Who watches the Wikipedia editors?

The curious case of a carefully-tended article about a controversial academic

This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Priyamvada Gopal, the Professor of Postcolonial Studies in the English faculty at Cambridge University, is best known to the wider public as a Brahmin purveyor of highly personal abuse against those, particularly ethnic minorities, who disagree with her view of her adopted country as a racist hell-hole that is full, unfortunately, of white people — as well as bigoted college porters who will not address her by her proper academic title.

But until very recently, readers of her Wikipedia page would have known none of this. For years, a particularly devoted fan of Professor Gopal, going by the evocative nom de plume PostcolonialLitNerd, has been tenderly editing her Wikipedia article, removing anything that might be offensive to the reputation of her (I take the liberty of assuming their anonymous gender) scholarly idol.

Instead of an article about an inexplicably highly-promoted academic with a paper-thin scholarly publication record (three books, only one at a top-tier academic press, but many tweets) and a potty mouth, the reader would have learned that Professor Gopal was voted “one of the world’s top 50 thinkers by Prospect magazine”, had contributed to no fewer than 12 publications as a public intellectual, and so on.

Negative information about Gopal, and there is a lot of it, was systematically erased or twisted. When she compared Tony (now Lord) Sewell to Joseph Goebbels because he had the temerity to argue the UK is not a systemically racist country, PostcolonialLitNerd edited the article to claim that Gopal “referenced” rather than “compared” the two, and inserted personal attacks on Sewell for good measure.

When an editor added a section outlining how Gopal was accused of using anti-Semitic dog-whistles in her attack on some Cambridge student journalists (attacking undergraduates being the sign of a healthy academic personality), PostcolonialLitNerd said the section was being given “undue weight” and gutted it. Eventually, she simply deleted the whole section while no one was watching.

When the journalist David Aaronovitch wrote that Gopal was “the Torquemada of the New Woke Inquisition”, an editor added it to the article to illustrate the contentious nature of her reputation. The quote was swiftly excised as a “slur”. Despite numerous attempts to re-insert it, it was deleted by PostcolonialLitNerd and her supporters each time.

In early 2022, PostcolonialLitNerd was permanently banned from Wikipedia

In early 2022, PostcolonialLitNerd was permanently banned from Wikipedia. The site’s administrators had discovered that one of the editors who, like PostcolonialLitNerd, only edited Gopal’s article and nothing else, was in fact none other than PostcolonialLitNerd herself. So, a “sockpuppet” in Wikipedia’s intricate lingo, which is very much forbidden. No sooner was she gone than two other newly-created accounts, who also had a strange fixation with improving Gopal’s reputation, were banned for being PostcolonialLitNerd’s sockpuppets. And then, another three accounts were banned.

As of February 2023, nine accounts have been banned for being run by the person behind PostcolonialLitNerd. Over the course of many hours across four years, they ensured that whenever someone looked up Gopal online, they would be presented with the beatific portrait of a high-flying academic anti-racist against whom no sin has been recorded.

There is no evidence that PostcolonialLitNerd is anything but a slightly obsessed fan of academic decolonisation and of Priya Gopal, instead of being Priya Gopal herself. But far better people than her (as well as newspaper columnists) have been known to engage in the practice of Wikipedia self-promotion. 

As the default online source of information for much of the world, having a good Wikipedia article is worth its weight in gold; and if you cannot be bothered to embellish your article yourself, there are consultancies who will do so in return for a fee.

To take one notorious example, back when he was a rising star of British journalism, Johann Hari was caught in flagrante editing his own Wikipedia entry to make him seem like one of the “essential writers of our times”, as well as engaging in character assassination against his enemies, which helped to end his career (that and the discovery of his persistent plagiarism and fabulation). Many more self-hagiographers remain undetected and virtually undetectable, thanks to the website’s inbuilt anonymity.

Wikipedia once seemed like a ludicrous concept. Encyclopaedias were big things written by fellows from minor Oxbridge colleges and sold by door-to-door salesmen to aspirational middle-class households. The idea of delegating the task of summarising the world’s knowledge to anyone with an Internet connection seemed impossibly utopian and a recipe for disaster.

But Jimmy Wales, who has a claim to being the most influential British citizen (although he was American when he founded Wikipedia) on the Internet until Sir Nick Clegg decamped to San Francisco to run Facebook had read one of Hayek’s essays against central planning as an undergraduate, which made him obsessed about the possibility of the decentralised creation of knowledge.

In 2000, Wales founded Nupedia, a collaborative online encyclopaedia with peer review. Articles would be written — for free — by subject experts, then reviewed and revised by other subject experts. The final product would be free for the world to use as they saw fit. But experts had better things to do: when Nupedia shut down after three years, only 24 articles had been finalised.

To his surprise, the runaway success was Wikipedia, the free-for-all website Wales and co-founder Larry Sanger had initially intended as a supplement to Nupedia. As it turned out, there are plenty of weirdos — and “weirdo” is an apt description for most regular Wikipedia editors — who were keen to spend long hours editing an online encyclopaedia for no fee and no credit. 

By 2004, Wikipedia had a million articles in 100 languages; in 2006, English Wikipedia gained its millionth article (on Jordanhill railway station in Scotland). Today, it has 6.6 million.

Wikipedia’s inexorable rise was first welcomed with gentle condescension, then alarm. Commercial encyclopaedia publishers dismissed it as a repository of falsehoods. And there was a lot of it in Wikipedia’s early days. An ex-boyfriend of mine from university used to regale me with tales of how he inserted romances with obscure Welsh footballers into the biographies of Motown singers.

All of this was no use. A few years after its launch, respectable institutions — courts, newspapers, national governments — began citing Wikipedia. Print encyclopaedias, who could not compete, shut down one after the other. Survivors, such as the legendary Encyclopaedia Britannica, sank into irrelevance.

For many bodies, Wikipedia has become the repository of their institutional memory. Long-standing errors made on the website are republished by respectable institutions as fact, which then are used by Wikipedia editors to buttress the veracity of the original claim. No institution is immune: I am reliably informed that Buckingham Palace conferred at least one non-existent title on the late Queen on the strength of a Wikipedia article alone.

Even experts err

Even experts err: the occasional mistake does not destroy Wikipedia’s usefulness, although Wikipedia can destroy whole cultures. In 2020, it was discovered that almost every article on Scots Wikipedia was written by an American teenager who did not speak Scots, with potentially catastrophic ramifications for the publicly subsidised pseudo-language’s future.

But when it comes to open politics, it’s another story entirely. On almost any political topic, Wikipedia is guaranteed to skew left. And given every activist’s favourite slogan being “everything is political”, this means a big chunk of the world’s most used source of reference information has become the bastion of left-wing thought. In 2021, co-founder Sanger went so far as to say Wikipedia is now full of progressive propaganda.

To understand why Wikipedia is structurally left-wing, one first has to understand Wikipedia editors. The typical Wikipedia editor is a man (fewer than 10 per cent are women) who works in a desk job which involves being online a lot (IT workers have always been over-represented), lives in a first-world country, and who has leftish politics. In other words, the typical Wikipedia editor is a Guardian reader (online edition, not print).

I’ve assumed — her interest in literature is suggestive — that like me, PostcolonialLitNerd is female. We therefore are markedly in the minority in terms of people who take an interest in the “talk pages” of Wikipedia entries, with all the structural disadvantages that entails. Hence my sisterly desire in these pages to applaud her effort to break free from the male gaze of discrimination. Whoever she is.

To be a successful Wikipedia editor, you have to master the maze of rules which undergird the website. Some are very sensible: try to avoid libelling the living, as they might sue. But much of the lore Wikipedia has already generated about itself is arcane and self-contradictory. Unsurprisingly, “edit wars” among the neurotic editors are frequent, some lasting for years. They are settled through attrition and a multi-tier court-like system with its own rules of procedure and precedents. Little surprise that normal people, and most women, largely tend to stick to reading Wikipedia instead of editing it.

This demographic skew shapes what gets covered on Wikipedia, and how. Some of the coverage bias is generally harmless. Articles on Japanese anime series, for example, are often longer and better than those on British prime ministers. Anyone who has played a single match of first-class cricket, no matter how obscure, will have a lovingly-written biography. 

All of this is less funny when it comes to politics. Just about every conservative politician of any note will have a Wikipedia article with long condemnatory sections chronicling in detail every time some left-wing activist has subjectively criticized them for something. Wikipedia ostensibly has strong rules to enforce neutrality on its pages, but editors get around them simply by couching everything in bloodless indirect speech (“it has been alleged that Mr Jones is literally Hitler”).

Sometimes, Wikipedia editors collectively lose their minds on a political topic, with predictable results. There is a 23,000 word article on the FBI’s search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence last year. The entire article on Plato is less than 10,000 words long.

Wikipedia’s own guidelines, largely produced by its most active editors, often make coverage of many topics from a non-liberal point of view literally impossible. Its policy on articles about transgender people, for example, mandates the use of (publicly-reported) gender self-ID, of the third-person “they” pronoun if the subject uses non-traditional pronouns, and discourages “deadnaming” (the allegedly harmful practice of referring to a person by their pre-gender change name) in most circumstances. The self-ID policy was first enacted in 2006, putting Wikipedia squarely in the vanguard of the gender revolution.

Another key Wikipedia guideline is the one on reliable sources. As an encyclopaedia, Wikipedia relies almost entirely on secondary sources considered reliable for the sourcing of its articles, only allowing primary sources in limited circumstances and forbidding the use of original research in article-writing.

But like everything else, whether a source is considered reliable or not is subject to community consensus. In practice, Wikipedia editors heavily favour legacy media outlets whose content is freely accessible online (relevant academic literature, paywalled and harder to understand, is often ignored). Articles from websites such as BBC News, the Guardian, and The New York Times, are accepted uncritically because they are on the “reliable sources list”, despite their obvious political skew.

Right-wing publications naturally fare less well

Right-wing publications naturally fare less well under this system. If they are cited in an article, some editor or another will inevitably slap the qualifier “right-wing” in front of the quote to signal they are not be trusted. In 2017, editors voted to ban citations to the Daily Mail, with the result that if, for example, a government minister makes a policy announcement in the Mail, it cannot be referred to until another “reliable” outlet has referred to the Mail article.

To some readers of austere monthly print magazines, all of this may seem impossibly arcane, the tittle-tattle of an online subculture of little relevance. But make no mistake: Wikipedia today occupies a hegemonic position as the world’s most influential repository of general knowledge and information. The fact that English Wikipedia’s roughly 6,000 regular editors (who make more than 100 edits a month) control the tenor of its content should alarm anyone who wishes to counter the progressive left’s cultural hegemony.

Meanwhile, after years of manipulation, some stability has returned to Priyamvada Gopal’s Wikipedia page, for now. 

The worst of the Gopal apologia has been removed, but much remains. Of the article introduction’s 147 words, exactly two are critical of her. In every section which may reflect badly on Gopal’s intellect or moral character, defences of Gopal by her allies are given pride of place, while her critics are relegated to curt mentions sandwiched between “rebuttals”.

For most people seeking information on Gopal online, her Wikipedia article will be their first port of call. Reading it, they will know little of her race-baiting and online abuse hurling. Instead, they will get a sanitised description of a respectable senior Cambridge academic who inexplicably finds herself the target of attacks from the media, the government and Jewish students, through no fault of her own. As far as the Internet is concerned, that will be the version of record. 

Gopal’s entry dearly mattered to someone, and she, or conceivably he, has edited it assiduously. It should matter to you too. Beware editors.

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