In the week following Donald Trump’s surprise victory over Hillary Clinton, another battle has quietly ramped up on Wikipedia. An examination of the edit histories of pages belonging to Trump’s inner circle reveals a skirmish of vandalisms, revisions and fantastical falsehoods.
The tweaks are made visible by “WikiWash,” an online tool developed by Metro News Canada and The Working Group as part of a 2014 collaboration with The Center for Investigative Reporting. It allows journalists and members of the public to inspect changes to Wikipedia pages in real time.
The melee is occurring amid a fierce debate over the degree to which non-news websites should curate facts for their readers. Facebook, for example, is enduring criticism for its alleged complicity in partisan rumor-mongering during the presidential election. Google this week announced it would ban fake news sites from its ad service. And Twitter, whose clumsy attempts to curb online abuse are well-documented, recently barred a series of white nationalists from its service – including Richard Spencer, a prominent member of the movement we interviewed in a recent episode.
Among the figures targeted most forcefully on Wikipedia was former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, believed to be among president-elect Trump’s top picks for secretary of state. Since last week, users have added and removed a series of inaccuracies and insults to his page, editing the information once every 2.5 hours on average.
On Nov. 11, an anonymous user with a Uruguayan IP address labeled Giuliani “a totalitarian fascist;” That comment was removed by a moderation bot less than one minute later. A Nov. 12 assertion that Giuliani’s parents had once offered his soul to “the Goblin King” – an apparent reference to the 1986 British musical fantasy “Labyrinth”– lasted two hours before it was pulled down. Another user wrote that Giuliani “supports racist president elect Donald Trump!” And moderators removed a falsified quote from Giuliani indicating that he’d like to play a “Heinrich Himmler-type role” in the Trump administration. Himmler was a prominent member of the Nazi Party in Germany.
THE TRUTH WILL NOT REVEAL ITSELF
Stephen Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News and Trump’s recent pick as senior adviser, has also seen a flurry of activity on his page. Users were quick to point out that Bannon was charged with domestic violence and battery by his former spouse in 1996 – and that his voter registration information changed suspiciously ahead of this year’s election. Other edits were minor: A correction about Bannon’s role in producing the 1996 movie “Titus”; the capitalization of “S” in charges that Breitbart had expressed “anti-Semitic” views.
Bannon’s page continues to undergo edits and features an advisory that its information may be subject to change based on current events. Indeed, WikiWash’s interface shows that revisions are occurring roughly once per hour.
On Vice President-elect Mike Pence’s page, Wikipedians bickered about how to characterize his policies toward the LGBT community; one flatly accused him of homophobia. Users also removed a rant, posted under the guise of “better information,” that was peppered with inflammatory language about Pence and Trump:
Other attacks on Trump’s inner circle have abounded. On Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner’s page, users sparred over whether to call Kushner, a senior adviser to the president-elect, the “small son” of Charles Kushner, a prominent real estate developer and convicted felon. Meanwhile, Eric Trump’s designation as a “philanthropist” and “businessman” were taken down and replaced with “heir.”
The president-elect’s page appeared devoid of outright attacks. But because Wikiwash’s revision history only extends back through 50 changes, it’s possible that Trump’s page (which appears to be updating constantly) may have received a high volume close to Election Day.