The US’ support for Venezuelan National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó’s coup may not be as solid as it looks. While Vice President Mike Pence personally gave Guaidó the go-ahead to declare himself president in a phone call earlier this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo apparently doesn’t even know the American puppet’s name, referring to him as “interim president Juan Guido.”
“We’ll have announcements from…other places later today, talking about how we anticipate interim president Juan Guido will have the resources he needs to lead the government of Venezuela forward,” Pompeo announced in a press conference, looking somewhat dyspeptic while mangling the name of the man Washington has chosen to lead the Venezuelan people into a shiny, democratic future - minus the actual democracy.
“Guido,” once a racial slur used in the US against Italians, has more recently been reclaimed by reality TV fans to describe tanned, over-muscled hair-gel aficionados of all ethnicities, but no one ever looked at the cast of Jersey Shore and thought, "That's who I want to lead my coup!" Until now.
Even mainstream media admits Guaidó was an “unknown figure on the international stage” until last week, and it’s entirely possible no one had heard of him in Washington until then, either. Pompeo and equally rabid anti-Maduro national security adviser John Bolton have a bad habit of rushing to support literally any group willing to oppose a regime they dislike, which has led to some questionable alliances in Iran, Syria, and everywhere else they’ve chosen to aim their peculiar brand of ‘freedom.’
However, it’s important to make your chosen patsy feel needed - loved, even. Hence Bolton’s chummy speeches to Iranian-exile terror cult Mujahedin e-Khalq and the late John McCain posing for photos with "moderate rebels" linked to al-Nusra in Syria.
Pompeo seems to understand on some gut level that Guaidó isn't going to be around for too long. Why bother learning his name when he's destined for the scrap-heap that has claimed so many others anointed by Washington to lead the Venezuelans out of the frying pan of socialism into the towering inferno of neoliberalism?
Guaidó's first act as self-appointed leader - to apply to the IMF for a loan with the promise of privatizing Venezuela's vast oil reserves (the largest in the world) - bears this theory out. Even he knows he has a limited window of opportunity. The Venezuelan army remains loyal to President Maduro, who recently won his second term in an election the opposition boycotted in order to deem it illegitimate. As former Venezuelan minister Moises Naim told a Davos panel, "guys with guns" are largely responsible for what happens next in Caracas. While Pompeo has blustered that "no options are off the table," the US is unlikely to run a full-scale ground invasion in Venezuela when their usual Latin American takeover model has worked so well in the past, especially now that they've gotten Iran-Contra ghoul Elliot Abrams out of cold storage and named him "special envoy" to the country.
Still, Pompeo isn’t the only one tongue-tied over the Venezuelan boy wonder. Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benítez also struggled to get Guaidó’s name out, and he speaks the same language and lives on the same continent.
The speed at which the western hemisphere recognized Guaidó without, apparently, knowing who he is raises a few questions. Did the State Department send out a chain letter to South American governments warning “Forward this to five other countries or Trump will sanction you?”
(a version of this article appeared on RT.com)Add a comment
Wikipedia is one of the most popular websites in the world. It’s free, it’s educational, and it’s democratic — what’s not to like? The average user has no reason to think the material it publishes is anything but true, and it has become the go-to authority for anyone looking to quickly educate themselves on a topic. Qualifications and expertise are beside the point — this is an open-source repository of all human knowledge, and surely the cream rises to the top; if information is wrong, surely editors are standing by to correct the record.
But as Andrew Lewis said, “If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”¹ Our in-depth investigation has found that everything we’ve been led to believe about Wikipedia is a lie. Wikipedia serves as a warning that if something sounds too good to be true, it isn’t true. Scratch the surface of the “free encyclopedia anyone can edit” and you find a finely-honed propaganda machine manipulated by experts and used to destroy the reputations of those who dare question the status quo.
The casual user sees the “edit” button next to an entry and assumes all users can make changes on an equal footing. In reality, many areas of the encyclopedia are tightly controlled by ruling cliques operating with the blessing of Jimmy Wales, the co-founder and self-styled “benevolent dictator” of Wikipedia. The experience of trying to correct information about oneself on Wikipedia is akin to being trapped in a Kafka novel — enclosed by an impenetrable thicket of unevenly-enforced rules, subject to the whims of powerful groups that officially do not exist, helpless to stop millions of Wikipedia users from happening across false and even libelous information about yourself or your work. For those trapped in Wikipedia’s internet gulag, there is no escape — not even deletion. Wikipedia, Wales gloats, does not believe in the right to be forgotten.²
While Wales has said he considers his role akin to that of a constitutional monarch — largely ceremonial but ultimately powerless³ — he has the ability to override the actions of any other user and has deployed these godlike powers to shape the narrative. Favoritism, rules enforced unevenly, pay-for-play editing, ideological hit squads, hundreds of factions conspiring to various degrees of secrecy to game the system — all this goes on with Wales’ blessing. A case can be made that the Wikimedia Foundation has violated its charter as a non-profit and stripped itself of the immunity conferred by section 230 of the Communications Decency Act by involving itself editorially in the content it hosts, by choosing which editors are allowed a platform, and by choosing when and where to enforce its rules.
Jimmy Wales did not create Wikipedia, though he has edited his biographical article more than half a dozen times to give the impression that he did. Larry Sanger, whom Wales attempted to airbrush out of history, left Wikipedia in disgust soon after its launch: “Wikipedia never solved the problem of how to organize itself in a way that didn’t lead to mob rule. On the one hand, it isn’t a mob at all. It’s highly organized and structured and there’s a lot of rules…But on the other hand, the way that the community is organized isn’t codified or decided upon in any type of constitutional way. So there might be some people who selectively apply rules according to positions that other people take on their pet issues. And that’s inherently unfair.”⁴ The inmates have taken over the asylum, and they are running it with the blessing of Wales himself.
Wales may not have founded Wikipedia, but as its public face he has influenced the character of the site more than anyone else. It is his face users see during the fundraising campaigns that bring in far more cash than the site requires to operate — $89 million last year⁵ — fueling the growth of an unaccountable bureaucracy, top-secret projects hidden from the Wikipedia rank and file, and an increasingly detached sense of responsibility for the very real harms caused by its contents. Wikipedia has allowed itself to be weaponized to do the dirty work of the ruling class, and anything that deviates from the establishment line is fair game to be smeared, attacked, and destroyed.
Wikipedia’s elite operates in secrecy. In general, the more a user or group on Wikipedia protests that there is no “cabal” of powerful editors running the show, the more likely they are to be members of it. Wales himself joked about forming a “cabal” to enforce policy back in September 2001 when the site was just getting off the ground.⁶ His idea became the Arbitration Committee, which some have likened to Wikipedia’s “supreme court.” Skilled in navigating the dense thicket of rules that has grown up around Wikipedia, ArbCom and the hundreds of administrators who form the next layer of bureaucracy are able to control what remains on the encyclopedia and what (or who) is deleted. If these powers were wielded fairly, their influence would be welcome — but the rules are instead used as a cudgel to enforce ideological conformity.
Wikipedia isn’t just dismissive of expertise –it’s actively hostile to experts. While one of the site’s many policies discourages editors from removing something just because they dislike it (WP:IDONTLIKEIT), Wales and the ruling don’t-call-it-a-cabal have made an exception for themselves. From the beginning, Wales surrounded himself with a cadre of admirers willing to do his bidding — editing his biography when his own self-editing was exposed (and then editing it again to remove a paragraph about the self-editing),⁷ or attacking his enemies when they ask difficult questions on his talk page — and these internet hitmen became Wikipedia’s ruling class — shaping narratives made to order and serving them up as more real than reality.
ABUSE OF NONPROFIT STATUS
The IRS forbids 501(c)(3) organizations like the Wikimedia Foundation from participating in political campaigns “on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office,” a ban which extends to “contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.” IRS policy clearly states that “violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.” The policy further explains that “voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.”⁸
The Wikimedia Foundation has dipped its toe into political waters on several occasions. Management is aware of the perils of getting politically involved — one of the first major Wikipedia scandals broke in February 2006 when it was discovered that US Congressional staff were scrubbing the biographies of their politicians — removing broken campaign promises,⁹ scandals, and other undesirable details and adding “glowing” tributes and favorable information.¹⁰ At the same time, negative information was appended to the biographies of their opponents, and some ambitious staffers were replacing their candidates’ biographies wholesale with staff-authored versions. Wikipedia responded initially by banning Congressional IP addresses, lest the site appear to be complicit in the political self-promotion, which would have torpedoed their nonprofit status.
When Google search results returned “Nazism” as the ideology of the California Republican Party just a week before that state’s primaries earlier this year, Google blamed Wikipedia, explaining that the Google “knowledge box” that contained the offending term is often populated with Wikipedia text.¹¹ The “vandalism” had remained on the party’s Wikipedia page for six days before it was corrected, hidden in a “piped link” where the link text and “alt text” read differently; meanwhile, other edits were reverted within a few minutes, suggesting this one was allowed to persist, deliberately hidden so it would only appear in Google search results.¹² Whether or not it was deliberate, it is not the first time Wikipedia has appeared to promote the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party.
Such apparent political bias makes more sense in light of the fact that the Wikimedia Foundation contracted the Minassian Group, run by Clinton Foundation Chief Communications Officer Craig Minassian, to train Wikimedia’s own C-level employees, directors and managers in media strategy for the year 2014–2015.¹³ Minassian was further tasked with conducting a “communications audit” in 2016.¹⁴ Some editors among the Wikipedia rank and file were unhappy about having their territory politicized,¹⁵ particularly given how much of Wikimedia’s money was going to Minassian — $436,104 in 2015 and $406,957 in 2016.¹⁶ While the details of Minassian’s activities are not public, the group did issue a report detailing its audit findings, which primarily consisted of parsing media coverage by subject, country, publication, and author and ranking outlets in terms of prestige. Wikipedia was advised to focus on portraying itself as trustworthy and neutral in the media even while “seeking out and dispelling controversial issues.” The audit recommended concentrating on building a rapport with “friendly” journalists writing for what Wikipedia’s editors would call “reliable sources.”¹⁷ Minassian has a history of planting stories favorable to the Clinton Foundation in “friendly” media, as WikiLeaks revealed in its Podesta emails dump, which included a message from Craig Minassian himself boasting of favorable coverage he had secured for the foundation on the Colbert Report.¹⁸
Wikipedia editor SashiRolls linked the Minassian hire to the arrival of a crew of militant editors on the Clinton Foundation article who kept it scrupulously clean of any mention of the billions of dollars the Foundation took in for victims of the Haitian earthquake but never distributed to victims, opting to construct a lucrative industrial park in an undamaged area of the island instead.¹⁹ Clinton’s own Wikipedia article is similarly spotless, bearing only a sanitized summary of her “email controversy” and no mention at all of the revelations from WikiLeaks’ DNC and personal email document dumps. No mention is made of the invasion of Libya on false pretenses or the fallout from that invasion — indeed, reality is directly contradicted with a mystifying sentence reading “there was a trend of women around the world finding more opportunities and in some cases feeling safer, as the result of [Clinton’s] actions and visibility,” sourced to a book called The Hillary Doctrine. The article is “protected” — frozen so that only high-level administrators can make changes — and includes the option to listen to it as audio, indicating it will stay frozen in that state.²⁰
The efforts of a clique of ideologically-motivated editors to whitewash political entries are of particular interest given the deployment of such teams on other social media sites like Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, and Twitter during the 2016 election. Clinton strategist and fundraiser David Brock’s Correct the Record (CTR) superPAC spent at least $1 million during the election to “push back against” negative posts about Clinton as part of a program called “Barrier Breakers,”²¹ and it’s unlikely that such an operation would have overlooked Wikipedia, which other social media sites often use as a fact-checking tool. Brock has come under scrutiny before for bending campaign finance rules — superPACs aren’t supposed to participate in individual elections, and Media Matters for America, the organization for which he is best known, is a 501(c)(3) and therefore barred from conducting political activity on behalf of any candidate,²² much like Wikimedia. A former CTR contractor estimated the group’s expenditures at $5–6 million as of August 2016 in a post on 4chan in which he encouraged others to sign up for easy cash, explaining that CTR employees were given high-ranked and backdated accounts on Reddit and Twitter so as to more easily blend into the discussion.²³ Infiltrating Wikipedia is even easier — editors can change usernames and sometimes choose to leave their history with a previous username behind, especially if it was associated with disciplinary sanctions, as ideologically-motivated editors’ often are. Any Wikipedia editor who attempts to look into this sort of infiltration can find themselves indefinitely banned from the site, as SashiRolls found when he tried to blow the whistle on Sagecandor, an editor who racked up hundreds of edits on articles related to Clinton’s 2016 campaign around the time of the election — 904 edits to “fake news websites,” 631 edits to “Russian interference in the 2016 election.”²⁴ Sagecandor, implying that SashiRolls was part of a Kremlin disinformation campaign,²⁵ had him hauled before Wikipedia’s disciplinary committee, where he was accused of “wiki-hounding” and indefinitely banned from editing. Sagecandor and his allies continued to smear Sashi while he was prohibited from responding, until another administrator found incontrovertible proof Sagecandor was in fact a “sockpuppet” of a previously banned user — vindicating SashiRolls, but too late, as he remains banned.²⁶
“Charitable organizations” like Wikimedia are also barred from operating for the benefit of “private interests,” with no part of a group’s “net earnings” accruing “to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual.”²⁷ Yet Wales used his Wikimedia credit card so much that he was relieved of it in 2006, after it was revealed that he was billing $1,300 steak dinners and other outsize expenses to the “charity.”²⁸ At one point he was on the hook for $30,000 in expenses billed to the Foundation for which he could not show receipts; he reportedly reached an agreement with the Foundation’s lawyer to pay less than a third of that. More recently, Wales took the results of Minassian’s audit, which the Wikimedia Foundation paid for, and used it as the business plan for WikiTribune, pitched as a scrupulously neutral news platform helmed by “friendly” journalists and supported by an army of volunteer editors and fact-checkers. The professional journalists would be funded by reader subscriptions, while the volunteers would operate much in the manner of Wikipedia itself. WikiTribune’s mission? To combat “fake news.”
In 2011, the XKCD web comic coined the term “citogenesis” to describe the process by which a piece of nonfactual information is written into Wikipedia, used in stories by “real” journalists with poor research hygiene, and then re-cited in the original Wikipedia article (using the “reliable” source that found the information on Wikipedia). It’s impossible to calculate how common a phenomenon this is, but in January 2015, as ArbCom churned through a complex disciplinary case involving dozens of editors on both sides of the GamerGate controversy, the Guardian (on whose Board Wales sat until 2017) reported the proceedings had ended in a ban on five feminist editors. The story fit the prevailing media narrative concerning GamerGate — that the internet was full of sexism and misogyny, that some form of online affirmative action was needed to increase female representation in gaming, coding, even Wikipedia — and numerous other outlets reposted the Guardian story without fact-checking it. At least one Wikipedia editor emailed the original author, to no avail. With all these reliable sources discussing the results of the GamerGate ArbCom case, a Wikipedia article on “ArbitrationGate” was published to reflect the media’s version of reality. Protests that its content was false fell on deaf ears: certainly there were no reliable sources claiming the case hadn’t been closed — Wikipedia is not a reliable source, even about itself.²⁹ Like a similar case in which author Philip Roth was told he was not a reliable source for information about his own books, the GamerGate affair laid bare the absurdity of Wikipedia’s policy on reliable sources. Yet Wales envisioned the Wikipedia model as the answer to “fake news,” and told any interviewer who would listen that WikiTribune would save the endangered Fact.
The Wikimedia Foundation already has a news subsidiary — WikiNews — that boasts few users but operates within the strictures of the nonprofit. For Wales to title his new venture WikiTribune suggests he deliberately sought to capitalize on the brand confusion engendered by the name. Last month, WikiTribune announced it was switching to an all-volunteer model, bringing the company even closer to direct competition with WikiNews in a way that is at least unethical if not illegal (Wales is both a trustee of the Wikimedia Foundation, of which WikiNews is a subsidiary, and CEO of WikiTribune). It is also worth asking what will happen to subscribers’ donations now that WikiTribune is switching to a volunteer-only model. Now that readers are not paying writers’ salaries, they cannot expect to have any say in what topics are covered, even though this was an initial selling point in WikiTribune’s subscription-based business model. Wales never planned to offer subscribers real input into the site’s editorial process anyway, according to a Reddit Ask Me Anything he held in 2017: “if 10,000 advocates of Pizzagate sign up to have us investigate Pizzagate, they might be disappointed with the results.”³⁰ And pay-for-play journalism would indeed have taken Wikipedia’s flaws to a terrifying new level. But Wales did convince the initial group of subscribers to join WikiTribune with the implied promise that a cadre of cryptocurrency enthusiasts could direct their subscription dollars to hiring a reporter to write in-depth stories on Bitcoin.³¹ Was he lying? Where does Bitcoin end and Pizzagate begin? According to a note posted on WikiTribune’s website, the firing of the journalists was only a temporary step — with an eye toward hiring more “community-minded” journalists in the future.³² Apparently, the volunteers didn’t like being bossed around by the experts, a problem which has been endemic to Wikipedia since the very beginning, and which eventually caused co-founder Larry Sanger to throw up his hands and leave. Wikipedia’s oligarchy depends on maintaining the illusion of democracy, but it took less than a year for the first admins to self-appoint, and the ruling power structure has only calcified since then.
QUID PRO QUO PAID EDITING
Wikipedia policy is made less for effect than for the sake of appearances, a problem which becomes clear when one examines the conflict of interest problem. Paid editing has been a thorny moral issue for Wikipedians since the site’s early days, which were marred by scandal after scandal breaking to Wales’ neverending chagrin. In 2009, he finally allowed a policy change to permit paid editing. The new rules didn’t permit an outright free-for-all, of course — that would look even worse than the scandal parade — but allowed editors employed by third parties to edit to their hearts’ content, provided they disclosed any possible conflicts of interest on their user page. The policy has enough loopholes that major PR firms like Bell Pottinger, which has repeatedly been caught with its hands in the Wikipedia cookie jar on behalf of clients like South Africa’s Oakbay Investments and Paramount Group, can portray their clients in a favorable light without their edits being reverted. In general, as with any propaganda outlet, the bigger the lie, the more effective it is.
The entire structure of Wikipedia depends on user anonymity, so this policy of disclosing conflicts of interest has always depended on an honor system. Even if an editor registered under their real name and was known to work for some group, it would be a simple matter for them to create another username and commence editing. Wales’ own perspective shifts on the matter have been so frequent it’s hard to tell where he stands on the matter, but given what he permits under his own roof — his wife, Katherine Garvey, works for Freud Communications, which has edited its own Wikipedia entry along with those of clients for years — it’s safe to say his conflict with paid editors isn’t philosophical. Indeed, he was personally accused of editing in exchange for “donations” to the Wikimedia Foundation in 2006, when software developer Jeff Merkey claimed the Wikipedia founder had offered to cleanse his biographical article for an annual $5,000 donation to the Foundation. Wales denied everything, but Merkey’s talk page showed he had in fact blanked the entry and warned other editors to “be extra careful here to be courteous and assume good faith,” adding a layer of editorial protection to prevent unregistered users from altering the text. Merkey claimed he’d only gone public after being banned by ArbCom in retaliation for stopping his yearly donation. Meanwhile, it’s worth a look at Wales’ exact denial: “I would never offer, nor accept any offer, whereby a donation would buy someone special editorial treatment in the encyclopedia.”³³ Maybe it’s not special at all — the Foundation’s donor list includes a rogue’s gallery of corporate heavies like Pfizer, Goldman Sachs, Boeing, Bank of America, and GE, in addition to preposterously wealthy individuals like George Soros, David Koch, and Mark Zuckerberg. None of these names have ever been dragged through the mud on the “people’s encyclopedia,” and there’s no reason to think they’re supporting Wales’ do-gooder impulses out of their own sense of social duty — time and time again, they’ve made it clear they have none. For Wales, the problem is not quid pro quo, but subtlety. Sites like Wiki-PR and MyWikiBiz, with their whiff of crass commercialism, spoil the illusion of the perfectly neutral encyclopedia even as they offer nothing individual editors don’t provide under the table on freelancing sites like Fiverr.
Companies and individuals are far from the only entities interested in rewriting history, and Wales’ own biographical revisionism is small potatoes next to the ambitions of some of Wikipedia’s editors, but even seemingly inconsequential changes can have butterfly-effect-like impact. Wales learned his foreign policy approach from Tony Blair, his wife’s former employer, and correspondingly sees no moral conflict in selling favorable coverage to the world’s most brutal regimes while mouthing platitudes about freedom through knowledge. Wales personally groomed the Wikipedia pages of an executive at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, admitting on the article’s talk page that he had been “informally advising” the group on its internet strategy as he oversaw the removal of two scandals from the woman’s biography. When an editor took Wales’ “informal advisory” role and inserted it into the Foundation’s article, Wales removed it himself, conflict of interest be damned. He continued to massage the Blairs’ articles and they returned the favor with a photo op, cutting a cake for Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary.³⁴ By the time Wales married his third wife, Blair’s former diary secretary — a wedding both Blairs attended — Wales was banning Wikipedia users who mentioned his friendship with Blair from his talk page. What went wrong?³⁵
While Wales was buffing out the spots on Blair’s reputation, Blair was doing the same for some of the worst human rights violators of modern times. In April 2016, leaked emails revealed that Nursultan Nazarbayev, the dictator of Kazakhstan, had paid Blair $29.1 million to whitewash the crimes of the Central Asian dictatorship over the previous five years. As the tin-pot dictatorship dropped eight spots on the World Press Freedom Index and 18 places on the Corruption Perceptions Index, Blair helped Nazarbayev stonewall an international investigation into the massacre of 15 protesters during an oil strike in Zhanaozen and touted the country as “a remarkable success story.”³⁶ Wales followed Blair to Kazakhstan in 2011, awarding the first-ever “Wikipedian of the Year” prize to Rauan Kenzhekhanuly for his work in essentially facilitating the takeover of the Kazakh language Wikipedia by a group allied with (and funded by) the ruling family. Wales’ pleas that Kenzhekanuly’s WikiBilim organization was “not political” rang hollow, as a cursory examination revealed that Kenzhekanuly was both a former government official and a former employee of the state TV channel and that WikiBilim had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in financing from the Kazakh sovereign wealth fund. In May 2011, Wikimedia Foundation trustee Samuel Klein asked WikiBilim staff how best to automate the transfer of all 15 volumes of the government-backed Kazakh encyclopedia into Kazakh Wikipedia.³⁷ The discussion revealed several Kazakh government officials among WikiBilim’s “active community members,” and the Kazakh-language Wikipedia dutifully morphed into the state-sanctioned version of history. By the end of 2011, WikiBilim was described in Creative Commons documents as “a non-profit organization which also operates as the local representative of Wikimedia. Wikibilim in turn is supported by the Government of Kazakhstan and personally by the Prime-Minister Mr. Karim Masimov.”³⁸
With Kazakh Wikipedia safely in the hands of the local Ministry of Truth, Wales began criticizing the Kazakh regime on the website for his Jimmy Wales Foundation.³⁹ It’s unclear when the relationship soured between Wales and the regime. He was still claiming WikiBilim was apolitical in December 2012, when he closed a discussion on his talk page after he was confronted with incontrovertible evidence of WikiBilim’s links to the regime.⁴⁰ In 2014, Kenzhekanuly was named deputy governor of the Kyzylorda region of Kazakhstan, and in an April 2015 Reddit “Ask Me Anything,” Wales lamented his lack of foresight in naming him Wikipedian of the Year, saying he wouldn’t do it again. He even seemed to turn on his former mentor Blair: “Tony Blair absolutely should be slammed for taking money from Kazakhstan. I condemn it without reservation.”⁴¹
The very existence of the Jimmy Wales Foundation is evidence of Wales’ moral flexibility. In December 2014, he was awarded the newly-minted “Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Knowledge Award,” half a million dollars from the United Arab Emirates. Given the UAE’s abysmal human rights record, Wikipedians urged him to refuse the award. Instead, Wales opted to have his cake and eat it too, taking the money (the Foundation’s Wikipedia page says he “was not allowed to give it back,” citing an article which says nothing of the sort⁴²) and using it to start a ‘human rights foundation’ which, despite its stated mission of fighting for freedom of expression in repressive regimes, has done nothing since hiring Israeli human rights lawyer Orit Kopel to repost articles condemning a selection of repressive regimes.⁴³ Not a single article denounces the abysmal state of press freedom in the UAE. Nor does the Foundation call out Israel, whose snipers deliberately shot journalists covering the Palestinian March of Return this summer. Palestinian journalists, activists, and ordinary social media users are increasingly prosecuted for “incitement” for merely “liking” Facebook posts that may be entirely devoid of political content. Since October 2015, over 280 social media users have been arrested for “online incitement to violence,” and many influential Palestinian journalists’ accounts have been unilaterally shut down.⁴⁴ Such repression would seem like a situation tailor-made for Wales’ Foundation — yet he and Kopel are silent. Wales received the $1 million Dan David prize from Israel in 2015, but his loyalty was purchased long before that. Perhaps he sees the closeness of the relationship between Wikipedia and the Israeli government as something to emulate — the chairman and spokesman of Wikimedia Israel, Itzik Edri, who for two years also sat on the global WMF’s funds dissemination committee, also manages PR for former Israeli president Shimon Peres (who was interviewed by WikiNews in 2004). Lest his propaganda efforts be in any doubt, Edri received the 2014 Roaring Lion Award from the Israeli Public Relations Association for his work on Wikipedia’s tenth anniversary campaign. He also worked directly with Tzipi Livni, then-chairperson of Israel’s Hatnua party (now Zionist Union) and current Knesset opposition leader.⁴⁵
Israel was on the cutting edge of Wikipolitics, having burrowed into the editorial ranks of the site long before tin-pot dictators like Nazarbayev and his Azerbaijani counterpart Aliyev (who sponsored a “WikiDays” initiative in 2014 to “protect interests of Azerbaijan in Wikipedia and prevent distortion of information about Azerbaijan”⁴⁶) thought of using it for state propaganda purposes. An April 2008 exposé revealed that the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) had been teaching agents how to rewrite history on Wikipedia for years, instructing them to avoid alerting other editors to their mission by sticking to neutral content for a few months before getting to work on Israel-related articles. They were taught how to game Wikipedia’s ever-growing system of rules to get unfriendly edits reverted and unfriendly editors banned, told to form alliances with non-affiliated Wikipedians, and encouraged to work towards admin status in order to help their fellow agents. All collaboration occurred offline in a private Google group called “Isra-pedia.”⁴⁷ When the scandal came to light, it was duly written up in CAMERA’s Wikipedia entry, only to be erased by a user working from the offices of the US Department of Justice. An admin blocked all DoJ IP addresses for several days while other users implicated in the CAMERA edits were topic-banned from editing articles relating to Arab-Israeli conflict, and one user was banned entirely,⁴⁸ but such obstacles are easily overcome on a site where anonymity is paramount. Any users patient enough to make hundreds of neutral edits to gain the community’s trust before embarking on a Zionist crusade to rewrite history are patient enough to repeat the process.
In 2010, two more groups began publicly offering classes in “Zionist editing” — My Israel and the Yesha Council.⁴⁹ Yesha Council was formed in the 1970s to promote Jewish settlements in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip — settlements that flagrantly violate international law and which are notorious for taking land by force. None of this is in their Wikipedia article. Instead, we are treated to the words of Ayelet Shaked, now the Israeli minister of justice, who organized Yesha’s Wikipedia project: it was definitely “not a Zionist conspiracy to take over Wikipedia.” When the extent of these Zionist editing cells within Wikipedia was brought to his attention, Wales merely slapped token protection on the “Israel” article, claiming the three groups’ work had amounted to essentially nothing.⁵⁰ Like Shaked, he is forever reassuring WIkipedians there is no ruling cabal even as packs of roving administrators vote en bloc on political matters. Yesha has since expanded to Facebook and YouTube, claiming 12,000 members in 2010.⁵¹ Act.IL, a smartphone app co-developed by Israeli intelligence agencies, followed in its footsteps, launching in 2013 to gamify “hasbara,” the Hebrew term for propaganda. The app offers users a chance to score “points” by completing quick “missions” — edit a Wikipedia article, post a Tweet, “like” a post — creating the illusion of thousands of independent pro-Zionist actors all working toward a common public relations goal. This practice has been duplicated in recent years by non-Israeli groups and has resulted in many controversial accounts being “deplatformed” from social media after redefining non-mainstream political speech as “hate.” Twitter accounts like SleepingGiants specialize in a form of mass-reporting known as “brigading” which leads to their targets having their social media accounts suspended whether or not they are actually guilty of any terms of service violations.
The ultimate dystopian use of Wikipedia may come from Google, whose Jigsaw subsidiary developed a program called Conversation AI to root out “hate speech” and online harassment before it can proliferate on social media and in comments sections. One AI tool, called Detox, was fed 14 years of Wikipedia comments sections in order to “teach” it to recognize patterns of “abusive behavior.” Faced with a hopelessly heterogenous data set — 100,000 comments from Wikipedia talk pages, evaluated for personal attack content by 4,000 people — researchers claimed the algorithm was able to distinguish personal attacks from benign comments as well as a three-person team. They then ran 63 million comments through the algorithm and called the results science. The results (which any Wikipedian would happily have volunteered) indicated that over half of abusive comments came from registered users, putting the notion of “anonymous trolls” — so vital to Google and other social media platforms’ agenda of expunging anonymity from the web — to rest.⁵² While commenters do not retain copyright on their words once posted on Wikipedia, it’s not unreasonable to think that editors might not want their words fed to some unaccountable AI database operated by a tech conglomerate that has expressed marked hostility toward the concept of freedom of speech in the past and is actively working to censor users’ internet experience in the US and abroad. Editor retention is a very real problem for Wikipedia, where just one percent of users make 77% of the edits.⁵³ Wikipedia is a reflection of the society that spawned it, further distorted through the image of the man who made himself its public face.
SHUTTING DOWN SCHOLARLY INQUIRY/SECTION 230
Wikipedia’s stated mission of open access to knowledge is itself false, if the short-lived Wikiversity Ethics project was any indication. When a group of users attempted to create a project called “The Ethics of Breaching Experiments” in early 2010 — essentially an experiment meant to test Wikipedia’s defenses against vandalism and other rule violations — Wales used his site-wide moderating powers to delete the project entirely and ban the associated users. Wales, who had never before shown any interest in Wikiversity, was thrown off guard by the backlash to his actions — unlike Wikipedia, where he is only semi-ironically revered as the “god-king,” Wikiversity harbored several users banned from the encyclopedia for “ethical breaches” like those described in the project, none of whom appreciated his barging into their virtual classroom. When users protested his unilateral suppression of free inquiry — the ostensible mission of the Wikimedia Foundation itself — Wales threatened to shut down Wikiversity entirely. Hundreds of users in return voted to strip Wales of his founding privileges, condemning him for betraying the stated mission of the project. He finally backed down, unbanning the wrongthinkers and self-limiting his admin powers⁵⁴, but not before telling them that he had “the full support of the Wikimedia Foundation” and could shut them down whenever he liked. Technically, this isn’t even true — Wikiversity is owned by its contributors, not the Wikimedia Foundation, and while it is hosted on Foundation servers, it is only by the agreement of its members that it agrees to advance Wikimedia’s mission.⁵⁵ When the self-styled “benevolent dictator” of Wikipedia shuts down a semi-autonomous project for doing what it was supposed to do — Wikiversity was launched to encourage the kind of “original research” barred from Wikipedia pages — the site is broken beyond repair. Such behavior would appear to violate section 230 as well, since it represents deliberate curation of content on Wales’ part.
Wales himself has admitted Wikipedia is not merely a neutral platform of the sort protected by section 230. “People get frustrated when they thought it was all about voting. But we’re writing an encyclopedia here; it’s not an open democratic experiment.”⁵⁶ Like the US government, Wikipedia offers its users the illusion of participation in a democratic system, but when they stray beyond the accepted behavioral parameters, enforcers are waiting to restore order. Touting this system as the best of all possible world, he explains that formerly neutral platforms actually have a duty to “build better software to give communities better control, so that your best voices come to the front, and the people who aren’t there for constructive reasons are marginalized and asked to leave.” Such policies are in flagrant violation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects sites like Wikipedia from lawsuits stemming from the content available on their platforms, but Wales may feel that living in London he does not have to abide by US laws. Unfortunately, the Wikimedia Foundation is still based in Silicon Valley, and Wikipedia — like Facebook and Twitter and the rest of the social media sites that have come under fire for their increasing censorship of users — must choose whether exercising editorial oversight is worth jettisoning those legal protections. Given the number of people who have been casually libeled by Wikipedia and its editors, it might want to think twice about throwing section 230 to the wind.
As an open-source site with tens of thousands of contributors, Wikipedia should not have a ‘point of view,’ and indeed it officially does not. Articles are supposed to be written from a Neutral Point of View (NPOV) and there are further policies in place to protect living people from slander. Once strongly enforced, these are now ignored, as malicious actors have developed an alternate channel of rules to circumvent them. Entire sections of Wikipedia — alternative medicine, nutrition, progressive political movements and activism — have become reputational prisons, where indelible scarlet letters are branded on the persons associated with them. Alternative healing is shackled with the “pseudoscience” tag, allowing admins to punish anyone making unsanctioned changes to these pages with a block or a ban; politically-sensitive pages are also booby-trapped with administrative sanctions, chilling any attempts to correct false information. Classifying a person or topic as “FRINGE” invokes a set of policies largely exempting editors from the rules surrounding the NPOV rule, and ideologically-motivated editors have wasted no time in corralling their victims into this internet ghetto.
Wikipedia does not require editors to display some familiarity with a topic before editing. Even — especially! — when they don’t understand the terminology or even the concepts in an article, editors are encouraged to jump right in by groups like Susan Gerbic’s Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia. The so-called Scientific Skeptic movement has become extremely powerful on Wikipedia, to the point that they have been able to convince ordinary editors that personal attack sites like Stephen Barrett’s QuackWatch, written by individuals with no expertise beyond a massive axe to grind, are “reliable sources” for Biographies of Living Persons, which according to Wikipedia’s own rules require a higher standard of reliability to avoid libeling their subjects. Wales declared open season on alternative medicine in 2014, rejecting a petition that called for Wikipedia to treat such topics with the respect offered by the scientific community and dismissing entire fields of healing as “lunatic charlatans,”⁵⁷ but the Skeptics had infiltrated Wikipedia long before. Through years of “meatpuppeting” efforts — bringing in backup from outside Wikipedia to support one’s viewpoint in editorial or administrative disputes — the webmaster for QuackWatch’s email list, Paul Lee, was able to attain a quorum to have his mentor’s page declared a Reliable Source. He canvassed Skeptic email lists, message boards devoted to “debunking” chiropractic, and the now-defunct SkepticWiki in order to amass an army of Skeptic editors to shift the official Wikipedia point of view.
The extent of Lee’s interactions with Wales are not known, though Lee made numerous supportive posts on Wales’ talk page during this time. Somehow, Wales’ stated policy morphed from “editors who don’t stop to think that reverting someone who is trying to remove libel about themselves is a horribly stupid thing to do…. Real people are involved, and they can be hurt by your words. We are not tabloid journalism, we are an encyclopedia” (July 2006)⁵⁸ to “What we won’t do is pretend that the work of lunatic charlatans is the equivalent of “true scientific discourse.” (March 2014)⁵⁹. Wales has never been tolerant of alternative healing modalities — he believes homeopathy should be illegal⁶⁰ — but Lee, Gerbic, and the other Skeptics’ efforts seem to have emboldened him to abandon his pretense of neutrality concerning the “lunatic charlatans” he clearly disdains. Were it merely a matter of personal preference, Wales would be entitled to his beliefs, but when they become policy, superseding the rights of individuals not to be libeled on public platforms, they are problematic.
In a Vanity Fair interview released just last week, Wales told a new version of the ever-evolving Wikipedia founding myth in which he was moved to launch the encyclopedia after his daughter was born with a rare lung defect. In this retelling, he brought her to an expert doctor — the top in his field — who wanted to try an unorthodox treatment. The treatment was successful, and Wales decided then and there to create an encyclopedia so that this doctor’s knowledge — a “miracle cure,” in his words — could be available for the benefit of everyone.⁶¹ This isn’t the first time Wales has told this story — he shared it with a credulous Forbes India reporter in 2009, wiping a tear from his eye as he describes his realization that right then and there, holding his now-healthy baby in his arms, that “no one other than this doctor would ever know about this whole thing” if the knowledge wasn’t preserved somehow,⁶² perhaps forgetting that doctors share their findings with others in their profession as a matter of course. Given Wales’ legendary antipathy toward alternative medicine, “untested cures,” and anything else that is not “conclusively proven,” it’s unlikely he would have submitted his daughter for such a procedure, and if she had actually been saved by some maverick physician, his disdain for alternative practitioners would be inexplicable. The use of the phrase “miracle cure” is a dog-whistle to the Skeptics — no reputable alternative medicine practitioner describes their work as a “miracle cure,” and Wales is aware of this.
Wikipedia’s ruling class have made it clear that they set themselves to be above the site’s rules just as they set themselves above the law. Not only is Wales allowed to revise his own biography, rewriting history to order, but those he disdains — progressive political activists, alternative healing practitioners, anyone outside of the neoliberal establishment that has welcomed him with open arms — are fair game for thousands of anonymous editors to smear as they see fit. History is rewritten to order to suit Wales’ and his allies’ version of history, and all those whose reputations are destroyed in the process are just collateral damage. Wales and his Skeptic allies think nothing of the millions of people who could have been helped by alternative medicine but were discouraged from seeking treatment because of something they saw on Wikipedia. There is no way to calculate the harm done in this manner, but it is surely massive, and should weigh heavily on the consciences of those editors who think they are doing a service by assassinating the character of alternative health practitioners.
Wikipedia’s insistence on anonymity facilitates its use as a platform for attacks both ideologically and personally motivated. There is no way to tell if an editor has knowledge of the subject they are editing or if they are motivated by malice, financial gain, or other factors conducive to producing dishonest coverage of a topic. Conflict of interest, as we have seen, is more the rule than the exception on Wikipedia, where the only rule regarding paid editing seems to be “don’t get caught.”
John Pilger is an Australian journalist and award-winning documentary filmmaker. His 1979 documentary Year Zero, filmed after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, inspired viewers to raise substantial donations for the UK’s first relief shipment to Cambodia, purchasing much-needed medicines, food, and clothes. Pilger worked as a war correspondent for the Daily Mirror in Vietnam, Biafra, Bangladesh, and Cambodia. He has also made several documentaries about indigenous Australians and exposed the 1998 legislation that deprived them of their common-law rights. His documentary on the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, Death of a Nation, scored record ratings and contributed to the massive international outcry that culminated in Indonesian withdrawal from the province in 2000. The audience response to his films has been cited as proof that humanity has not yet succumbed to “compassion fatigue.” Yet Wikipedia calls his work “full of falsehoods,” quoting conservative journalist Oliver Kamm, who is not an authority on journalism, international conflicts, or documentary filmmaking.⁶³ Unfortunately, Wikipedia’s libels are beginning to have a real-world effect: Pilger has stated that “my written work is no longer welcome” in mainstream publications, a chilling thought given his stellar track record. His last column was dropped in 2015 from the Guardian, whose Board includes such luminaries as Jimmy Wales.⁶⁴
Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and author best known for the concept of morphic resonance, which posits that “self-organizing systems inherit a memory from previous similar systems.” Organisms and groups develop or change along teleological “paths” worn by their predecessors, and patterns are imposed on otherwise random or indeterminate activity according to the previous and contemporaneous iterations of that system. The theory radically reimagines everything from memory (memories no longer have to be stored inside the brain in a fixed location) to the notion of a collective unconscious (members of a species have access to the sum total of their knowledge). Sheldrake has written 13 books and 85 scientific papers. He has a PhD in biochemistry from Cambridge University. As a Fellow of the Royal Society, he discovered the chemiosmotic model of polar auxin transport in plants (auxin is a plant hormone that influences cell differentiation). His Wikipedia bio focuses almost exclusively on negative responses to his work without giving a proper explanation of that work. But then, Sheldrake is a vocal critic of what he calls the “dogmatic materialism” endemic to much of current science, which he likens to religion. His outspokenness on this front has made him the enemy of organized Skepticism, and the outcry they orchestrated following his TEDxWhitechapel talk in January 2013 both spilled into and fed off of his Wikipedia page.
Guy McPherson is an author and professor emeritus of conservation biology and natural resources at the University of Arizona, where he has taught for 20 years. He is the leading authority on abrupt climate change leading to near term human extinction, having coined the term “Near-Term Extinction” to designate the possibility of human extinction before the year 2030. McPherson became a tenured full professor before the age of 40 and is among the most accomplished faculty members at the University. His works include Walking Away from Empire, Going Dark, and Letters to a Young Academic. McPherson is also one of the most slandered scientists in the climate change field, and Wikipedia has not hesitated to jump on the bandwagon, taking a New York Times quote that describes him as an “apocalyptic ecologist” far enough out of context to imply he’s some sort of cult leader with an “End of Days following,” then shoehorning in a quote from science blogger (and unreliable source, according to the Wikipedia rule which bars blogs and personal websites from being used as sources for the biographical articles of living persons) Michael Tobis, who accuses him of climate denialism “of a different stripe,” whatever that means — even though McPherson’s whole thesis is that mainstream climate science is itself denying the reality of humanity’s impending extinction.⁶⁵
Sharyl Attkisson is an author and television journalist who currently hosts the public affairs program Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson on channels owned by the Sinclair Broadcasting Group. Her book Stonewalled was a New York Times e-book bestseller. Attkisson began her journalism career on a PBS affiliate in Gainseville, Florida, and worked at local stations in West Palm Beach, Columbus, and Tampa before moving to CNN. She moved to CBS in 1993 and spent 21 years there, working as an investigative correspondent on the channel’s Washington DC bureau. From 1996 to 2001, she also hosted a medical news program on PBS. Attkisson has won Emmy awards for her reporting on the American Red Cross (2002), the Troubled Asset Relief Program (2009), and the BATF’s “Fast and Furious” program (2012). Wikipedia drags in the ubiquitous vaccine defender Dr. Paul Offit to criticize Attkisson’s reporting as “damning by association”⁶⁶ because of a piece she aired on vaccines. Several other awards she received are also omitted, while the better part of a page is devoted to making her claims of being hacked for surveillance purposes seem less than credible.
Jeremy Corbyn is a UK politician currently serving as Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition. A Member of Parliament since 1983, he identifies as a Democratic Socialist. Corbyn opposes military intervention and austerity cuts to public services and supports renationalizing the UK’s public utilities, including its railway network. He has proposed the Bank of England issue funds for large-scale public spending such as housing, energy, and transportation projects, calling the policy “People’s Quantitative Easing” to contrast it with existing quantitative easing policies that attempt to stimulate the economy by buying commercial banks’ assets. He has been a strong campaigner for nuclear disarmament and active in the anti-war movement since his youth. Corbyn’s public support of the Palestinian cause has led to predictable allegations of anti-Semitism perpetuated by the Israeli lobby despite his widespread support among British Jews, and such allegations have metastasized to consume a third of his Wikipedia biography — certainly more space than his actual political views — and spawned several articles of their own.
Vandana Shiva is an Indian environmental activist, eco-feminist, and author who promotes seed freedom and water rights. She has brought global awareness to the destructive effects of GMO farming in her native India, where Monsanto seeds have largely supplanted natural crops and thus must be purchased year after year, leaving farmers so hopelessly in debt that many commit suicide. She exposed genetically modified “golden rice” as a fraud with negligible health benefits and fought against the patenting of living organisms. Shiva began her activist work in the aftermath of the Union Carbide leak in Bhopal. She was also an early voice warning the public about the carcinogenic effects of glyphosate. Beloit College, honoring her with its Weissberg Chair in International Studies, called her a “one-woman movement for peace, sustainability, and social justice.”⁶⁷ Wikipedia opts to focus on criticism of her work, giving half a page to a single article written in response to a New Yorker piece about her.
Craig Murray is a former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan turned whistleblower and human rights activist. While working for the UK Foreign Office in Samarkand, he informed his superiors that the Uzbek regime was torturing thousands of dissidents every year, employing such techniques as rape, asphyxiation, pulling out fingernails, and immersion in boiling liquids. Because the regime had just permitted the US military to move into a military base near the Afghan’s border to facilitate the hunt for Osama bin Laden — a privilege it was paying for with half a billion dollars in annual aid payments — it enjoyed a privileged status with regard to international human rights law; Murray was outraged at the “conspiracy of silence” perpetrated by his fellow diplomats, and spoke out against the regime’s abuses at an October 2002 human rights conference. He was subsequently drummed out of the Foreign Office with a series of fictional and trumped-up charges.⁶⁸ While much of the worst material in his Wikipedia article has been removed — the editor responsible was banned from editing topics related to contemporary British politics for six months after several of his victims brought his misdeeds to media attention — the article is also missing any reference to Murray’s achievements before becoming Uzbek ambassador, including his roles brokering a peace deal in Sierra Leone, supervising Ghana’s first democratic election, and negotiating the UN’s convention on the law of the sea. The main “Craig Murray” page was even set up to redirect to the biographical article of an ice hockey player before it was fixed.
Deepak Chopra is an author and speaker known for bringing Ayurvedic medicine to a mainstream audience. He is board certified in internal medicine and endocrinology and focuses on mind-body spiritual healing through multiple modalities, aiming to integrate Ayurveda with quantum mechanics to create “quantum healing,” linking shifts in consciousness to shifts in biology. Chopra runs a spa retreat featuring meditation, yoga, massage, and Ayurvedic meals. Because he was one of the first holistic practitioners attacked by Richard Dawkins on his “Enemies of Reason” television series, he has been hounded by the Skeptics who idolize Dawkins. They flock to Chopra’s Wikipedia page to pay homage, and as a result it is cluttered with derogatory phrases in quotation marks, linked to blogger and oncologist David Gorski, who appears to take great joy in verbosely mocking alternative medicine practitioners.
Susan Sarandon is an Academy Award-winning actress with dozens of film and TV credits to her name, including Thelma and Louise, The Lovely Bones, The Hunger, and Cloud Atlas. Reading her Wikipedia page, however, you would have no idea she was also an impassioned political activist. Sarandon most recently made appearances at multiple rallies for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. Entire paragraphs detailing her history of activism for third party candidates like Sanders, Jill Stein, and Ralph Nader, against the war in Iraq and other imperialist conflicts, for economic justice with Occupy Wall Street, and against mass incarceration have been removed, with no substantial explanation given for their deletion. Does Wikipedia think actresses should confine their work to the screen, or just shut up and look pretty?
These are just a few examples of the type of reputational attacks found on Wikipedia — some quite subtle, some lying by omission, some giving undue weight to minor incidents in a figure’s life or giving space to “opposition voices” when no such courtesy is afforded voices who disagree with establishment dogma. They are not limited to politicians, scientists, journalists, or activists. There are as many ways to smear a person on Wikipedia as there are victims of Wiki smears. Because Wikipedia is among the first results to appear in an online search, being smeared on the site can have very destructive real-life consequences. Wikipedia’s victims have no recourse to a higher authority — section 230 protects the site from lawsuits, and individual editors hide behind their usernames. The Wikimedia Foundation receives hundreds of requests every year from people requesting their biographical entries be taken down, and takes pride in rejecting every single one.
Wikipedia is trusted by more people than the news media and the government, yet its articles are written by anonymous editors who could very easily be working on behalf of special interests to control the narrative. Manipulating reality through Wikipedia is easy. The blind trust users place in the site is wholly unwarranted, and the examples we have given are only a tiny fraction of the falsehoods and deliberate manipulation it contains. As George Orwell says, he who controls the past controls the future, and he who controls the present controls the past. Wikipedia controls the past, or at the very least the internet’s idea of the past, and as it becomes more influential, used as a “fact-checking” authority by sites like Google and Facebook, it increasingly controls the present. We must think long and hard about whether we want the kind of future a Wikipedia would give us. Wikipedia may seem too big to fail, having grown in size and power to the point that it can take on governments, but this is precisely why it must fail. We cannot allow the future of human knowledge to be controlled by a group of unaccountable anonymous editors with no understanding of the material, their motivations unknown, their backers unseen. This is the recipe for a totalitarian nightmare.
Time and again, the actions of Wikipedia’s ruling class reveal that their primary concern is how the site appears to observers. Wikipedia’s own reputation is dependent on how it is perceived by the millions of people who read its articles every day. If public opinion takes a nosedive, so does its traffic, and so do its donations. Now that it is Wikipedia’s turn for its reputation to hang in the balance, we will see how forgiving its victims are.
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For some time, I’d heard rumors that Wikipedia was not the open-source knowledge utopia it claimed to be. Despite a comprehensive set of rules replete with checks and balances and a seemingly open democratic editing process, stories of pay-for-play editing, character assassinations, ideologically-driven trolling, and other offenses against public knowledge suggested all was not right in Jimmy Wales’ empire. Authors and public figures in fields as diverse as Complementary and Alternative Medicine and progressive politics (including Deepak Chopra, Rupert Sheldrake, Gary Null, John Pilger, and George Galloway) have complained of persistent negative coverage on Wikipedia despite the site’s vaunted neutrality and the promise that “Biographies of Living Persons” are held to the highest standard. Efforts to have misinformation corrected were fruitless and their reputations have suffered as a result.
This seemed implausible. How could a site with over 100,000 volunteer editors, with open access for anyone looking to get involved, be engaged in such widespread bias? As an investigative journalist and activist who has spent many years seeking the truth in a landscape of obfuscation and lies, I decided to find out exactly what was going on at Wikipedia.
First, Wikipedia no longer has over 100,000 editors. The number of active editors has been declining for over a decade, even as fewer new editors join the site. MIT researchers found the “complex bureaucracy” and “hard-line responses to newcomers’ mistakes” were the primary reasons why would-be editors opted not to stick around. Meanwhile, the site’s core of “active” editors decreased from 2007 to 2015 by 40%, dropping to about 30,000.1 In 2017, Purdue University reported that just one percent of those editors had made 77% of the total edits.2 The rate of changes rejected climbed from 6% in 2006 to 25% in 2010,3 and the site bans 1,000 IP addresses a day.4 “Edit wars” are resolved by silencing them. Editors who hang on long enough to become administrators capable of freezing and deleting entries no longer feel compelled to abide by Wikipedia’s rules, and statistics show that the number of editors approved to become administrators has plummeted since 2007.5 Wikipedia is an oligarchy with all the problems that entails. One set of rules exists for the user-citizen, and one for the ruling class of administrators and senior editors.
Wikipedia has a convoluted and lengthy policy on conflicts of interest, a policy that seems to lengthen whenever another pay-to-play edit scandal breaks. And there have been a lot of these scandals. Disclosing one’s conflicts of interest is not even mandatory but a “generally accepted standard that editors should attempt to follow.”6 The unwritten law seems to be that paid editors should only engage in conflict-of-interest work if they can do it without getting caught and embarrassing the site. If you can’t obey the rules, at least break them quietly. Many paid editors do opt to follow the policy, disclosing their conflicts of interest and liaising with third-party editors to modify their clients’ entries, but many more slip through the editorial process unnoticed.
Quid Pro Quo
In 2013, a British Petroleum representative was found to be supplying Wikipedia editors with company-approved text that eventually comprised 44% of BP’s page. The editing took place while a civil trial was underway which could have resulted in BP paying out billions of dollars to victims of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The process itself – PR flack supplies biased “info” to an unaffiliated editor, who then inserts it without disclosing its origins – is common on Wikipedia and does not actually violate the rules, as BP was quick to point out.7 Indeed, multiple editors jumped to the defense of the editor working for BP, suggesting they were also being paid or merely wanted to keep their options open.
Roger Bamkin, a trustee of the Wikimedia Foundation UK and a PR consultant, used his Wiki position to place his PR client, the country of Gibraltar, on Wikipedia’s “did you know” front page feature 17 times during August 2012. As a “Wikipedian in Residence,” Bamkin was not permitted to operate with a conflict of interest or to edit the pages of the organization he worked with, but nothing in the rules prevented him from promoting that page. Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales called Bamkin’s behavior “wildly inappropriate” and denounced it in a double-speaking editorial. Basically, he told future emulators to be more circumspect in their behavior, because the “disaster for our reputation” would be immense if it got out that Wikipedia editors were “paid shills” instead of “free and independent scribes.”8 Wales understands the importance of one’s online reputation, which makes it even more unconscionable that his site has been weaponized to destroy the reputations of so many people.
During the time Bamkin was being encouraged to resign, another Wikipedian in Residence, Max Klein, was discovered to be selling “Wikipedia Editing as a PR Service” on his website, UntrikiWiki, boasting that he had “the expertise needed to navigate the complex maze surrounding ‘conflict of interest’ editing on Wikipedia.”9 In October 2013, editors found hundreds of “sockpuppet” accounts linked to one company – WikiPR, which claimed to employ not only garden-variety editors but an admin capable of freezing and deleting pages. WikiPR claimed over 12,000 clients, from household names like Viacom and Priceline to minor firms whose pages were frequently deleted for not meeting Wikipedia’s “notability” standards. Once again, Wikipedia management condemned the practice, not because it was dishonest, but because “companies engaging in self-promotional activities on Wikipedia have come under heavy criticism from the press and the general public, with their actions widely viewed as inconsistent with Wikipedia’s educational mission.”10 In other words, they’re saying, stop making us look bad.
In a bizarre coda to the WikiPR affair, Cooley LLP, the law firm contracted by the Wikimedia Foundation to send a cease-and-desist letter to WikiPR, was editing its own articles as well. Cooley’s letter misrepresented Wikipedia’s terms of service, claiming “sockpuppeting” and paid editing were both expressly prohibited by the site when the whole point of the WikiPR scandal was that it exposed the giant regulatory loopholes permitting paid advocates to make Wikipedia their promotional playground. Rounding out the letter were ominous yet empty threats – the foundation was “prepared to take any necessary legal action to protect its rights,”11 as if any nation had laws on its books prohibiting the paid editing of crowdsourced online encyclopedias – suggesting that Cooley partners spent more time editing their firm’s Wikipedia article to remove embarrassing facts like a partner’s support for California’s Proposition 8 than reading up on relevant case law.12
Rules Are Made to Be Broken
Wikimedia UK only won its nonprofit status in 2011, and the Bamkin scandal drew intense criticism from the sector. Nonprofit Quarterly took him to task for violating the foundation’s tenets, noting that Gibraltarpedia was the second major scandal in the UK foundation’s year as a nonprofit. Trustee chairman Ashley van Haeften resigned the previous month when he was banned for life from editing Wikipedia, having clashed with several editors over the hosting of explicit images on the site.13 The American arm of the Wikimedia Foundation has been involved in even more questionable behavior. Wikimedia project director Sarah Stierch was fired in January 2014 after a screenshot emerged as proof she was selling her services as an editor.14 Amidst the fallout from the WikiPR scandal and Stierch’s firing, it was decreed that all paid Wikipedia editors must disclose their status. However, without a way to enforce such an edict, the measure is ultimately hollow. The Wikimedia Foundation’s own Financial Dissemination Committee “laments that the Wikimedia Foundation’s own planning process does not meet the minimum standards of transparency and planning detail that it requires of affiliates” and points to an absence of goals and budget transparency as setting a bad example for the rest of Wikipedia.15 If Wikimedia can’t even follow its own transparency guidelines, where else is it falling short?
The Wikimedia Foundation solicits donations from Wikipedia users every year, even though its expenses ($2 million to run hosting and servers) are vanishingly small compared to its profits. Wikimedia has increased its spending over 1000% since 2008 and sits on $97.6 million in assets as of 2016.16 The money has primarily gone toward expanding the Wikimedia bureaucracy, which grew from three permanent employees in 2006 to 174 by 2013.17 Fifteen executives took home six-figure salaries in 2015, and Executive Director Lila Tretikov scored a six-figure golden parachute after she was forced to resign for attempting to conceal the development of the Wikipedia “Knowledge Engine,” a major search engine project intended to drive traffic to Wikipedia by wresting market share from Google. VP of Product Erik Moeller was rewarded with $208,306 the same year for causing the Wikipedia equivalent of a strike. When the bungled 2013 launch of the new VisualEditor interface led editors to rebel and disable the feature, Moeller “superprotected” his department’s next feature, called Media Viewer, so that editors could not disable it. Many ceased contributing in protest; 1,000 others signed a letter of protest to Wikimedia, which was ignored.18 The parallels between well-paid Foundation execs “failing upwards” and “too big to fail” investment bankers landing on their feet are difficult to ignore; Wiki volunteers may not lose their homes when the experts make mistakes, but they’re still being asked to donate both time and money to a parasitic administrative class that ultimately serves as an instrument of control.
“Charitable organizations” like Wikimedia are barred from operating for the benefit of “private interests,” with no part of a group’s “net earnings” accruing “to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual.”19 Yet Wales was so fond of his Wikimedia credit card he was relieved of it in 2006, after it was revealed that he was billing $1,300 steak dinners and other outsize expenses to the “charity.”20 Wales, like some of his editors, takes Wikipedia’s rules as mere suggestions. From minor tweaks to entries belonging to his famous friends21 to more extensive reputational rehab for a girlfriend22 to wholesale rewriting of his own history,23 he has earned the “god king” nickname bestowed upon him by his adoring public. Openly disregarding Wikipedia’s laws while enforcing them on everyone else, Wales has made Wikipedia a microcosm of the society that birthed it. Is it any wonder that the same injustices so rife in America today are playing out on our computer screens as well – that the wealthy and well-connected are subject to different rules than the rest of us?
The relationship between the Wikimedia Foundation and Wales’ for-profit company Wikia so flagrantly violates the letter and spirit of nonprofit regulations that Wikipedia gadfly Greg Kohs actually brought it to the attention of the IRS in December 2006. Kohs has thoroughly documented the incestuous relationship between Wikipedia/Wikimedia – ostensibly nonprofit – and Wikia, the for-profit ad-covered version Wales founded in December 2004 with Angela Beesley, a Wikimedia Foundation board member. All three Directors on Wikia’s original Board – Wales, Beesley, and Secretary-Treasurer Michael Davis – also sat on the Board of the Wikimedia Foundation, as did many later Wikia employees.24 Davis had worked with Wales since 1994 and actually helped him set up the non-profit Foundation to manage Wikipedia in 2003.25 In 2006, Wikia shared hosting and servers with the Wikimedia Foundation, also “donating” $6,000 worth of office space to the nonprofit,26 and Wikimedia was from 2009 to 2010 actually paying rent to Wikia using funds donated by the Stanton Foundation, sneaking tax-deductible dollars through to the supposedly unaffiliated for-profit company.27 Shortly after Wikia was founded to house community-built wikis for subjects not considered notable under Wikipedia rules (“Wookieepedia” for Star Wars enthusiasts was an early favorite), Wikipedia began sprouting links to Wikia pages, which heavily inflated Wikia’s advertising revenues with every click due to Wikipedia’s high Google ranking. Wikipedia users attempted to institute measures that would have nullified that revenue boost, only to be overruled by Wales.28 Wikimedia Foundation donors Amazon.com and the Omidyar Network both also contributed large sums to the fledgling Wikia. Amazon supplied the entirety of its second round of venture capital funding and was rewarded with hundreds of thousands of Wikipedia links to its sites, including IMDB.29 Meanwhile, the Wikimedia Foundation hired the Omidyar Network’s Matt Halprin to its Board of Trustees as part of a $2 million “package of support” grant from Omidyar just three years after Omidyar had invested $4 million in Wikia. The Foundation dismissed the conflict of interest as if it was absurd to think that these two companies founded and run by the same people might have something in common.30 Wales was replaced as Wikia’s CEO in June 2006 by Gil Penchina (formerly of eBay) after investors got wind of Wales’ efforts to expense the same $1,300 dinner bill Wikimedia had cut up his company credit card for to Wikia.31 Still Chairman of the firm, Wales oversaw the rollout of user-powered search engine Wikia Search in January 2008, but the project tanked the following year32 despite glowing media coverage until the end.33 Penchina disappeared in October 2011, still owed $30,000 by Wales, according to Wales’ divorce papers.34 Beesley quit in February 2012. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given this history, Wikia is due to change its name to Fandom in 2019.
Big Brother, Big Pharma, Big Money
The US government has been meddling in Wikipedia since at least August 2007, when a tracing program developed at the Santa Fe Institute called Wikiscanner discovered that computers at CIA headquarters had been used to make edits to entries on the US invasion of Iraq and the biographies of former CIA head William Colby and former presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. An FBI computer had also been used to edit the entry on the US’s Guantanamo Bay detention facility.35 Voting machine manufacturer Diebold was caught deleting 15 paragraphs critical of its product,36 while the Vatican and the British Labour Party were also prolific editors.37 Since then, the intelligence agencies have had to camouflage their edits or outsource them to third parties. Unfortunately, the demise of Wikiscanner in 2016 left a hole in Wikipedia accountability that has yet to be filled.38
Big Pharma’s fingerprints are all over Wikipedia. Editors linked to AstraZeneca were caught posting negative material to competitors’ pages and adding promotional material to their own.39 Wikiscanner caught Abbott Labs removing information from its entry about possible side effects of two of its most popular drugs, the weight loss pill Meridia and the arthritis pill Humira.40 An analysis of the entry for Purdue Pharmaceuticals shows it has been through several editing cycles in which information on the addictive potential of the company’s infamous opiate Oxycontin was added, then removed, then added again, though any editors working for Purdue seem to have slunk away in the aftermath of their employer’s settlement with the state of Kentucky for $24 million in damages from widespread Oxycontin abuse in the state.41
The New York Police Department was caught whitewashing dozens of Wikipedia entries in March 2015 when Wikiscanner technology linked hundreds of edits to computers at NYPD headquarters. Most of the edits sought to downplay crimes committed by department officers and cast the victims of such as more threatening or criminal than they were. An entry on the death of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man whose choking death at the hands of Officer Daniel Pantaleo helped launch the Black Lives Matter movement, was altered to make Garner appear much more threatening than he was, while the chokehold which killed Garner was reduced to a “headlock.” Another user attempted to delete the entry on Sean Bell, who was gunned down by police as he left his bachelor party with two friends; the officers fired over 50 bullets at the three men and even then-commissioner Ray Kelly – who’s never heard of excessive force – condemned the incident. NYPD editors got busy with the NYPD entry itself, deleting large chunks from the “police misconduct” and “scandals and corruption” sections, and the entry on “stop and frisk” was larded with explicatory language.42
Pay to Play
What appears on the surface to be a simple case of pay-to-play editing can mask a deeper conflict of interest, as in the case of the Stanton Foundation. In 2011, Stanton donated $3.6 million to Wikimedia, then the largest one-time gift in the foundation’s history. Wikimedia then used $53,000 of that donation to hire Tim Sandole as a Wikipedian-in-Residence at Harvard University’s Belfer Center. Despite warnings from Wikimedia to avoid over-representing his own institutional viewpoint,43 Sandole used his edits to promote the work of Graham Allison, the head of the Belfer Center, whose wife Liz Allison runs the Stanton Foundation. More troublingly, by taking money from Wikimedia to edit Wikipedia, Sandole punched a hole in the firewall that is supposed to separate the two, threatening the Foundation’s nonprofit status.44 Sandole really put his foot in it when he appeared in his official Wikimedia-funded Belfer Center capacity at a campus event promoting Barack Obama over Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.45 Nonprofits are forbidden from campaigning for political candidates. He also failed to disclose his financial backers – who were paying over 100 times the amount that got poor Sarah Stierch fired! - and made a number of edits that violate Wikipedia’s hallowed Neutral Point of View to political articles like the Cuban Missile Crisis, but these crimes are practically rites of passage for fledgling Wikipedia editors.
Stanton and Wikimedia have a history of financial entanglement. Two Wikipedia editors who modified the biographical article of Foundation namesake Frank Stanton to remove inconvenient disclosures like his foundation’s historically massive gift to the Wikimedia Foundation were hired by Wikimedia not long after making their guard-dog edits. One, Pete Forsyth, was brought on to design the Wikipedia Public Policy Initiative, which Allison would subsequently use as institutional cover for Sandole’s hire.46 Allison herself returned to the scene of the crime in 2016, making extensive edits to the Stanton Foundation article. While most conflict-of-interest edits are reverted and publicly shamed when found out, Allison seemed to think her foundation’s massive donations had bought her special privileges, defending her edits despite having removed informational and well-sourced material. Allison was correct in her assumption – her edits remain in the article, with all attempts to revert them blocked; Wales refused to address the issue on his talk page. 47
Former Novell computer scientist Jeff Merkey claimed Wales personally offered to “use his influence” to ensure Merkey’s Wikipedia article “adhere[d] to Wikipedia’s stated policies with regard to internet libel” in exchange for a “substantial donation” to the Wikimedia Foundation in 2006.48 Merkey’s article included the gritty details of multiple lawsuits in which he was involved, including one from his former employer. After Merkey donated $5,000, his page’s edit history showed the entry was blanked and restarted by Wales, who warned other editors to “be extra careful here to be courteous and assume good faith.” The entry also gained “protected” status, meaning only administrators could make edits.49 Wales denied the allegations, stating he would “never offer, nor accept any offer, whereby a donation would buy someone special editorial treatment in the encyclopedia.” Merkey claimed he was banned by Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee after he ceased contributions to the Wikimedia Foundation; he returned briefly under other user names, but was banned every time, while his page was eventually deleted. If Wales is offering naked pay-to-play editing, the list of benefactors to the Wikimedia Foundation takes on a much more sinister significance – are companies like Boeing, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Exxon Mobil, GE, Pfizer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and GlaxoSmithKline giving money out of charitable impulses, or because they get something in return?50 What about George Soros, David Koch, Mark Zuckerberg, and Warren Buffett, all of whose names were on a leaked list of individual donors in 2011?51 What does Jimmy Wales have to offer these men who have everything?
Wikipedia Takes Washington
The first major pay-to-play Wikipedia scandal dates back to February 2006, when it was discovered that US Congressional staff were scrubbing the biographies of their politicians – removing broken campaign promises,52 scandals, and other undesirable details and adding “glowing” tributes and favorable information.53 At the same time, negative information was appended to the biographies of their opponents. Some ambitious staffers were replacing their candidates’ biographies wholesale with staff-authored versions. Joe Biden, Diane Feinstein, Norm Coleman, Conrad Burns, and Tom Harkin were named in early reports, later joined by Mike Pence, Gus Gutknecht, and David Davis. Wikipedia responded initially by banning Congressional IP addresses and later by creating a Twitter feed to document Wikipedia edits made by congressional staffers.54
Wikipedia’s initial heavy-handed reaction to the congressional edits may have stemmed from the IRS’s rules that bar nonprofit foundations from “voter education activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates.”55 Wikipedia does not always toe the line in its political coverage. The article on Donald Trump, for example, gives ample space to discussions of the “Russiagate” investigation and even “Impeachment efforts,” though no impeachment proceedings have passed preliminary hearings; the Hillary Clinton article glosses over most of the controversies that dogged her political career, offering a sanitized account of the “email controversy” while entirely omitting the revelations from the WikiLeaks DNC document dump. “Some commentators” are given space to air their speculation on how Trump might be impeached without a vote, yet no voices are quoted taking Clinton to task for her role in rigging the Democratic primary. Nor do we find references to her role in plunging the once-progressive nation of Libya into violent chaos, or in appropriating billions of dollars’ worth of donations meant for Haitian hurricane victims. Trump is taken to task for “comments and actions [that] have been perceived as racially charged” – an accusation with no citation – but Clinton’s racially-charged “super predators” comment is missing from her page. There is clearly a double standard at work.56 57 An October 2016 article on Wikipedia’s role in that year’s election might point to the answer: Clinton’s page was “protected,” while Trump’s was not. Trump’s page was edited more than three times as often as Clinton’s during the campaign season. 58
When Google search results returned “Nazism” as the ideology of the California Republican Party just a week before that state’s primaries, Google was quick to blame Wikipedia vandalism, explaining that the Google “knowledge box” that contained the offending term is often populated with Wikipedia text.59 The “vandalism” had remained on the party’s Wikipedia page for six days before it was corrected, hidden in a “piped link” where the link text and “alt text” read differently; meanwhile, other edits were reverted within a few minutes, suggesting this one was allowed to persist, deliberately hidden so it would only appear in Google search results.60
Such apparent political bias makes more sense in light of the fact that the Wikimedia Foundation contracted the Minassian Group, run by Clinton Foundation Chief Communications Officer Craig Minassian, to train Wikimedia’s own C-level employees, directors and managers in media strategy for the year 2014-2015.61 Minassian was further tasked with conducting a “communications audit” in 2016.62 Some editors among the Wikipedia rank and file were unhappy about having their territory politicized,63 particularly given how much of the foundation’s money was going to Minassian.64 Sashi Manek suggests it was precisely this Clinton Foundation hire that kept the Foundation’s page clean throughout election season of any references to its crimes against the people of Haiti during the period the Clintons were supposedly helping with hurricane recovery.65
Going further, it appears Minassian was sent in to lay the groundwork for the post-election focus on the Russiagate conspiracy. The account “Sagecandor” appeared days after the election and commenced a frenzy of edits on matters related to Clinton’s 2016 election talking points, from “Russian interference in the 2016 election” (631 edits) to “Murder of Seth Rich” (275 edits), “Comey memos,” “kompromat,” and “efforts to impeach Donald Trump.” The new account also created dozens of book reviews - books critical of Donald Trump and books written by CNN commentator and noted fabulist Malcolm Nance, whose own biography was cleaned up to remove some of his more egregious falsehoods. The account nominated many of its own book reviews for placement in the coveted “Did You Know” module on Wikipedia’s front page. Sagecandor was eventually revealed to be a “sockpuppet” of “CIRT,” an admin who had been banned under multiple usernames for conflicts of interest and hostile behavior toward other editors. Continuing that pattern, Sagecandor participated in no fewer than 19 disciplinary actions over three months, seemingly colluding with a power admin to get the cases against it closed speedily. In June 2017, rather than being banned like its predecessors, Sagecandor was given auto-patrolling and page moving powers, allowing it to edit protected entries (like the Russiagate material) without someone else signing off on the edits.66 Some admins are open about their political beliefs on their profile pages, like BullRangifer, a “Skeptic” who writes that anyone who does not believe that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election “lack[s] the competence needed to edit American political subjects” because they are victims of “fake news.” The “fake news” link, of course, points to a Wikipedia page authored in part by the admin who wrote the original paragraph, but circular logic does not seem to bother this Skeptic.67
Wales’ newfound concern about “fake news,” which became the bête noire of the Western media establishment during the 2016 election, also makes much more sense in the light of the Minassian connection. The same Wikipedia editor who wrote so much on “Russian interference in the 2016 election” also made 904 edits to “fake news websites” as the election tipped toward Trump. Another Minassian operative was dispatched to Vice in the guise of a Wikipedia editor to give a chummy interview about how the site handles “fake news.”68 In my opinion, the preponderance of election-related edits were coordinated with a Clinton-linked consultancy hired by the Wikimedia Foundation; if this is the case, such collusion should rule out nonprofit status for Wikimedia.69
Wales’s latest project is dedicated entirely to the problem of Fake News. WikiTribune is a crowd-sourced journalism and fact-checking platform that pairs professional journalists with volunteers, paying the pros via a crowdfunding campaign while tasking the volunteers with fact-checking and editing the articles. “Those who donate will become supporters, who in turn will have a say in which subjects and story threads the site focuses on. And Wales intends that the community of readers will fact-check and subedit published articles,” according to a Guardian piece that reads like a PR release (most likely because Wales sits on the Board of Guardian Media Group, another conflict of interest he dislikes disclosing).70
WikiTribune takes several cues from Minassian’s 2016 media audit, which recommended that Wikipedia focus on positioning itself as an island of neutrality in a roiling sea of bias. Wikipedia dissenter Kingsindian points out the logical flaws in that model: “Would anyone accept a ‘newsroom’ where anonymous contributors with undisclosed conflicts of interest argue about things, where expertise is irrelevant, where contributors’ work is not paid, there is no editor or copy-editor, and then nobody takes responsibility for the final product?”71 Meanwhile, Google is not the only platform that uses Wikipedia as a fact-checker. YouTube is rolling out Wikipedia links embedded in videos that will permit viewers to fact-check those videos’ claims in real time, ostensibly to combat “conspiracy theories” and “fake news.” Wikipedia has also largely supplanted the scandal-ridden Snopes in Facebook’s fact-checking arsenal.72 With Facebook now assigning “trust ratings” to users based on their record of sharing approved news stories, Wikipedia’s judgment is likely to become more significant in determining what users see on their newsfeeds.73
The Philip Cross Affair
Sagecandor’s UK equivalent seems to be “Philip Cross,” who ranks number 308 in the list of most active Wikipedia editors after 15 years on the site. He has spent the equivalent of full-time working hours editing Wikipedia for the past five years.74 A few of his “victims,” including UK MP George Galloway and former Uzbekistan ambassador Craig Murray, began investigating the prolific editor after they noticed him systematically terrorizing their pages. Cross’ victims shared a common skepticism about the UK’s foreign policy, especially with regard to Syria. With seemingly unlimited free time to edit, Cross removed favorable information and added negative material, amounting to 1,796 edits on Galloway’s page alone.75 Cross attacked anti-war and anti-imperialist personalities like John Pilger, Vanessa Beeley, and Jeremy Corbyn on Twitter at the same time he was tweaking their Wikipedia pages with lies and distortions and favorably editing the articles of pro-establishment journalists like Luke Harding and Oliver Kamm. By personally attacking his “targets,” he embodies a conflict of interest. Murray pointed out the similarities between the views espoused by Cross and those of Wales himself,76 who did not take the comparison well. “If your worldview is shaped by idiotic conspiracy sites, you will have a hard time grasping reality,” Wales sneered after repeatedly asking for – and receiving – proof of Cross’s malicious edits. Murray also pointed out that British intelligence has bragged about operating “sockpuppets” to push the “official” narrative in the media, and Cross’s open flouting of the rules seemed like the behavior of someone accustomed to life above the law (on the Wikipedia talk page for Galloway, he openly admitted his conflict of interest, then returned to editing Galloway’s article).77 Cross’s behavior eventually resulted in his being permanently banned from all topics related to post-1978 British politics, but with the stipulation he can appeal the ban in six months. As a parting shot, the editor who initially brought Cross’ misbehavior to the Arbitration Committee’s attention was also banned from “linking to or speculating about the off-wiki identity of other editors.”78 Cross has already violated his topic ban repeatedly, forcing a reluctant ArbCom to ban him from the site entirely for a week,79 and Galloway understands there are too many ways around the ban for it to effectively stop the abuse, especially after learning that Cross works “in synchronicity” with a group of editors who share the IP address of a Rupert Murdoch media property.80 Still, he hopes that by bringing the Philip Cross affair to media attention he can disabuse people of their belief that Wikipedia is some sort of oracle of truth, free from political bias and other ulterior motives. A 2014 YouGov report showed 64% of British people trust Wikipedia editors at least “a fair amount” to tell the truth – more than trust Murdoch’s Times or even the BBC81 – so the unorthodox collaboration between obsessive editor and old-media outlet seems to be paying off. While Galloway avoids reading his vandalized Wikipedia profile, he can’t seem to avoid it – speakers at his public appearances regularly read from it to introduce him. If exposing Philip Cross can destroy the public’s faith in Wikipedia’s neutrality, he says, his online ordeal will have been worthwhile.
Cross’ choice of Galloway as his number-one victim provides a clue as to who was directing his campaigns of editorial terror. In 2016 Galloway released The Killing$ of Tony Blair, a documentary chronicling the former UK PM’s rise through (and, as Galloway sees it, destruction of) the Labour Party; his collusion with the US government to launch the illegal Iraq war, leading to hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths; and his post-political career burnishing the public image of authoritarian regimes. The film is a scathing indictment of Blair’s war profiteering; Galloway and many of the people he interviews call for Blair to be tried for war crimes at The Hague. Unfortunately for Galloway, Blair is a close friend of Wales, whose wife Kate Garvey previously worked as his diary secretary. Wales is fiercely defensive of his famous friends, and Blair’s own Wikipedia entry barely mentions Blair’s vast financial wealth (37 homes – 10 houses and 27 flats – worth £27 million, plus millions of pounds distributed through a network of companies);82 his PR work on behalf of dictators and human rights abusers in Kuwait, the UAE, Colombia, Egypt, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan;83 his utter failure to support Palestinian rights during his time as Middle Eastern peace envoy; and the human consequences – over half a million civilian casualties – of the Iraq invasion he continues to defend.
Reputation Rehab for Dictators
In June 2011, the Wikimedia Foundation actually financed a group of paid editors in Kazakhstan, providing a $16,600 grant to Rauan Kenzhekhanuly’s fledgling WikiBilim project.84 WikiBilim began as an effort to expand the tiny Kazakh language Wikipedia and progressed to cleaning up English-language articles for high-ranking Kazakh subjects, up to and including the country’s dictator, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and his family.85 Wales awarded Kenzhekhanuly the first ever “Wikipedian of the Year” award that same year, despite protests that he was whitewashing the reputation of a repressive dictatorship. In response, Wales denied everything, claiming “Wikimedia Foundation has zero collaboration with the government of Kazakhstan. Wikibilim is a totally independent organization.” When questioning persisted, he resorted to threats and banned the questioners from his talk page.86 Wales’ objections are disingenuous, considering that Kenzhekhanuly is not only a former government official but also a former employee of the government propaganda station National TV Agency run by Nazarbayev’s daughter. WikiBilim is also financed by the Samruk Kaznya State Investment Fund, the sovereign oil wealth fund run by Nazarbayev’s son-in-law. Also editing English-language articles on Kazakhstan was Portland Communications, a lobbying firm which has previously been caught editing negative material out of Wikipedia entries for clients.87 Portland is run by a former advisor to Tony Blair, who was reportedly paid $13 million for his own part in the rehabilitation of Kazakhstan’s reputation. The merest suggestion of a link between Blair’s work for the Kazakh government and Wikipedia was dismissed in typical overcompensatory fashion by Wales, who banned such discussion from his page (“My personal life has nothing to do with Kazakhstan!”).88
Kazakhstan has been on an expensive and expansive mission to improve its reputation abroad, hiring multiple PR firms and sending out infomercials on CNN International. Human Rights Watch states that the government is “considering legislative amendments that appear to propose even further restrictions on freedom of religion” and “impunity for torture and ill-treatment in detention persist.”89 While high level government officials claim the country has a free press, journalists risk arrest, police harassment, lawsuits, and heavy fines for criticizing the regime. Journalists can be imprisoned for up to seven years on the charge of “disseminating knowingly false information.”90 “Inciting national discord” is another charge frequently brought against activists, journalists and other writers. A journalist who called for sanctions against Kazakh officials who commit human rights violations was stabbed on board a train by an unknown assailant. The editor of an independent newspaper was banned from journalism for three years as part of his sentence on politically-motivated money laundering charges. An editor and the founders of another independent newspaper were convicted of defamation. Two activists were sentenced to five years imprisonment for protesting land reform proposals, and another remains in prison serving a 12-year sentence. In 2017, the regime convicted at least 22 people on charges of “inciting religious discord” while placing three-month bans on several Protestant and Jehovah’s Witness churches; a proposed law would further restrict religious teaching, proselytizing and publishing.91 In 2011, the same year WikiBilim’s founder was named Wikipedian of the Year, police massacred at least 14 protesters during an oilfield strike that turned into a riot, highlighting the poor relations between the regime and labor unions; the government responded by declaring a state of emergency and restricting access to journalists.92
After helping Kazakhstan reposition itself as a modern investment mecca, Wales was chosen in December 2014 (along with World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee) to receive the United Arab Emirates’ “Knowledge Award,” a $1 million technology prize invented for the occasion. Wikipedia users swarmed his talk page to protest both the country’s appalling human rights record and Wales’ apparent indifference. Wales finally snapped, “Every penny of the money will be used to combat human rights abuses worldwide with a specific focus on the Middle East and with a specific focus on freedom of speech / access to knowledge issues. Of course.”93 though when the Daily Dot suggested he was only turning to philanthropy to muffle the backlash due to his taking money from a(nother) repressive dictatorship, Wales demanded a correction.94 The UAE regime is notorious for flogging homosexuals, arresting rape victims, and using migrant workers as literal slave labor in the construction of its lavish luxury projects. It also “arbitrarily detains and in some cases forcibly disappears individuals who criticize the authorities”95 and regularly tortures both citizens and foreigners96 it has detained. In March 2018, the regime sentenced a human rights activist to ten years’ imprisonment on trumped-up charges including using social media to “publish false information that harms national unity.”97 Since March 2015, the UAE has partnered with Saudi Arabia in a lopsided assault on Yemen, the poorest country in the region, killing upwards of 7,000 civilians and wounding over 10,000.98 Armed with the finest and most expensive US weaponry, the Saudi-UAE coalition has blockaded the port city of Hodeidah in violation of international human rights law, placing the lives of 22 million Yemenis who depend on food aid at risk.99 Perched on top of billions of dollars’ worth of oil, the UAE can buy powerful friends, whether they run the US government or Wikipedia.
The Register pointed out that for Wales, “starting a foundation” with his Emirati blood money was a great way to reap the reputational benefits of “charity” while retaining control of the cash, which may have been Wales’ goal.100 Wales seems to like retaining control of prize money, even when the prize is one he’s supposed to be giving away. Two years after Kenzhekanuly was named Wikipedian of the Year, the Kazakh insider hadn’t seen a dime of the $5,000 that was supposed to accompany the award, nor had 2013’s winner, a Nigerian user known as Demmy.101 In 2014, Wales opted to honor Ukrainian student activist Ihor Kostenko, who was shot dead during the US-backed Euromaidan riots that culminated in the overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically-elected government and its replacement with a far-right fascist regime. Choosing Kostenko permitted Wales to reframe the dead Wiki editor’s life as a propaganda narrative – tragically cut down in his prime, all “because he wanted Ukraine to be led by people with a patriotic spirit”102 – and distract Americans from the fact that their government was arming the Nazis marching through the streets of Kiev.103
Wales’ surface proclivity for charity work clashes with his outspoken adherence to the Objectivist “philosophy” of Ayn Rand, which venerates individualism to the point of selfishness and bows to an absolute, inflexible rationality. Wales’ first wife, Pamela, told W he had actively discouraged her from pursuing a career in nursing during their marriage because “to him, altruism was evil.”104 His serial charity establishment is perhaps best understood in a mercenary context – by adopting the identity of a chronic do-gooder, he escapes the scrutiny that might accrue to the stereotypical internet billionaire who spends more time chasing tail than saving whales. Objectivism also explains the tendency of Wales’ charitable endeavors to end badly, as most recently occurred with The People’s Operator (TPO), a mobile communications firm that supposedly donated ten percent of users’ bills and a quarter of its earnings to charities of the user’s choice. In practice, only about 3.8% of revenue made it to charity in 2016.105
Wales was brought in by TPO founder Andrew Rosenfeld in January 2014 as Co-Chairman and Executive Director of Strategy and Digital Community, essentially a famous face to raise the profile of his company in the runup to a public offering.106 Rosenfeld was implicated in the Cash for Honours scandal in 2006, having loaned £1,033,000 to Tony Blair’s Labour party and found himself – along with seven of the other 11 businessmen who funded Labour’s 2005 General Election campaign – on Blair’s short-list for a life peerage;107 Blair-linked PR firm Portland Communications handled the publicity for both Wales’ hire and the share offering. TPO was a money-losing proposition from the beginning,108 but Wales’ backing encouraged enough investor confidence to net the firm £20 million in an IPO on the UK’s junior AIM market. After Rosenfeld died suddenly the following February, Wales took over as CEO, pulling a $400,000 annual salary while TPO’s value remained stagnant.109 To accompany TPO’s US rollout, which he assured investors would send its valuation north of £2 billion within 4 years, he tacked on a “viral” social network/donation platform110 to draw new customers in place of traditional marketing and advertising. When the carrier bungled the switch from a 3G to 4G network, leaving some customers without service for weeks at a time,111 financial losses accelerated. Wales stepped down as Executive Chairman in 2017; in June 2018, TPO sold off the same US customer base Wales had valued at billions of pounds for a bargain-basement £700,000 to stave off creditors.112 Within two weeks, Wales left the near-bankrupt husk of TPO to “concentrate on his other interests.”113 All the while TPO was posting year after year of losses, the press sang its praises, promising its fortunes would turn around at any moment. One couldn’t fault them for their optimism – they probably got their information from the TPO Wikipedia article, which was created and maintained by a company employee.114
TPO wasn’t Wales’ first foray into the charity realm. In December 2009, he partnered with then-girlfriend Andrea Weckerle to launch CiviliNation, a vaguely-defined initiative to combat online harassment and character assassination. The irony of Wales’ involvement in such an organization appears to have eluded him. CiviliNation’s 2011 financial disclosures showed 74% of expenses paid to Weckerle, as well as 82% in 2012 and 80% in 2013.115 In 2013, he helped launch model Lily Cole’s “altruism-based social network” Impossible.com, where users post their wishes to be granted by benevolent strangers. Cole, a multimillionaire, snared £200,000 of taxpayer-funded grants intended for the needy,116 rather perverting the whole charitable order by taking from the poor to give to the comfortably-off. A Huffington Post profile notes that “Impossible doesn’t fulfill the needs of people who are truly desperate – you won’t see a post from someone who is starving, for example” and Cole is not so detached from reality that she cannot understand the truly desperate may not be in a position to post their cries for help on the latest smartphone.117 One wonders if Wales’ charitable endeavors have not deliberately been chosen to prove – in true Objectivist style – the uselessness of charity.118
Moral Relativism for Dummies
UK PR firm Bell Pottinger was caught in December 2011 burnishing the Wikipedia entries of its clients, including the former president of Zambia and South African arms manufacturer Paramount Group, and adding negative information about its clients’ enemies, including journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown, the sister-in-law of then-UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown.119 Ten accounts, responsible for hundreds of edits, were suspended, and Wales stated he was “highly critical of their ethics,” adding that he had “never seen a case like this.”120 By 2016, Bell Pottinger was back on Wikipedia, editing articles for South African firm Oakbay Investments as part of a racially inflammatory PR campaign that positioned Oakbay’s wealthy Indian owners, the Gupta family, as victims of “white monopoly capital” even as public scrutiny of their influence in President Jacob Zuma’s government increased. The resulting scandal took down both Bell Pottinger and Zuma.121 It is not a stretch to suggest that the current racial unrest in South Africa can be partially laid at the feet of Bell Pottinger, the Guptas, and their disingenuous crusade against “white monopoly capitalism,” a term they popularized in an astroturfed social media campaign to promote their company and obscure its disproportionate influence within the Zuma government.
Bell Pottinger employees were caught on tape boasting of their ability to “sort” negative Wikipedia articles and manipulate Google search results to drown out negative coverage, and Wales was “astonished at the ethical blindness of Bell Pottinger’s reaction” to getting caught.122 But Minassian had proposed Wikipedia get involved in just this type of business operation in its 2016 media audit by suggesting the site introduce “a breaking news Twitter feed that pushes out neutral content when controversy breaks” – essentially a full-time distraction engine to be switched on in times of crisis. Wikimedia Executive Director Katherine Maher says Wikipedia “should be about creating information.”123 The Wikimedia Foundation actually paid a public relations firm to conduct a study concluding Wikimedia is the largest “participatory grantmaking” fund, then link to the Wikipedia definition of “participatory grantmaking” that uses an article from the same public relations firm as one of its only sources. Wikimedia was forced to issue a correction replacing the word “research” with “report,” as in “report that they commissioned,” as in “designation they paid for.”124 Creating information, indeed.
Wales’ wife’s firm, Freud Communications, regularly edits its own Wikipedia page125 – founded by a friend of Tony Blair, it enjoys supralegal status in the Wikipedia class hierarchy – and publishes a magazine called Baku for the daughter of Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliyev.126 It’s not surprising, then, that in January 2014, the Azerbaijani regime launched a “WikiDays” project through a youth organization it controls called IRELI Public Union. In partnership with Wikipedia Azerbaijan, instructors taught participants how to edit and protect articles with an eye toward the “principles of propaganda” – with the end goal of “encourag[ing] the youth to use Wikipedia in a correct manner, to protect interests of Azerbaijan in Wikipedia and prevent distortion of information about Azerbaijan.”127 The Aliyev regime also works with the Podesta Group, whose co-founder John Podesta chaired Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and served as Chief of Staff to Bill Clinton,128 and hired the ubiquitous Blair to seal a pipeline deal. In 2017, the Azerbaijani government sentenced 25 journalists and activists to lengthy prison terms following politically-motivated show trials. Torture of prisoners is common, as is harassment of suspected LGBT individuals. In May 2017, authorities permanently blocked the websites of a number of independent and opposition media outlets, citing “national security threats.”129 One wonders why, if Wikipedia is so amenable to servicing the needs of authoritarian governments, Turkey went the route of banning the site altogether. Surely they can afford to buy their way into Jimmy Wales’ good graces.
It seems that wherever Tony Blair goes, Wales follows. In 2012, Blair facilitated the Qatari royal family’s purchase of a stake in British hotel group Coroin.130 The Qatar Foundation soon became one of the top 20 donors to the Wikimedia Foundation, contributing upwards of $100,000 in 2013, and the Qatar Foundation’s Wikipedia article soon undertook a makeover at the hands of “Jmgrayling,” seemingly a Grayling PR employee. Grayling had only recently taken over the Qatari account from Bell Pottinger, where user “Annikabenn” had been busily editing the Qatar Foundation’s article for her own firm.131 Like the UAE, Qatar treats its migrant laborers like slaves, confiscating passports and documents so that they cannot leave, withholding payment of wages, and mandating a sponsorship system that forbids them from changing employers.132 The country also blocks access to its only independent news website from its two internet service providers.133
Wikipedia has a pattern of shutting out anti-establishment points of view on controversial topics, and it is here that it becomes important to distinguish between the traditionally-understood concept of Truth and Wikipedia’s version. Wikipedia relies on consensus, not ultimate Truth – the more sources support a particular view, the more likely that view will prevail. Wikipedia’s rules on what constitutes a reliable source have evolved over the years to exclude all “alternative” media outlets, particularly where politics and health are concerned. Even publications like Mother Jones and the Nation, which barely deviate from the mainstream, are consigned to the no-man’s-land of unreliable sources, while Vox and Mic – which didn’t exist 10 years ago – enjoy a place of privilege in the Wikipedia editor’s toolbox.134 Thus placing their finger on the scale, Wikipedia ensures editors come to contested pages with viewpoints already slanted toward the establishment narrative. A Harvard Business School study purported to show that opposing political factions moved toward the center over time in a consensus model, but they assumed a level playing field that simply does not exist in Wikipedia.135 When only mainstream sources count, status quo is easily mistaken for Truth.
The Croatian language Wikipedia exemplifies one danger of a consensus-focused model. Over the past decade, a group of far-right ideologues gradually seized control of the site in an internet putsch so thorough that the Croatian Minister of Education now actively discourages students from using it, warning “that a large part of the content of the Croatian version of Wikipedia is not only dubious but also [contains] obvious forgeries, and therefore we invite them to use more reliable sources of information.” Somehow, he still includes “Wikipedia in English and in other major languages of the world” in “reliable sources,” clearly not grasping the reason Croatian Wikipedia went so far off the rails.136 In 2009, fewer than 10 conservative administrators began consolidating their hold on power, banning and suspending certain editors for their liberal or moderate views on hot-button topics. Much of the controversial material centers on the Ustaša, a fascist group that operated from 1929 to 1945, serving as a puppet government under the Third Reich and massacring hundreds of thousands of political dissidents, Serbs, Jews, Roma, and other racial and ethnic minorities. Their crimes have all but disappeared from Croatian Wikipedia, and other articles have also been changed to reflect a strong bias against Serbs and LGBT people.137 The situation remains unresolved because to “fix“ it would require rewriting the rules of Wikipedia, in which consensus – not truth – is the goal. If Croatian Wikipedians find “collection camp“ more accurate a term than “concentration camp“ to describe the wartime prisons of Eastern Europe where racial and ethnic minorities and dissidents were rounded up and worked to death, Wikipedia can't step in and change that consensus without running afoul of its entire ecosystem of rules. Ultimately, politically-motivated historical revisionism is no different than scientific Skepticism, except one is considered permissible in polite company.
Alternative Medicine Under Siege
Holistic health professionals are subjected to an online Inquisition when they attempt to edit false statements and libel out of their profiles only to have the edits immediately reverted and their life’s work dismissed. It was Dr. Gary Null’s investigation into this phenomenon that first alerted me that Wikipedia was playing fast and loose with the facts beyond of the political realm, and I use him here as an example not to sing his praises but because his case is such a clear example of the site’s bias. Null is a board-certified clinical nutritionist who has conducted over 40 clinical studies on lifestyle and diet, more than anyone else in his field. He hosts the longest-running daily non-commercial radio program in history and for 12 years ran the most popular show on WABC. He has published over 700 articles, many in peer-reviewed journals, and has been invited to present his findings at scientific conferences. His research showed humans could not only survive but thrive on a diet wholly devoid of animal protein. His documentaries, including Death by Medicine, the Drugging of Our Children, and Seeds of Death, have won more than 276 awards. He has counseled tens of thousands of people over his 50-year career, never charging a penny. None of these achievements are in his Wikipedia bio, which focuses instead on his divergence from medical orthodoxy and accuses him of quackery. I did not merely take Null’s word at face value when evaluating his statements against those of the Wikipedia page he has been wrestling with for the better part of a decade. Instead, my investigation revealed a pattern of systemic bias that has the entirety of Wikipedia’s medicine and science coverage in its thrall.
Wikipedia’s article on Null is theoretically subject to the strictest standards of verifiability as a Biography of a Living Person. Editors working on Null’s behalf have pointed out that the primary source for the majority of false and libelous information on his page is “Quackwatch,” the personal website of Stephen Barrett, a discredited former psychiatrist who has made it his life’s purpose to “debunk” alternative and natural health practitioners. Such a site does not meet Wikipedia’s guidelines for a reliable source. In Wikipedia’s own words, “Anyone can create a personal web page or publish their own book, and also claim to be an expert in a certain field. For that reason, self-published media, such as books, patents, newsletters, personal websites, open wikis, personal or group blogs (as distinguished from newsblogs, above), content farms, Internet forum postings, and social media postings, are largely not acceptable as sources. Never use self-published sources as third-party sources about living people, even if the author is an expert, well-known professional researcher, or writer.”138 But Barrett’s acolytes, a group of ideologically-driven Wikipedia editors calling themselves Skeptics, revert every edit that attempts to correct the record on Null. They stonewall attempts to delete his page and block editors who make repeated efforts to remove the defamatory material. Attempts to take the matter to higher authorities are persistently rebuffed.
After Null and his lawyers gave up on correcting individual facts within the article, they nominated it for deletion. They reasoned that surely a person who was dismissed as a quack by so many editors should not be deemed worthy of a page in the first place. However, half a dozen Skeptics circled the wagons and invoked “WP:SNOW,” a declaration that the motion literally had a snowball’s chance in hell of passing, after less than 36 hours of deliberation. The “judge” who sentenced Null to indefinite detention without a trial in the Wikipedia gulag sided with the Skeptics before anyone else could get a word in.139 The article shows clear evidence not only of bias but of awareness of that bias, with a notice marked “Please read before starting” alerting new editors to the presence of “fringe theories and pseudoscience” and linking to the pages instructing editors on “how Wikipedia deals with fringe views.”140 Such prejudicial editing instructions turn Wikipedia’s editing process into a kangaroo court, effectively dismissing the mountains of evidence supporting Null’s work in favor of the unsupported allegations of a few biased editors.
There was an extended discussion among Wikipedia editors on how to treat Quackwatch as a source. One camp suggested that if Barrett was such an expert, surely his views could be found in other publications considered more reliable; other users acknowledged the point, but maintained that Quackwatch was “often the only or best source available,” and should be treated as reliable because Barrett has been quoted in other media considered reliable. When someone brought up Barrett’s bias against alternative and natural medicine, stating that he was holding these therapies to a higher standard of efficacy than conventional modern medicine, they replied that this was to be expected, as he was a scientific Skeptic. According to these editors, Barrett’s bias represented a “legitimate and necessary form of double standard” of the sort practiced at Wikipedia itself – “the more extraordinary a claim, the heavier is the burden of proof demanded.” The same senior user suggested that any editor who attacks Quackwatch should be placed under observation in preparation to ban. “Attacking such reliable sources is a pretty obvious symptom that one's POV and ideologies are screwed up.”141 Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia’s Susan Gerbic, who has taught dozens of Skeptics how to edit Wikipedia articles, is borderline fanatical in her motivations for editing: “we’re not doing this project for us, we’re doing this project for the world,” she gushes to fellow Skeptics, sharing how “awesome” she felt after inserting the word “quackery” into the first paragraph of Wikipedia’s homeopathy article.142 In another video, she shows off a t-shirt reading “Big Pharma Shillin’ “ to audience applause.143 These are not neutral editors, and it is extremely unlikely such ideologically motivated actors can put aside their biases to weigh in on the edits of others. Skepticism appears to be official policy at Wikipedia.
Skeptics vs. the Facts
Barrett has spent 40 years attacking anyone involved in holistic health practice, while admitting he has never studied any natural therapeutic systems because they “don’t make sense.”144 When his opinions are given the barest scrutiny, they fall apart. He simply does not have the scientific literature on his side, and cannot be considered a reliable source just because he is quoted as an expert in outside publications. By that logic, New York Times reporter Judith Miller would be considered a reliable source on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Her “intel” from the operative codenamed Curveball was quoted by not only other media outlets but Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell! Yet Miller’s faulty intelligence led to over a million casualties and more than 10 million people internally displaced in Iraq, where no weapons of mass destruction were ever found. The Wikipedia community’s unquestioning acceptance of Quackwatch is causing another kind of damage, not only to the practitioners who lose their livelihoods as a result of Barrett’s character assassination but to the millions of people who might have sought out potentially life-saving therapies if they hadn’t read something disparaging about them on the fifth most popular site on the web.
Dr. Dean Ornish, for example, has reversed heart disease in patients so sick they were told they would die without a transplant, yet Quackwatch dismisses his work because (it claims) “there’s virtually no science” in it and because he is open about having learned about the importance of a plant-based diet from an Indian guru.145 Quackwatch has no evidence to contradict Ornish’s work, or Null’s, or any of the other professionals the site categorically dismisses. Wikipedia’s Skeptic editors have no sense of responsibility for the human consequences of their aversion to fact-checking, no acknowledgment that they could be wrong, having never taken the time to educate themselves about treatment modalities like acupuncture, chiropractic, or even nutrition. Why should they? Wales himself makes no secret of his disdain for alternative practitioners, whom he calls “lunatic charlatans,” echoing the terminology of the Skeptics,146 who have enshrined his derision in policy.147
I reviewed the scientific literature on five topics where Null and Barrett disagree – sugar, alcohol, mercury, fluoridation, and the safety of vitamins and minerals – and after scanning thousands of abstracts, found Barrett to be wrong on every issue.148 Why would Wikipedia’s editors, who hold such power over public opinion, not do the research needed to reveal he has no credibility on these matters? This is no mere oversight – when credible information is supplied by other editors, on Null’s page and elsewhere, it is rejected, often within minutes. We all make mistakes, but when one is so arrogant they cannot acknowledge their error and instead insist on repeating it, there must be consequences. Wikipedia has insulated itself from legal action using section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which holds that as a neutral content platform it is not responsible for what is written by editors on the site. However, by selectively applying its rules, it takes on editorial functions and exits that legal sanctuary. Wikipedia must answer for its malicious actions, for all the lies it has perpetuated and truths it has covered up. Because it cloaks itself in the non-profit structure of the Wikimedia Foundation, its day of reckoning must include an investigative review and audit by the Internal Revenue Service.
Sunlight Is the Best Disinfectant
George Galloway, Rupert Sheldrake, Jill Stein, Gary Null and the other victims of Wikipedia’s character assassination are public figures. They stand behind their positions and are open and available for debate and discussion. Because Wikipedia editors are anonymous, their backgrounds remain unknown, their biases hidden. There is no way to tell whether an editor is an expert or a malicious actor. In 2007, a prolific Wikipedia editor who claimed to be a graduate professor with degrees in theology and canon law was revealed to be a 24-year-old college dropout. Ryan Jordan, who contributed to 16,000 Wikipedia entries during his time at the site, rose to become a member of the Arbitration Committee, Wikipedia’s “supreme court,” before he was unmasked.149 It is a simple matter for powerful groups like the pharmaceutical industry and the CIA to infiltrate Wikipedia and libel their enemies – people like John Pilger, Seymour Hersh, Chris Hedges, and Glenn Greenwald, who have a history of shining a spotlight on the corruption and criminality of our institutions. How better to silence them than to assassinate their character – even when they’ve been shown, time and time again, to be accurate? Wikipedia acts as Grand Inquisitor, presiding over online show trials in which the victims are prohibited from defending themselves and forced to watch as their names are dragged through the mud.
My research confirms beyond a shadow of a doubt that Wikipedia
• supports repressive dictatorships
• promotes certain political candidates and attacks others
• accepts donations in return for favorable coverage
• is hostile to non-mainstream media
• suppresses holistic health information
• permits the publication of libel, maliciously and selectively
and that these problems are part of a systemic bias that reaches to the core of the platform, rendering all information it provides suspect. If ideologically-motivated actors are able to get away with epistemological murder in one subject area, it’s all but certain they are pulling off similar crimes elsewhere.
Wikipedia may have begun life as an open-source utopia of free knowledge, but it has devolved into a repressive oligarchy run by unaccountable petty tyrants. It is a punitive system that targets those who refuse to toe the line. Anyone who represents a threat to the establishment can become a victim, and once an ideologically-motivated cabal of editors sinks its teeth into your article, there is no way to remove them. Because of space restrictions, I have reserved some material for future articles, including revelations from whistleblowers and independent legal expertise outlining how Wikipedia can be challenged in the courts. Once the first lawsuit is won, there will be a torrent of legal action as all those who have been victimized by Wikipedia step forward to claim their pound of flesh.
I believe that Jimmy Wales knows he is not what he pretends to be – that for all his famous friends, for all the fawning media profiles he commissions, he lives in terror that someday someone will pull back the curtain and expose him. I believe it is this fear and insecurity that leads him to overreact to the slightest criticism with such disproportionate vitriol, only opening his mouth in order to more deeply wedge his foot in it. Wales seems terrified he – and his site – will soon be exposed as shallow, hollow, biased impostors, with no more authenticity than a Hollywood set. Like others who, thinking themselves omnipotent, have abused their positions of power – the Harvey Weinsteins, Robert Dursts, Dennis Hasterts, and Bernie Madoffs of the world – Wales will fall victim to his own hubris.
Denial is America’s national virtue. Until we are shown incontrovertible proof that a respected authority is lying to us, we cling to that authority tenaciously, lest our worldview begin to crumble. Once the world knows the truth about Wales and Wikipedia, they will wonder how they ever trusted this organization to serve as an encyclopedia, fact-checker, judge, jury and executioner. Gazing upon the ruins of one of the greatest frauds of the 21st century, they will be forced to wonder who else is lying to them. Therefore, it will not be the mainstream media who exposes the truth, for they are too invested in the status quo. Only brave independent journalists will have the integrity to expose this deception and bring the fraudulent edifice of Jimmy Wales crashing down once and for all.
This is only the beginning of a multi-part investigation. Stronger revelations are forthcoming.
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Facebook purged more than 800 accounts earlier this week, continuing its scorched-earth campaign of eradicating dissent as Americans prepare to go to the polls. The social media platform is nicely settling into its role as official censor, working hand in glove with the imperialist Atlantic Council to silence all popular voices to the left and right of neoliberal orthodoxy. As the boundaries of acceptable political discourse narrow online, Big Tech has been drafted to do Big Brother's dirty work - the methodical dismantling of First Amendment protections using the smokescreen of private enterprise.
On Thursday, the social media platform issued a press release explaining that the offending pages were engaged in "coordinated inauthentic behavior" - self-promoting with fake accounts and circular links, a practice common to many news pages on Facebook - and even admitted that such behavior was "often indistinguishable from legitimate political debate." There was no explanation of how they distinguished the behavior of, say, a progressive antiwar blog from a Washington Post columnist, or why they would censor the former and not the latter.
Establishment media outlets like the New York Times eagerly parroted the press release, dismissing the purge victims as dishonest spammers preying on impressionable users, even opining that there was something awfully Russian about the whole business, as if the Kremlin had invented clickbait. But many of the deleted pages were genuine alt-media sites with hundreds of thousands, if not millions of followers - from AntiMedia and Free Thought Project on the Left to Nation in Distress and RightWingNews on the Right. Popular pages dedicated to exposing the horrors of the American police state like Cop Block and Police the Police also got the boot. When they took to Twitter to protest, many were removed from there as well - AntiMedia and Free Thought Project had their Twitter accounts suspended within hours of the Facebook purge, as did AntiMedia publisher Carey Weidler.
One Twitter user received a followup message thanking them for a report against AntiMedia they did not make, indicating there might be more going on here than meets the eye. The message is especially intriguing given recent admissions from Facebook that at least 90 million accounts may have been hacked. If certain entities are spoofing abuse reports in order to have pages deplatformed whose politics they disagree with - or actually hacking third parties in order to use their accounts to report those pages - users need to know (I have personally heard from a few others who received these messages - if this has happened to you please send me your story, with screenshots if possible).
I just got a notification that my “report” of @antimedia was successful, however, not only do I not recall reporting it, I don’t know of it at all - they aren’t on my block list, where anyone I’ve reported ends up - should I be CONcerned? pic.twitter.com/HDhOUyGDmD— Which Hunt-New (@jlcphotother) October 12, 2018
Facebook's press release states that "people will only share on Facebook if they feel safe and trust the connections they make here." Facebook has proven since the very early days that they are anything but trustworthy - from Mark Zuckerberg's disparaging assessment of his users as "dumb fuckers" to his eager collaboration with the NSA's PRISM program to the partnership with the pro-NATO Atlantic Council to the platform's ultimate admission that basically everyone's data has been compromised at this point. Anyone who "shares" on Facebook at this point is deliberately ignoring reams of proof that the platform is not "a place for friends."
While Facebook has always been in the pocket of the security state, its alliance with the Atlantic Council earlier this year ushered in an Orwellian new era. A press release gushed that the think tank, which boasts such esteemed warmongers as Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, and Condoleezza Rice on its Board, would serve as the "eyes and ears" of Facebook so the platform could play a "positive role" in ensuring democracy was practiced correctly in the future. Since then, its news feed has been cleansed of actual news and political writers have seen their audience numbers plummet as their posts are hidden for running afoul of proprietary algorithms.
In August, hundreds more accounts got the axe after cybersecurity firm FireEye linked them (very tenuously, in some cases) to Iran and Russia. The smoking gun? "Coordinated inauthentic behavior" geared toward "shaping a message favorable to Iran’s national interests." Anti-war activists were put on notice. One need only post "anti-Saudi, anti-Israeli, and pro-Palestinian themes" to have one's Facebook account - which Zuckerberg wants to see become an internet drivers' license - yanked for failure to toe the line.
As Americans, denial is our national pastime, and plenty of Facebook users will remain on the platform until they themselves are caught in the wrongthink dragnet. The use of "spam" as the rationale for removing these pages is no accident - like "hate speech," the term inspires a visceral negative reaction while lacking a definite meaning. "Spam" conjures up penis enlargement ads, misspelled offers for cheap prescription drugs, Nigerian money laundering scams. Spammers are less than human - often automated bots that seem to exist just to irritate us. We do not care what happens to spammers, any more than we care what happens to the "haters" we hear about in the news but have never met. The mainstream media encourages this mentality by smearing the deplatformed users as the equivalent of 2016's Russian trolls - worse, because they're essentially betraying their government by promoting wrongthink in their fellow Americans.
It doesn't take a genius to understand why the media establishment might be cheering on and enabling Big Tech's censorship of alternative voices. As the election approaches, the establishment is panicking because they have been unable to fully regain control of the discourse. Having long since jettisoned fact-checking and journalistic integrity in order to more effectively fearmonger, mainstream media lacks any concrete advantage over the competition, and more people than ever are turning to independent media for their news. As a result, the establishment has lost every single pitched information battle since the election. Kavanaugh's confirmation? The media wanted to see him strung up by the balls without so much as an indictment, let alone a trial, even though as a Bush minion he was effectively one of theirs, but he's now ensconced in the Supreme Court. The Helsinki summit? The media shrieked for a solid week that Trump had sold the nation out to Putin for a football and a pat on the head; missing evolutionary link John Brennan all but called for a military coup, but nothing happened. Both media events revealed just how impotent they have become regarding their ability to change the facts on the ground.
This is not to say they have no influence, however. The nation remains crippled by the military-industrial leeches sucking it dry through multiple wars, many undeclared. The media marches in lockstep cheering on every increase in military spending, every missile dropped on a Yemeni wedding party or Syrian child. Americans have become hyper-partisan even in our personal lives, a self-perpetuating feedback loop the media set off in 2016 with a dozen "Boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse like Trump? Dump that piece of shit!" articles, no doubt due for a revival with thoughtful meditations on how we should avoid family at Thanksgiving if they voted the wrong way a few weeks before. The establishment media and Big Tech are collaborating to foster this ugly with-us-or-against-us climate, forcing us to choose between a "blue wave" or "red wave" when both are repulsive tides of sewage, reassuring us all will be well if we just hold our noses and vote the party line.
Only independent media permits sanity and reality to intrude on the delusional fantasy fed us by the ruling class. Dismissing the victims of the latest Facebook purge as "spammers" is the cowardly act of a dying species. The New York Times, CNN, and the rest of the hagiographers of hegemony must join the rest of the dinosaurs.
(I originally covered the latest skirmish in the Great Deplatforming for RT here.)Add a comment
It’s almost election time, and lest you forget, American democracy has never been in greater peril. Not from inaccurate, insecure voting machines a schoolchild can hack; nor from bought-off candidates who leave voters cold; but from Russian agents probing the fabric of our society, looking for weaknesses. It is up to us, as patriotic Americans, to defend our beloved institutions against the Red Menace.
So writes Susan Landau, a "cybersecurity expert" (professional fearmonger) with funding links to Big Tech and the military-industrial complex, at least. Landau warns that the same Russians whose interference in the 2016 presidential election was never conclusively proven are burrowing further into American society, emboldened by the absence of a decisive response to their prior meddling.
Perhaps realizing that Americans are running low on fear – twenty years fighting a losing War on Terror have inured us to the threat of jihad, and it was only through appeals to Cold War-era pop culture that our Russophobia was so easily resuscitated – Landau plays dirty with the one card left in her propagandist’s deck. The Russians aren’t just targeting our “civil society” organizations; they want our boy scouts.
Such allegations are calculated for maximum emotional impact. Even the most avowedly liberal American parents feel a twinge of discomfort at the rapid pace of social change over the last decade, and the scouts – no longer boy scouts in our brave new world – have been ground zero for much of this change. America has morphed from a society that guardedly accepts sexual variation into a neurotically permissive society terrified of offending members of genders not yet invented. Facebook offers the user over 70 gender options, an all-you-can-be buffet of identity politics. To question this paradigm is considered intolerant.
By linking the gender-neutral Scouts with the Red Menace, Landau is offering progressive parents a "get out of bigotry free" card. It's OK to be uncomfortable with the queering of the Boy Scouts, as long as the Russians are behind it!
Almost exactly a year ago, she wrote a piece for Foreign Policy warning that the Russians were plotting an assault on our cherished civil institutions and that should they succeed in infiltrating them, they might…cause us to lose trust in our government! That threat clearly didn't galvanize the Resistance, because this year, she’s kicking things up a notch: it’s now “extremely likely” that Russians are targeting civil society groups, which are the only thing standing between us and abject barbarism.
Landau has no proof that Russians have captured our institutions, as gay scoutmasters or otherwise, but she won’t let that stand in the way of a good story. Lacking Russian examples, she claims Facebook turned a German town into refugee-attacking hatemongers and points to a spoofed text sent to undocumented supporters of Texas senate candidate Beto O’Rourke as something Russia “could” do. In an effort to bridge these logical chasms, she links to a Brookings Institute report that depicts Russian use of US social media platforms in terms normally used to describe thermonuclear war (“An attack on western critical infrastructure seems inevitable").
Like the January 2017 “Intelligence Community Assessment” from which she derives her certainty that Russians are infiltrating civil society organizations, Landau’s article treats Russian interference in the 2018 election as a foregone conclusion despite the lack of evidence, pointing to Microsoft’s claim that Russia “hacked” two conservative think tanks and two Democratic senate campaigns as proof that Putin has “our democracy” by the throat yet again.
Coverage of Microsoft’s “discovery” reads like a press release for its new AccountGuard initiative, seemingly designed to profit off candidates’ fears of Russian meddling while offering no proof of actual Russian involvement. The company also called for greater cooperation between corporations and the government, though as the first eager collaborator with the NSA’s Orwellian PRISM program way back in 2007, Microsoft could hardly cooperate any more than it already has.
The most disturbing outgrowth of the entire Russian bot narrative is the adoption of “sowing discord” as a new social sin, a crime worthy of de-platforming citizens from social media - or worse. The phrase is relatively new to the American lexicon, but one finds it in authoritarian countries like Saudi Arabia or Kazakhstan, where it is used as a catch-all charge to imprison journalists and activists whose work inconveniences the regime.
With McCarthyite organizations like PropOrNot collaborating with the mainstream media to smear independent journalists as useful idiots and traitors, the US doesn’t need Russians to sow discord. Years of dishonest divide-and-conquer media narratives have completely alienated us from our fellow man. Nothing - not even the threat of Boris and Natasha filling our children’s heads with gender theory around the campfire - can rescue our national solidarity. 2016’s status-quo candidate, Hillary Clinton, said as much when she denounced half the electorate as a “basket of deplorables" - and conservatives took that ball and ran with it, denouncing the Left as mentally ill “snowflakes” and violent Antifa goons.
As if Big Tech’s censorship wasn’t onerous enough, Landau implores Americans to censor themselves online so as not to contribute to the Russian discord-sowing operation. It’s the same line we were fed when the bogeyman was Islamic terrorism: They hate us for our freedom! So we’re going to take away your freedom in the hope they’ll go away! Or, in her words, “It’s time for Americans to change their behavior.” We’re supposed to keep our politics to ourselves, lest it get back to Putin that American civilization has its discontents.
Landau is right about one thing. It reflects poorly on American society that all that is needed to bring the whole house of cards down is for a few well-placed “wrongthink” social media posts to go viral. But this is less the fault of Russia than of America’s homegrown oligarchs, who have exploited the people so thoroughly that even the robust psychological defense mechanisms we’re taught as children to combat cognitive dissonance can only keep reality at bay for so long. Everyone has their breaking point, and America’s is fast approaching. Blame-the-Russians propaganda is the last gasp of an empire in decline, and even propagandists like Landau don’t believe it anymore. A propagandist with no audience is just a liar.
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While Big Tech is under much-deserved scrutiny for its monopolistic control over our online lives, one popular site often escapes criticism. Perhaps because its founder is merely a millionaire among billionaires; perhaps because it masquerades in scholarly drag as an "encyclopedia;" perhaps because journalists and researchers have become so lazy they cannot live without it; Wikipedia rarely comes in for the kind of criticism directed at Google, Facebook, and Twitter. This oversight is a big mistake. Wikipedia paints itself as a crowdsourced knowledge utopia, a beautiful democratic experiment allowing everyone with internet access to contribute to an egalitarian consensus-reality. Unfortunately, when something sounds too good to be true, it usually isn't. Not only is Wikipedia a mouthpiece for the Anglo-American ruling class - it's also a tool of character assassination deployed against anti-establishment figures. Increasingly controlled by a group of ideologically-motivated editors, Wikipedia has become little more than a tool for disseminating neoliberal imperialist propaganda and destroying the reputations of those who resist the status quo.
Progressive Radio Network has been investigating the "real" Wikipedia for months. My latest contribution is here, and more than a dozen articles on the subject are available on the PRN website, including this excellent piece by Richard Gale. Please send them to friends and family you suspect of being Wikipedophiles, especially if they're journalists, professors, or otherwise involved in shaping public opinion. It's not too late to get help.
(edit: just added another piece. Seriously if you need more evidence to quit relying on Wikipedia for your facts fix, I can't help you. Wikipedia is great for looking up the population numbers for Hanoi, or the birthday of David Bowie, but terrible for anything remotely controversial. As goes Croatia so goes the world.)Add a comment
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. The American Empire doesn’t handle failure well, and their repeated failures to oust Syrian president Bashar al-Assad have driven them into a frenzy where good judgment and logic are a thing of the past. Russian military intelligence predicts a false-flag chemical attack in Idlib which will be pinned on the Assad regime and used to justify “retaliation” orders of magnitude greater than April’s Tomahawk tantrum. This time, if the words of the Wicked Witch of the UN are any indication, Iran and Russia will also be blamed. While the US has mostly abandoned hope for regime change in Syria, it will not look a gift horse in the mouth, and is gathering aircraft carriers and bombers to the region while pumping out tear-jerking propaganda about Idlib residents fearing for their lives. If the false flag fails, they can always send those bombers to Iran...
Such an attack is very much on the table, with the groundwork being laid in the pro-war press. John Bolton promised the MEK, a “corrupt, criminal cult” of Iranian exiles which bribed its way off the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations in 2012, regime change by 2019, and the clock is ticking. Attempts to foment a color revolution have failed repeatedly, because Iranians aren’t stupid and remember what happened the last time the US overthrew their government. But Benjamin Netanyahu has been baying for Iranian blood for almost three decades, and Bolton cares little for more clear-headed military personnel’s warnings that invading Iran would be a costly, unwinnable nightmare - Real Men Go To Tehran, as they used to say in the halcyon days of the Axis of Evil.
Prelude to War: Iranian Bots
The ruling class understands Americans are wary of another Middle Eastern war and must be convinced they're under attack. Hence the new bogeyman, just in time for Election 2018: Iranian Meddling. Twitter, Facebook, and Google took time out from deplatforming anti-establishment commentators to delete over a thousand accounts between them after cyber-security firm FireEye released a report detailing a far-reaching “Suspected Iranian Influence Operation.” With only “moderate confidence,” FireEye pointed to “coordinated inauthentic behavior” geared toward “shaping a message favorable to Iran’s national interests” as the smoking gun. Washed-up former intelligence operatives Ron Hosko and Larry Pfeiffer (ex-FBI and ex-CIA, respectively) smugly added that if we hadn’t let Russia get away with their (still unproven) interference in the 2016 election, Iran would never have been so emboldened as to pour $12,000 of cold, hard cash into this social media offensive in order to portray itself favorably to western audiences.
Facebook, eager to behave, took down 652 offending accounts before the government could even react to the news. FireEye’s report points accusingly to the accounts’ promotion of “anti-Saudi, anti-Israeli, and pro-Palestinian themes, as well as support for specific US policies favorable to Iran,” implying Facebook users should be suspicious of anyone else espousing these views (and warning Iranian and Palestinian sympathizers and other pro-peace activists to shut up, or they’re next). An important step in laying the groundwork for an unpopular war is to “other” and ultimately demonize the enemy, and FireEye’s suggestion that those with pro-Iranian views aren’t even real humans is classic wartime propaganda for the digital age. In addition to three groups of Iranian accounts, FireEye claims it caught some Russians “attempt[ing] to influence politics in Syria and the Ukraine.” This group “was linked to sources that Facebook said the US had linked to Russian military intelligence.” How many hops of truth distortion are too many for even the terminally credulous establishment media?
Perhaps anticipating users’ bewilderment - the offending accounts had broken no laws, were promoting no political candidates, and in many cases had not even bought ads - Zuckerberg explained around a mouth full of jackboot that “These were accounts that were misleading people about who they were and what they were doing. We ban this kind of behavior because authenticity matters. People need to be able to trust the connections they make on Facebook.” Lest users make the mistake of trusting Facebook, however, he added that the company would be “working more closely with law enforcement, security experts and other companies,” turning over more user data than ever in its quest to make privacy obsolete. When law enforcement calls on Facebook to create a backdoor in its Messenger program - thus defeating the purpose of “encrypted chat” - does anyone really expect Zuckerberg to stand fast for privacy rights?
Not to be outdone, Twitter deleted 770 accounts based on the FireEye report, noting that only 100 of these ostensibly Iranian accounts had misrepresented their location and not even all of these had shared “divisive social commentary,” while a single account had purchased $30 in ads. This means over 600 Twitter accounts were deleted for the crime of geography alone (collateral damage?). But Twitter has always gone above and beyond the call of duty, announcing in May that to promote “healthy” conversations it would begin de-ranking users for engaging in “suspicious behavior.” Users who tweeted at many accounts, had multiple complaints against them, or retweeted material tweeted by banned accounts were shadowbanned indefinitely as persona non grata. Since November, Twitter and Facebook have both been turning over information on users who post “divisive” content of the sort promoted by “Russia-linked accounts” to congressional investigators even though a creator of “Russian bot tracker” Hamilton68 admits the accounts his tool tracks are not necessarily bots, or even Russian - “some are legitimately passionate people,” as if passion is an un-American trait.
Last year, the FBI launched a Foreign Intelligence Task Force to work with US tech firms to combat “foreign influence actors.” With bots and their ilk operating all over the world, the decision to single out Russia and Iran has obvious foreign policy motivation (Bolton also claims that China and North Korea are up to no good on social media). All of this avoids naming the elephant in the room. Even though Israel meddles loudly and proudly in US elections, Facebook openly collaborates with Netanyahu’s government. Beyond removing posts and banning accounts, Facebook even turns over user information to Israeli authorities to facilitate prosecution of Palestinian activists for “incitement,” sometimes over nothing more than a “like” or a “share.” Adding insult to injury, Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs has weaponized the diaspora’s ennui - often caused in no small part by young Jews’ discomfort with the crimes their government commits in their name - with the social media equivalent of a Predator drone. Act.IL is an app that allows the user to participate in the “brigading” (mass-reporting for spurious violations) of hapless strangers for “incitement” - supporting the BDS movement, say, or implying that Palestinians are human rather than a “lawn” to be “mowed.” In a rare case of instant karma, the app was found to be leaking users’ email addresses. A nation where the government and citizen “enforcers” are working together to silence dissent sounds like an authoritarian nightmare, but this is our “democratic” Middle Eastern ally.
Origins of Totalitarianism
Israel is the missing link that explains how “sowing discord” - an offense few Americans had ever heard of until 2016 - entered our national vocabulary. The modern “fake news” panic has its roots in the totalitarian tradition. Words like “inciting,” “fomenting,” and “sowing” “discord” and “subversion” are very versatile weapons in the hands of authoritarian regimes. This language was previously uncommon in the US, but its emergence became inevitable when the “new Pearl Harbor” of 9/11 opened the door to the creation of the modern American police state. Social media are now just extra bars on the cage - the tools we once believed could liberate us, during the promising early months of Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, are now used to silence us. The US, following a blueprint for legal censorship set by post-WW2 Europe, is taking on the totalitarian trappings of China, of Burma, of the central Asian “stans” and of Saudi Arabia. Kazakhstan calls it “inciting national discord,” with the variations “ethnic discord” and “religious discord” applicable as needed to whatever activist, journalist, or trade unionist the regime needs to put on ice for a few years. It’s called “inciting religious hatred” or “ethnic hatred” in Azerbaijan, which also permanently bans 5 major media outlets for reasons of “national security.” Uzbekistan arrests journalists for “extremism.” China targets activists of all stripes for “inciting subversion.” Burma, which is cracking down hard on the press as it seeks to keep its Rohingya ethnic cleansing quiet, criminalizes “speech that is likely to cause fear or harm and incites classes or groups to commit offenses against each other.” Egypt detains lawyers, journalists and activists under charges of “propagating false news.” Saudi Arabia recently put a Shi’a religious leader to death for “sowing discord” and “undermining national unity.” American dissenters, this is your future.
I have already explained how the Great Deplatforming represents the triumph of the repressive concept of Hate Speech over Free Speech, and how this - not Trump blustering about that wall he’ll get around to building someday - is what fascism looks like. The US government uses friendly corporations as workarounds for the constitutional limits on its power. This technique was deployed against the Second Amendment in Citibank and Bank of America’s post-Parkland refusal to process financial transactions from firearm manufacturers, and is being deployed against the First Amendment here. Such corporate-state fascism is very effective, and the ruling class has seen fit to share it with the other “Five Eyes” intelligence partners, all of whom share information gathered by their Panopticon surveillance agencies. This week, ministers from the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand met in Australia to condemn hostile nations who “sow discord, manipulate public discourse, bias the development of policy, or disrupt markets” through their manipulation of social media platforms; they also implored Big Tech to allow law enforcement “targeted” access to users’ encrypted data. Flexing the thuggish muscles of the world’s greatest carceral state, the group acknowledged “individual rights must be protected” (and presumably snickered before adding) “privacy is not absolute” and warning that encryption was being exploited by criminals.
The Iranian Meddling affair is a perfect distraction from the real malfeasance at Facebook, where Zuckerberg is bringing back Stasi-style crowdsourced secret policing. The company is assigning “trust ratings” to users based in part on their willingness to report their friends for posting “fake news,” fostering a climate of distrust and fear meant to instill reflexive self-censorship. As in East Germany, the central authorities can’t possibly police everyone all of the time, and it is much more advantageous for them to outsource surveillance to the people, since one who cannot trust his neighbor will not unite with him to overthrow the state. Accordingly, Facebook admits that “some users” abuse Facebook’s reporting system, dubbing stories or users they don’t like “fake news” - but don’t worry about those miscreants, because Facebook compensates for their actions with thousands (!) of other measures that go into calculating the trust rating. No user can see his or her own report - that would be telling - so we’re encouraged to tread carefully to avoid running afoul of the ever-shifting Rules. Jordan Peterson, conservatism’s favorite intellectual, delivers his marching orders in a video he posted last week - “nothing is ever simple,” he pleads as he tells his fans that he’s reached an understanding with Zuckerberg, a “very straightforward person” who really just wants to keep his users safe from bad guys like ISIS recruiters. And Iran. Because they’re terrorists, you know?
The police state is no longer necessary when you have internalized the police. “Media censorship is a shift in the flow of information, while self-censorship is a shift in consciousness.” When the government has convinced citizens to do its job - reporting friends and neighbors for "hate speech," "sowing discord," and "incitement" on social media, for example - a free society is impossible.Add a comment
At some point last weekend, America decided its First Amendment was outdated - that Free Speech was no longer as important as protecting the vulnerable from the menace of Hate Speech. This decision came down from on high amidst a whirlwind of banning, deplatforming, and terminology-redefining, the product of years of collaboration between Big Tech and Big Government on how to break down the resistance to censorship that was so stubbornly encoded in this country's DNA. Infowars was merely the test case - a toe dipped in the public stream of consciousness to gauge the effectiveness of the propaganda we’re being fed. Outside the conservative media sphere, the response to Alex Jones’ un-personing - removed from YouTube, Facebook, Google, Apple, Spotify, Stitchr, MailChimp, LinkedIn, Vimeo, and finally Twitter in the course of a few days, a heavy blow the companies claim was not coordinated among themselves at all (wink, wink) - was tepid, with only a few brave commentators willing to bridge the partisan divide to defend his right to free speech on principle. Some reprehensible shills even cried that the censorship hadn’t gone far enough. Big Tech took the Left’s cowardice as a green light and turned their censorship ray on the other end of the political spectrum. Telesur, the Caracas-based network home to Abby Martin, was booted from Facebook yesterday, an act the media greeted with a deafening silence far more terrifying than all the anti-speech “liberals” baying for Jones’ blood.
Telesur and Martin were logical choices to launch Big Tech’s un-personing on the Left. Facebook’s “partner” in silencing dissent - er, fake news - is the Atlantic Council, whose board of directors reads like a who’s-who of western imperialism, with Henry Kissinger, Michael Chertoff, and Michael Hayden rubbing shoulders with CrowdStrike founder Dmitri Alperovitch, the man behind the Russiagate conspiracy theory. Martin figured prominently in the Russiagate intelligence community assessment, which devoted several pages to wringing its hands about her old RT show “Breaking the Set,” even though it had been off the air for years before the 2016 election; a woman-on-the-street piece she recorded last year that revealed the shocking bigotry of average Israeli citizens was banned in 28 countries on YouTube. Venezuela, of course, sits on the largest oil reserves in the western hemisphere and has long been on the war machine’s “to do” list (Venezuelanalysis.com was also dropped from Facebook, but later reinstated). Together, they represent everything that keeps the NATO-backed Atlantic Council awake at night.
For all the hundreds of articles weighing in on the Passion of Alex Jones, hardly anyone mentioned Telesur's disappearance - or the deletion of State Department whistleblower Peter van Buren, who was banned from Twitter for a relatively mild argument while all eyes were on Infowars; or the double vanishing act of Scott Horton and Daniel McAdams, two anti-war journalists whose Twitter accounts were yanked and then restored for defending van Buren. The narrative we are being fed is that Jones was out of line for his behavior - that questioning the facts of the Sandy Hook shooting is morally equivalent to yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre - so Big Tech made a Big Decision and silenced Infowars, in a precedent-setting move that won’t ever have sinister repercussions for anyone elsewhere on the political spectrum. Anyone capable of mustering a few scraps of historical context or even basic critical thinking understood that Jones was just the red-faced canary in the totalitarian coal mine, and that every alternative media content creator is now in peril. But the establishment media is telling us to move on - after all, Trump is attacking the press, and we have to stand with them!
Big Tech’s Big Crackdown was driven not by social media platforms themselves, but by establishment media and their backers, who see the writing on the wall as the lion’s share of Americans now get their news from Facebook and Google. When Jack Dorsey dragged his feet on censoring Infowars, dozens of articles from the Verge and Vox shrieked about Twitter’s “amorality,” but it was CNN that actually deployed a reporter to dig through Jones’ old tweets in search of something that violated the platform’s terms of service. Facebook, instructed by the Atlantic Council, has begun removing “misinformation that contributes to violence” - fake stories it "believes" (after consultation with local “threat intelligence agencies”) are “created or shared with the intent of causing violence or physical harm” - but even this Orwellian overstep would not disqualify Infowars. The tech platforms and their ruling class manipulators are belatedly realizing their control grid is still full of holes, and the establishment media - another tentacle on the same octopus - is offering up some almost-clever solutions in a bid to regain its masters' favor. Facebook could take a page from YouTube’s book and link to Wikipedia pages on the disputed topic (because Wikipedia is such an authoritative source)! They could draft a constitution (since they clearly respect the existing one so much)! Anything but positioning themselves as a neutral content platform like Twitter, enmeshed in “amoral, as well as regressive, terrible decision-making.”
The not-so-secret weapon in the new-media censorship wars is Hate Speech - a nebulous term whose meaning is constantly shifting to suit the whims of whoever is using it. Since the 2016 election, Hate has been the domestic bogeyman of choice, the enemy within while Russia plays the role of enemy without. The Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League and other fearmongering groups tell us Hate is on the rise, that Hate Crimes have skyrocketed since Trump’s election, that Haters are being radicalized online at a breakneck pace - and that only drastic, even unconstitutional measures will stop the insanity. The establishment media have rushed to cover anything that looks remotely like a white supremacist gathering, often outnumbering the actual participants with their camerapeople and reporters. Only by exposing the Haters, they say, will America free itself of the scourge of white supremacy - clearly the #1 problem in a country where the national debt is 940% of GDP and most of us live paycheck to paycheck, falling asleep to the lullaby that we live in the richest nation in the world.
Hate speech is the ideal weapon for the deplatforming aggressive precisely because the term has no universally agreed-upon definition even as it provokes an emotional reaction. Nearly all of the platforms that banned Infowars cited “hate speech” as their rationale without claiming a specific example, though Facebook claimed Jones’ account was full of anti-Muslim and anti-trans bigotry. YouTube was the first to block Jones, making it impossible for those unfamiliar with his material to ascertain the truth of these claims. A political performance-artist who took a hard ideological swerve right with Trump’s candidacy, Jones has replaced much of the anti-police-state rhetoric that endeared him to his early audience with more typical conservative talking points, including a reprehensible knee-jerk Zionism that sets him in opposition to Islam. Still, a rational mind would be hard-pressed to classify his words as “hate” unless one radically redefined “hate.” Which is precisely the idea. Liberals, unaware of Infowars content, take Big Tech’s word that it is hateful and repugnant - he questioned Sandy Hook! - but don’t bother evaluating it for themselves because of their visceral aversion to anything deemed “hate speech,” and his relatively anodyne comments retroactively come to embody hate speech, since no one is sure what the term means anyway. Definition creep sets in, and overnight half the conservative media finds itself on the wrong end of Big Tech’s terms of service.
Twitter clone Gab, the favored platform of the alt-right ever since it welcomed victims of the 2016 “Twitter purges,” was threatened by Microsoft with the cancellation of its web domain last week because of two anti-Semitic posts made a month ago by Republican Senate candidate Patrick Little. Why Microsoft would take down the entire platform because of two objectionable tweets was never properly explained - certainly, the platform is home to plenty of other objectionable messages by less-well-known users. The threat may have been an effort to force Gab to betray the principles that originally attracted users like Little who’ve been expelled from other platforms - “free speech, individual liberty and the free flow of information online” - principles sure to attract more users as Twitter begins purging anew. Little removed the offending tweets, and Gab survived to offend another day. Meanwhile, PayPal has been quietly dropping users linked to the Southern Poverty Law Center's infamously inaccurate "hatewatch" list since last year.
Banning the “haters” is only the first step in Big Tech’s Big Crackdown. Google’s shadowy Jigsaw arm recently developed a tool called Perspective which aims to root out “hate speech” before it spreads. Built in collaboration with the New York Times and Wikipedia, Perspective uses “machine learning” to “spot abuse and harassment online,” analyzing the flow of online conversations in the hope of predicting (and preemptively redirecting) their trajectory. The tool could presumably be deployed against content creation on Big Tech platforms in real time, though the PR materials limit their discussion to its potential in moderating comments sections. A similar initiative is in development at the ADL, which is working with UC-Berkeley to develop an “online hate index” to “better understand the growing amount of hate on social media,” uncovering and identifying trends in “hate speech” across different platforms. The goal is a “community-based” definition of hate speech - but they never say whose community gets to do the defining. Given the ADL’s rabid demonization of anything with a whiff of criticizing Israel as "anti-Semitism," such a tool in their hands should worry political analysts and anyone who comments on world events.
Jigsaw is already looking beyond "hate speech" to influence real-world behavior. Its Redirect Method began as a beefed-up AdWords aimed at convincing potential ISIS recruits to think twice about joining the US/Israeli-backed terror group; the program is now being positioned as the perfect tool for countering the uniquely American specter of White Hate. Instead of merely pointing the hapless would-be terrorist to YouTube videos debunking ISIS propaganda, Redirect’s successor Moonshot follows up the ideological rebuttals with messages from “undercover social workers” embedded in extremist forums. The infiltrators “discreetly message potential recruits to dissuade them,” an act that takes on sinister implications considering the vast wealth of personally identifying information Google hoards on its users. Given that the program has no way of distinguishing between an individual looking to be radicalized and someone doing research for a film or journalistic piece, the privacy ramifications are - as with everything Google - disturbing. It is one thing to be concern-trolled by an online do-gooder; another entirely when the concern-troll is armed with your home address, your phone number, and your bank account information. A Wired article on the program also suggests that Google readily supplies the incriminating search data to authorities, dispelling any illusion of the tech giant’s concern for the well-being of wannabe extremists.
Lest you believe the Great Deplatforming is really about “hate,” recall that Facebook also removed 32 pages it suspected of “inauthentic behavior” last weekend, pages devoted to the counter-protest against the Unite the Right 2 rally, pages populated mostly by anti-racist groups planning a big show of opposition to the white nationalist gathering that was supposed to be the very embodiment of “hate.” Why? They were suspected of having been created by Russian trolls. This is the Atlantic Council, after all - if you aren't losing sleep over the possibility of Russian "meddling" in the midterm elections, they're not doing their job. Israel’s Knesset just passed the first draft of a bill that would empower courts to order the removal of social media posts for “safety” reasons - not merely hide the posts from Israeli users, but remove them globally. This is a country that regularly arrests people based on their social media content, having criminalized such violations as “glorifying Palestinian martyrs” or “disclosing Israeli crimes.” Don’t think the deplatforming will stop with the perpetrators of “hate.”
Led by the Boston Globe, 300 newspapers have colluded in Sinclair-media-esque fashion to publish editorials in defense of a free press, as if Trump’s disparaging remarks about “fake news” represent the most significant threat to their ossified business model. The Globe published a poll indicating 48% of Republicans believe “the news media is the enemy of the American people” - but this is a situation for which the establishment media has only itself to blame. Decades of biased pro-corporate warmongering have taken their toll, and the average American has had their fill of lies. The best journalism has long since migrated online and away from the big legacy names, and social media platforms have assumed the role once held by the television. Meanwhile, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has threatened the entire old-media establishment with economic death if they do not work with his platform to “revitalize journalism.” It is difficult to tell whether establishment media or Big Tech poses a greater threat to press freedom - both are chillingly effective tools of control wielded by the ruling class against the people, and Zuckerberg’s idea of a “revitalized” journalism is the stuff of nightmares - but as the online platforms increasingly come to resemble establishment media with their unhealthy appetites for gatekeeping and censorship, it is clear that neither see themselves as friends to independent journalists.
Some have naively called for the government to step in and regulate Big Tech, reasoning that their platforms operate as monopolies and should be treated as such under the law. While it’s tempting to call in Big Brother to clip the wings of Twitter & co., such an act would trigger a slide down yet another slippery slope. Corporations are already the willing partner of the US government in enacting almost-laws that violate our pesky constitution - Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the other tech platforms have been discussing the banning of Infowars in meetings with congresspeople for months. The Deep State knows it can't openly strip citizens of their First Amendment rights just yet, so Big Tech is deployed to do their dirty work. Once the government legally has its hands on social media, there is nothing stopping them from exerting even more control over these platforms, bringing full circle the process that began when the Pentagon’s Orwellian “LifeLog” project was scrapped and reanimated in the corporate sector as “the Facebook.” Fascism is characterized by an alliance at the highest level between corporations and the government, and further defined by heavy-handed censorship. This creeping fascism - not a mere figurehead like Trump - is the greatest threat to press freedom today.Add a comment
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