹ and it’s unlikely that such an operation would have overlooked Wikipedia, which other social media sites often use as a fact-checking tool. Brock has come under scrutiny before for bending campaign finance rules — superPACs aren’t supposed to participate in individual elections, and Media Matters for America, the organization for which he is best known, is a 501(c)(3) and therefore barred from conducting political activity on behalf of any candidate,²² much like Wikimedia. A former CTR contractor estimated the group’s expenditures at $5–6 million as of August 2016 in a post on 4chan in which he encouraged others to sign up for easy cash, explaining that CTR employees were given high-ranked and backdated accounts on Reddit and Twitter so as to more easily blend into the discussion.²³ Infiltrating Wikipedia is even easier — editors can change usernames and sometimes choose to leave their history with a previous username behind, especially if it was associated with disciplinary sanctions, as ideologically-motivated editors’ often are. Any Wikipedia editor who attempts to look into this sort of infiltration can find themselves indefinitely banned from the site, as SashiRolls found when he tried to blow the whistle on Sagecandor, an editor who racked up hundreds of edits on articles related to Clinton’s 2016 campaign around the time of the election — 904 edits to “fake news websites,” 631 edits to “Russian interference in the 2016 election.”²⁴ Sagecandor, implying that SashiRolls was part of a Kremlin disinformation campaign,²⁵ had him hauled before Wikipedia’s disciplinary committee, where he was accused of “wiki-hounding” and indefinitely banned from editing. Sagecandor and his allies continued to smear Sashi while he was prohibited from responding, until another administrator found incontrovertible proof Sagecandor was in fact a “sockpuppet” of a previously banned user — vindicating SashiRolls, but too late, as he remains banned.²⁶
“Charitable organizations” like Wikimedia are also barred from operating for the benefit of “private interests,” with no part of a group’s “net earnings” accruing “to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual.”²⁷ Yet Wales used his Wikimedia credit card so much that he was relieved of it in 2006, after it was revealed that he was billing $1,300 steak dinners and other outsize expenses to the “charity.”²⁸ At one point he was on the hook for $30,000 in expenses billed to the Foundation for which he could not show receipts; he reportedly reached an agreement with the Foundation’s lawyer to pay less than a third of that. More recently, Wales took the results of Minassian’s audit, which the Wikimedia Foundation paid for, and used it as the business plan for WikiTribune, pitched as a scrupulously neutral news platform helmed by “friendly” journalists and supported by an army of volunteer editors and fact-checkers. The professional journalists would be funded by reader subscriptions, while the volunteers would operate much in the manner of Wikipedia itself. WikiTribune’s mission? To combat “fake news.”
In 2011, the XKCD web comic coined the term “citogenesis” to describe the process by which a piece of nonfactual information is written into Wikipedia, used in stories by “real” journalists with poor research hygiene, and then re-cited in the original Wikipedia article (using the “reliable” source that found the information on Wikipedia). It’s impossible to calculate how common a phenomenon this is, but in January 2015, as ArbCom churned through a complex disciplinary case involving dozens of editors on both sides of the GamerGate controversy, the Guardian (on whose Board Wales sat until 2017) reported the proceedings had ended in a ban on five feminist editors. The story fit the prevailing media narrative concerning GamerGate — that the internet was full of sexism and misogyny, that some form of online affirmative action was needed to increase female representation in gaming, coding, even Wikipedia — and numerous other outlets reposted the Guardian story without fact-checking it. At least one Wikipedia editor emailed the original author, to no avail. With all these reliable sources discussing the results of the GamerGate ArbCom case, a Wikipedia article on “ArbitrationGate” was published to reflect the media’s version of reality. Protests that its content was false fell on deaf ears: certainly there were no reliable sources claiming the case hadn’t been closed — Wikipedia is not a reliable source, even about itself.²⁹ Like a similar case in which author Philip Roth was told he was not a reliable source for information about his own books, the GamerGate affair laid bare the absurdity of Wikipedia’s policy on reliable sources. Yet Wales envisioned the Wikipedia model as the answer to “fake news,” and told any interviewer who would listen that WikiTribune would save the endangered Fact.
The Wikimedia Foundation already has a news subsidiary — WikiNews — that boasts few users but operates within the strictures of the nonprofit. For Wales to title his new venture WikiTribune suggests he deliberately sought to capitalize on the brand confusion engendered by the name. Last month, WikiTribune announced it was switching to an all-volunteer model, bringing the company even closer to direct competition with WikiNews in a way that is at least unethical if not illegal (Wales is both a trustee of the Wikimedia Foundation, of which WikiNews is a subsidiary, and CEO of WikiTribune). It is also worth asking what will happen to subscribers’ donations now that WikiTribune is switching to a volunteer-only model. Now that readers are not paying writers’ salaries, they cannot expect to have any say in what topics are covered, even though this was an initial selling point in WikiTribune’s subscription-based business model. Wales never planned to offer subscribers real input into the site’s editorial process anyway, according to a Reddit Ask Me Anything he held in 2017: “if 10,000 advocates of Pizzagate sign up to have us investigate Pizzagate, they might be disappointed with the results.”³⁰ And pay-for-play journalism would indeed have taken Wikipedia’s flaws to a terrifying new level. But Wales did convince the initial group of subscribers to join WikiTribune with the implied promise that a cadre of cryptocurrency enthusiasts could direct their subscription dollars to hiring a reporter to write in-depth stories on Bitcoin.³¹ Was he lying? Where does Bitcoin end and Pizzagate begin? According to a note posted on WikiTribune’s website, the firing of the journalists was only a temporary step — with an eye toward hiring more “community-minded” journalists in the future.³² Apparently, the volunteers didn’t like being bossed around by the experts, a problem which has been endemic to Wikipedia since the very beginning, and which eventually caused co-founder Larry Sanger to throw up his hands and leave. Wikipedia’s oligarchy depends on maintaining the illusion of democracy, but it took less than a year for the first admins to self-appoint, and the ruling power structure has only calcified since then.
QUID PRO QUO PAID EDITING
Wikipedia policy is made less for effect than for the sake of appearances, a problem which becomes clear when one examines the conflict of interest problem. Paid editing has been a thorny moral issue for Wikipedians since the site’s early days, which were marred by scandal after scandal breaking to Wales’ neverending chagrin. In 2009, he finally allowed a policy change to permit paid editing. The new rules didn’t permit an outright free-for-all, of course — that would look even worse than the scandal parade — but allowed editors employed by third parties to edit to their hearts’ content, provided they disclosed any possible conflicts of interest on their user page. The policy has enough loopholes that major PR firms like Bell Pottinger, which has repeatedly been caught with its hands in the Wikipedia cookie jar on behalf of clients like South Africa’s Oakbay Investments and Paramount Group, can portray their clients in a favorable light without their edits being reverted. In general, as with any propaganda outlet, the bigger the lie, the more effective it is.
The entire structure of Wikipedia depends on user anonymity, so this policy of disclosing conflicts of interest has always depended on an honor system. Even if an editor registered under their real name and was known to work for some group, it would be a simple matter for them to create another username and commence editing. Wales’ own perspective shifts on the matter have been so frequent it’s hard to tell where he stands on the matter, but given what he permits under his own roof — his wife, Katherine Garvey, works for Freud Communications, which has edited its own Wikipedia entry along with those of clients for years — it’s safe to say his conflict with paid editors isn’t philosophical. Indeed, he was personally accused of editing in exchange for “donations” to the Wikimedia Foundation in 2006, when software developer Jeff Merkey claimed the Wikipedia founder had offered to cleanse his biographical article for an annual $5,000 donation to the Foundation. Wales denied everything, but Merkey’s talk page showed he had in fact blanked the entry and warned other editors to “be extra careful here to be courteous and assume good faith,” adding a layer of editorial protection to prevent unregistered users from altering the text. Merkey claimed he’d only gone public after being banned by ArbCom in retaliation for stopping his yearly donation. Meanwhile, it’s worth a look at Wales’ exact denial: “I would never offer, nor accept any offer, whereby a donation would buy someone special editorial treatment in the encyclopedia.”³³ Maybe it’s not special at all — the Foundation’s donor list includes a rogue’s gallery of corporate heavies like Pfizer, Goldman Sachs, Boeing, Bank of America, and GE, in addition to preposterously wealthy individuals like George Soros, David Koch, and Mark Zuckerberg. None of these names have ever been dragged through the mud on the “people’s encyclopedia,” and there’s no reason to think they’re supporting Wales’ do-gooder impulses out of their own sense of social duty — time and time again, they’ve made it clear they have none. For Wales, the problem is not quid pro quo, but subtlety. Sites like Wiki-PR and MyWikiBiz, with their whiff of crass commercialism, spoil the illusion of the perfectly neutral encyclopedia even as they offer nothing individual editors don’t provide under the table on freelancing sites like Fiverr.
Companies and individuals are far from the only entities interested in rewriting history, and Wales’ own biographical revisionism is small potatoes next to the ambitions of some of Wikipedia’s editors, but even seemingly inconsequential changes can have butterfly-effect-like impact. Wales learned his foreign policy approach from Tony Blair, his wife’s former employer, and correspondingly sees no moral conflict in selling favorable coverage to the world’s most brutal regimes while mouthing platitudes about freedom through knowledge. Wales personally groomed the Wikipedia pages of an executive at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, admitting on the article’s talk page that he had been “informally advising” the group on its internet strategy as he oversaw the removal of two scandals from the woman’s biography. When an editor took Wales’ “informal advisory” role and inserted it into the Foundation’s article, Wales removed it himself, conflict of interest be damned. He continued to massage the Blairs’ articles and they returned the favor with a photo op, cutting a cake for Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary.³⁴ By the time Wales married his third wife, Blair’s former diary secretary — a wedding both Blairs attended — Wales was banning Wikipedia users who mentioned his friendship with Blair from his talk page. What went wrong?³⁵
While Wales was buffing out the spots on Blair’s reputation, Blair was doing the same for some of the worst human rights violators of modern times. In April 2016, leaked emails revealed that Nursultan Nazarbayev, the dictator of Kazakhstan, had paid Blair $29.1 million to whitewash the crimes of the Central Asian dictatorship over the previous five years. As the tin-pot dictatorship dropped eight spots on the World Press Freedom Index and 18 places on the Corruption Perceptions Index, Blair helped Nazarbayev stonewall an international investigation into the massacre of 15 protesters during an oil strike in Zhanaozen and touted the country as “a remarkable success story.”³⁶ Wales followed Blair to Kazakhstan in 2011, awarding the first-ever “Wikipedian of the Year” prize to Rauan Kenzhekhanuly for his work in essentially facilitating the takeover of the Kazakh language Wikipedia by a group allied with (and funded by) the ruling family. Wales’ pleas that Kenzhekanuly’s WikiBilim organization was “not political” rang hollow, as a cursory examination revealed that Kenzhekanuly was both a former government official and a former employee of the state TV channel and that WikiBilim had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in financing from the Kazakh sovereign wealth fund. In May 2011, Wikimedia Foundation trustee Samuel Klein asked WikiBilim staff how best to automate the transfer of all 15 volumes of the government-backed Kazakh encyclopedia into Kazakh Wikipedia.³⁷ The discussion revealed several Kazakh government officials among WikiBilim’s “active community members,” and the Kazakh-language Wikipedia dutifully morphed into the state-sanctioned version of history. By the end of 2011, WikiBilim was described in Creative Commons documents as “a non-profit organization which also operates as the local representative of Wikimedia. Wikibilim in turn is supported by the Government of Kazakhstan and personally by the Prime-Minister Mr. Karim Masimov.”³⁸
With Kazakh Wikipedia safely in the hands of the local Ministry of Truth, Wales began criticizing the Kazakh regime on the website for his Jimmy Wales Foundation.³⁹ It’s unclear when the relationship soured between Wales and the regime. He was still claiming WikiBilim was apolitical in December 2012, when he closed a discussion on his talk page after he was confronted with incontrovertible evidence of WikiBilim’s links to the regime.⁴⁰ In 2014, Kenzhekanuly was named deputy governor of the Kyzylorda region of Kazakhstan, and in an April 2015 Reddit “Ask Me Anything,” Wales lamented his lack of foresight in naming him Wikipedian of the Year, saying he wouldn’t do it again. He even seemed to turn on his former mentor Blair: “Tony Blair absolutely should be slammed for taking money from Kazakhstan. I condemn it without reservation.”⁴¹
The very existence of the Jimmy Wales Foundation is evidence of Wales’ moral flexibility. In December 2014, he was awarded the newly-minted “Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Knowledge Award,” half a million dollars from the United Arab Emirates. Given the UAE’s abysmal human rights record, Wikipedians urged him to refuse the award. Instead, Wales opted to have his cake and eat it too, taking the money (the Foundation’s Wikipedia page says he “was not allowed to give it back,” citing an article which says nothing of the sort⁴²) and using it to start a ‘human rights foundation’ which, despite its stated mission of fighting for freedom of expression in repressive regimes, has done nothing since hiring Israeli human rights lawyer Orit Kopel to repost articles condemning a selection of repressive regimes.⁴³ Not a single article denounces the abysmal state of press freedom in the UAE. Nor does the Foundation call out Israel, whose snipers deliberately shot journalists covering the Palestinian March of Return this summer. Palestinian journalists, activists, and ordinary social media users are increasingly prosecuted for “incitement” for merely “liking” Facebook posts that may be entirely devoid of political content. Since October 2015, over 280 social media users have been arrested for “online incitement to violence,” and many influential Palestinian journalists’ accounts have been unilaterally shut down.⁴⁴ Such repression would seem like a situation tailor-made for Wales’ Foundation — yet he and Kopel are silent. Wales received the $1 million Dan David prize from Israel in 2015, but his loyalty was purchased long before that. Perhaps he sees the closeness of the relationship between Wikipedia and the Israeli government as something to emulate — the chairman and spokesman of Wikimedia Israel, Itzik Edri, who for two years also sat on the global WMF’s funds dissemination committee, also manages PR for former Israeli president Shimon Peres (who was interviewed by WikiNews in 2004). Lest his propaganda efforts be in any doubt, Edri received the 2014 Roaring Lion Award from the Israeli Public Relations Association for his work on Wikipedia’s tenth anniversary campaign. He also worked directly with Tzipi Livni, then-chairperson of Israel’s Hatnua party (now Zionist Union) and current Knesset opposition leader.⁴⁵
Israel was on the cutting edge of Wikipolitics, having burrowed into the editorial ranks of the site long before tin-pot dictators like Nazarbayev and his Azerbaijani counterpart Aliyev (who sponsored a “WikiDays” initiative in 2014 to “protect interests of Azerbaijan in Wikipedia and prevent distortion of information about Azerbaijan”⁴⁶) thought of using it for state propaganda purposes. An April 2008 exposé revealed that the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) had been teaching agents how to rewrite history on Wikipedia for years, instructing them to avoid alerting other editors to their mission by sticking to neutral content for a few months before getting to work on Israel-related articles. They were taught how to game Wikipedia’s ever-growing system of rules to get unfriendly edits reverted and unfriendly editors banned, told to form alliances with non-affiliated Wikipedians, and encouraged to work towards admin status in order to help their fellow agents. All collaboration occurred offline in a private Google group called “Isra-pedia.”⁴⁷ When the scandal came to light, it was duly written up in CAMERA’s Wikipedia entry, only to be erased by a user working from the offices of the US Department of Justice. An admin blocked all DoJ IP addresses for several days while other users implicated in the CAMERA edits were topic-banned from editing articles relating to Arab-Israeli conflict, and one user was banned entirely,⁴⁸ but such obstacles are easily overcome on a site where anonymity is paramount. Any users patient enough to make hundreds of neutral edits to gain the community’s trust before embarking on a Zionist crusade to rewrite history are patient enough to repeat the process.
In 2010, two more groups began publicly offering classes in “Zionist editing” — My Israel and the Yesha Council.⁴⁹ Yesha Council was formed in the 1970s to promote Jewish settlements in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip — settlements that flagrantly violate international law and which are notorious for taking land by force. None of this is in their Wikipedia article. Instead, we are treated to the words of Ayelet Shaked, now the Israeli minister of justice, who organized Yesha’s Wikipedia project: it was definitely “not a Zionist conspiracy to take over Wikipedia.” When the extent of these Zionist editing cells within Wikipedia was brought to his attention, Wales merely slapped token protection on the “Israel” article, claiming the three groups’ work had amounted to essentially nothing.⁵⁰ Like Shaked, he is forever reassuring WIkipedians there is no ruling cabal even as packs of roving administrators vote en bloc on political matters. Yesha has since expanded to Facebook and YouTube, claiming 12,000 members in 2010.⁵¹ Act.IL, a smartphone app co-developed by Israeli intelligence agencies, followed in its footsteps, launching in 2013 to gamify “hasbara,” the Hebrew term for propaganda. The app offers users a chance to score “points” by completing quick “missions” — edit a Wikipedia article, post a Tweet, “like” a post — creating the illusion of thousands of independent pro-Zionist actors all working toward a common public relations goal. This practice has been duplicated in recent years by non-Israeli groups and has resulted in many controversial accounts being “deplatformed” from social media after redefining non-mainstream political speech as “hate.” Twitter accounts like SleepingGiants specialize in a form of mass-reporting known as “brigading” which leads to their targets having their social media accounts suspended whether or not they are actually guilty of any terms of service violations.
The ultimate dystopian use of Wikipedia may come from Google, whose Jigsaw subsidiary developed a program called Conversation AI to root out “hate speech” and online harassment before it can proliferate on social media and in comments sections. One AI tool, called Detox, was fed 14 years of Wikipedia comments sections in order to “teach” it to recognize patterns of “abusive behavior.” Faced with a hopelessly heterogenous data set — 100,000 comments from Wikipedia talk pages, evaluated for personal attack content by 4,000 people — researchers claimed the algorithm was able to distinguish personal attacks from benign comments as well as a three-person team. They then ran 63 million comments through the algorithm and called the results science. The results (which any Wikipedian would happily have volunteered) indicated that over half of abusive comments came from registered users, putting the notion of “anonymous trolls” — so vital to Google and other social media platforms’ agenda of expunging anonymity from the web — to rest.⁵² While commenters do not retain copyright on their words once posted on Wikipedia, it’s not unreasonable to think that editors might not want their words fed to some unaccountable AI database operated by a tech conglomerate that has expressed marked hostility toward the concept of freedom of speech in the past and is actively working to censor users’ internet experience in the US and abroad. Editor retention is a very real problem for Wikipedia, where just one percent of users make 77% of the edits.⁵³ Wikipedia is a reflection of the society that spawned it, further distorted through the image of the man who made himself its public face.
SHUTTING DOWN SCHOLARLY INQUIRY/SECTION 230
Wikipedia’s stated mission of open access to knowledge is itself false, if the short-lived Wikiversity Ethics project was any indication. When a group of users attempted to create a project called “The Ethics of Breaching Experiments” in early 2010 — essentially an experiment meant to test Wikipedia’s defenses against vandalism and other rule violations — Wales used his site-wide moderating powers to delete the project entirely and ban the associated users. Wales, who had never before shown any interest in Wikiversity, was thrown off guard by the backlash to his actions — unlike Wikipedia, where he is only semi-ironically revered as the “god-king,” Wikiversity harbored several users banned from the encyclopedia for “ethical breaches” like those described in the project, none of whom appreciated his barging into their virtual classroom. When users protested his unilateral suppression of free inquiry — the ostensible mission of the Wikimedia Foundation itself — Wales threatened to shut down Wikiversity entirely. Hundreds of users in return voted to strip Wales of his founding privileges, condemning him for betraying the stated mission of the project. He finally backed down, unbanning the wrongthinkers and self-limiting his admin powers⁵⁴, but not before telling them that he had “the full support of the Wikimedia Foundation” and could shut them down whenever he liked. Technically, this isn’t even true — Wikiversity is owned by its contributors, not the Wikimedia Foundation, and while it is hosted on Foundation servers, it is only by the agreement of its members that it agrees to advance Wikimedia’s mission.⁵⁵ When the self-styled “benevolent dictator” of Wikipedia shuts down a semi-autonomous project for doing what it was supposed to do — Wikiversity was launched to encourage the kind of “original research” barred from Wikipedia pages — the site is broken beyond repair. Such behavior would appear to violate section 230 as well, since it represents deliberate curation of content on Wales’ part.
Wales himself has admitted Wikipedia is not merely a neutral platform of the sort protected by section 230. “People get frustrated when they thought it was all about voting. But we’re writing an encyclopedia here; it’s not an open democratic experiment.”⁵⁶ Like the US government, Wikipedia offers its users the illusion of participation in a democratic system, but when they stray beyond the accepted behavioral parameters, enforcers are waiting to restore order. Touting this system as the best of all possible world, he explains that formerly neutral platforms actually have a duty to “build better software to give communities better control, so that your best voices come to the front, and the people who aren’t there for constructive reasons are marginalized and asked to leave.” Such policies are in flagrant violation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects sites like Wikipedia from lawsuits stemming from the content available on their platforms, but Wales may feel that living in London he does not have to abide by US laws. Unfortunately, the Wikimedia Foundation is still based in Silicon Valley, and Wikipedia — like Facebook and Twitter and the rest of the social media sites that have come under fire for their increasing censorship of users — must choose whether exercising editorial oversight is worth jettisoning those legal protections. Given the number of people who have been casually libeled by Wikipedia and its editors, it might want to think twice about throwing section 230 to the wind.
As an open-source site with tens of thousands of contributors, Wikipedia should not have a ‘point of view,’ and indeed it officially does not. Articles are supposed to be written from a Neutral Point of View (NPOV) and there are further policies in place to protect living people from slander. Once strongly enforced, these are now ignored, as malicious actors have developed an alternate channel of rules to circumvent them. Entire sections of Wikipedia — alternative medicine, nutrition, progressive political movements and activism — have become reputational prisons, where indelible scarlet letters are branded on the persons associated with them. Alternative healing is shackled with the “pseudoscience” tag, allowing admins to punish anyone making unsanctioned changes to these pages with a block or a ban; politically-sensitive pages are also booby-trapped with administrative sanctions, chilling any attempts to correct false information. Classifying a person or topic as “FRINGE” invokes a set of policies largely exempting editors from the rules surrounding the NPOV rule, and ideologically-motivated editors have wasted no time in corralling their victims into this internet ghetto.
Wikipedia does not require editors to display some familiarity with a topic before editing. Even — especially! — when they don’t understand the terminology or even the concepts in an article, editors are encouraged to jump right in by groups like Susan Gerbic’s Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia. The so-called Scientific Skeptic movement has become extremely powerful on Wikipedia, to the point that they have been able to convince ordinary editors that personal attack sites like Stephen Barrett’s QuackWatch, written by individuals with no expertise beyond a massive axe to grind, are “reliable sources” for Biographies of Living Persons, which according to Wikipedia’s own rules require a higher standard of reliability to avoid libeling their subjects. Wales declared open season on alternative medicine in 2014, rejecting a petition that called for Wikipedia to treat such topics with the respect offered by the scientific community and dismissing entire fields of healing as “lunatic charlatans,”⁵⁷ but the Skeptics had infiltrated Wikipedia long before. Through years of “meatpuppeting” efforts — bringing in backup from outside Wikipedia to support one’s viewpoint in editorial or administrative disputes — the webmaster for QuackWatch’s email list, Paul Lee, was able to attain a quorum to have his mentor’s page declared a Reliable Source. He canvassed Skeptic email lists, message boards devoted to “debunking” chiropractic, and the now-defunct SkepticWiki in order to amass an army of Skeptic editors to shift the official Wikipedia point of view.
The extent of Lee’s interactions with Wales are not known, though Lee made numerous supportive posts on Wales’ talk page during this time. Somehow, Wales’ stated policy morphed from “editors who don’t stop to think that reverting someone who is trying to remove libel about themselves is a horribly stupid thing to do…. Real people are involved, and they can be hurt by your words. We are not tabloid journalism, we are an encyclopedia” (July 2006)⁵⁸ to “What we won’t do is pretend that the work of lunatic charlatans is the equivalent of “true scientific discourse.” (March 2014)⁵⁹. Wales has never been tolerant of alternative healing modalities — he believes homeopathy should be illegal⁶⁰ — but Lee, Gerbic, and the other Skeptics’ efforts seem to have emboldened him to abandon his pretense of neutrality concerning the “lunatic charlatans” he clearly disdains. Were it merely a matter of personal preference, Wales would be entitled to his beliefs, but when they become policy, superseding the rights of individuals not to be libeled on public platforms, they are problematic.
In a Vanity Fair interview released just last week, Wales told a new version of the ever-evolving Wikipedia founding myth in which he was moved to launch the encyclopedia after his daughter was born with a rare lung defect. In this retelling, he brought her to an expert doctor — the top in his field — who wanted to try an unorthodox treatment. The treatment was successful, and Wales decided then and there to create an encyclopedia so that this doctor’s knowledge — a “miracle cure,” in his words — could be available for the benefit of everyone.⁶¹ This isn’t the first time Wales has told this story — he shared it with a credulous Forbes India reporter in 2009, wiping a tear from his eye as he describes his realization that right then and there, holding his now-healthy baby in his arms, that “no one other than this doctor would ever know about this whole thing” if the knowledge wasn’t preserved somehow,⁶² perhaps forgetting that doctors share their findings with others in their profession as a matter of course. Given Wales’ legendary antipathy toward alternative medicine, “untested cures,” and anything else that is not “conclusively proven,” it’s unlikely he would have submitted his daughter for such a procedure, and if she had actually been saved by some maverick physician, his disdain for alternative practitioners would be inexplicable. The use of the phrase “miracle cure” is a dog-whistle to the Skeptics — no reputable alternative medicine practitioner describes their work as a “miracle cure,” and Wales is aware of this.
Wikipedia’s ruling class have made it clear that they set themselves to be above the site’s rules just as they set themselves above the law. Not only is Wales allowed to revise his own biography, rewriting history to order, but those he disdains — progressive political activists, alternative healing practitioners, anyone outside of the neoliberal establishment that has welcomed him with open arms — are fair game for thousands of anonymous editors to smear as they see fit. History is rewritten to order to suit Wales’ and his allies’ version of history, and all those whose reputations are destroyed in the process are just collateral damage. Wales and his Skeptic allies think nothing of the millions of people who could have been helped by alternative medicine but were discouraged from seeking treatment because of something they saw on Wikipedia. There is no way to calculate the harm done in this manner, but it is surely massive, and should weigh heavily on the consciences of those editors who think they are doing a service by assassinating the character of alternative health practitioners.
Wikipedia’s insistence on anonymity facilitates its use as a platform for attacks both ideologically and personally motivated. There is no way to tell if an editor has knowledge of the subject they are editing or if they are motivated by malice, financial gain, or other factors conducive to producing dishonest coverage of a topic. Conflict of interest, as we have seen, is more the rule than the exception on Wikipedia, where the only rule regarding paid editing seems to be “don’t get caught.”
John Pilger is an Australian journalist and award-winning documentary filmmaker. His 1979 documentary Year Zero, filmed after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, inspired viewers to raise substantial donations for the UK’s first relief shipment to Cambodia, purchasing much-needed medicines, food, and clothes. Pilger worked as a war correspondent for the Daily Mirror in Vietnam, Biafra, Bangladesh, and Cambodia. He has also made several documentaries about indigenous Australians and exposed the 1998 legislation that deprived them of their common-law rights. His documentary on the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, Death of a Nation, scored record ratings and contributed to the massive international outcry that culminated in Indonesian withdrawal from the province in 2000. The audience response to his films has been cited as proof that humanity has not yet succumbed to “compassion fatigue.” Yet Wikipedia calls his work “full of falsehoods,” quoting conservative journalist Oliver Kamm, who is not an authority on journalism, international conflicts, or documentary filmmaking.⁶³ Unfortunately, Wikipedia’s libels are beginning to have a real-world effect: Pilger has stated that “my written work is no longer welcome” in mainstream publications, a chilling thought given his stellar track record. His last column was dropped in 2015 from the Guardian, whose Board includes such luminaries as Jimmy Wales.⁶⁴
Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and author best known for the concept of morphic resonance, which posits that “self-organizing systems inherit a memory from previous similar systems.” Organisms and groups develop or change along teleological “paths” worn by their predecessors, and patterns are imposed on otherwise random or indeterminate activity according to the previous and contemporaneous iterations of that system. The theory radically reimagines everything from memory (memories no longer have to be stored inside the brain in a fixed location) to the notion of a collective unconscious (members of a species have access to the sum total of their knowledge). Sheldrake has written 13 books and 85 scientific papers. He has a PhD in biochemistry from Cambridge University. As a Fellow of the Royal Society, he discovered the chemiosmotic model of polar auxin transport in plants (auxin is a plant hormone that influences cell differentiation). His Wikipedia bio focuses almost exclusively on negative responses to his work without giving a proper explanation of that work. But then, Sheldrake is a vocal critic of what he calls the “dogmatic materialism” endemic to much of current science, which he likens to religion. His outspokenness on this front has made him the enemy of organized Skepticism, and the outcry they orchestrated following his TEDxWhitechapel talk in January 2013 both spilled into and fed off of his Wikipedia page.
Guy McPherson is an author and professor emeritus of conservation biology and natural resources at the University of Arizona, where he has taught for 20 years. He is the leading authority on abrupt climate change leading to near term human extinction, having coined the term “Near-Term Extinction” to designate the possibility of human extinction before the year 2030. McPherson became a tenured full professor before the age of 40 and is among the most accomplished faculty members at the University. His works include Walking Away from Empire, Going Dark, and Letters to a Young Academic. McPherson is also one of the most slandered scientists in the climate change field, and Wikipedia has not hesitated to jump on the bandwagon, taking a New York Times quote that describes him as an “apocalyptic ecologist” far enough out of context to imply he’s some sort of cult leader with an “End of Days following,” then shoehorning in a quote from science blogger (and unreliable source, according to the Wikipedia rule which bars blogs and personal websites from being used as sources for the biographical articles of living persons) Michael Tobis, who accuses him of climate denialism “of a different stripe,” whatever that means — even though McPherson’s whole thesis is that mainstream climate science is itself denying the reality of humanity’s impending extinction.⁶⁵
Sharyl Attkisson is an author and television journalist who currently hosts the public affairs program Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson on channels owned by the Sinclair Broadcasting Group. Her book Stonewalled was a New York Times e-book bestseller. Attkisson began her journalism career on a PBS affiliate in Gainseville, Florida, and worked at local stations in West Palm Beach, Columbus, and Tampa before moving to CNN. She moved to CBS in 1993 and spent 21 years there, working as an investigative correspondent on the channel’s Washington DC bureau. From 1996 to 2001, she also hosted a medical news program on PBS. Attkisson has won Emmy awards for her reporting on the American Red Cross (2002), the Troubled Asset Relief Program (2009), and the BATF’s “Fast and Furious” program (2012). Wikipedia drags in the ubiquitous vaccine defender Dr. Paul Offit to criticize Attkisson’s reporting as “damning by association”⁶⁶ because of a piece she aired on vaccines. Several other awards she received are also omitted, while the better part of a page is devoted to making her claims of being hacked for surveillance purposes seem less than credible.
Jeremy Corbyn is a UK politician currently serving as Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition. A Member of Parliament since 1983, he identifies as a Democratic Socialist. Corbyn opposes military intervention and austerity cuts to public services and supports renationalizing the UK’s public utilities, including its railway network. He has proposed the Bank of England issue funds for large-scale public spending such as housing, energy, and transportation projects, calling the policy “People’s Quantitative Easing” to contrast it with existing quantitative easing policies that attempt to stimulate the economy by buying commercial banks’ assets. He has been a strong campaigner for nuclear disarmament and active in the anti-war movement since his youth. Corbyn’s public support of the Palestinian cause has led to predictable allegations of anti-Semitism perpetuated by the Israeli lobby despite his widespread support among British Jews, and such allegations have metastasized to consume a third of his Wikipedia biography — certainly more space than his actual political views — and spawned several articles of their own.
Vandana Shiva is an Indian environmental activist, eco-feminist, and author who promotes seed freedom and water rights. She has brought global awareness to the destructive effects of GMO farming in her native India, where Monsanto seeds have largely supplanted natural crops and thus must be purchased year after year, leaving farmers so hopelessly in debt that many commit suicide. She exposed genetically modified “golden rice” as a fraud with negligible health benefits and fought against the patenting of living organisms. Shiva began her activist work in the aftermath of the Union Carbide leak in Bhopal. She was also an early voice warning the public about the carcinogenic effects of glyphosate. Beloit College, honoring her with its Weissberg Chair in International Studies, called her a “one-woman movement for peace, sustainability, and social justice.”⁶⁷ Wikipedia opts to focus on criticism of her work, giving half a page to a single article written in response to a New Yorker piece about her.
Craig Murray is a former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan turned whistleblower and human rights activist. While working for the UK Foreign Office in Samarkand, he informed his superiors that the Uzbek regime was torturing thousands of dissidents every year, employing such techniques as rape, asphyxiation, pulling out fingernails, and immersion in boiling liquids. Because the regime had just permitted the US military to move into a military base near the Afghan’s border to facilitate the hunt for Osama bin Laden — a privilege it was paying for with half a billion dollars in annual aid payments — it enjoyed a privileged status with regard to international human rights law; Murray was outraged at the “conspiracy of silence” perpetrated by his fellow diplomats, and spoke out against the regime’s abuses at an October 2002 human rights conference. He was subsequently drummed out of the Foreign Office with a series of fictional and trumped-up charges.⁶⁸ While much of the worst material in his Wikipedia article has been removed — the editor responsible was banned from editing topics related to contemporary British politics for six months after several of his victims brought his misdeeds to media attention — the article is also missing any reference to Murray’s achievements before becoming Uzbek ambassador, including his roles brokering a peace deal in Sierra Leone, supervising Ghana’s first democratic election, and negotiating the UN’s convention on the law of the sea. The main “Craig Murray” page was even set up to redirect to the biographical article of an ice hockey player before it was fixed.
Deepak Chopra is an author and speaker known for bringing Ayurvedic medicine to a mainstream audience. He is board certified in internal medicine and endocrinology and focuses on mind-body spiritual healing through multiple modalities, aiming to integrate Ayurveda with quantum mechanics to create “quantum healing,” linking shifts in consciousness to shifts in biology. Chopra runs a spa retreat featuring meditation, yoga, massage, and Ayurvedic meals. Because he was one of the first holistic practitioners attacked by Richard Dawkins on his “Enemies of Reason” television series, he has been hounded by the Skeptics who idolize Dawkins. They flock to Chopra’s Wikipedia page to pay homage, and as a result it is cluttered with derogatory phrases in quotation marks, linked to blogger and oncologist David Gorski, who appears to take great joy in verbosely mocking alternative medicine practitioners.
Susan Sarandon is an Academy Award-winning actress with dozens of film and TV credits to her name, including Thelma and Louise, The Lovely Bones, The Hunger, and Cloud Atlas. Reading her Wikipedia page, however, you would have no idea she was also an impassioned political activist. Sarandon most recently made appearances at multiple rallies for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. Entire paragraphs detailing her history of activism for third party candidates like Sanders, Jill Stein, and Ralph Nader, against the war in Iraq and other imperialist conflicts, for economic justice with Occupy Wall Street, and against mass incarceration have been removed, with no substantial explanation given for their deletion. Does Wikipedia think actresses should confine their work to the screen, or just shut up and look pretty?
These are just a few examples of the type of reputational attacks found on Wikipedia — some quite subtle, some lying by omission, some giving undue weight to minor incidents in a figure’s life or giving space to “opposition voices” when no such courtesy is afforded voices who disagree with establishment dogma. They are not limited to politicians, scientists, journalists, or activists. There are as many ways to smear a person on Wikipedia as there are victims of Wiki smears. Because Wikipedia is among the first results to appear in an online search, being smeared on the site can have very destructive real-life consequences. Wikipedia’s victims have no recourse to a higher authority — section 230 protects the site from lawsuits, and individual editors hide behind their usernames. The Wikimedia Foundation receives hundreds of requests every year from people requesting their biographical entries be taken down, and takes pride in rejecting every single one.
Wikipedia is trusted by more people than the news media and the government, yet its articles are written by anonymous editors who could very easily be working on behalf of special interests to control the narrative. Manipulating reality through Wikipedia is easy. The blind trust users place in the site is wholly unwarranted, and the examples we have given are only a tiny fraction of the falsehoods and deliberate manipulation it contains. As George Orwell says, he who controls the past controls the future, and he who controls the present controls the past. Wikipedia controls the past, or at the very least the internet’s idea of the past, and as it becomes more influential, used as a “fact-checking” authority by sites like Google and Facebook, it increasingly controls the present. We must think long and hard about whether we want the kind of future a Wikipedia would give us. Wikipedia may seem too big to fail, having grown in size and power to the point that it can take on governments, but this is precisely why it must fail. We cannot allow the future of human knowledge to be controlled by a group of unaccountable anonymous editors with no understanding of the material, their motivations unknown, their backers unseen. This is the recipe for a totalitarian nightmare.
Time and again, the actions of Wikipedia’s ruling class reveal that their primary concern is how the site appears to observers. Wikipedia’s own reputation is dependent on how it is perceived by the millions of people who read its articles every day. If public opinion takes a nosedive, so does its traffic, and so do its donations. Now that it is Wikipedia’s turn for its reputation to hang in the balance, we will see how forgiving its victims are.
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For some time, I’d heard rumors that Wikipedia was not the open-source knowledge utopia it claimed to be. Despite a comprehensive set of rules replete with checks and balances and a seemingly open democratic editing process, stories of pay-for-play editing, character assassinations, ideologically-driven trolling, and other offenses against public knowledge suggested all was not right in Jimmy Wales’ empire. Authors and public figures in fields as diverse as Complementary and Alternative Medicine and progressive politics (including Deepak Chopra, Rupert Sheldrake, Gary Null, John Pilger, and George Galloway) have complained of persistent negative coverage on Wikipedia despite the site’s vaunted neutrality and the promise that “Biographies of Living Persons” are held to the highest standard. Efforts to have misinformation corrected were fruitless and their reputations have suffered as a result.
This seemed implausible. How could a site with over 100,000 volunteer editors, with open access for anyone looking to get involved, be engaged in such widespread bias? As an investigative journalist and activist who has spent many years seeking the truth in a landscape of obfuscation and lies, I decided to find out exactly what was going on at Wikipedia.
First, Wikipedia no longer has over 100,000 editors. The number of active editors has been declining for over a decade, even as fewer new editors join the site. MIT researchers found the “complex bureaucracy” and “hard-line responses to newcomers’ mistakes” were the primary reasons why would-be editors opted not to stick around. Meanwhile, the site’s core of “active” editors decreased from 2007 to 2015 by 40%, dropping to about 30,000.1 In 2017, Purdue University reported that just one percent of those editors had made 77% of the total edits.2 The rate of changes rejected climbed from 6% in 2006 to 25% in 2010,3 and the site bans 1,000 IP addresses a day.4 “Edit wars” are resolved by silencing them. Editors who hang on long enough to become administrators capable of freezing and deleting entries no longer feel compelled to abide by Wikipedia’s rules, and statistics show that the number of editors approved to become administrators has plummeted since 2007.5 Wikipedia is an oligarchy with all the problems that entails. One set of rules exists for the user-citizen, and one for the ruling class of administrators and senior editors.
Wikipedia has a convoluted and lengthy policy on conflicts of interest, a policy that seems to lengthen whenever another pay-to-play edit scandal breaks. And there have been a lot of these scandals. Disclosing one’s conflicts of interest is not even mandatory but a “generally accepted standard that editors should attempt to follow.”6 The unwritten law seems to be that paid editors should only engage in conflict-of-interest work if they can do it without getting caught and embarrassing the site. If you can’t obey the rules, at least break them quietly. Many paid editors do opt to follow the policy, disclosing their conflicts of interest and liaising with third-party editors to modify their clients’ entries, but many more slip through the editorial process unnoticed.
Quid Pro Quo
In 2013, a British Petroleum representative was found to be supplying Wikipedia editors with company-approved text that eventually comprised 44% of BP’s page. The editing took place while a civil trial was underway which could have resulted in BP paying out billions of dollars to victims of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The process itself – PR flack supplies biased “info” to an unaffiliated editor, who then inserts it without disclosing its origins – is common on Wikipedia and does not actually violate the rules, as BP was quick to point out.7 Indeed, multiple editors jumped to the defense of the editor working for BP, suggesting they were also being paid or merely wanted to keep their options open.
Roger Bamkin, a trustee of the Wikimedia Foundation UK and a PR consultant, used his Wiki position to place his PR client, the country of Gibraltar, on Wikipedia’s “did you know” front page feature 17 times during August 2012. As a “Wikipedian in Residence,” Bamkin was not permitted to operate with a conflict of interest or to edit the pages of the organization he worked with, but nothing in the rules prevented him from promoting that page. Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales called Bamkin’s behavior “wildly inappropriate” and denounced it in a double-speaking editorial. Basically, he told future emulators to be more circumspect in their behavior, because the “disaster for our reputation” would be immense if it got out that Wikipedia editors were “paid shills” instead of “free and independent scribes.”8 Wales understands the importance of one’s online reputation, which makes it even more unconscionable that his site has been weaponized to destroy the reputations of so many people.
During the time Bamkin was being encouraged to resign, another Wikipedian in Residence, Max Klein, was discovered to be selling “Wikipedia Editing as a PR Service” on his website, UntrikiWiki, boasting that he had “the expertise needed to navigate the complex maze surrounding ‘conflict of interest’ editing on Wikipedia.”9 In October 2013, editors found hundreds of “sockpuppet” accounts linked to one company – WikiPR, which claimed to employ not only garden-variety editors but an admin capable of freezing and deleting pages. WikiPR claimed over 12,000 clients, from household names like Viacom and Priceline to minor firms whose pages were frequently deleted for not meeting Wikipedia’s “notability” standards. Once again, Wikipedia management condemned the practice, not because it was dishonest, but because “companies engaging in self-promotional activities on Wikipedia have come under heavy criticism from the press and the general public, with their actions widely viewed as inconsistent with Wikipedia’s educational mission.”10 In other words, they’re saying, stop making us look bad.
In a bizarre coda to the WikiPR affair, Cooley LLP, the law firm contracted by the Wikimedia Foundation to send a cease-and-desist letter to WikiPR, was editing its own articles as well. Cooley’s letter misrepresented Wikipedia’s terms of service, claiming “sockpuppeting” and paid editing were both expressly prohibited by the site when the whole point of the WikiPR scandal was that it exposed the giant regulatory loopholes permitting paid advocates to make Wikipedia their promotional playground. Rounding out the letter were ominous yet empty threats – the foundation was “prepared to take any necessary legal action to protect its rights,”11 as if any nation had laws on its books prohibiting the paid editing of crowdsourced online encyclopedias – suggesting that Cooley partners spent more time editing their firm’s Wikipedia article to remove embarrassing facts like a partner’s support for California’s Proposition 8 than reading up on relevant case law.12
Rules Are Made to Be Broken
Wikimedia UK only won its nonprofit status in 2011, and the Bamkin scandal drew intense criticism from the sector. Nonprofit Quarterly took him to task for violating the foundation’s tenets, noting that Gibraltarpedia was the second major scandal in the UK foundation’s year as a nonprofit. Trustee chairman Ashley van Haeften resigned the previous month when he was banned for life from editing Wikipedia, having clashed with several editors over the hosting of explicit images on the site.13 The American arm of the Wikimedia Foundation has been involved in even more questionable behavior. Wikimedia project director Sarah Stierch was fired in January 2014 after a screenshot emerged as proof she was selling her services as an editor.14 Amidst the fallout from the WikiPR scandal and Stierch’s firing, it was decreed that all paid Wikipedia editors must disclose their status. However, without a way to enforce such an edict, the measure is ultimately hollow. The Wikimedia Foundation’s own Financial Dissemination Committee “laments that the Wikimedia Foundation’s own planning process does not meet the minimum standards of transparency and planning detail that it requires of affiliates” and points to an absence of goals and budget transparency as setting a bad example for the rest of Wikipedia.15 If Wikimedia can’t even follow its own transparency guidelines, where else is it falling short?
The Wikimedia Foundation solicits donations from Wikipedia users every year, even though its expenses ($2 million to run hosting and servers) are vanishingly small compared to its profits. Wikimedia has increased its spending over 1000% since 2008 and sits on $97.6 million in assets as of 2016.16 The money has primarily gone toward expanding the Wikimedia bureaucracy, which grew from three permanent employees in 2006 to 174 by 2013.17 Fifteen executives took home six-figure salaries in 2015, and Executive Director Lila Tretikov scored a six-figure golden parachute after she was forced to resign for attempting to conceal the development of the Wikipedia “Knowledge Engine,” a major search engine project intended to drive traffic to Wikipedia by wresting market share from Google. VP of Product Erik Moeller was rewarded with $208,306 the same year for causing the Wikipedia equivalent of a strike. When the bungled 2013 launch of the new VisualEditor interface led editors to rebel and disable the feature, Moeller “superprotected” his department’s next feature, called Media Viewer, so that editors could not disable it. Many ceased contributing in protest; 1,000 others signed a letter of protest to Wikimedia, which was ignored.18 The parallels between well-paid Foundation execs “failing upwards” and “too big to fail” investment bankers landing on their feet are difficult to ignore; Wiki volunteers may not lose their homes when the experts make mistakes, but they’re still being asked to donate both time and money to a parasitic administrative class that ultimately serves as an instrument of control.
“Charitable organizations” like Wikimedia are barred from operating for the benefit of “private interests,” with no part of a group’s “net earnings” accruing “to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual.”19 Yet Wales was so fond of his Wikimedia credit card he was relieved of it in 2006, after it was revealed that he was billing $1,300 steak dinners and other outsize expenses to the “charity.”20 Wales, like some of his editors, takes Wikipedia’s rules as mere suggestions. From minor tweaks to entries belonging to his famous friends21 to more extensive reputational rehab for a girlfriend22 to wholesale rewriting of his own history,23 he has earned the “god king” nickname bestowed upon him by his adoring public. Openly disregarding Wikipedia’s laws while enforcing them on everyone else, Wales has made Wikipedia a microcosm of the society that birthed it. Is it any wonder that the same injustices so rife in America today are playing out on our computer screens as well – that the wealthy and well-connected are subject to different rules than the rest of us?
The relationship between the Wikimedia Foundation and Wales’ for-profit company Wikia so flagrantly violates the letter and spirit of nonprofit regulations that Wikipedia gadfly Greg Kohs actually brought it to the attention of the IRS in December 2006. Kohs has thoroughly documented the incestuous relationship between Wikipedia/Wikimedia – ostensibly nonprofit – and Wikia, the for-profit ad-covered version Wales founded in December 2004 with Angela Beesley, a Wikimedia Foundation board member. All three Directors on Wikia’s original Board – Wales, Beesley, and Secretary-Treasurer Michael Davis – also sat on the Board of the Wikimedia Foundation, as did many later Wikia employees.24 Davis had worked with Wales since 1994 and actually helped him set up the non-profit Foundation to manage Wikipedia in 2003.25 In 2006, Wikia shared hosting and servers with the Wikimedia Foundation, also “donating” $6,000 worth of office space to the nonprofit,26 and Wikimedia was from 2009 to 2010 actually paying rent to Wikia using funds donated by the Stanton Foundation, sneaking tax-deductible dollars through to the supposedly unaffiliated for-profit company.27 Shortly after Wikia was founded to house community-built wikis for subjects not considered notable under Wikipedia rules (“Wookieepedia” for Star Wars enthusiasts was an early favorite), Wikipedia began sprouting links to Wikia pages, which heavily inflated Wikia’s advertising revenues with every click due to Wikipedia’s high Google ranking. Wikipedia users attempted to institute measures that would have nullified that revenue boost, only to be overruled by Wales.28 Wikimedia Foundation donors Amazon.com and the Omidyar Network both also contributed large sums to the fledgling Wikia. Amazon supplied the entirety of its second round of venture capital funding and was rewarded with hundreds of thousands of Wikipedia links to its sites, including IMDB.29 Meanwhile, the Wikimedia Foundation hired the Omidyar Network’s Matt Halprin to its Board of Trustees as part of a $2 million “package of support” grant from Omidyar just three years after Omidyar had invested $4 million in Wikia. The Foundation dismissed the conflict of interest as if it was absurd to think that these two companies founded and run by the same people might have something in common.30 Wales was replaced as Wikia’s CEO in June 2006 by Gil Penchina (formerly of eBay) after investors got wind of Wales’ efforts to expense the same $1,300 dinner bill Wikimedia had cut up his company credit card for to Wikia.31 Still Chairman of the firm, Wales oversaw the rollout of user-powered search engine Wikia Search in January 2008, but the project tanked the following year32 despite glowing media coverage until the end.33 Penchina disappeared in October 2011, still owed $30,000 by Wales, according to Wales’ divorce papers.34 Beesley quit in February 2012. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given this history, Wikia is due to change its name to Fandom in 2019.
Big Brother, Big Pharma, Big Money
The US government has been meddling in Wikipedia since at least August 2007, when a tracing program developed at the Santa Fe Institute called Wikiscanner discovered that computers at CIA headquarters had been used to make edits to entries on the US invasion of Iraq and the biographies of former CIA head William Colby and former presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. An FBI computer had also been used to edit the entry on the US’s Guantanamo Bay detention facility.35 Voting machine manufacturer Diebold was caught deleting 15 paragraphs critical of its product,36 while the Vatican and the British Labour Party were also prolific editors.37 Since then, the intelligence agencies have had to camouflage their edits or outsource them to third parties. Unfortunately, the demise of Wikiscanner in 2016 left a hole in Wikipedia accountability that has yet to be filled.38
Big Pharma’s fingerprints are all over Wikipedia. Editors linked to AstraZeneca were caught posting negative material to competitors’ pages and adding promotional material to their own.39 Wikiscanner caught Abbott Labs removing information from its entry about possible side effects of two of its most popular drugs, the weight loss pill Meridia and the arthritis pill Humira.40 An analysis of the entry for Purdue Pharmaceuticals shows it has been through several editing cycles in which information on the addictive potential of the company’s infamous opiate Oxycontin was added, then removed, then added again, though any editors working for Purdue seem to have slunk away in the aftermath of their employer’s settlement with the state of Kentucky for $24 million in damages from widespread Oxycontin abuse in the state.41
The New York Police Department was caught whitewashing dozens of Wikipedia entries in March 2015 when Wikiscanner technology linked hundreds of edits to computers at NYPD headquarters. Most of the edits sought to downplay crimes committed by department officers and cast the victims of such as more threatening or criminal than they were. An entry on the death of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man whose choking death at the hands of Officer Daniel Pantaleo helped launch the Black Lives Matter movement, was altered to make Garner appear much more threatening than he was, while the chokehold which killed Garner was reduced to a “headlock.” Another user attempted to delete the entry on Sean Bell, who was gunned down by police as he left his bachelor party with two friends; the officers fired over 50 bullets at the three men and even then-commissioner Ray Kelly – who’s never heard of excessive force – condemned the incident. NYPD editors got busy with the NYPD entry itself, deleting large chunks from the “police misconduct” and “scandals and corruption” sections, and the entry on “stop and frisk” was larded with explicatory language.42
Pay to Play
What appears on the surface to be a simple case of pay-to-play editing can mask a deeper conflict of interest, as in the case of the Stanton Foundation. In 2011, Stanton donated $3.6 million to Wikimedia, then the largest one-time gift in the foundation’s history. Wikimedia then used $53,000 of that donation to hire Tim Sandole as a Wikipedian-in-Residence at Harvard University’s Belfer Center. Despite warnings from Wikimedia to avoid over-representing his own institutional viewpoint,43 Sandole used his edits to promote the work of Graham Allison, the head of the Belfer Center, whose wife Liz Allison runs the Stanton Foundation. More troublingly, by taking money from Wikimedia to edit Wikipedia, Sandole punched a hole in the firewall that is supposed to separate the two, threatening the Foundation’s nonprofit status.44 Sandole really put his foot in it when he appeared in his official Wikimedia-funded Belfer Center capacity at a campus event promoting Barack Obama over Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.45 Nonprofits are forbidden from campaigning for political candidates. He also failed to disclose his financial backers – who were paying over 100 times the amount that got poor Sarah Stierch fired! - and made a number of edits that violate Wikipedia’s hallowed Neutral Point of View to political articles like the Cuban Missile Crisis, but these crimes are practically rites of passage for fledgling Wikipedia editors.
Stanton and Wikimedia have a history of financial entanglement. Two Wikipedia editors who modified the biographical article of Foundation namesake Frank Stanton to remove inconvenient disclosures like his foundation’s historically massive gift to the Wikimedia Foundation were hired by Wikimedia not long after making their guard-dog edits. One, Pete Forsyth, was brought on to design the Wikipedia Public Policy Initiative, which Allison would subsequently use as institutional cover for Sandole’s hire.46 Allison herself returned to the scene of the crime in 2016, making extensive edits to the Stanton Foundation article. While most conflict-of-interest edits are reverted and publicly shamed when found out, Allison seemed to think her foundation’s massive donations had bought her special privileges, defending her edits despite having removed informational and well-sourced material. Allison was correct in her assumption – her edits remain in the article, with all attempts to revert them blocked; Wales refused to address the issue on his talk page. 47
Former Novell computer scientist Jeff Merkey claimed Wales personally offered to “use his influence” to ensure Merkey’s Wikipedia article “adhere[d] to Wikipedia’s stated policies with regard to internet libel” in exchange for a “substantial donation” to the Wikimedia Foundation in 2006.48 Merkey’s article included the gritty details of multiple lawsuits in which he was involved, including one from his former employer. After Merkey donated $5,000, his page’s edit history showed the entry was blanked and restarted by Wales, who warned other editors to “be extra careful here to be courteous and assume good faith.” The entry also gained “protected” status, meaning only administrators could make edits.49 Wales denied the allegations, stating he would “never offer, nor accept any offer, whereby a donation would buy someone special editorial treatment in the encyclopedia.” Merkey claimed he was banned by Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee after he ceased contributions to the Wikimedia Foundation; he returned briefly under other user names, but was banned every time, while his page was eventually deleted. If Wales is offering naked pay-to-play editing, the list of benefactors to the Wikimedia Foundation takes on a much more sinister significance – are companies like Boeing, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Exxon Mobil, GE, Pfizer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and GlaxoSmithKline giving money out of charitable impulses, or because they get something in return?50 What about George Soros, David Koch, Mark Zuckerberg, and Warren Buffett, all of whose names were on a leaked list of individual donors in 2011?51 What does Jimmy Wales have to offer these men who have everything?
Wikipedia Takes Washington
The first major pay-to-play Wikipedia scandal dates back to February 2006, when it was discovered that US Congressional staff were scrubbing the biographies of their politicians – removing broken campaign promises,52 scandals, and other undesirable details and adding “glowing” tributes and favorable information.53 At the same time, negative information was appended to the biographies of their opponents. Some ambitious staffers were replacing their candidates’ biographies wholesale with staff-authored versions. Joe Biden, Diane Feinstein, Norm Coleman, Conrad Burns, and Tom Harkin were named in early reports, later joined by Mike Pence, Gus Gutknecht, and David Davis. Wikipedia responded initially by banning Congressional IP addresses and later by creating a Twitter feed to document Wikipedia edits made by congressional staffers.54
Wikipedia’s initial heavy-handed reaction to the congressional edits may have stemmed from the IRS’s rules that bar nonprofit foundations from “voter education activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates.”55 Wikipedia does not always toe the line in its political coverage. The article on Donald Trump, for example, gives ample space to discussions of the “Russiagate” investigation and even “Impeachment efforts,” though no impeachment proceedings have passed preliminary hearings; the Hillary Clinton article glosses over most of the controversies that dogged her political career, offering a sanitized account of the “email controversy” while entirely omitting the revelations from the WikiLeaks DNC document dump. “Some commentators” are given space to air their speculation on how Trump might be impeached without a vote, yet no voices are quoted taking Clinton to task for her role in rigging the Democratic primary. Nor do we find references to her role in plunging the once-progressive nation of Libya into violent chaos, or in appropriating billions of dollars’ worth of donations meant for Haitian hurricane victims. Trump is taken to task for “comments and actions [that] have been perceived as racially charged” – an accusation with no citation – but Clinton’s racially-charged “super predators” comment is missing from her page. There is clearly a double standard at work.56 57 An October 2016 article on Wikipedia’s role in that year’s election might point to the answer: Clinton’s page was “protected,” while Trump’s was not. Trump’s page was edited more than three times as often as Clinton’s during the campaign season. 58
When Google search results returned “Nazism” as the ideology of the California Republican Party just a week before that state’s primaries, Google was quick to blame Wikipedia vandalism, explaining that the Google “knowledge box” that contained the offending term is often populated with Wikipedia text.59 The “vandalism” had remained on the party’s Wikipedia page for six days before it was corrected, hidden in a “piped link” where the link text and “alt text” read differently; meanwhile, other edits were reverted within a few minutes, suggesting this one was allowed to persist, deliberately hidden so it would only appear in Google search results.60
Such apparent political bias makes more sense in light of the fact that the Wikimedia Foundation contracted the Minassian Group, run by Clinton Foundation Chief Communications Officer Craig Minassian, to train Wikimedia’s own C-level employees, directors and managers in media strategy for the year 2014-2015.61 Minassian was further tasked with conducting a “communications audit” in 2016.62 Some editors among the Wikipedia rank and file were unhappy about having their territory politicized,63 particularly given how much of the foundation’s money was going to Minassian.64 Sashi Manek suggests it was precisely this Clinton Foundation hire that kept the Foundation’s page clean throughout election season of any references to its crimes against the people of Haiti during the period the Clintons were supposedly helping with hurricane recovery.65
Going further, it appears Minassian was sent in to lay the groundwork for the post-election focus on the Russiagate conspiracy. The account “Sagecandor” appeared days after the election and commenced a frenzy of edits on matters related to Clinton’s 2016 election talking points, from “Russian interference in the 2016 election” (631 edits) to “Murder of Seth Rich” (275 edits), “Comey memos,” “kompromat,” and “efforts to impeach Donald Trump.” The new account also created dozens of book reviews - books critical of Donald Trump and books written by CNN commentator and noted fabulist Malcolm Nance, whose own biography was cleaned up to remove some of his more egregious falsehoods. The account nominated many of its own book reviews for placement in the coveted “Did You Know” module on Wikipedia’s front page. Sagecandor was eventually revealed to be a “sockpuppet” of “CIRT,” an admin who had been banned under multiple usernames for conflicts of interest and hostile behavior toward other editors. Continuing that pattern, Sagecandor participated in no fewer than 19 disciplinary actions over three months, seemingly colluding with a power admin to get the cases against it closed speedily. In June 2017, rather than being banned like its predecessors, Sagecandor was given auto-patrolling and page moving powers, allowing it to edit protected entries (like the Russiagate material) without someone else signing off on the edits.66 Some admins are open about their political beliefs on their profile pages, like BullRangifer, a “Skeptic” who writes that anyone who does not believe that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election “lack[s] the competence needed to edit American political subjects” because they are victims of “fake news.” The “fake news” link, of course, points to a Wikipedia page authored in part by the admin who wrote the original paragraph, but circular logic does not seem to bother this Skeptic.67
Wales’ newfound concern about “fake news,” which became the bête noire of the Western media establishment during the 2016 election, also makes much more sense in the light of the Minassian connection. The same Wikipedia editor who wrote so much on “Russian interference in the 2016 election” also made 904 edits to “fake news websites” as the election tipped toward Trump. Another Minassian operative was dispatched to Vice in the guise of a Wikipedia editor to give a chummy interview about how the site handles “fake news.”68 In my opinion, the preponderance of election-related edits were coordinated with a Clinton-linked consultancy hired by the Wikimedia Foundation; if this is the case, such collusion should rule out nonprofit status for Wikimedia.69
Wales’s latest project is dedicated entirely to the problem of Fake News. WikiTribune is a crowd-sourced journalism and fact-checking platform that pairs professional journalists with volunteers, paying the pros via a crowdfunding campaign while tasking the volunteers with fact-checking and editing the articles. “Those who donate will become supporters, who in turn will have a say in which subjects and story threads the site focuses on. And Wales intends that the community of readers will fact-check and subedit published articles,” according to a Guardian piece that reads like a PR release (most likely because Wales sits on the Board of Guardian Media Group, another conflict of interest he dislikes disclosing).70
WikiTribune takes several cues from Minassian’s 2016 media audit, which recommended that Wikipedia focus on positioning itself as an island of neutrality in a roiling sea of bias. Wikipedia dissenter Kingsindian points out the logical flaws in that model: “Would anyone accept a ‘newsroom’ where anonymous contributors with undisclosed conflicts of interest argue about things, where expertise is irrelevant, where contributors’ work is not paid, there is no editor or copy-editor, and then nobody takes responsibility for the final product?”71 Meanwhile, Google is not the only platform that uses Wikipedia as a fact-checker. YouTube is rolling out Wikipedia links embedded in videos that will permit viewers to fact-check those videos’ claims in real time, ostensibly to combat “conspiracy theories” and “fake news.” Wikipedia has also largely supplanted the scandal-ridden Snopes in Facebook’s fact-checking arsenal.72 With Facebook now assigning “trust ratings” to users based on their record of sharing approved news stories, Wikipedia’s judgment is likely to become more significant in determining what users see on their newsfeeds.73
The Philip Cross Affair
Sagecandor’s UK equivalent seems to be “Philip Cross,” who ranks number 308 in the list of most active Wikipedia editors after 15 years on the site. He has spent the equivalent of full-time working hours editing Wikipedia for the past five years.74 A few of his “victims,” including UK MP George Galloway and former Uzbekistan ambassador Craig Murray, began investigating the prolific editor after they noticed him systematically terrorizing their pages. Cross’ victims shared a common skepticism about the UK’s foreign policy, especially with regard to Syria. With seemingly unlimited free time to edit, Cross removed favorable information and added negative material, amounting to 1,796 edits on Galloway’s page alone.75 Cross attacked anti-war and anti-imperialist personalities like John Pilger, Vanessa Beeley, and Jeremy Corbyn on Twitter at the same time he was tweaking their Wikipedia pages with lies and distortions and favorably editing the articles of pro-establishment journalists like Luke Harding and Oliver Kamm. By personally attacking his “targets,” he embodies a conflict of interest. Murray pointed out the similarities between the views espoused by Cross and those of Wales himself,76 who did not take the comparison well. “If your worldview is shaped by idiotic conspiracy sites, you will have a hard time grasping reality,” Wales sneered after repeatedly asking for – and receiving – proof of Cross’s malicious edits. Murray also pointed out that British intelligence has bragged about operating “sockpuppets” to push the “official” narrative in the media, and Cross’s open flouting of the rules seemed like the behavior of someone accustomed to life above the law (on the Wikipedia talk page for Galloway, he openly admitted his conflict of interest, then returned to editing Galloway’s article).77 Cross’s behavior eventually resulted in his being permanently banned from all topics related to post-1978 British politics, but with the stipulation he can appeal the ban in six months. As a parting shot, the editor who initially brought Cross’ misbehavior to the Arbitration Committee’s attention was also banned from “linking to or speculating about the off-wiki identity of other editors.”78 Cross has already violated his topic ban repeatedly, forcing a reluctant ArbCom to ban him from the site entirely for a week,79 and Galloway understands there are too many ways around the ban for it to effectively stop the abuse, especially after learning that Cross works “in synchronicity” with a group of editors who share the IP address of a Rupert Murdoch media property.80 Still, he hopes that by bringing the Philip Cross affair to media attention he can disabuse people of their belief that Wikipedia is some sort of oracle of truth, free from political bias and other ulterior motives. A 2014 YouGov report showed 64% of British people trust Wikipedia editors at least “a fair amount” to tell the truth – more than trust Murdoch’s Times or even the BBC81 – so the unorthodox collaboration between obsessive editor and old-media outlet seems to be paying off. While Galloway avoids reading his vandalized Wikipedia profile, he can’t seem to avoid it – speakers at his public appearances regularly read from it to introduce him. If exposing Philip Cross can destroy the public’s faith in Wikipedia’s neutrality, he says, his online ordeal will have been worthwhile.
Cross’ choice of Galloway as his number-one victim provides a clue as to who was directing his campaigns of editorial terror. In 2016 Galloway released The Killing$ of Tony Blair, a documentary chronicling the former UK PM’s rise through (and, as Galloway sees it, destruction of) the Labour Party; his collusion with the US government to launch the illegal Iraq war, leading to hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths; and his post-political career burnishing the public image of authoritarian regimes. The film is a scathing indictment of Blair’s war profiteering; Galloway and many of the people he interviews call for Blair to be tried for war crimes at The Hague. Unfortunately for Galloway, Blair is a close friend of Wales, whose wife Kate Garvey previously worked as his diary secretary. Wales is fiercely defensive of his famous friends, and Blair’s own Wikipedia entry barely mentions Blair’s vast financial wealth (37 homes – 10 houses and 27 flats – worth £27 million, plus millions of pounds distributed through a network of companies);82 his PR work on behalf of dictators and human rights abusers in Kuwait, the UAE, Colombia, Egypt, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan;83 his utter failure to support Palestinian rights during his time as Middle Eastern peace envoy; and the human consequences – over half a million civilian casualties – of the Iraq invasion he continues to defend.
Reputation Rehab for Dictators
In June 2011, the Wikimedia Foundation actually financed a group of paid editors in Kazakhstan, providing a $16,600 grant to Rauan Kenzhekhanuly’s fledgling WikiBilim project.84 WikiBilim began as an effort to expand the tiny Kazakh language Wikipedia and progressed to cleaning up English-language articles for high-ranking Kazakh subjects, up to and including the country’s dictator, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and his family.85 Wales awarded Kenzhekhanuly the first ever “Wikipedian of the Year” award that same year, despite protests that he was whitewashing the reputation of a repressive dictatorship. In response, Wales denied everything, claiming “Wikimedia Foundation has zero collaboration with the government of Kazakhstan. Wikibilim is a totally independent organization.” When questioning persisted, he resorted to threats and banned the questioners from his talk page.86 Wales’ objections are disingenuous, considering that Kenzhekhanuly is not only a former government official but also a former employee of the government propaganda station National TV Agency run by Nazarbayev’s daughter. WikiBilim is also financed by the Samruk Kaznya State Investment Fund, the sovereign oil wealth fund run by Nazarbayev’s son-in-law. Also editing English-language articles on Kazakhstan was Portland Communications, a lobbying firm which has previously been caught editing negative material out of Wikipedia entries for clients.87 Portland is run by a former advisor to Tony Blair, who was reportedly paid $13 million for his own part in the rehabilitation of Kazakhstan’s reputation. The merest suggestion of a link between Blair’s work for the Kazakh government and Wikipedia was dismissed in typical overcompensatory fashion by Wales, who banned such discussion from his page (“My personal life has nothing to do with Kazakhstan!”).88
Kazakhstan has been on an expensive and expansive mission to improve its reputation abroad, hiring multiple PR firms and sending out infomercials on CNN International. Human Rights Watch states that the government is “considering legislative amendments that appear to propose even further restrictions on freedom of religion” and “impunity for torture and ill-treatment in detention persist.”89 While high level government officials claim the country has a free press, journalists risk arrest, police harassment, lawsuits, and heavy fines for criticizing the regime. Journalists can be imprisoned for up to seven years on the charge of “disseminating knowingly false information.”90 “Inciting national discord” is another charge frequently brought against activists, journalists and other writers. A journalist who called for sanctions against Kazakh officials who commit human rights violations was stabbed on board a train by an unknown assailant. The editor of an independent newspaper was banned from journalism for three years as part of his sentence on politically-motivated money laundering charges. An editor and the founders of another independent newspaper were convicted of defamation. Two activists were sentenced to five years imprisonment for protesting land reform proposals, and another remains in prison serving a 12-year sentence. In 2017, the regime convicted at least 22 people on charges of “inciting religious discord” while placing three-month bans on several Protestant and Jehovah’s Witness churches; a proposed law would further restrict religious teaching, proselytizing and publishing.91 In 2011, the same year WikiBilim’s founder was named Wikipedian of the Year, police massacred at least 14 protesters during an oilfield strike that turned into a riot, highlighting the poor relations between the regime and labor unions; the government responded by declaring a state of emergency and restricting access to journalists.92
After helping Kazakhstan reposition itself as a modern investment mecca, Wales was chosen in December 2014 (along with World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee) to receive the United Arab Emirates’ “Knowledge Award,” a $1 million technology prize invented for the occasion. Wikipedia users swarmed his talk page to protest both the country’s appalling human rights record and Wales’ apparent indifference. Wales finally snapped, “Every penny of the money will be used to combat human rights abuses worldwide with a specific focus on the Middle East and with a specific focus on freedom of speech / access to knowledge issues. Of course.”93 though when the Daily Dot suggested he was only turning to philanthropy to muffle the backlash due to his taking money from a(nother) repressive dictatorship, Wales demanded a correction.94 The UAE regime is notorious for flogging homosexuals, arresting rape victims, and using migrant workers as literal slave labor in the construction of its lavish luxury projects. It also “arbitrarily detains and in some cases forcibly disappears individuals who criticize the authorities”95 and regularly tortures both citizens and foreigners96 it has detained. In March 2018, the regime sentenced a human rights activist to ten years’ imprisonment on trumped-up charges including using social media to “publish false information that harms national unity.”97 Since March 2015, the UAE has partnered with Saudi Arabia in a lopsided assault on Yemen, the poorest country in the region, killing upwards of 7,000 civilians and wounding over 10,000.98 Armed with the finest and most expensive US weaponry, the Saudi-UAE coalition has blockaded the port city of Hodeidah in violation of international human rights law, placing the lives of 22 million Yemenis who depend on food aid at risk.99 Perched on top of billions of dollars’ worth of oil, the UAE can buy powerful friends, whether they run the US government or Wikipedia.
The Register pointed out that for Wales, “starting a foundation” with his Emirati blood money was a great way to reap the reputational benefits of “charity” while retaining control of the cash, which may have been Wales’ goal.100 Wales seems to like retaining control of prize money, even when the prize is one he’s supposed to be giving away. Two years after Kenzhekanuly was named Wikipedian of the Year, the Kazakh insider hadn’t seen a dime of the $5,000 that was supposed to accompany the award, nor had 2013’s winner, a Nigerian user known as Demmy.101 In 2014, Wales opted to honor Ukrainian student activist Ihor Kostenko, who was shot dead during the US-backed Euromaidan riots that culminated in the overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically-elected government and its replacement with a far-right fascist regime. Choosing Kostenko permitted Wales to reframe the dead Wiki editor’s life as a propaganda narrative – tragically cut down in his prime, all “because he wanted Ukraine to be led by people with a patriotic spirit”102 – and distract Americans from the fact that their government was arming the Nazis marching through the streets of Kiev.103
Wales’ surface proclivity for charity work clashes with his outspoken adherence to the Objectivist “philosophy” of Ayn Rand, which venerates individualism to the point of selfishness and bows to an absolute, inflexible rationality. Wales’ first wife, Pamela, told W he had actively discouraged her from pursuing a career in nursing during their marriage because “to him, altruism was evil.”104 His serial charity establishment is perhaps best understood in a mercenary context – by adopting the identity of a chronic do-gooder, he escapes the scrutiny that might accrue to the stereotypical internet billionaire who spends more time chasing tail than saving whales. Objectivism also explains the tendency of Wales’ charitable endeavors to end badly, as most recently occurred with The People’s Operator (TPO), a mobile communications firm that supposedly donated ten percent of users’ bills and a quarter of its earnings to charities of the user’s choice. In practice, only about 3.8% of revenue made it to charity in 2016.105
Wales was brought in by TPO founder Andrew Rosenfeld in January 2014 as Co-Chairman and Executive Director of Strategy and Digital Community, essentially a famous face to raise the profile of his company in the runup to a public offering.106 Rosenfeld was implicated in the Cash for Honours scandal in 2006, having loaned £1,033,000 to Tony Blair’s Labour party and found himself – along with seven of the other 11 businessmen who funded Labour’s 2005 General Election campaign – on Blair’s short-list for a life peerage;107 Blair-linked PR firm Portland Communications handled the publicity for both Wales’ hire and the share offering. TPO was a money-losing proposition from the beginning,108 but Wales’ backing encouraged enough investor confidence to net the firm £20 million in an IPO on the UK’s junior AIM market. After Rosenfeld died suddenly the following February, Wales took over as CEO, pulling a $400,000 annual salary while TPO’s value remained stagnant.109 To accompany TPO’s US rollout, which he assured investors would send its valuation north of £2 billion within 4 years, he tacked on a “viral” social network/donation platform110 to draw new customers in place of traditional marketing and advertising. When the carrier bungled the switch from a 3G to 4G network, leaving some customers without service for weeks at a time,111 financial losses accelerated. Wales stepped down as Executive Chairman in 2017; in June 2018, TPO sold off the same US customer base Wales had valued at billions of pounds for a bargain-basement £700,000 to stave off creditors.112 Within two weeks, Wales left the near-bankrupt husk of TPO to “concentrate on his other interests.”113 All the while TPO was posting year after year of losses, the press sang its praises, promising its fortunes would turn around at any moment. One couldn’t fault them for their optimism – they probably got their information from the TPO Wikipedia article, which was created and maintained by a company employee.114
TPO wasn’t Wales’ first foray into the charity realm. In December 2009, he partnered with then-girlfriend Andrea Weckerle to launch CiviliNation, a vaguely-defined initiative to combat online harassment and character assassination. The irony of Wales’ involvement in such an organization appears to have eluded him. CiviliNation’s 2011 financial disclosures showed 74% of expenses paid to Weckerle, as well as 82% in 2012 and 80% in 2013.115 In 2013, he helped launch model Lily Cole’s “altruism-based social network” Impossible.com, where users post their wishes to be granted by benevolent strangers. Cole, a multimillionaire, snared £200,000 of taxpayer-funded grants intended for the needy,116 rather perverting the whole charitable order by taking from the poor to give to the comfortably-off. A Huffington Post profile notes that “Impossible doesn’t fulfill the needs of people who are truly desperate – you won’t see a post from someone who is starving, for example” and Cole is not so detached from reality that she cannot understand the truly desperate may not be in a position to post their cries for help on the latest smartphone.117 One wonders if Wales’ charitable endeavors have not deliberately been chosen to prove – in true Objectivist style – the uselessness of charity.118
Moral Relativism for Dummies
UK PR firm Bell Pottinger was caught in December 2011 burnishing the Wikipedia entries of its clients, including the former president of Zambia and South African arms manufacturer Paramount Group, and adding negative information about its clients’ enemies, including journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown, the sister-in-law of then-UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown.119 Ten accounts, responsible for hundreds of edits, were suspended, and Wales stated he was “highly critical of their ethics,” adding that he had “never seen a case like this.”120 By 2016, Bell Pottinger was back on Wikipedia, editing articles for South African firm Oakbay Investments as part of a racially inflammatory PR campaign that positioned Oakbay’s wealthy Indian owners, the Gupta family, as victims of “white monopoly capital” even as public scrutiny of their influence in President Jacob Zuma’s government increased. The resulting scandal took down both Bell Pottinger and Zuma.121 It is not a stretch to suggest that the current racial unrest in South Africa can be partially laid at the feet of Bell Pottinger, the Guptas, and their disingenuous crusade against “white monopoly capitalism,” a term they popularized in an astroturfed social media campaign to promote their company and obscure its disproportionate influence within the Zuma government.
Bell Pottinger employees were caught on tape boasting of their ability to “sort” negative Wikipedia articles and manipulate Google search results to drown out negative coverage, and Wales was “astonished at the ethical blindness of Bell Pottinger’s reaction” to getting caught.122 But Minassian had proposed Wikipedia get involved in just this type of business operation in its 2016 media audit by suggesting the site introduce “a breaking news Twitter feed that pushes out neutral content when controversy breaks” – essentially a full-time distraction engine to be switched on in times of crisis. Wikimedia Executive Director Katherine Maher says Wikipedia “should be about creating information.”123 The Wikimedia Foundation actually paid a public relations firm to conduct a study concluding Wikimedia is the largest “participatory grantmaking” fund, then link to the Wikipedia definition of “participatory grantmaking” that uses an article from the same public relations firm as one of its only sources. Wikimedia was forced to issue a correction replacing the word “research” with “report,” as in “report that they commissioned,” as in “designation they paid for.”124 Creating information, indeed.
Wales’ wife’s firm, Freud Communications, regularly edits its own Wikipedia page125 – founded by a friend of Tony Blair, it enjoys supralegal status in the Wikipedia class hierarchy – and publishes a magazine called Baku for the daughter of Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliyev.126 It’s not surprising, then, that in January 2014, the Azerbaijani regime launched a “WikiDays” project through a youth organization it controls called IRELI Public Union. In partnership with Wikipedia Azerbaijan, instructors taught participants how to edit and protect articles with an eye toward the “principles of propaganda” – with the end goal of “encourag[ing] the youth to use Wikipedia in a correct manner, to protect interests of Azerbaijan in Wikipedia and prevent distortion of information about Azerbaijan.”127 The Aliyev regime also works with the Podesta Group, whose co-founder John Podesta chaired Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and served as Chief of Staff to Bill Clinton,128 and hired the ubiquitous Blair to seal a pipeline deal. In 2017, the Azerbaijani government sentenced 25 journalists and activists to lengthy prison terms following politically-motivated show trials. Torture of prisoners is common, as is harassment of suspected LGBT individuals. In May 2017, authorities permanently blocked the websites of a number of independent and opposition media outlets, citing “national security threats.”129 One wonders why, if Wikipedia is so amenable to servicing the needs of authoritarian governments, Turkey went the route of banning the site altogether. Surely they can afford to buy their way into Jimmy Wales’ good graces.
It seems that wherever Tony Blair goes, Wales follows. In 2012, Blair facilitated the Qatari royal family’s purchase of a stake in British hotel group Coroin.130 The Qatar Foundation soon became one of the top 20 donors to the Wikimedia Foundation, contributing upwards of $100,000 in 2013, and the Qatar Foundation’s Wikipedia article soon undertook a makeover at the hands of “Jmgrayling,” seemingly a Grayling PR employee. Grayling had only recently taken over the Qatari account from Bell Pottinger, where user “Annikabenn” had been busily editing the Qatar Foundation’s article for her own firm.131 Like the UAE, Qatar treats its migrant laborers like slaves, confiscating passports and documents so that they cannot leave, withholding payment of wages, and mandating a sponsorship system that forbids them from changing employers.132 The country also blocks access to its only independent news website from its two internet service providers.133
Wikipedia has a pattern of shutting out anti-establishment points of view on controversial topics, and it is here that it becomes important to distinguish between the traditionally-understood concept of Truth and Wikipedia’s version. Wikipedia relies on consensus, not ultimate Truth – the more sources support a particular view, the more likely that view will prevail. Wikipedia’s rules on what constitutes a reliable source have evolved over the years to exclude all “alternative” media outlets, particularly where politics and health are concerned. Even publications like Mother Jones and the Nation, which barely deviate from the mainstream, are consigned to the no-man’s-land of unreliable sources, while Vox and Mic – which didn’t exist 10 years ago – enjoy a place of privilege in the Wikipedia editor’s toolbox.134 Thus placing their finger on the scale, Wikipedia ensures editors come to contested pages with viewpoints already slanted toward the establishment narrative. A Harvard Business School study purported to show that opposing political factions moved toward the center over time in a consensus model, but they assumed a level playing field that simply does not exist in Wikipedia.135 When only mainstream sources count, status quo is easily mistaken for Truth.
The Croatian language Wikipedia exemplifies one danger of a consensus-focused model. Over the past decade, a group of far-right ideologues gradually seized control of the site in an internet putsch so thorough that the Croatian Minister of Education now actively discourages students from using it, warning “that a large part of the content of the Croatian version of Wikipedia is not only dubious but also [contains] obvious forgeries, and therefore we invite them to use more reliable sources of information.” Somehow, he still includes “Wikipedia in English and in other major languages of the world” in “reliable sources,” clearly not grasping the reason Croatian Wikipedia went so far off the rails.136 In 2009, fewer than 10 conservative administrators began consolidating their hold on power, banning and suspending certain editors for their liberal or moderate views on hot-button topics. Much of the controversial material centers on the Ustaša, a fascist group that operated from 1929 to 1945, serving as a puppet government under the Third Reich and massacring hundreds of thousands of political dissidents, Serbs, Jews, Roma, and other racial and ethnic minorities. Their crimes have all but disappeared from Croatian Wikipedia, and other articles have also been changed to reflect a strong bias against Serbs and LGBT people.137 The situation remains unresolved because to “fix“ it would require rewriting the rules of Wikipedia, in which consensus – not truth – is the goal. If Croatian Wikipedians find “collection camp“ more accurate a term than “concentration camp“ to describe the wartime prisons of Eastern Europe where racial and ethnic minorities and dissidents were rounded up and worked to death, Wikipedia can't step in and change that consensus without running afoul of its entire ecosystem of rules. Ultimately, politically-motivated historical revisionism is no different than scientific Skepticism, except one is considered permissible in polite company.
Alternative Medicine Under Siege
Holistic health professionals are subjected to an online Inquisition when they attempt to edit false statements and libel out of their profiles only to have the edits immediately reverted and their life’s work dismissed. It was Dr. Gary Null’s investigation into this phenomenon that first alerted me that Wikipedia was playing fast and loose with the facts beyond of the political realm, and I use him here as an example not to sing his praises but because his case is such a clear example of the site’s bias. Null is a board-certified clinical nutritionist who has conducted over 40 clinical studies on lifestyle and diet, more than anyone else in his field. He hosts the longest-running daily non-commercial radio program in history and for 12 years ran the most popular show on WABC. He has published over 700 articles, many in peer-reviewed journals, and has been invited to present his findings at scientific conferences. His research showed humans could not only survive but thrive on a diet wholly devoid of animal protein. His documentaries, including Death by Medicine, the Drugging of Our Children, and Seeds of Death, have won more than 276 awards. He has counseled tens of thousands of people over his 50-year career, never charging a penny. None of these achievements are in his Wikipedia bio, which focuses instead on his divergence from medical orthodoxy and accuses him of quackery. I did not merely take Null’s word at face value when evaluating his statements against those of the Wikipedia page he has been wrestling with for the better part of a decade. Instead, my investigation revealed a pattern of systemic bias that has the entirety of Wikipedia’s medicine and science coverage in its thrall.
Wikipedia’s article on Null is theoretically subject to the strictest standards of verifiability as a Biography of a Living Person. Editors working on Null’s behalf have pointed out that the primary source for the majority of false and libelous information on his page is “Quackwatch,” the personal website of Stephen Barrett, a discredited former psychiatrist who has made it his life’s purpose to “debunk” alternative and natural health practitioners. Such a site does not meet Wikipedia’s guidelines for a reliable source. In Wikipedia’s own words, “Anyone can create a personal web page or publish their own book, and also claim to be an expert in a certain field. For that reason, self-published media, such as books, patents, newsletters, personal websites, open wikis, personal or group blogs (as distinguished from newsblogs, above), content farms, Internet forum postings, and social media postings, are largely not acceptable as sources. Never use self-published sources as third-party sources about living people, even if the author is an expert, well-known professional researcher, or writer.”138 But Barrett’s acolytes, a group of ideologically-driven Wikipedia editors calling themselves Skeptics, revert every edit that attempts to correct the record on Null. They stonewall attempts to delete his page and block editors who make repeated efforts to remove the defamatory material. Attempts to take the matter to higher authorities are persistently rebuffed.
After Null and his lawyers gave up on correcting individual facts within the article, they nominated it for deletion. They reasoned that surely a person who was dismissed as a quack by so many editors should not be deemed worthy of a page in the first place. However, half a dozen Skeptics circled the wagons and invoked “WP:SNOW,” a declaration that the motion literally had a snowball’s chance in hell of passing, after less than 36 hours of deliberation. The “judge” who sentenced Null to indefinite detention without a trial in the Wikipedia gulag sided with the Skeptics before anyone else could get a word in.139 The article shows clear evidence not only of bias but of awareness of that bias, with a notice marked “Please read before starting” alerting new editors to the presence of “fringe theories and pseudoscience” and linking to the pages instructing editors on “how Wikipedia deals with fringe views.”140 Such prejudicial editing instructions turn Wikipedia’s editing process into a kangaroo court, effectively dismissing the mountains of evidence supporting Null’s work in favor of the unsupported allegations of a few biased editors.
There was an extended discussion among Wikipedia editors on how to treat Quackwatch as a source. One camp suggested that if Barrett was such an expert, surely his views could be found in other publications considered more reliable; other users acknowledged the point, but maintained that Quackwatch was “often the only or best source available,” and should be treated as reliable because Barrett has been quoted in other media considered reliable. When someone brought up Barrett’s bias against alternative and natural medicine, stating that he was holding these therapies to a higher standard of efficacy than conventional modern medicine, they replied that this was to be expected, as he was a scientific Skeptic. According to these editors, Barrett’s bias represented a “legitimate and necessary form of double standard” of the sort practiced at Wikipedia itself – “the more extraordinary a claim, the heavier is the burden of proof demanded.” The same senior user suggested that any editor who attacks Quackwatch should be placed under observation in preparation to ban. “Attacking such reliable sources is a pretty obvious symptom that one's POV and ideologies are screwed up.”141 Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia’s Susan Gerbic, who has taught dozens of Skeptics how to edit Wikipedia articles, is borderline fanatical in her motivations for editing: “we’re not doing this project for us, we’re doing this project for the world,” she gushes to fellow Skeptics, sharing how “awesome” she felt after inserting the word “quackery” into the first paragraph of Wikipedia’s homeopathy article.142 In another video, she shows off a t-shirt reading “Big Pharma Shillin’ “ to audience applause.143 These are not neutral editors, and it is extremely unlikely such ideologically motivated actors can put aside their biases to weigh in on the edits of others. Skepticism appears to be official policy at Wikipedia.
Skeptics vs. the Facts
Barrett has spent 40 years attacking anyone involved in holistic health practice, while admitting he has never studied any natural therapeutic systems because they “don’t make sense.”144 When his opinions are given the barest scrutiny, they fall apart. He simply does not have the scientific literature on his side, and cannot be considered a reliable source just because he is quoted as an expert in outside publications. By that logic, New York Times reporter Judith Miller would be considered a reliable source on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Her “intel” from the operative codenamed Curveball was quoted by not only other media outlets but Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell! Yet Miller’s faulty intelligence led to over a million casualties and more than 10 million people internally displaced in Iraq, where no weapons of mass destruction were ever found. The Wikipedia community’s unquestioning acceptance of Quackwatch is causing another kind of damage, not only to the practitioners who lose their livelihoods as a result of Barrett’s character assassination but to the millions of people who might have sought out potentially life-saving therapies if they hadn’t read something disparaging about them on the fifth most popular site on the web.
Dr. Dean Ornish, for example, has reversed heart disease in patients so sick they were told they would die without a transplant, yet Quackwatch dismisses his work because (it claims) “there’s virtually no science” in it and because he is open about having learned about the importance of a plant-based diet from an Indian guru.145 Quackwatch has no evidence to contradict Ornish’s work, or Null’s, or any of the other professionals the site categorically dismisses. Wikipedia’s Skeptic editors have no sense of responsibility for the human consequences of their aversion to fact-checking, no acknowledgment that they could be wrong, having never taken the time to educate themselves about treatment modalities like acupuncture, chiropractic, or even nutrition. Why should they? Wales himself makes no secret of his disdain for alternative practitioners, whom he calls “lunatic charlatans,” echoing the terminology of the Skeptics,146 who have enshrined his derision in policy.147
I reviewed the scientific literature on five topics where Null and Barrett disagree – sugar, alcohol, mercury, fluoridation, and the safety of vitamins and minerals – and after scanning thousands of abstracts, found Barrett to be wrong on every issue.148 Why would Wikipedia’s editors, who hold such power over public opinion, not do the research needed to reveal he has no credibility on these matters? This is no mere oversight – when credible information is supplied by other editors, on Null’s page and elsewhere, it is rejected, often within minutes. We all make mistakes, but when one is so arrogant they cannot acknowledge their error and instead insist on repeating it, there must be consequences. Wikipedia has insulated itself from legal action using section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which holds that as a neutral content platform it is not responsible for what is written by editors on the site. However, by selectively applying its rules, it takes on editorial functions and exits that legal sanctuary. Wikipedia must answer for its malicious actions, for all the lies it has perpetuated and truths it has covered up. Because it cloaks itself in the non-profit structure of the Wikimedia Foundation, its day of reckoning must include an investigative review and audit by the Internal Revenue Service.
Sunlight Is the Best Disinfectant
George Galloway, Rupert Sheldrake, Jill Stein, Gary Null and the other victims of Wikipedia’s character assassination are public figures. They stand behind their positions and are open and available for debate and discussion. Because Wikipedia editors are anonymous, their backgrounds remain unknown, their biases hidden. There is no way to tell whether an editor is an expert or a malicious actor. In 2007, a prolific Wikipedia editor who claimed to be a graduate professor with degrees in theology and canon law was revealed to be a 24-year-old college dropout. Ryan Jordan, who contributed to 16,000 Wikipedia entries during his time at the site, rose to become a member of the Arbitration Committee, Wikipedia’s “supreme court,” before he was unmasked.149 It is a simple matter for powerful groups like the pharmaceutical industry and the CIA to infiltrate Wikipedia and libel their enemies – people like John Pilger, Seymour Hersh, Chris Hedges, and Glenn Greenwald, who have a history of shining a spotlight on the corruption and criminality of our institutions. How better to silence them than to assassinate their character – even when they’ve been shown, time and time again, to be accurate? Wikipedia acts as Grand Inquisitor, presiding over online show trials in which the victims are prohibited from defending themselves and forced to watch as their names are dragged through the mud.
My research confirms beyond a shadow of a doubt that Wikipedia
• supports repressive dictatorships
• promotes certain political candidates and attacks others
• accepts donations in return for favorable coverage
• is hostile to non-mainstream media
• suppresses holistic health information
• permits the publication of libel, maliciously and selectively
and that these problems are part of a systemic bias that reaches to the core of the platform, rendering all information it provides suspect. If ideologically-motivated actors are able to get away with epistemological murder in one subject area, it’s all but certain they are pulling off similar crimes elsewhere.
Wikipedia may have begun life as an open-source utopia of free knowledge, but it has devolved into a repressive oligarchy run by unaccountable petty tyrants. It is a punitive system that targets those who refuse to toe the line. Anyone who represents a threat to the establishment can become a victim, and once an ideologically-motivated cabal of editors sinks its teeth into your article, there is no way to remove them. Because of space restrictions, I have reserved some material for future articles, including revelations from whistleblowers and independent legal expertise outlining how Wikipedia can be challenged in the courts. Once the first lawsuit is won, there will be a torrent of legal action as all those who have been victimized by Wikipedia step forward to claim their pound of flesh.
I believe that Jimmy Wales knows he is not what he pretends to be – that for all his famous friends, for all the fawning media profiles he commissions, he lives in terror that someday someone will pull back the curtain and expose him. I believe it is this fear and insecurity that leads him to overreact to the slightest criticism with such disproportionate vitriol, only opening his mouth in order to more deeply wedge his foot in it. Wales seems terrified he – and his site – will soon be exposed as shallow, hollow, biased impostors, with no more authenticity than a Hollywood set. Like others who, thinking themselves omnipotent, have abused their positions of power – the Harvey Weinsteins, Robert Dursts, Dennis Hasterts, and Bernie Madoffs of the world – Wales will fall victim to his own hubris.
Denial is America’s national virtue. Until we are shown incontrovertible proof that a respected authority is lying to us, we cling to that authority tenaciously, lest our worldview begin to crumble. Once the world knows the truth about Wales and Wikipedia, they will wonder how they ever trusted this organization to serve as an encyclopedia, fact-checker, judge, jury and executioner. Gazing upon the ruins of one of the greatest frauds of the 21st century, they will be forced to wonder who else is lying to them. Therefore, it will not be the mainstream media who exposes the truth, for they are too invested in the status quo. Only brave independent journalists will have the integrity to expose this deception and bring the fraudulent edifice of Jimmy Wales crashing down once and for all.
This is only the beginning of a multi-part investigation. Stronger revelations are forthcoming.
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