wikipedia

The Dark Side of Wikipedia

by Sharyl Attkisson | May 27, 2024

Let me begin by saying that there are honest, well-meaning editors of Wikipedia who take part for no other reason than it’s an interest or hobby. However, when it comes to matters of controversy—and there are many— these honest editors inevitably find themselves overpowered and outgunned by what I call Wikipedia’s “agenda editors.”

Wikipedia’s agenda editors are editors who watch and control Wikipedia pages in orther to further a particular slant or narrative. These editors not only add their own selected edits, but they delete edits by others if those edits don’t line up with what the agenda editors want to portray.

Wikipedia’s agenda editors may act because they are strongly biased on a particular person or topic. They may act because they are connected to someone who benefits from their edits. They may even edit the way they do because they are compensated for it.

Often, their edits result in Wikipedia pages that are slanted, incomplete, or even entirely false.

If you dig into why this system exists and is allowed to continue, you unearth a dark world filled with censorship and shocking cases of retribution.

Wikipedia

Co-founded in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, Wikipedia boasts 60.7 million pages attracting 2 billion “unique device visits” every month, as of late May.

Wikipedia’s promise to volunteer editors: anonymity and privacy. Its promise to readers: unbiased articles.

But there were conflicts in this encycutopia from the start. Co-founder Sanger quickly broke away. He later told a reporter, “People that I would say are trolls sort of took over. The inmates started running the asylum.”

Greg Kohs agrees and says that Wikipedia’s “inmates” include editors with an ax to grind or serious conflicts of interest. Kohs spoke with me about his Wikipedia experience several years ago. He told me he got banned from Wikipedia for challenging its policies.

Lots of people get banned from Wikipedia, which is just one reason why it’s a misnomer to call it “the encylopedia anyone can edit.” Kohs showed me how, in one four hour time period, 500 IP addresses and users were blocked from editing Wikipedia.

For his part, when Kohs ran afoul of Wikipedia, he was drawn into an unseen cyberworld. One where he says the controlling “volunteer editors” dole out punishment and retaliation, privacy is violated, and special interests control information.

“Sometimes editors will have very aggressive attitudes about what they want to appear in a Wikipedia article,” says Kohs.

“They can stop opposing opinions?” I ask.

“Exactly, exactly.”

“Even opposing facts?”

“Often times, yes,” Kohs replies.

When volunteer editors disagree, and they often do, it leads to “edit wars,” incredible drama fought out on Wikipedia’s “talk” and “discussion” pages.

Edit wars fill thousands of pages deep inside Wikipedia with dialogue that ranges from civil to childish and hostile. In one exchange I read, Wikipedia editors were debating how to “punish” another editor they had clashed with.

“He has violated NPA [which means ‘no personal attacks’] by telling someone they are ‘inferior’ and to ‘accept their station in life’,” argued one Wikipedia editor, referring to the supposed offender. The offending editor retorted, “I refuse to be blocked. I am not blocked. You can pretend that you block me all you like, but someone who is right can never be blocked. It is impossible’.

The Power of Editing

Wikipedia

One thing is crucial to know. In Wikipedia’s world, the ruling authorities are the hundreds or thousands of volunteer editors who’ve reached the most powerful editing status. They’re called “administrators,” known only by their pseudonyms or user names.

In short, the more edits they make and the longer they’ve been making them, the more power they have over other Wikipedia editors.

Of course, PR firms working under anonymous accounts, and others with conflicts of interest, learned how to game this system long ago. They’ve made more edits longer than any normal user can hope to accrue. Therefore, they always win the edit wars.

Wikipedia’s powerful editors frequently control content in a way that violates Wikipedia’s supposed policies, but nobody holds them to account.

For example, some of them may have a particular view on a scientific controversy and edit or modify Wikipedia to reflect their viewpoint and discredit competing views.

Try to edit one of the “watched” pages with something that is contrary to the preferred slant, and see how fast a Wikipedia agenda editor deletes your edit!

Theatre of the Absurd

The Wikipedia dynamic has produced some absurd anecdotes.

Some years back, famed author Philip Roth tried to correct a major fact error on a Wikipedia page that cited the inspiration behind one of his book characters. It was wrong. But every time Roth corrected the information, anonymous Wikipedia editors kept reverting it back to the false information.

When Roth finally reached a person at Wikipedia (which is beyond the capability of most mortals), he says he pleaded the case that he ought to know what was the inspiration behind his own book characters. That’s when he says they told him that he was simply “not considered a credible source—on himself.”

I became interested in Wikipedia’s processes more than a decade ago. I had tried, without success, to correct provably false facts on my Wikipedia biography. It has an incorrect job history, the incorrect birth place and an incorrect birth date. When I tried to fix these things, the information was reverted back by anonomous Wikipedia editors watching my page. When I persisted, I got blocked from Wikipedia for punishment periods. There was nobody to appeal to.

But far more serious was that agenda editors apparently related to pharmaceutical interests and the partisan blog Media Matters worked to control my Wikipedia biographical page, making sure that slanted or false information remained. For example, they falsely referred to my reporting as “anti-vaccine,” and implied my reporting on the topic had been discredited.

In fact, my vaccine and medical reporting has been recognized by top national journalism awards organizations, and has even been cited as a source in a peer reviewed scientific journal. But anyone who tried to edit this factual context and footnotes onto my page found it quickly removed.

In contrast, what persisted was information sourced to citations that are supposedly disallowed under Wikipedia’s policies. For example, they included Media Matters, which doesn’t fit Wikipedia’s category of a credible source.

Follow the Money

Sometimes, following the money can reveal a lot about why Wikipedia’s pages are controlled the way they are.

Millions of dollars can depend on how an idea or product is portrayed on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia editors that were reportedly linked to the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca got caught posting negative material on competitors’ pages and adding promotional material to their own.

Two trusted Wikipedia officials were exposed running businesses that covertly edited Wikipedia for PR clients: prohibited conduct.

Interests for Sony, the CIA, the Vatican, Barack Obama and Senator John McCain all reportedly have been caught secretly editing their own Wikipedia pages to their advantage. Again, that is supposedly prohibited conduct.

Wikipedia has policies discouraging or banning the editing of Wikipedia for personal or financial gain, sometimes called “covert editing.” But it happens all the time.

Retaliation

Mike Wood moonlighted by editing Wikipedia articles for pay while on breaks as a casino inspector. He told me that his confrontation with Wikipedia was life-changing.

Wood publicly criticized Wikipedia’s policies that barred people like him from editing Wikipedia for pay as a business. He and others argued that tons of Wikipedia agenda editors were PR firms using psydonyms to edit for clients. Why shouldn’t ordinary folks be able to help clients write or correct false Wikipedia entries that impacted them?

Wood says that his public criticism resulted in Wikipedia editors lashing out at him, tracking him at work, and getting him fired.

One day, Wood says, his boss called him in for a meeting. The boss told him, “We received an email and a phone call from the Wikimedia Foundation, telling us that you are using our servers to edit Wikipedia.”

Even worse, the boss told Wood that Wikipedia had “put a hard block on our servers, so now no one is allowed to access Wikipedia from our job site.”

That was enough to get Wood fired.

“It was a huge violation of privacy,” said Wood. “They put so much pressure on my employer by blocking access to Wikipedia, by telling them what was going on, just the embarrassment, the potential embarrassment alone of what the Wikimedia Foundation pressured my employer with was enough for the employer to terminate me.”

Information Stranglehold

Here’s an example I saw firsthand where anonymous Wikipedia agenda editors maintained a stranglehold on a selected topics. Kohs demonstrated for me by using the case of Morgellons.

The Mayo Clinic calls Morgellons “an unexplained skin disorder characterized by sores.” But the Wikipedia page dismisses Morgellons as a “delusional belief.”

I sat next to Kohs at a desktop computer as he added a factual comment and a research footnote to the Morgellons page, which is a classic way editors are supposed to be able to modify a page—but the referenced research differed with the page’s slant. We wanted to see what would happen.

In 38 minutes, Kohs’ edit and the research footnote on the Morgellon’s page had been made to disappear. They were removed by an anonymous Wikipedia editor at the “administrator” level (an editor who has more power and has made more edits than ordinary Wikipedia users). This editor was clearly watching the Morgellons page to protect it from edits contrary to the preferred narrative that the disorder is nothing more than a delusion.

If you know where to look, it’s possible to see the many Wikipedia topics the same editor had worked hard to control. We were able to trace that editor’s actions and see that he or she (or possibly a company using a single editing account) was apparently involved with the medical or the pharmaceutical industry, and seemed to have an agenda to discredit or to suppress alternative medicines and information that fights medical establishment narratives.

Targeted

When I interviewed Kohs, he saw himself as a sort of equalizer. He had a business helping clients, including supposed victims of unfair Wikipedia edits, navigate Wikipedia’s unbridled landscape.

Like Wood, Wikipedia banned him for violating the policy against paid editing. When Kohs criticized the policy and continued under a borrowed account, Wikipedia editors also targeted him.

These Wikipedia editors went to great lengths to track him, using inside information and computer IP addresses. They researched where Kohs grew up, and traced his movements all the way to Orlando, Florida, where he was making edits while on vacation for Thanksgiving.

Kohs only discovered that Wikipedia editors were tracking him because somebody leaked documents showing internal Wikipedia discussions about him. One of those documents read, “looks like someone went home for Thanksgiving to visit mom and dad.”

“You think you’re editing with some degree of privacy, but if they want to they can really start to investigate,” observed Kohs.

No Comment

Wikimedia Foundation is the nonprofit that runs Wikipedia. When I researched a story for my TV program Full Measure, I asked Wikimedia Foundation for an interview and comment, but it declined.

Wikimedia Foundation exudes the attitude that Wikipedia and its editors operate pretty much on their own, without the Foundation’s involvement.

The Wikipedia editors I asked also offered no comment. Same with Jimmy Wales.

Co-founder Larry Sanger, who broke away from Wikipedia, has called it “broken beyond repair.”

Yet it remains one of the world’s most referenced sites.

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