Wikipedia Plagued by Controversy, Bias in 20th Year

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales
Jamie McCarthy /Getty

Wikipedia celebrated its 20th anniversary on January 15, following a year of considerable controversy for the online encyclopedia. The site’s increasing leftward bias became more apparent in the preceding year with Wikipedia’s owners imposing a “code of conduct” advancing left-wing identity politics, editors actively pushing a Black Lives Matter agenda, disputes regarding its medical coverage, an ongoing purge of conservative media, and aiding the 2020 Presidential campaign of Joe Biden. Affiliated sites in other languages also saw controversy over widespread errors.

Such problems highlight the unreliability of the site at a time when media, academics, and Big Tech, are only increasing their own reliance on the site with the Foundation seeking to capitalize on this by launching a new commercial service catering to Big Tech. Following are six of the controversies that Wikipedia experienced throughout its 20th year:

Code of Conduct

One major controversy concerned the Board of Trustees for Wikipedia’s owners, the Wikimedia Foundation, imposing a “code of conduct” on Wikipedia and affiliated sites. Many editors argued this went back on pledges to minimize intervention in the largely self-governing communities following an editor revolt in 2019, when staff banned a veteran administrator, a user with special privileges on the site, before the revolt made them back down and allow Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee, often likened to a Supreme Court, to lift the ban without restoring his admin privileges. The Foundation argued the code of conduct was needed to improve “diversity” on the site, particular its alleged gender gap, though a study last year found such efforts have created a pro-women bias.

When the drafting committee set up to devise the code of conduct submitted their proposed version a few months later, it advanced many left-wing identity politics positions, including requiring use of “preferred pronouns” and other measures criticized as threatening free speech on Wikipedia and affiliated sites. One measure regarding use of “offensive” symbols held particular significance after editors banned Wikipedia profile pages from expressing support for traditional marriage, a move that prompted outcry from family and Christian organizations. The language about “offensive” symbols was broadened in one revision after the Foundation Board approved the code of conduct in February.

Black Lives Matter and Antifa

The Foundation cited the “code of conduct” as also something that could address “equity issues” on race in a statement endorsing the Black Lives Matter movement following the police-involved death of George Floyd. In the endorsement, the Foundation ignored violence from protestors and claimed there was no “neutral stance” on racial justice. Editors on Wikipedia reflected this in their editing by pushing a Black Lives Matter agenda on the site, including by having articles appear on Wikipedia’s front page pushing Black Lives Matter stances and downplaying violence amid the protests and riots. Mentions of Floyd and others claimed to be victims of police misconduct having violent criminal histories were often scrubbed.

Antifa involvement in the rioting and violence was repeatedly censored as part of long-standing efforts by editors to cover for the violent far-left group. Those efforts included administrator Guy Chapman, who had joined a Black Lives Matter group on Wikipedia declaring: “You can be one of three things: ally, enemy, or collaborator.” Chapman had the “militant” label removed from Antifa following one Antifa supporter’s request on Facebook, and called a Trump supporter a “fascist” as his murder by an Antifa member was being censored on Wikipedia’s Antifa page. Chapman eventually resigned his position as administrator after using his privileges to ban an Antifa opponent from the group’s page, an apparent breach of policy, though he claimed election-related stress as causing his resignation.

Medicine and Coronavirus

Coverage of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic on Wikipedia was praised by corporate media, praise extending even to its general medical coverage. Many reports cited Dr. James Heilman, an emergency room physician and member of the Wikimedia Foundation’s Board. Heilman himself, however, was sanctioned by Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee following a dispute over mentioning pricing in articles on pharmaceuticals where Heilman accused editors of censoring articles for the drug industry. Praise of Wikipedia pandemic coverage continued in spite of Heilman’s criticism and frequent errors and bias in pandemic coverage. The Foundation even announced a collaboration with the World Health Organization to counter “misinformation” about coronavirus. An organizer for Wikipedia’s main annual conference when it was held in Hong Kong criticized the move citing WHO’s reliance on inaccurate Chinese government claims early in the pandemic.

Sourcing Bans

Part of the praise corporate media gave Wikipedia included its general treatment of “misinformation” and, particularly, its ongoing purge of conservative media, which intensified throughout 2020. Invoking the site’s “verifiability” policies, since 2017 Wikipedia editors have been systematically banning conservative outlets, including Breitbart News. Antifa supporters took part in this purge in 2020 using smears against Post-Millennial editor Andy Ngo, a prominent Antifa critic, to get the outlet declared unreliable. Zero Hedge, a financial blog rarely cited on Wikipedia, was banned solely to discourage its usage after an NBC News hit piece. Fox News was even discouraged from use in political articles, partly citing its coverage of Black Lives Matter protests.

Following the 2020 election, Newsmax was also banned just as it began rising in popularity due to its coverage of fraud allegations. By contrast, proposals to give CNN and MSNBC the same status as Fox were rejected. While conservative outlets were routinely smeared before their bans, CNN has been protected by Wikipedia editors, including by censoring an article about controversies at the outlet such as its lack of coverage on sexual assault allegations against Joe Biden. The latter action was defended by stating the content mainly cited Fox News, though editors the same year agreed CNN could be cited for attacks on Fox. Wikipedia’s main community newsletter, responding to an analysis of Wikipedia’s left-wing bias that partly cited the sourcing bans, defended the purge and dismissed bias allegations by suggesting Wikipedia was “center-right” instead.

Biden and the 2020 election

Some of the most intense controversy on Wikipedia was centered on the 2020 election where editors were actively supporting the Biden campaign. These efforts began in 2019 when editors slanted articles related to Donald Trump’s first impeachment concerning his Administration’s efforts to investigate Biden family corruption allegations and Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election with editors also censoring the alleged name of the whistleblower who sparked the impeachment and reputedly worked with Biden. Editors in 2020 scrubbed the pages of Biden’s eventual Vice Presidential choice, Kamala Harris, and one of his reported candidates, Karen Bass. The man chosen as Biden’s “coronavirus czar” also had his page scrubbed by a paid editor.

More impactful was the purging of conservative media, as the New York Post was declared “unreliable” in September, allowing editors to censor any mention of the outlet’s revelations about Biden family corruption claims and censor Fox News and Daily Caller confirmation of the evidence cited by the Post, while labeling the claims “conspiracy theories” and “Russian interference” instead. The potential electoral impact of this censorship and efforts to smear Trump are evident from election day traffic spikes on the page for Hunter Biden, at the center of Biden family corruption allegations, as well as spikes at the elder Biden and Trump’s pages. Heavy traffic to all three occurred in the weeks leading to Election Day as well.

In the election’s aftermath, editors repeatedly slanted content to discredit fraud allegations and those making them or simply making false claims about the allegations. Such efforts intensified after the storming of the Capitol with editors labeling it a “coup” attempt and Trump’s speech that day distorted to further the claim he “incited” the violence. Multiple editors were banned by administrators, one indefinitely, after supporting comparisons of the violence to Black Lives Matter protests and riots the previous year. One response to the Capitol storming was editors adding election fraud allegations to the article on the “big lie” term Nazis coined to describe actions of their opponents, though editors reframed the article to focus on the “big lie” as a Nazi tactic instead.

Scots and Malagasy sites

Related sites in non-English languages also experienced significant controversy. The Scots-language Wikipedia faced widespread ridicule when it was found most of its content was written by an American teenager using broken English and who did not speak the language. Following a discussion about the controversy, eventually, all articles created by the teen were deleted. Language errors also pervaded the Malagasy Wiktionary, a wiki-style dictionary in the Madagascar language. With millions of entries, second only to the English-language Wiktionary by number of entries, an audit attributed most errors to bots operated by the site’s sole active administrator.

History of bias and errors

Just as they did throughout 2020, media praised Wikipedia on its 20th anniversary in January. This partly involved praising the site as a tool against “fake news” online, a narrative pushed by the Wikimedia Foundation following a recommendation from the firm belonging to the Clinton Foundation’s Head of Communications. However, throughout its history, Wikipedia and affiliated sites have been known for spreading hoaxes and generating “fake news” themselves, a product of heavy reliance on Wikipedia with many outlets outright copying material as they did with the biased article on the GamerGate anti-corruption movement in gaming.

Of particular note is Wikipedia’s left-wing bias, which has long been criticized in Breitbart and identified in numerous studies and analyses. Site co-founder Larry Sanger has also repeatedly criticized the site’s left-wing bias and declared its neutrality policy “dead” as a result. Frequent smear campaigns against conservative figures provide further proof for these allegations. Not only have media essentially dismissed the issue of left-wing bias, an article in the Washington Post has gone so far as to instead criticize political articles as biased because they did not cite enough women.

(Disclosure: The author has been involved in disputes on Wikipedia with several of the parties referenced in the article)

T. D. Adler edited Wikipedia as The Devil’s Advocate. He was banned after privately reporting conflict of interest editing by one of the site’s administrators. Due to previous witch-hunts led by mainstream Wikipedians against their critics, Adler writes under an alias.


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