Eastman was able to move quickly because he already had a Wikipedia account and was familiar with its ways; over the years he had edited his own article, a violation of the rules that was noticed but incompletely acted upon. This time, however, Eastman’s editing drew immediate attention. In barely two hours, all of his changes were made to disappear — “reverted,” in the parlance of Wikipedia — and he was asked to make his case on the Talk page assigned to the article, where editors can debate proposals for improving an entry.
In a world of inequality, we are well accustomed to rich, powerful, connected people getting preferential treatment, whether a good table at a restaurant, admission to a selective college for their offspring or a torn-up speeding ticket. Despite its countercultural tendencies, the digital world has wound up in a quite similar place. On large platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, the most important, newsworthy users are given VIP treatment. Their voices are amplified; their misdeeds are excused; they are, up to a point (see: Trump), freed from the automated policing that the rest of us have to endure. The notable exception is Wikipedia. There, VIPs have been shouting “Do you have any idea who you are dealing with?!” for years, only to be told either, not really, or, don’t care, and then instructed, as Eastman was, to take their objections to a Talk page where the community can weigh in.
On Jan. 9, Eastman indeed returned to Wikipedia with his list of proposed fixes and the sources for those claims. Experienced editors evaluated his suggestions. They approved some uncontroversial requests — a better photo of him was uploaded, too — but when he suggested rewriting the description of his meeting with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in the lead-up to the certification vote in Congress, an editor using the name SundayClose rendered a verdict, “Not Done,” trusting an account in the New York Times over Eastman’s own testimony. “Seriously?,” Eastman replied. “The youtube source I cited was the actual speech in which I specifically stated what was being asked of the Vice President. How is the actual statement not a more reliable source than an anonymous source cited by the NY Times?” SundayClose answered, exasperated: “Yes seriously. This is Wikipedia, not your personal soapbox,” adding, for good measure, “Just because you say it in a speech doesn’t make it true.”
In a telephone interview, Eastman recalled the experience as a deep disappointment, which he saw as reflecting a systemic problem with Wikipedia. Instead of allowing him to correct a biased account, he said, “I had to ask permission from some unknown twentysomething.” (Eastman has since taken his revisionist claims to other venues.)
One reason the project is different from other digital platforms for VIPs is the absence of a mechanism for “escalating the case to leadership,” as one internal Facebook memo, recently published by the Wall Street Journal, euphemistically described the process of Facebook’s giving special treatment to the Brazilian soccer star Neymar Jr. after he broke its rules by posting “nonconsensual intimate imagery.”
The closest approximation to a Wikipedia power player would be Jimmy Wales, the chairman emeritus of the foundation that supports Wikipedias in more than 250 languages and the face of the project for its 20 years of existence. But Wales is not actually in control of anything. When he gets personally involved in helping a petitioner, a crowd of editors track his movements to ensure that he not hold special influence. This tradition began way back in Wikipedia’s history, when Wales insisted that the birth date on his own article, and his birth certificate, was wrong. The editors did not take his word for it. More recently, in 2019, Wales highlighted the complaints of a YouTube conspiracy theorist, Mark Dice, who believed his achievements were being underplayed by Wikipedia. The editors explained that they didn’t care about Wales’s opinion, and the Dice article today is even less flattering than it was before.
With no bigwig to enlist, people who object to what appears on their article page try to navigate Wikipedia on their own, an often-treacherous experience. In the early days of Wikipedia, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins edited the article about him to correct an error. He confirmed in an email to an editor, Alienus, that “yes, the person who purported to be me is indeed me! But thank you very much for checking. I am bowled over by how good Wikipedia generally is.” That same editor followed up, however, by questioning a change Dawkins had made to his article to reduce the number of journals he edits from four to two and to remove any mention of one, Episteme Journal. “Do you have any citations to support this change?” Dawkins was flabbergasted: “It is unreasonable to ask for a positive citation to demonstrate that I did NOT found a journal called Episteme. I am telling you that I never founded a journal called Episteme. I didn’t even know that a journal called Episteme existed.” Turned out an editor had made an error; the sentence was removed permanently.
It’s not just “elites” who fail to get past Wikipedian watchdogs. Tabloid celebrities, long after their 15 minutes are up, have tried to burnish their histories in one of the few places they’re still relevant. In 2009, Amy Fisher, the so-called Long Island Lolita, identified herself to Wikipedia and then tried to install a glamour shot in place of a mug shot taken after her arrest for shooting her lover’s wife. An editor immediately rejected the change, noting her conflict of interest. She changed it back. The editor reverted again. A different editor went to Fisher’s personal page and advised her to sit back: “You’re more likely to keep the photo in the article if you’ll let the consensus process take its course.” And indeed, today the glamour shot is there, while the mug shot has been deleted because it violates Wikipedia’s licensing rules.
More recently, an article about Andrew Yang’s new Forward Party has been flagged because it “may rely excessively on sources too closely associated with the subject.”
While some famous people have advertised a personal connection to the article they edit by choosing user names like AmyFisher and RichardDawkins, others have tried to whitewash articles about themselves or their employers under the cover of anonymous editing, which Wikipedia allows. There’s a catch, however. When someone edits anonymously, Wikipedia records the IP address of the computer that made the edits, which then can be used to link flattering changes to the known IPs of institutions such as United States Congress, big businesses and the Vatican. In 2014, Wikipedia temporarily blocked all editing from the House of Representatives IPs because there was so much inappropriate editing being done.
Influential people and organizations have lately realized that the best hope to shape their own coverage is to work within the system. Occasionally, those with deep pockets have hired experienced editors to act on their behalf in the editing process. In that way, the billionaire Gupta family of South Africa shifted coverage of its scandals during the administration of President Jacob Zuma. As one account at the time put it: “The new information was scrupulously annotated. There was no attempt to remove anything controversial. But at a stroke the entry went from distinctly hostile to just on the sympathetic side of neutral.” It was an improvement for the Guptas, but it was not a whitewashing.
It’s clear that Wikipedia is animated by some principles that date to an earlier time in the Internet’s history. To start, there is a deep-seated suspicion of authority — after all, Wikipedia still boasts that it is the encyclopedia anyone can edit, not just experts (I am a Wikipedia editor). There also are the convictions that more information is better and that information “wants to be free.” Thus, many of the hardest controversies for Wikipedia to solve aren’t errors, but information that is based on someone’s authority — I’m Richard Dawkins, dammit! — rather than a source anyone can examine, or information that is true but still shouldn’t be shared.
Last year, the writer and editor Edward Kosner objected that the Wikipedia article about him mentioned that he was “born to a Jewish family,” which he considered an intrusive detail. In a post he made to editors after proving his identity to Wikipedia, he wrote, “I am an American journalist and editor. I am not a Jewish-American journalist and editor. Wouldn’t it look odd if one of your Jew-tagging editors identified me as a Jewish-American journalist?” He followed up with a piece in Commentary on his experience and forced a community-wide discussion that led to the phrase being deleted.
In 2019, the news site Jezebel called out Wikipedia over articles about porn stars that included their birth names, possibly exposing them to harassment. The group of editors who watch over those articles agreed to be more mindful by insisting on reliable sourcing and requiring editorial judgment, noting that when names “have been intentionally concealed because of a subject’s occupation,” it is “often preferable to omit it, especially when doing so does not result in a significant loss of context.”
The question of whether to publish “dead names” of transgender people before they transitioned has been particularly thorny, pitting privacy and humanitarian concerns against the belief that to suppress true, well-sourced information is censorship. For now, Wikipedia has settled on a policy stating that if a living transgender person was notable before transitioning, the prior name should be included; if not, then it shouldn’t — not even in quotations.
This policy reflects Wikipedia’s more careful editing — and monitoring — of biographies of living people. Such rules, involving people well known enough to have an article, may seem to work for the famous, but according to one administrator, the rules differ based on how well known a figure is, following the way libel law plays out in the United States. (When it comes to legal responsibility for what appears on its platform, the Wikimedia Foundation says it has been protected by the much-debated Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which was the basis of a recent dismissal of a lawsuit in Florida over a photo that incorrectly identified a man as a serial killer with the same name.) The administrator, Barkeep49, wrote in an email: “Obscure people who qualify for an article (normally under a specialized criteria) can request that their articles are deleted and our policy says that in marginal cases (cases where someone is relatively unknown) we should delete the article.” However, the administrator added, “when someone reaches a certain level of renown they lose this protection.”
Rich and powerful people, for better or worse, are used to having their lives scrutinized, and they will always find a way to get their version of their story out. It clearly is folly — tech-utopianism, one might say — to think that the Internet could level the playing field. But with the big platforms choosing to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted, to turn the aphorism on its head, there is one corner of the Internet that turns a skeptical eye toward everyone, even VIPs.