- Written by Helen Buyniski
- Category: Wikipedia
Over half a billion people visit Wikipedia every day. The site enjoys top billing in Google search results, and has all the trappings of a reliable source. It’s an encyclopedia, after all - like Britannica, it’s expected to have accurate, trustworthy, unbiased information. But a real encyclopedia doesn’t permit anonymous editors with no scholastic background to edit whatever they please. Even the crowd-sourced, fair and unbiased encyclopedia that Wikipedia claims to be doesn’t permit the sort of pay-for-play editing and uneven application of the rules that have made Wikipedia a goldmine for propagandists and a nightmare for unorthodox figures in every discipline.
All this happens with the full blessing of Jimmy Wales and the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit to which he gifted Wikipedia nearly two decades ago. The Foundation is run by executive director Katherine Maher and a growing stable of paid employees, none of whom are paid to write encyclopedia articles, and overseen by a hand-selected board of trustees, most of whom remain utterly unknown to the vast majority of internet users who consume - deliberately or indirectly - Wikipedia content daily. This is their story. The difference between what you are about to read and the bios featured on Wikipedia is that these are accurate and well-sourced.
The Wikimedia Foundation, according to its website, wants you to “imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.” But spend a few hours on its flagship product, Wikipedia, and you can see just how loosely that term - “knowledge” - is defined. Wikipedia seems not to believe in the concept of truth, only verifiability - anything can be included in its articles so long as it has been written in a “reliable source.” And any source can become reliable if enough editors justify the decision to make it so. This nightmarish postmodernism has given rise to one of the preeminent repositories of disinformation on the internet.
Wikimedia Foundation trustees don’t bother themselves with such issues, of course. Many may be on the Foundation’s board in the hope of basking in the reputational glow of the group that runs the fifth-most popular website in existence, or because they want some say in guiding the future of an incredibly powerful website without having to answer to either an employer or the public. Certainly they don’t expect to be taken to task for facilitating the reputation-destruction mechanism that Wikipedia has become, or have their own histories scrutinized. But that is precisely what we plan to do here, in the hope that they think twice going forward about associating themselves with such a noxious, malevolent organization.
The Wikimedia Foundation begs for money via intrusive banners across the top of Wikipedia pages, banners which implore the viewer to give just a few dollars lest the site be shut down completely for lack of funds. These banners are the internet equivalent of a “beggar” who rises after a day sitting with a cardboard sign on the sidewalk conning hardworking people out of their spare change and steps into a Ferrari, from whence they’re chauffeured to their posh Upper East Side penthouse. The Wikimedia Foundation took in over $112 million last year in donations,1 and a Smithsonian article from way back in 2013 valued the site at “tens of billions of dollars,” with a replacement cost of $6.6 billion.2 Not a bad deal for a site that pays its content creators - the editors who write the articles - nothing, and indeed takes their money as well as their time through guilt-inducing begging banners, slurping up many times what is required to run the site every year.
The Foundation, unlike the editors, is largely parasitic - its employees, whose numbers swell with the excess cash taken in with every fundraising campaign, provide little to no value to the average Wikipedia reader, while its trustees do little more than pad their resumes with the Foundation name. Indeed, in our opinion, instead of providing value, they subtract it - whether through absconding with Foundation funds to pay for their vacations, or running roughshod over Wikipedia rules to push their pet agenda.
Maria Sefidari (Wikipedia alias Raystorm), chair of the Board of Trustees, has long been involved in managing the Foundation’s money, serving on multiple governance committees before becoming a trustee. She has an impeccable social-justice pedigree, having founded Spanish Wikipedia’s LGBT WikiProject and a Spanish-language women’s editing group. Sefidari came under the microscope recently when her erstwhile wife/girlfriend, Laura Hale, allegedly used her connections to get a longtime Wikipedia administrator, Fram, banned from editing after he corrected her sloppy work one time too many. Fram’s ban was handed down by the all-powerful Wikimedia Foundation for nebulous reasons of “abuse,” but unlike the usual permanent bans the Foundation hands out for unpardonable crimes, it was only temporary. Moreover, the Foundation’s Trust & Safety team had not discussed the matter with the Arbitration Committee, the editorial disciplinary board, at all before unilaterally blocking the editor. Fram did not suffer fools gladly and could be short with editors who repeatedly violated the rules; he had been hauled in front of disciplinary committees more than once over the previous years,3 but many attempts to bring proceedings against him were declined. When the “evidence” against Fram finally emerged, the “over a dozen people” who’d supposedly complained were found to have done so over a six-year period; many so-called “victims” denied having been harassed or hounded at all.4
Fram’s allies at Wikipedia did what the site’s editors do well - research - and uncovered a handful of minor altercations with Hale, an editor who could never seem to get the hang of the encyclopedia’s rules. Fram had been firm but not cruel with Hale, telling her to stop editing until she could grasp concepts like plagiarism and coherence - and Hale had, some editors suggested, run crying into Sefidari’s arms. For months, she ran a banner on her user page explicitly directed at Fram, telling him to keep away unless he was prepared to interact through a handful of editors of her choice and/or the Trust & Safety team.5 Hale was an unabashedly terrible editor, copy-pasting an incoherent swathe through paralympic athletes, obscure elements of feminism, abortion minutiae, and other marginal topics with a social justice aura that were likely to endear her to Sefidari and the board. And while some said she had a bit of a history as an internet grifter, crying sexism whenever a community got wise to her machinations,6 that was a feature, not a bug, for the Foundation, which used a poorly-written paper she’d written around the time of the GamerGate controversy in 2014 in a list of material its nascent “Support and Safety” (soon to become Trust and Safety, the division which banned Fram) team compiled about online harassment (likely due to the dearth of Wikipedia-specific material).7 When the Foundation wanted to expand its range of bannable offenses to include “incivility,” it was only natural they’d reach for Hale’s complaints, several editors alleged.8
Even if the Hale story is pure fiction - and Sefidari not only denies it but “protests too much,” accusing its authors of “bad faith” and involvement with the dreaded GamerGate9 (how could anyone possibly think a trustee would intervene on behalf of their spouse?)10 - Sefidari’s hands aren’t exactly clean. When first appointed as a trustee, Sefidari helped change the voting rules for the selection of two trustee positions so that Wikipedia User Groups gained the voting rights that had previously been limited to Chapters. This move benefited Hale, who’d started two user groups and was thus able to vote on behalf of one in the Foundation’s 2019 board election. Researchers on Wikipedia criticism board Wikipediocracy turned up several more conflicts of interest involving Hale and Sefidari, many of which involved the latter steering Foundation grants the former’s way. With Sefidari’s help, less than a year after joining her paramour in Madrid in 2013, Hale was able to first convince the Spanish Paralympic Committee into sponsoring her as a Wikipedian in Residence (a sort of official editor for nonprofits), despite not speaking Spanish,11 and then managed to use that title to convince the Wikimedia Foundation to pay her way to a paralympic alpine skiing event (bringing Sefidari as guest, for a total of €1035).12 Hale had been milking the Foundation for a while - along with her previous roommate/mate, Australian editor Ross Mallett (Hawkeye7), she’d wheedled $11,000 out of them to attend the London 2012 Paralympics.13 She’d eventually get the Foundation to pay for trips to Argentina, London, Amsterdam, Slovakia, and Berlin.14
Sefidari’s Wikimedia Foundation bio is rather bold about these extracurricular activities and her casual use of Foundation cash, hinting that she “travels around the world” “in her spare time” - though neglecting to mention this travel is often done on the Foundation’s dime. Nor does the Foundation get its money worth out of these junkets, since Wikipedia is based on secondary sources alone (i.e. articles that have already been written in so-called “reliable sources”) and Wikinews’ readers are vanishingly sparse. Worse, Hale may have taken cash from the Australian Center for Paralympic Studies to mass-create the thousands of poorly-written articles that set Fram and other editors’ teeth on edge,15 creating the kind of conflict of interest that is supposed to be either banned outright or at least acknowledged on a Wikipedia editor’s user page.
Hale even rewarded her wife for entrée into the upper echelons of the Foundation by writing a lengthy and rather ridiculous article on “Lesbians during the socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero,” prominently featuring Sefidari (with photo) as “one of the major writers of the English Wikipedia article, ’Same-sex marriage in Spain,’ updating the article often in 2007.” Nothing says ‘notable’ like editing a Wikipedia article, especially ‘often!’ Digging deeper into Sefidari’s background, editor Vigilant at Wikipediocracy claimed he was “almost certain” that Sefidari’s academic credentials were “completely fabricated.”16 There is no evidence she has worked as a professor, aside from teaching a “vanity class” or two at the university where she claims to be studying for her PhD.17 But for all the couple’s transgressions, “increased activity in covering disability related issues and sensitivity in making Wikipedia more disability friendly” - along with increased activity in the LGBT and feminism subject areas - was considered more important than following the rules.
It may seem unfair to scrutinize Sefidari’s life in this manner; however, she is the chair of the Foundation’s board of trustees, and as such must be aware of conflicts of interest, lest she bring the entire organization into violation of the regulations governing charities (either in the US or elsewhere). According to California state law governing nonprofits (and the Foundation is headquartered in California, even though Sefidari and Hale live in Spain), “a staff member who is affiliated with a prospective vender, consultant, or grantee shall abstain from participating in any decision involving that vendor, consultant, or grantee,” and specifies that in a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, “no part of the net earnings of [a foundation] inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual.” Regulations also bar “excess benefit transactions” in which a charity provides excessive economic benefits to a “disqualified person,” a term that includes spouses and relatives of board members. Board members are also required to divulge conflicts of interest on at least an annual basis18 - for all Sefidari’s defense of Hale in Wikipedia’s talk pages, she never makes reference to the pair’s romantic relationship (except to deny it amid the Fram controversy). Sefidari’s actions don’t just cast the rest of the organization into disrepute - they could jeopardize the Foundation’s tax-exempt status.
Because Wikipedia editors are almost exclusively white males from the global North, the Foundation is desperate for diversity - and it will set its vaunted principles on fire to get it. Whether it’s embracing Sefidari and Hale, or putting out a call on its website for nonwhite editors to “help correct history,” the Foundation wears its desperation on its sleeve.19 Thus it’s no coincidence that the Board’s gender balance is skewed opposite of its editors’, with two thirds of the trustees being female - or claiming to be.
Esra'a al-Shafei is a Bahrainian trustee represented online solely by a cartoon illustration - supposedly because her work as a human rights activist and pro-LGBTQ organizer in the Middle East has put her at risk. This intrigue has the benefit of getting the 33-year-old activist praised as “brave” - to the point of winning the “Most Courageous Media” prize from Free Press Unlimited. However, one could be forgiven for questioning her bona fides, especially after the revelation several years ago that a supposedly lesbian Syrian woman who regularly called out President Bashar al-Assad on her blog Gay Girl in Damascus was actually a middle-aged American man living in Scotland.20 A sense of déja vu begins to set in when one learns that the “Most Courageous Media” prize appears to have been awarded exactly once, in 2015, to al-Shafei. Her identity checks out in other ways, however, mostly concerning the wide array of prizes she has received. In 2013, she was honored by the royal family of Monaco for her role in the Arab Spring, having created a platform called CrowdVoice to curate grassroots reports from protests worldwide (the platform recently folded after congratulating itself for serving its purpose - great news, oppressed peoples of the world, your struggles are over!).21
Other groups that have showered her with money include the Shuttleworth Foundation, the Knight Foundation (which has also given generously to Wikipedia, and whose director Raul Moas was involved in USAID’s efforts to build a Twitter clone in Cuba called ZunZuneo to foment a “color revolution” echoing those of the Arab Spring22), and the Dutch government, which awarded her the Human Rights Tulip. The Dutch government has proven itself a poor judge of character in the Middle East, however, awarding aid to 22 “moderate rebel” groups in Syria from 2015 to 2018, grants that continued long after many of these groups' ties to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups were exposed.23
Al-Shafei first surfaced in 2006 at the helm of Mideast Youth, an advocacy group for LGBT young people in the region, which later changed its name to Majal and expanded its remit to include other targeted ethnic and social groups in a way that conveniently overlapped with the activities of the US military and State Department in the region. By 2007, it had spawned an “Alliance for Kurdish Rights” - NATO’s preferred group for fomenting regime change in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, where it has dreams of cobbling together a client state out of the most resource-rich parts of those countries (and has already begun the process with Iraqi Kurdistan in that country’s north) - and “Middle East Youth Farsi,” shut down two years later in the midst of the failed US-backed “Green Revolution” in Iran, ostensibly “in order to protect our members in Iran.” Majal gave birth to CrowdVoice in 2010 in the midst of the Arab Spring, while the organization registered itself in the Netherlands in 2012 “in order to protect our finances from being frozen by regional governments.” The timeline suggests Majal is affiliated with one of the many soft-power tentacles of US Empire, an extensive network of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) funded by shell companies and nesting-doll subsidiaries of USAID and NED (as well as obscure prizes and fellowships) to foment unrest in targeted countries. Running an advocacy group for LGBT youth in a Muslim country is squarely within the sweet spot for the US’ regime-change industry, and al-Shafei’s made-for-TV rhetoric - she’s all about “revolutionizing the young people” and “changing the region’s status quo” by “living up to the full potential of the internet” - is right up their alley.24
How a then-teenage Bahrainian girl taught herself to use the internet well enough in just six years (she claims to have gained internet access “in the early 2000s”)25 to create her own online platform, then hooked up with the myriad sources of funding she has accessed, from Harvard University to the Rockefeller Foundation, is never satisfactorily explained in the handful of interviews she’s done (her arms surprisingly bared in western clothes, her face always kept carefully out of frame). Soft-spoken, with just a hint of an Arabic accent, her biography as she relates it - becoming one of Bahrain’s leading LGBT activists while living under the roof of parents who supposedly know little about her work beyond that she’s “in human rights” - stretches the limits of credulity, as do her reasons for taking what is supposedly such a dangerous career path - she claims witnessing the “inhumane treatment” of migrant workers as a child, plus stereotypical portrayals of Middle Eastern youth in the media, led her to forsake a life of ease for the hunted life of an internet rebel.26 It’s easy to see how this too-perfect figure, orbited by deep-pocketed foundations orders of magnitude richer than itself, appealed to the Wikimedia Foundation, which hired the young activist in December 2017, showering her with praise (“her achievements exemplify how intentional community building can be a powerful tool for positive change, while her passion for beautiful and engaging user experiences will only elevate our work”).27 Al-Shafei returned the flattery and then some, claiming that in her first encounters with Wikipedia, shortly after coming online, she “felt that the true purpose of the internet was realized” (the internet she’d known for less than a year, apparently). Wikipedia inspired al-Shafei’s own platforms, Mideast Youth, Majal, and all their branches, she claims.
How did the Wikimedia Foundation chance upon the camera-shy cartoon crusader? The Foundation does not give away its secrets, but she could have rubbed shoulders with Jimmy Wales at Davos - the World Economic Forum named her one of “15 Women Changing the World in 2015,” and has since appointed her to its Global Future Council on Human Rights and Technology28 - or as early as 2008, when she received an award from Harvard Law’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, where Wales is a fellow. Al-Shafei was embraced into the bosom of Wikipedia as a keynote speaker to 2017’s Wikimania conference in Montreal. There, she wowed the Foundation with a talk on “Experiences from the Middle East: Overcoming Challenges and Serving Communities.”.29 While all the other speeches were livestreamed and archived for later viewing, al-Shafei’s was shrouded in secrecy, with attendees warned that attempting to photograph or record her would result in ejection from the conference. “Due to the nature of al-Shafei’s work, online photos may endanger her safety in her home country,” the conference notes state with obvious titillation.30
James Heilman is a Canadian emergency room physician who runs WikiProject Medicine (WPM) and the WikiProject Med Foundation, the site’s primary vehicle for interfacing with Big Pharma. WPM came up with the MEDRS - short for “medical reliable sources” - guidelines that require editors editing health-related articles to use a higher standard of source than typical articles. It’s a smart rule, aside from the mile-wide loopholes carved into it by the FRINGE guideline appended by so-called “Skeptics” who demand the right to libel alternative medical practitioners they deem “lunatic charlatans” - a term that was actually enshrined in semi-official Wikipedia policy after co-founder Jimmy Wales used it to repudiate a petition from a group of practitioners begging for fair treatment.31 The ironically-named activists who call themselves Skeptics are characterized by a quasi-religious regard for orthodox medical “science” - which in their view is unchangeable, unquestionable, existing in a state of timeless perfection - and a seething hatred for medical practices that haven’t made it into the mainstream, even (especially) if they have been shown to work. If a practice or healer does not fit into current medical orthodoxy, it is susceptible to being edited under FRINGE rather than MEDRS, at which point even self-published sources that normally aren’t permitted as Wikipedia citations can be weaponized against the hapless article subject. Heilman is a relentless proselytizer, singing the praises of Wikipedia’s medical accuracy32 as he spearheads the Foundation’s efforts to insinuate Wikipedia into real-world health agencies. Accordingly, he has encouraged and organized editing initiatives at the National Institutes of Health, the National Libraries of Medicine,33 even pharma conglomerate GlaxoSmithKline. The World Health Organization is even collaborating with Wikipedia on its revision of the International Classification of Diseases into the ICD-11,34 a sobering thought given the pro-pharmaceutical leanings and general inaccuracies rampant in Wikipedia’s medical content.
Despite Heilman’s proclamations that Wikipedia has brought about a new dawn in medicine, the site’s medical articles are riddled with verification issues and apparent conflicts of interest. Informed that Wikipedia was unwittingly mirroring a crowdsourced pharmaceutical database called Drugbank that had gotten its own information from Wikipedia - a circular-reporting phenomenon called citogenesis - Heilman took no action beyond adding Drugbank to a list of mirror sites and calling Drugbank to complain about its sloppy sourcing.35 Yet this is the website that is increasingly supplanting traditional medical resources for students and doctors. Faced with the gulf of missing and inaccurate information, Heilman has repeatedly tried to push the blame onto medical professionals, chiding them for not making updating Wikipedia a part of their job.36 Of course, doctors who try to bring the encyclopedia up to date on naturopathic treatments, or the benefits of supplements, will find their contributions trashed and perhaps their usernames topic-banned from the medical subject area - because their work in alternative medicine creates a “conflict of interest.” Heilman's own medical career, of course, is excused from any such conflict, as are the editors who hail from health agencies and drug companies who’ve passed through Wikipedia’s train-the-experts programs.
Heilman was quick to throw even his fellow worshipers of orthodox medicine under the bus last year in a rush to seal a deal with video production company Osmosis that would replace high-traffic medical articles with 5-10 minute “explainer” videos prominently featuring the company’s branding. When the first videos were unveiled in March 2018 after three years of sub-rosa collaboration, furious editors rushed to delete the monstrosities (which in addition to pushing vaccines and orthodox drug treatments also included inaccurate and outdated medical information).37 The deletions were reverted by Heilman and another editor working for Osmosis as the company promised to fix the problems - meanwhile leaving the erroneous medical information front and center, in many cases replacing well-sourced articles crafted over the years by the WPM spell out community - and when editors continued to object, Heilman tried to have one of the dissenters banned. Finally, Heilman seemed to cave, convincing Osmosis to remove all mention of the project from their website and removing the clips from the offending articles - but a month later they had returned as “works in progress,” allowing editors to leave feedback.38
WIkiProject Medicine hasn’t just encouraged health regulators and pharma reps to try their hand at editing - it has weaseled its way into medical schools around the world, from the University of California at San Francisco to Tel Aviv University’s Sackler School of Medicine (yes, those Sacklers of OxyContin fame - when you’re suspected39 40 of conducting pharmaceutical experiments on imprisoned Palestinians considered second-class citizens under your legal system,41 opioid profiteering is small potatoes) Heilman runs a massive translation program designed to spread the western medical viewpoint around the world,42 which sounds benevolent until one remembers that the US doesn’t just have the highest-priced healthcare in the world - it has one of the lowest life expectancies in the developed world, too.43 A concurrent project seeks to audit Wikipedia’s medical articles to ensure they their content conforms to so-called “Evidence-based Medicine” (EBM) - another term that sounds utterly benign, even desirable until one observes that its practitioners rely not on clinical evidence, treatments that have been shown to cure patients, but on textbook evidence, treatments that “should” work based on established medical orthodoxy. EBM’s primacy in Wikipedia is maintained by the (profoundly unskeptical) Skeptics, who are allowed to run rampant under Heilman’s sympathetic rule. Heilman in 2016 revealed that WikiProject Medicine was working with Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders). The project apparently involved translating articles and creating a set of standards to be imposed across language wikis; it was connected to Wikipedia Zero, the Foundation’s effort to penetrate areas with little to no internet access by offering devices capable of accessing a handful of websites, one of which is (of course) Wikipedia. One can imagine a tragicomic scenario in which a team of Wikipedia-educated doctors descend on some poor war-ravaged country and extend the victims’ suffering by limiting their treatments to Skeptic-approved “Science”-Based Medicine - while some knowledge is certainly better than none, handing a doctor in an isolated village a device capable of accessing only Wikipedia means that doctor must now choose between treating patients as they are accustomed to doing, or trusting Wikipedia - since they can’t check references or use a search engine to compare what non-Wikipedia sources say.44
Heilman's one-two punch of mainstreaming and disseminating dubiously verifiable pro-Big Pharma material has reportedly already convinced Indians in Malappuram to embrace vaccines in the face of so-called “fake messages” on WhatsApp and Facebook45 - disregarding India’s appalling history with western vaccination campaigns. Over half a dozen children died and hundreds were sickened following a 2009 Gardasil vaccination campaign in Andhra Pradesh; two more were killed and many more injured in Gujarat following a Cervarix campaign that same year. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), which conducted the trials, nevertheless declared them a roaring success, though a later investigation found consent for the vaccinations was often obtained illegally and the illnesses and deaths were largely covered up or explained away as unrelated to the shots, assisted by local government. The American NGO that carried out the studies on behalf of the BMGF, the Orwellian-sounding Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH), was reportedly in talks with the Indian government to include the HPV vaccine in the country’s Universal Immunization Program, an initiative that fortunately ran aground on the bodies of its victims.46
But the BGMF didn’t stop there. In 2011, a five-in-one shot called Pentavalent (including diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, hepatitis B, and haemophilus influenza type b) was unleashed on the population. Infants began dying after vaccination - the Indian health ministry admits to 54 - and Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and Vietnam actually stopped using the shot after similar horrors. In neighboring Pakistan, a 2011 report blamed the BMGF-funded Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) for 5,417 cases of polio in children it had vaccinated the previous year.47 The report suggested curtailing GAVI’s ability to administer vaccines to Pakistani children. With history like this, Indians are wise to hesitate before inviting Big Pharma into their veins once again. Yet Wikipedia’s feelings on “vaccine hesitancy,” an Orwellian psychological condition that appears to have been invented to pathologize parents’ negative reactions to learning about vaccine side effects,48 are unremittingly hostile, and “Doc James” Heilman is no exception. The pharmaceutical crusader’s certainty he is right is matched only by the likelihood he is wrong: in 2014, the same year an IMS Health study found Wikipedia was the #1 medical resource for doctors and patients alike,49 another study - this one from the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association - found that the site’s articles on 9 out of 10 of the costliest medical conditions in the US contained serious errors when compared to peer-reviewed medical literature.50 Heilman claims he got involved in Wikipedia in 2006 “after coming across a poor quality medical article”51 - if 9 out of 10 are poor quality now, what were they like before he got involved?
Nataliia Tymkiv is the board’s resident Ukrainian, serving as both a Foundation trustee and the Financial Director of the Centre for Democracy and Rule of Law (CEDEM), a Ukrainian “media policy and human rights nonprofit.”52 CEDEM was established as the Media Law Institute in the aftermath of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution but glided effortlessly through the US-backed 2014 Euromaidan color revolution and has nestled itself comfortably into the Poroshenko puppet government, taking advantage of the upheaval to get a law concerning a public service broadcasting system passed that it had been pushing for nearly a decade. Judging by the organization’s website, it is wholly a creature of US foreign policy, self-described as “a think-and-act tank, which has been working in the civil society sector of Ukraine since 2005.”53 While the term “civil society” is often a red flag indicating USAID involvement, one doesn’t even have to guess with CEDEM - USAID is actually listed on their “partners” page, alongside Radio Liberty, a NATO-backed broadcaster.54
With that pedigree, it’s no surprise that Tymkiv is an administrator on Ukrainian Wikipedia. She also became treasurer of Wikimedia Ukraine in 2012, just a year after first contributing to the wiki, and moved up to Executive Director of Wikimedia Ukraine the following year. In 2015, she made vice-chair. This is an extremely rapid rise for a normal organization, though Wikimedia Ukraine no doubt has fewer members than many of the more trafficked language wikis. But Tymkiv is an effective Wikipedian - that same year, she, as executive director of the Ukrainian Wikipedia, and with the help of CEDEM’s predecessor, won a court case releasing a list of monuments and cultural sites in the country.55
Tymkiv isn’t just good at legal matters. Her bio notes that she oversaw the “building and maintaining” of “donor, partner and community relationships” - with donor coming first. It’s worth noting that at least two major financial backers of the Foundation56 57 were also major boosters of the violent 2014 coup in Ukraine. Pierre Omidyar58 59 and George Soros60 61 are both credibly implicated in funding the uprising and the Foundation appears to have followed suit in its support for the regime change. Jimmy Wales himself took the stage at a conference in Yalta less than a year after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was forced to flee the country, calling on Ukrainian Wikipedia editors to "target both on-line and in physical environment the Russian speaking Wikipedia community in order to enable cooperation…so that Wikipedia remains the way of alternative views, alternative statements" - an order that could be interpreted as encouraging his loyal subjects to propagandize Russian readers about Ukraine.62
The fact that Tymkiv was treasurer of Wikimedia Ukraine, soliciting donations to expand her fiefdom, at the same time that Omidyar, Soros, and the usual cadre of regime-change fat-cats (several of whom were already Foundation donors) were funneling money into ‘democracy-promotion’ in Ukraine, suggests a strong likelihood of cross-pollination. She hinted in her 2016 candidate statement for appointment to the international board that she is active “not only locally” in Wikipedia - indicating she had interests outside Ukraine already, making her more than a provincial token - and included an endorsement from the virulently anti-Russian Estonian Wikipedia. Was Tymkiv given a seat on the international board in gratitude for her service - or perhaps to ensure her silence?
Shani Evenstein Sigalov
Shani Evenstein Sigalov is an Israeli educator pushing for the inclusion of Wikimedia projects in education, leading entire academic courses based on editing Wikimedia projects in the vain hope of giving Wikipedia some sheen of academic legitimacy, even though anything editable by anyone would seem to be necessarily unreliable in an academic context. Sigalov claims to have launched the first for-credit medical school course involving contributing to Wikipedia, with her students becoming responsible for a mind-boggling 10% of the medical content on Hebrew Wikipedia. She also launched the first academic course on Wikidata, in 2018 - a database even less reliable (because completely unsourced) than Wikipedia that is known to be riddled with errors, even libel, because few users bother to police its enormous data hoard for “vandalism” - deliberately-inserted errors.63 Is this malleability why she’s now getting her PhD in “Wikidata as a learning platform”?64 She is also a former board member of Wikimedia Israel, currently run by Itzik Edri, who worked as head PR man for former Mossad agent Tzipi Livni when she was chair of Israel’s Hatnua Party.65 While Livni resigned after several years in Israel’s secret intelligence service, “citing the pressures of the job,”66 one never really leaves the Mossad any more than one leaves the CIA, and the fact that Wikimedia’s chairman was the public face of a Mossad agent should at least raise a few questions about that chapter’s cozy relationship with the top brass at the Wikimedia Foundation.
Former Foundation director Lila Tretikov traveled to Israel in 2015 and gushed for local media about how the country’s schools were “teaching with Wikipedia,” perhaps a necessary cover for the Israeli Defense Force division devoted to social media manipulation67 (which includes Wikipedia) and the many non-official Israeli groups determined to “make Wikipedia balanced and zionist in nature” (an actual quote from the director of one of these projects, Naftali Bennett - and if the name sounds familiar, it’s because he went on to become Israel’s Education Minister)68 who would also receive and benefit from the “special translation tool” she gifted the Israeli chapter. The Hebrew Wikipedia isn’t terribly active - it had about 30 edits a day in 201569 - most likely because most of the Israeli editors are working on the English (or German, or Arabic) Wikipedias. Sigalov’s students have written “hundreds” of articles “in Hebrew and Arabic” - though the press release announcing her addition to the board does not break down that number into how many in each language, or - most tellingly - the subjects on which they made their mark.70 And Sigalov, as an “EdTech [education technology] innovation strategist” with postgraduate degrees from Tel Aviv University, has likely met with Bennett himself, a meeting in which it would be surprising if they didn’t swap stories about their Wikipedia exploits. The two appear to have attended the same conference in June 2016.71
Sigalov told the Wikimedia Foundation that she had never even heard of Wikipedia until a friend dragged her to 2011’s Wikimania conference in Haifa.72 She claims she fell in love at that first conference, joined Wikimedia Israel on the spot, and almost immediately became Projects Coordinator for GLAMWiki (Galleries, Libraries, and Museums). She was chair of WikiProject Medicine before her ascension to the international board, hence responsible for suppressing non-pharmaceutical methods of healing in the same manner as her fellow trustee James Heilman. Was it her nationality, her focus on “gender and diversity gaps” - still a major cosmetic blot on Wikipedia’s reputation - or her determination to shoehorn Wikipedia into education that gave her such momentum through the ranks?
Dariusz Jemelniak is a Polish professor behind a magisterial whitewash of Wikipedia ethnography called “Common Knowledge,” which insists in its introduction that despite first appearances, Wikipedia is not biased at all. In lending his name and prestige to such a book, he ensured no one would come around to write another one on the same subject for a long time - long enough for the Foundation to sink its teeth into the very fabric of the internet, along with education and medicine. Better yet, the book costs $30 and is published by a university press, making it next to impossible anyone will stumble across it accidentally.73 Not to imply a quid-pro-quo, but Jemelniak published Common Knowledge in 2014, and was elected to the Board of Trustees the following year. He lends a credible academic patina to an organization desperately in need of it, having served as a professor at Cornell, Harvard, MIT, and UC-Berkeley in addition to his native Kozminski University. He’s also a fellow of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, alongside Jimmy Wales; fellow trustee Esra’a al-Shafei has received an award from the Center.
And Jemelniak has done his share of kowtowing to capital-D diversity - a short-circuiting of the rare meritocracies left in western society that coopts the struggle of actual marginalized people to give grifters a leg up - publishing a 2016 paper called “Breaking the Glass Ceiling on Wikipedia” that called for “aggressive reforms bolstering women’s sense of agency.” The nature of those reforms are not laid out in his paper, but in December 2016, the Foundation “formally committed” to “eliminating harassment, promoting inclusivity, ensuring a healthier culture of discourse, and improving the safety of Wikimedia spaces.”74 This all sounds quite noble on the surface, but in practice the Foundation’s obsessive focus on “harassment” is what birthed the Fram affair, as described above in the section on trustee chair Maria Sefidari. That same month, Sefidari herself declared Wikipedia was to ramp up its focus on inclusivity and “safe spaces.” The statistic she presented - that over half of Wikipedia users surveyed reported decreasing their editing because of harassment - didn’t even begin to try to define harassment, or address the weaponization of the concept.75 Laura Hale, Sefidari’s prickly spouse, had authored a different paper back in 2014 describing harassment of women on Wikipedia, but defining the word to include everything from use of the word “cunt” as an insult to use of “gendered generics,” i.e. “if the user wanted to add a source, he would have done so.” Hale also concluded that “interventions need to be tried to change the climate on English Wikipedia,” coming not only from the Foundation but from outside “feminist groups, universities, non-profits and existing social justice groups online”.76 Jemelniak’s paper, like his previous ethnography of Wikipedia, served to legitimize the Foundation’s attempt to reposition Wikipedia for the hyper-PC “social justice” power structure in a way that Hale’s could not.
The Foundation’s ambitions are, quite frankly, boundless: it wants to form “the essential infrastructure of the ecosystem of free knowledge.”77 That Jemelniak serves on the steering committee of the Internet Governance Forum, the UN-founded agency that serves as a sounding-board for international public policies governing the future of the internet, gives the Foundation entrée into the realm where the decisions shaping the internet’s future are made. Rubbing shoulders with NGOs and corporations, Jemelniak has a strong position from which to advocate for Wikipedia - as an educational resource, as a fact-checker, as a reputational barometer. These are not idle threats - Google already advises its “raters,” the low-paid contractors who shuffle through websites to assign algorithmic values to them and have the power to memory-hole inconvenient voices, to use Wikipedia to assess the trustworthiness of a website proprietor.78 This could have been an inside deal between the two companies - Google and Wikipedia have always had something of an incestuous relationship disguised as a rivalry. But given the Foundation’s efforts to insert itself in such base-level internet structures as Tim Berners-Lee’s Contract for the Web,79 Jemelniak’s involvement in something so far-reaching should be taken very seriously.
Lisa Lewin is a newcomer to the board, assuming the trustee role in 2019 in addition to her work as co-founder and managing partner of Ethical Ventures, a so-called “change management consulting firm helping leaders build thriving organizations with a positive impact on society.”80 She hit the ground running, giving a talk at Wikimania 2019 with executive director Katherine Maher titled “Can Strategy Help Predict Our Future? Thoughts on Movement Strategy” referring to Wikimedia 2030, the Foundation’s aforementioned plan to make itself indispensable as the “essential infrastructure of the ecosystem of free knowledge.”81 With a background in education technology and teacher education, she also has plenty of connections to leverage in the Foundation’s mission to shoehorn Wikipedia into the classroom.
But it’s her day job that seems the most applicable to the Foundation’s current situation, in which reality stubbornly refuses to metamorphose into a future in which a gender-equitable Foundation sits snugly at the hub of 2030’s internet, doling out morsels of Wikidata to eager supplicants. Ethical Ventures sells a “strategy and change management” program that includes “growth enablement,” “reorganization,” “board engagement,” and - gulp - “leadership transition.” In a November presentation at the “All Tech Is Human” conference sponsored by regime change aficionado Pierre Omidyar’s Omidyar Network, Lewin suggested that when a tech company grows to the scale of a public utility - she used Facebook as her example, but Wikipedia clearly fit as well - its board members have a “moral duty” to consider how their platform affects its users, and to adopt “higher standards of care” if that platform puts the “safety of individuals, vulnerable populations, and democracy” at risk - especially if employees and management won’t do it. This advice seems tailor-made for Wikipedia, where gratuitous libel has cost its victims significant reputational capital. Could Lewin be the activist trustee arrived to save Wikipedia from itself?
Unfortunately, the rest of her speech indicated she was working for the other side. Lewin came down firmly on the side of thought-policing, citing internet security provider Cloudflare’s decision to deplatform anonymous imageboard 8chan - a longtime thorn in the establishment’s side - when it was alleged that a mass shooter had posted his manifesto there as a shining example to follow. “If we see a bad thing in the world and we can help get in front of it, we have some obligation to do that,” Lewin approvingly quoted the Cloudflare CEO in his come-to-Jesus moment, in which he violated the company’s content-agnostic policies out of misguided concern 8chan was inciting violence.82
But the Wikimedia Foundation and its trustees’ idea of a “bad thing” is often merely something they do not understand, or something that hurts the organization’s bottom line, dressed up in the language of morality. Seen through this lens, Lewin’s worldview is downright threatening, as it encourages board members to meddle enthusiastically in the strategic affairs of ‘their’ company if they get it into their head that the company is permitting some nebulous definition of “harm” to come to anyone. Is this what happened when the Trust & Safety division went over the heads of the Arbitration Committee to sanction the administrator Fram, despite the flimsiness of the “abuse” case against him? It has certainly laid the groundwork for a “leadership transition,” with several admins demanding trustee chair Maria Sefidari step down over her apparent conflict of interest, even though she claimed to have recused herself from that proceeding.83
Lewin has a few more interesting connections that the Foundation may wish to leverage. She sits on the board of the Center for Responsive Politics, which runs the OpenSecrets website tracking campaign contributions, giving her an inside eye on whose money is doing what in politics. She is also on the board of DoSomething.org, which purports to be the “largest non-profit exclusively for young people and social change.” Though its website is blanketed with photos of ebullient youth engaged in various forms of vigorous activity, the adults in the room - executives from Colgate-Palmolive, Snapchat, LinkedIn, JetBlue and Lyft, among others - are “legally and fiscally responsible for DoSomething.org.”84 DoSomething lets kids participate in clicktivism campaigns, share meaningless feel-good listicles (“11 facts about gangs,” 85 “11 facts about the Holocaust”86), while offering corporations a chance to expiate their sins by bestowing open-ended Opportunities on the Youth. It’s not easy to figure out exactly what DoSomething does, though it appears to be a platform for young people to launch and publicize awareness campaigns, which are in turn bankrolled by the group’s “sponsors.” These include the ubiquitous Omidyar Network, Johnson & Johnson (which hid asbestos in its talcum powder for decades and has paid out at least $325 million in damages to customers who developed cancer from its products),87 3M (currently mired in over 300 legal cases over knowingly releasing toxic ‘non-stick’ PFCs and PFAS into America’s waters;88 the highly persistent chemicals can now be found in 98 percent of the US population89 and will remain in the environment indefinitely, as they do not biodegrade),90 and General Mills (feeding your kids GMOs with a smile).91
Raju Narisetti is the Wikimedia Foundation’s link to ‘new media,’ having joined in 2017 when he was CEO of Univision Communications Inc.’s Gizmodo Media Group. He left that company the following year, however,92 before it sold the Gizmodo portfolio to private equity firm Great Hill Partners, unloading Jezebel, Deadspin, Lifehacker, the Root, Kotaku, Splinter, and Jalopnik.93 The publications have clashed with their new private equity overlords, despite Great Hill insisting its new acquisitions would operate as “independent assets” within the portfolio. In August, Deadspin published a lengthy evisceration of its new master,94 alleging the interloper packed senior management with old colleagues in a sexist, diversity-deficient manner, covered sites in auto-playing video ads, micromanaged content and editorial (demanding writers be nice to the companies that bought those auto-playing video ads),95 and otherwise made such a huge mess that Narisetti actually weighed in on the agony of watching his erstwhile baby dismantled by the cold claws of private equity, telling New York magazine that Great Hill could “easily destroy the essence of these brands and the magic of longevity and relevance giving you sticky growth” by misunderstanding what made them valuable.96
As his old empire collapsed - Splinter shuttered in October,97 while the entirety of Deadspin’s newsroom resigned the following month along with its parent company’s editorial director in protest of its new master’s toxic micromanagement - Narisetti landed on his feet, becoming a professor of professional practice and director of the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship in Economics and Business Journalism at Columbia University.98 Under his watch, Gizmodo had collapsed in value from the $135 million Univision had paid for it to the much lower price - between $25 and $50 million - Great Hill did.99
Narisetti’s usefulness to the Foundation presumably lies in his media connections - before boarding the sinking ship that was Gizmodo, he was SVP of strategy at News Corp, Rupert Murdoch’s empire, where the Foundation claims his remit was “identifying new digital growth opportunities globally.”100 He also served a stint as managing editor of the Washington Post, dragging it kicking and screaming into the digital age, after 15 years with the Wall Street Journal. The Foundation received specific instructions after a 2014 “media audit” by Minassian Media - the shadowy PR operation run by Clinton Foundation communications officer Craig Minassian - to form closer bonds with “friendly” journalists;101 Narisetti is the perfect journalistic liaison for Wikipedia, having gotten important facts publicly, embarrassingly wrong amid an attempt to grandstand about the “slippery slope of press freedom.” He mistook Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, the ruling party of Pakistani PM Imran Khan, for the official news agency of India - where Narisetti grew up - in a tweet (their initials are the same, but their logos dramatically different, and one would expect quite different content from each), and was roundly mocked for it by people incredulous that a journalistic lifer could still make such rookie mistakes.102 Beyond a seeming reluctance to fact-check and a tendency to jump to conclusions regarding “freedom of expression” in his native land, Narisetti is a good fit for the Wikimedia Foundation because of his affiliations, which overlap extensively with some of the deeper pockets funding it.
He is vice-chair of the International Center for Journalists, a project of the Knight Foundation which offers journalism fellowships (including the one he oversaw at Columbia). The ICFJ is also backed by the Omidyar Network and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, but got a major cash infusion from Knight in 2018 to build up its programs to “combat the spread of misinformation and disinformation,” i.e. truths inconvenient to the organization’s paymasters. It boasted in a press release about launching fact-checking organizations in Africa and a plugin to alert Latin American social media users when they’d shared “discredited” articles. In more veiled terms, it bragged about “creating an environment that enables digital media startups - often the only independent news sources [in Latin America] - to thrive,” perhaps referencing its program to train Cuban journalists through an immersive Miami program103 or initiatives in countries like Venezuela whose socialist government’s excellent state-run media bristle with what well-behaved American journalists would deem “wrongthink.”104 Wikipedia plays a significant role in this type of initiative, having been used as a reputational barometer by social media platforms from Facebook105 to Youtube,106 as well as by Google,107 to determine what sources are “reliable” for the purposes of fact-checking.
Narisetti only lasted a year at Columbia, leaving in November to “pursue new opportunities in business publishing.”108 Wherever his career takes him, however, he will be touting Wikipedia as the solution to the problems facing journalism - even to the crisis of truth in the world. In a 2018 interview, he insisted “there has never been more urgency in Wikipedia’s 16-year history than now,” claiming self-perpetuating cyclones of fake news had engulfed hundreds of millions of people in such a way that “potential conflict” could be the result, and that Wikipedia was a “proven antidote” to such problems.109 Certainly free exchange of information is under threat by authoritarian governments and the monopolistic tech firms they have deputized to skirt pesky constitutional regulations, but Wikipedia is not an antidote to such incursions on civil liberties. Particularly if it is able to achieve the goals set forth in Wikimedia 2030, and insinuate itself into the fabric of the free internet, freedom of thought will have suffered a crippling blow.
Tanya Capuano joined the Foundation in October 2017, the same month she joined real estate digital marketing company G5 as CFO. It’s not immediately clear how her past suited her for the job, and the generic name of her employer makes its own history difficult to uncover. Capuano was previously VP of finance at Intuit, overseeing the company’s financial software platforms, and worked in acquisitions and divestitures at Hewlett Packard after the obligatory stints in management consulting and investment banking.110 Hewlett Packard has tried to spin its work in illegally-occupied West Bank Palestine as somehow “reducing friction between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers at barrier checkpoints,”111 but the company’s operation of the apartheid-enabling BASEL biometric checkpoint system in the territory honeycombed with Jewish-only colonial outposts makes it complicit in the flagrant ongoing violation of international law those settlements represent. There is no evidence Capuano had anything to do with the West Bank project - HP acquired EDS Israel, the company contracted by the IDF to build that system, in 2009, four years after she left HP - but the acquisitions and divestitures division that employed her would have overseen that acquisition. It is also possible that the unnamed educational nonprofit boards she serves on were what drew her to the Foundation. Perhaps she is even that rarest of birds - a wholly innocent trustee on a very questionable board. If the latter, Capuano would be wise to ditch the position and never look back.
Some might say putting the Wikimedia Foundation’s trustees under the microscope in this way is unfair, or that delving into the activities of the other organizations they work with borders on guilt by association. But the Foundation does all this and more when it allows agenda-toting editors to smear innocent people in its “encyclopedia” and refuses to take down pages that are clearly set up as repositories for libel, stitched together with imagination and liberally peppered with chutzpah, using guilt by association to fill in the gaps. Indeed, the Foundation prides itself on never taking a page down, and editors have openly admitted that asking to have one’s bio removed will result in further negative information being added.112 The Wikimedia Foundation and its representatives may bloviate about “free knowledge” until they’re blue in the face, but the platform is not about freedom - it is more about crafting reputational cages from which dissidents of any kind cannot break free and consigning them to the internet’s darkest penal colonies. The Foundation’s trustees may believe they are above the fray, but they are in fact the standard-bearers for the modern Ministry of Truth, the public-facing representatives of an organization that deliberately hides its true purpose under layers of jargon about making the whole of human knowledge available to everyone.
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- Written by Helen Buyniski
- Category: Wikipedia
Turkey’s Constitutional Court has ruled the government’s decision to ban access to Wikipedia in April 2017 was a violation of freedom of expression, a constitutionally-protected right. The decision represents a reversal of a Turkish court ruling from 2017 and comes just a month before an expected ruling from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), a body which has ruled against Turkey more than any other country in its purview. No timetable has been put forth for when Turks might regain access to the online encyclopedia, which had been blocked as a "national security threat" under Turkish law.
The Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that owns Wikipedia, is doing a victory lap, congratulating the Turkish people on being reconnected with what it never stops reminding the world is the largest online repository of human knowledge. The Foundation bragged that despite the two-year blackout, it never caved to Ankara’s request to remove negative information showing Turkey "in coordination and aligned" with ISIS and other terrorist groups, information the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounced as a "smear campaign." Wikipedia, it boasted, would never give in to governments trying to quash free speech.
But there are more than a few holes in the Foundation’s version of events, starting with its boast that it stands for freedom of expression against repressive governments. While the Foundation very rarely obeys requests to remove information, whether they come from governments or individuals, it admits to having done so once. In 2014, the newly-installed US-backed Ukrainian government made a request to take down content on the English-language Wikipedia, and the Foundation acquiesced (it’s not clear what the information was). Why obey the dictates of Kiev but not Ankara? The puppet government of Petro Poroshenko was certainly no friend to free expression - its launch of a Ministry of Information Policy in December 2014 was widely ridiculed as a ham-handed censorship effort heavy on the propaganda, no different from Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth.” Thousands of journalists were doxxed through a site called Mirotvorets, declared “terrorist collaborators” for nothing more than obtaining accreditation from the separatist eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. As a result, at least 14 journalists had been killed by 2016, and many more were threatened and attacked. While some politicians advocated punishing the publishers of Mirotvorets, others called for revoking the press accreditation of the doxxed journalists and declaring them enemies of the state, and the Ministry of Information Policy itself praised the site for its "principled stance concerning defending national security."
This is not the behavior of a government that supports free speech. Yet Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales and the Foundation made no secret of their support for the coup that replaced Russian-sympathetic Viktor Yanukovych with the neo-Nazi Poroshenko government. Not only had Wales nominated a Ukrainian Wikipedia editor shot to death during the Maidan Square riots for ‘Wikipedian of the Year’ (without explaining how or by whom he came to be shot), but he would go on the record during the Yalta European Strategy conference of December 2014 calling on Ukrainian editors to skew the narrative in the Russian-language Wikipedia to retroactively whitewash the color revolution (and demonize Crimea's reunification with Russia). Russian Wikipedians, Wales said, deserved to be bombarded with “alternative views, alternative statements” - a.k.a. Trumpian “alternative facts” - through the supposedly-neutral encyclopedia.
Additionally, Turkish editors determined to circumvent Ankara’s ban on Wikipedia never really lost access to the site - it was a simple matter to use a VPN or other location-spoofing tools to read and edit to their heart’s content. Indeed, by blocking the average Turk’s access to Wikipedia, the government only ensured that whatever slander against Erdogan and his administration already existed on the site would metastasize, reproducing without interference by pro-Erdogan editors who might otherwise have pushed back against negative portrayals of the country. If anything, the ban handed control of Turkish Wikipedia to dissidents - a self-sabotaging move that may explain why the Turkish court was willing to reverse course on the ban. Others have speculated that the ruling by the Turkish court was meant to preempt yet another negative ruling from the ECHR, which never misses a chance to censure Turkey.
Turkey’s reasons for banning Wikipedia - the site wouldn’t remove information about government officials being involved with ISIS in trading oil, or about Turkey’s sponsorship of ISIS and other terror groups - are somewhat petty, as the information is true, no matter how negatively it reflects on Turkey. For all that Wikipedia is positively bristling with libel about any government that has gotten on the bad side of the US, UK or Israel, the relationship between Turkey and ISIS is real. While Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the US provide funding, weapons, protection, and PR, Turkey assists in the movement and protection of people and supplies - and oil. If Turkey didn’t want the world learning about their support for terrorists, they might have thought of that before getting into bed with the governments that have done more than anyone else to unleash chaos upon the region.
Even if Turkey is in the wrong, however, for the Foundation to cry “freedom of expression” is disingenuous when it is willing to give other countries a pass on their own human rights violations, even working with them to oppress their populations. The case of Wikipedia in Kazakhstan is an instructive example of what a repressive government can do when it cooperates with the encyclopedia, instead of kicking it to the curb. In March 2011, a month before Kazakh dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev changed the country’s official language from Russian to Kazakh, a group of Kazakhs bankrolled by the ruling family operating under the name WikiBilim began transferring material from the government-sanctioned Kazakh encyclopedia into the Kazakh-language Wikipedia. WikiBilim soon arranged with the Wikimedia Foundation to have all 15 volumes of the encyclopedia piped in, overwriting the work of any Kazakh Wikipedia editors who might have thought they were entitled to something more than the government-approved version of reality.
Wales didn’t merely allow the Nazarbayev regime - which has been repeatedly sanctioned by the ECHR for human rights violations and which has a lengthy track record of jailing and even killing journalists critical of the government - to seize control of the Kazakh Wikipedia. He declared Rauan Kenzhekhanuly, director of WikiBilim, Wikipedian of the Year and awarded him a $5,000 prize. Wales for years insisted WikiBilim was an independent organization, but when it later emerged that he had discussed the project with the group’s government patron at Davos the previous year, he was left scrambling for excuses. When Kenzhekanuly, a former government official, was appointed governor of the Kyzylorda region in 2014, Wales finally gave up on pretending everything was kosher in Kazakhstan, implying in a Reddit Ask Me Anything the following year that he’d been tricked into assisting the repressive regime.
Kazakhstan is only one of the countries that has received the Foundation and Wales’ stamp of approval despite (because of?) an adversarial relationship with freedom of expression. Wales is married to the former diary secretary of Tony Blair, who has followed up his warmongering stint as British PM with a lucrative lobbying career, hopping from one despot to another to help them whitewash their human rights records and reposition themselves as ripe for foreign investments. The United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Azerbaijan, and Israel have all fostered friendships with the Foundation to various extents, despite atrocious track records in human rights. For the Foundation to cry foul in Turkey’s case is hypocritical in the extreme - Erdogan's crime, in their eyes, is not jailing journalists but failing to work out a lucrative agreement that would allow him to whitewash his human rights record by lining the Foundation's pockets. Wikipedia no more supports free expression than Turkey fights terrorism.
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- Written by Helen Buyniski
- Category: Wikipedia
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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- Written by Helen Buyniski
- Category: Wikipedia
Wikipedia represents the vanguard of the new propaganda model. An astroturfed "people's encyclopedia" that is treated with reverence as a nearly-infallible Fountain of Truth even as it is said to emanate from the fingertips of so many ordinary people, its reputation as the place to find any morsel of information the reader desires has made it the fifth-most popular website on earth.
Wikipedia deliberately fosters the image of the sad-sack editor who despite an unappealing exterior possesses a heart of gold, a desire to share his or her (on Wikipedia, it's almost always "his," but the site is almost comically desperate to draw more women and thus ride the wave of Gender Politics) esoteric knowledge on whatever subject with the benighted populace. But the site’s hard core of full-time editors are not sweaty-palmed hobbyists, unemployed geniuses, or any of the other stereotypes perpetuated by media profiles of Wikipedians. The “people’s encyclopedia” is lousy with PR flacks, intelligence agents, and other professional disinformation merchants. Whether they’re working for multinational corporations or government agencies, the site’s most prolific editors are working to bring Wikipedia’s millions of articles into line with their particular agenda. They can be found memory-holing Monsanto scandals, inventing justifications for massacres of Palestinian civilians by Israel, and sliming anti-war politicians in the US and UK alike as apologists for the Syrian government.
The Wiki-propagandists are not held to the limits of truth - Wikipedia does not pretend to aspire to higher ideals like truth, instead settling for the lower bar of “verifiability.” This merely means if a “reliable source” says something, it can be included in a Wikipedia article. It is child’s play for the CIA, Merck, or Qorvis to have an article published in a reputable outlet; even easier for a Wikipedia editor in their employ to extract the relevant facts from the article and slip them into Wikipedia, where they immediately take on the sheen of established fact. Lazy journalists cement the new facts in reality when they scan Wikipedia articles for background in their work; this process is so common it has a name - citogenesis - and can play havoc with its victims.
Indeed, there are as many ways to smear someone on Wikipedia as there are smears. Beyond merely inventing facts, editors can delete positive information, add negative information, exaggerate, minimize, even add quotes about a person or company from a third party as long as they present the commentator as a relevant expert. More and more often, editors are subjecting sources themselves to this process, banning the sources of “wrongthink” from the encyclopedia while throwing the door wide open to journalists who play the game.
As Dirk Pohlmann and Markus Fiedler of Wikihausen have discovered in their exhaustive research on the German Wikipedia, this problem is not limited to the English language site. Wikipedia has built a scarily effective global propaganda organ, to be controlled by the highest bidders. The site has tentacles in nearly 300 languages, and its parent entity the Wikimedia Foundation has insinuated itself into some of the foundational structures of the internet itself. Artificial intelligence “voice assistants” like Amazon Alexa and Google Home often spout Wikipedia entries in response to users’ queries; condensed Wikipedia entries called Wikidata are used to program other AIs; Wikipedia discussion sections have been used to create “anti-hate” algorithms that censor-happy groups like the ADL hope to use to police speech on the web; and the Foundation was involved in drafting World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee’s Contract for the Web, a set of rules laying out a roadmap toward “fixing” the internet itself.
A better tool for influencing the minds of hundreds of millions of people would be hard to find. Unfortunately, this would-be Oracle of Delphi is more of a pit of Hades, where knowledge goes to die.Add a comment
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