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This article was published on October 13, 2012

Wikipedia’s dark side: Censorship, revenge editing & bribes a significant issue

Wikipedia’s dark side: Censorship, revenge editing & bribes a significant issue
Mez Breeze
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Mez Breeze

Mez Breeze is the Creative Director of "Mez Breeze Design" (@MezBreezeDesign), a Digital Design Agency And Consulting Group that focuses exc Mez Breeze is the Creative Director of "Mez Breeze Design" (@MezBreezeDesign), a Digital Design Agency And Consulting Group that focuses exclusively on bespoke digital product (including illustration, logo creation, design fiction, journalism, blogging, copywriting, transmedia, multimedia, graphic design, game scripting/writing and applied social media). Mez is also an internationally-renowned digital artist and electronic literature creator who is also mildly (read: madly) obsessed with all things tech. Contact:

As a popular online encyclopedic resource, Wikipedia is the undisputed king. As previously outlined here at The Next Web, Wikipedia has honed its content crafting processes down to a fine art, with individual editors creating and modifying articles with surprising immediacy. Wikipedia presents as a dynamic project full of ambitious contributors who seem dedicated to imparting unbiased, balanced content for the general consumption of like-minded individuals. These readers are likewise keen to avidly absorb the carefully constructed information provided by such genuine writers…

…or so the Wikimedia Foundation (the puppeteers overseers of Wikipedia) would want us to believe. Let’s reach past the Wikipedia PR hype and take an investigative trip down the dark innards of the Wikipedia Machine, including editing scandals and vandalism hiccups that would make Dark Vader blush.

Rachel Marsden: Sex, lies and editing

Wikipedia works hard to keep its “free and open” PR veneer intact at all times. When the 2012 Internet blackout event occurred in order to protest the then impending SOPA and PIPA legislation, Wikipedia – under the guidance of co-founder and front man Jimmy Wales – valiantly declared its support for the Reddit inspired protest and for a short time “went dark” (ie shut down accessibility to the site). Wales also recently showed his credentials as a freedom-from-survelliance advocate by declaring a draft of the UK Data Communications Bill (colloquially known as the ‘Snooper’s Charter’) as:

…not the sort of thing I’d expect from a western democracy. It is the kind of thing I would expect from the Iranians or the Chinese and it would be detected immediately by the internet industry.

Wales’ position on proposed censorship and online regulatory sanctions effecting privacy, surveillance and information accessibility seem clear from these two instances, which indicate that Wales is against draconian control (or nefarious manipulation) of online user-generated content.

Unfortunately, Wales has been embroiled in several Wikipedia controversies that involve the very opposite of the clear moral stance painted by these examples: the first involving somewhat dodgy editing of Wikipedia article content, as well as utilizing the online resource as his personal relationship break-up platform.

In March 2008, Rachel Marsden, a former Fox News Channel employee, claimed that Wales had edited his Wikipedia Biography page to include a notification about the end of Wales and Marsden’s relationship – prior to informing her about the break-up. This less-than-classy manoeuvre was then neatly topped by Marsden, who not only decided to auction off some personal items belonging to Wales, but also leaked transcripts to the media detailing sexually-laced chats between herself and Wales that suggested Wales had previously edited Marsden’s biographical entry on Wikipedia (at Marsden’s prompting). This editing purportedly included the removal of facts pertaining to alleged criminal conduct in Marsden’s past, as well as re-writing elements of her biography to produce a more flattering picture. Not surprisingly, Wales protested his innocence and claimed no wrong-doing during the whole fiasco.

Not only does the type of power-loaded editing evidenced by Wales conjure a whopping potential conflict of interest from a so-called unbiased Wikipedia spokesperson, it also adds an unfortunate boatload of icky weight to the idea that Wikipedia is not the neutral information source it purports to be.

The Wikipedia porn removal debacle

With Jimmy Wales being chastised for Wikipedian rule breaches and roughshod treatment of Wikipedia’s “free and open” mantra during the Rachel Marsden debacle, you’d think he’d be extra careful with subsequent actions in regards to Wikipedia article editing. Not so.

The porn removal debacle started back in April 2010, when Larry Sanger – co-founder and subsequent criticiser of Wikipedia and founder of rival online encyclopaedic platform Citizendium – decided to play informer. Sanger reported the Wikimedia Foundation to the FBI for the hosting and distribution of child pornography, despite possible historical/artistic relevancy of some of the so-called pornographic material under question (any actual child pornography should have been immediately removed). In response, Wales stated on his Wikipedia usertalk page that:

Wikimedia…admins who wish to remove from the project all images that are of little or no educational value but which appeal solely to prurient interests have my full support. This includes immediate deletion of all pornographic images. We should keep educational images about sexuality – mere nudity is not pornography – but as with all our projects, editorial quality judgements must be made and will be made – appropriately and in good taste.

Sounds absolutely reasonable, doesn’t it? Wales’ take on removing (ie censoring) “offensive” content provided by Wikipedia contributors comes across as a common-sense based action, complete with unassailable ethical motivations. Unfortunately, subsequent action taken by Wales indicates otherwise: Wales proceeded to personally remove many images from Wikipedia (via Wikimedia Commons, where Wikipedia imagery is hosted) and also enabled others to delete as many “pornographic” images as possible, including reproductions of reputable historic imagery containing nudity, not pornography.

[Video NSFW]

The response from the Wikipedia contributor community was swift, with 300+ editors signing a petition that condemned the censorship actions performed by Wales. Despite a tepid apology, the fallout from his dictatorial actions earned Wales a rebuke from the Wikimedia Foundation resulted in Wales “voluntarily” relinquishing certain editing and administration privileges, demonstrating that ugly power-plays and corruptible policies are unfortunately an intrinsic part of the Wikipedia world.

Combining these outlined power abuses with earlier accusations regarding Wales’ supposed weakness for using the non-profit’s organisation funds for his own personal pleasure, the credibility of Wikipedia and its primary spokesperson comes across as mightily tarnished.

The nasty art of revenge editing

Ever wanted to thoroughly discredit someone who has wronged you? How about doing so under the banner of reputable (and hence, almost untouchable) publishing platform, through which you can alter all manner of facts concerning your enemies to fit your vengeful needs?  Journalist and author Johann Hari did precisely that when making alterations to Wikipedia articles related to persons that had given him grief. Hari did all this while masquerading under the pseudonym – or sockpuppet – of David Rose.

In September 2011, after being outed as “David R” or “David Rose” by key literary figures such as Nick Cohen and David Allen Green, Hari made a personal apology on the Independent’s website that stated:

…several years ago I started to notice some things I didn’t like in the Wikipedia entry about me, so I took them out. To do that, I created a user-name that wasn’t my own. Using that user-name, I continued to edit my own Wikipedia entry and some other people’s too. I took out nasty passages about people I admire – like Polly Toynbee, George Monbiot, Deborah Orr and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. I factually corrected some other entries about other people. But in a few instances, I edited the entries of people I had clashed with in ways that were juvenile or malicious: I called one of them anti-Semitic and homophobic, and the other a drunk. I am mortified to have done this, because it breaches the most basic ethical rule: don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you. I apologise to the latter group unreservedly and totally.

In an attempt to make amends for his errors, Hari gave back the George Orwell Prize awarded to him in 2008. He was also put on 4 months leave from The Independent and ordered to attend journalism ethics classes. Many in the literary community were initially surprised by the lack of concrete accountability demanded of Hari, especially considering he had been modifying Wikipedia articles since 2005 under a logged IP address that originated from an address that housed the offices of The Independent. Hari ceased contributing to the publication in January, 2012.

Hari’s revenge editing spree and attempt to paint himself as an inflated literary figure highlights a distasteful Wikipedian culture, one where anonymously created – and factually misleading – content seems to be uncomfortably tolerated.

Bias and vandalism: Wikiscanner exposés

There’s no shortage of reported incidences of vandalism and bias residing in Wikipedia articles. Wikipedia vandalism can take the form of deliberate defacement of entries so that the content produced is rendered abusive or is essentially nonsensical gibberish. Wikipedia vandalism this obvious is easy to spot.

What’s harder to pinpoint – and subsequently deal with – are changes deliberately geared to promote or positively slant information written about certain organisations or businesses, or edits made without good faith. Wikipedia itself documents multiple self-interest edits made to articles by corporations, politicians and organisations determined to rewrite history in their own favour (or worse, fabricate alternate versions of events documented for the benefit of the public).

In order to combat such insidious bias and dishonesty, Virgil Griffith created Wikiscanner. Wikiscanner is a tool designed to exactly identify who’s behind alterations made to specific Wikipedia content. Griffith’s idea to construct Wikiscanner sparked when hearing about the scandal created when various US Congressmen were revealed to have “whitewashed” (deliberately altered content towards the positive) relevant Wikipedia articles.

Another method of countering biased Wikipedia content has been proposed by a collective comprised of women scientists and engineers. This group plan to counter the sexist bent they believe is rife within Wikipedia by hosting a Wikipedia “Edit-a-thon”, an event taking place on the 19th October 2012, both at the Royal Society London and online. The Edit-a-thon will encourage women to responsibly edit various science entries they perceive are either written without appropriate gender equality, or have been omitted from Wikipedia. This event has been nicely timed to tie directly to the 2012 Ada Lovelace Day Celebrations.

The Essjay controversy

On the 8th of February 2005, an account was registered with Wikipedia under the name of “Essjay”. Essjay was supposedly a tenured theology Professor, with specific expertise in Religious Studies and Canon Law. Essjay proceeded to perform regular editing and administration duties for Wikipedia, and in 2007 was also hired by Wikia, a Wiki web hosting service founded in 2004 by Jimmy Wales and Angela Beesley.

In 2006, a New Yorker journalist interviewed Essjay for a Wikipedia-related article, who noted that:

Wales also appointed an arbitration committee to rule on disputes. Before a case reaches the arbitration committee, it often passes through a mediation committee. Essjay is serving a second term as chair of the mediation committee. He is also an admin, a bureaucrat, and a checkuser, which means that he is one of fourteen Wikipedians authorized to trace I.P. addresses in cases of suspected abuse… Essjay recently caught a user who, under one screen name, was replacing sentences with nonsense and deleting whole entries and, under another, correcting the abuses—all in order to boost his edit count. He was banned permanently from the site…Wikipedians have acknowledged Essjay’s labors by awarding him numerous barnstars—five-pointed stars, which the community has adopted as a symbol of praise—including several Random Acts of Kindness Barnstars and the Tireless Contributor Barnstar.

During this interview, Essjay would not reveal any other credentials besides those listed on his Wikipedia user page. No surprise there, really, considering that Essjay was later revealed to be a pseudonym for Ryan Jordan, a 24 year-old student dropout who had no formal higher education qualifications or notable expertise, and who had consistently lied about his credentials in order to retain his privileged status within the online Encyclopedia.

The New Yorker subsequently ran an Editor’s note regarding the Essay fiasco, stating:

At the time of publication, neither we nor Wikipedia knew Essjay’s real name. Essjay’s entire Wikipedia life was conducted with only a user name; anonymity is common for Wikipedia administrators and contributors, and he says that he feared personal retribution from those he had ruled against online…He did not answer a message we sent to him; Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikia and of Wikipedia, said of Essjay’s invented persona, “I regard it as a pseudonym and I don’t really have a problem with it.”

Wales later requested Jordan’s resignation, but the Essjay controversy again calls into question the ease via which non-respectable Wikipedia contributors can quickly rise to positions of power within the organisation. It also illustrates a profound lack of in-house accountability regarding the imaginary credentials of spin-doctoring (and often power hungry) editors, and shows tenuous credibility and consistent double standards regarding the production and verification of balanced content.

Editing for cash and kudos

One of the latest scandals to erupt publically from Wikipedia’s seedy editing underbelly involves the allegations of editors being paid to promote or produce content. Unfortunately, these types of allegations against Wikipedia aren’t new: back in 2008, similar accusations were levelled directly at Wales himself. Jeffrey Merkey attested that Wales had created favourable edits to his Wikipedia article in exchange for a Wikimedia Foundation donation. Wales denied Merkey’s claims, calling them “nonsense”.

In the current paid editing incident, two Wikipedia editors (both holding the valued position of Wikipedia-In-Residence) have been suspected of directly editing and promoting entries for money. The first, Roger Bamkin – a respected Wikimedia UK trustee – is suspected of taking payment from officials representing the government of Gibraltar for approving flattering Wikipedia write-ups concerning the peninsula, as well as actively promoting said entries via the front-page “Did You Know” section.

The second editor, Maximilian Klein, is accused of flouting the definitive Wikipedia conflict of interest rule through his firm UntrikiWiki, a business that guarantees customers high search engine rankings via favourable Wikipedia entries. When the news regarding Klein’s involvement with Untrikiwiki broke, Wales called such conflict of interest manipulation (if proven true) “disgusting”.

Through attempting to convince the general public of the sanctity of the “free and open” nature of Wikipedia, the frequency and magnitude of numerous controversies make this task a tough – if not cringe-worthy – sell. Instead of further fostering a well-oiled PR machine promoting Wikipedia as a spotlessly reputable reference site, perhaps it would serve the project (and the public) better if the organisation actually focused on transparency, honesty and the creation of balanced – and hence, truly encyclopaedic – content.

Image Credit: Toru Yamanaka/Getty Images