Opinion

TAKALA: Evidence Of Pay-To-Play Operation Scrubbed From Wikipedia

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Rudy Takala Contributor

Evidence showing major news organizations paid to selectively edit their own Wikipedia pages has been wiped from the website over the last several weeks, leaving few signs it ever existed.

Pages for NBC’s Chuck Todd, former Facebook communications chief Caryn Marooney and Axios’s Jonathan Swan were wiped of any reference to a March story in The Huffington Post revealing how each had been “whitewashed” by paid Wikipedia editors, especially Ed Sussman, the founder of a website called “WhiteHatWiki.”

Efforts by Wikipedia users to disclose the manipulation were quickly rebuffed. “In March 2019, The Huffington Post reported that Axios had paid a public relations firm … to remove unflattering information from Swan’s Wikipedia page and to promote his accomplishments,” said an entry on Swan’s page.

The entry was removed without explanation in a matter of hours by a user called “Ronz.” A second user, “BTCGeek,” said the aggressive effort to control Swan’s image wasn’t relevant, writing, “This does not belong in a biography, and the statement is not an accurate summary of the article.” (RELATED: Activist Wikipedia Editors Forbid Any Mention Of Sarah Jeong’s Racist Tweets On Her Page)

The user advised others to take it “to the talk page” if they disagreed rather than editing the page normally, a section that makes it much harder for casual readers to see the disagreement.

A similar scenario played out on Todd’s profile, where editors tied to NBC have sought to suppress information about a dinner party Todd hosted for Jennifer Palmieri, the communications director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

In February, editors removed a reference to the dinner, arguing that the only citation for the story was The Daily Caller — “a highly questionable source,” according to the site.

When a user added a reference to the story — this time citing both The Huffington Post and a column by Sharyl Attkisson — it was deleted by “Ronz” a little over an hour later, the same user who initially objected to the information being shared on Swan’s page.

This time, “Ronz” said, the story fell in Wikipedia’s “CoatRack” category, meaning it “ostensibly discusses its … subject [Chuck Todd], but instead focuses on another subject entirely.”

Interestingly, Todd’s page was locked for editing to unregistered users on Feb. 6 — just before the Feb. 20 removal of any reference to the dinner.

On Marooney’s page, an editor attempted to insert a line describing its tortured origins. “In March, 2019, it was reported that Facebook paid Ed Sussman for the creation of Marooney’s Wikipedia page.” (Marooney served as Facebook’s vice president of communications before leaving the company in February.)

In a 574-word response, Sussman said the information again fell in the “CoatRack” category, and took the opportunity to call The Huffington Post’s assertion that he used “walls of text” to manipulate the editing process “inaccurate.” Editors eventually acquiesced to Sussman and removed the disclosure about the page’s origin.

A discussion was still playing out on Axios’s “Talk” page on Tuesday over the inclusion of HuffPo’s report, with “Ronz” backing Sussman’s contention that the story wasn’t newsworthy. “Ronz” notably doesn’t disclose any clients, though comments across the internet suggest the user has been offering “online reputation monitoring” services since at least 2014 while boasting of “over 80,000” Wikipedia edits.

Wikipedia has become more insular over the last several years, especially when it comes to the range of political viewpoints it will allow. The site listed The Daily Mail, a conservative British publication, as a “deprecated source” in 2017, banning the use of its stories. Breitbart was banned in 2018, while The Daily Caller was banned in February 2019.

The site has become more susceptible to astroturf as a result. In the event an editor is able to bypass the special lock provided to a page such as Chuck Todd’s, any effort to edit the page requires a citation to a story published by a legacy media giant — such as NBC — and buy-in from the handful of agents the same companies use to suppress dissent.

Attkisson — who has been a vocal critic of Wikipedia — described the situation aptly on Twitter last month. “Wikipedia don’t care. Remember: certain pages and topics are controlled by anonymous agenda editors. Try to edit in factual, footnoted info that contradicts their interest and they will revert it like it never even happened, but the false info stays.”

One thing is certain: The modern “encyclopedia” isn’t quite as immutable as its forebears.

Follow Rudy Takala on Twitter.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.