Wikipedia is generally thought of as an open, transparent, and mostly reliable online encyclopedia. Yet upon closer inspection, this turns out not to be the case.
In fact, the English Wikipedia with its 9 billion worldwide page views per month is governed by just 500 active administrators, whose real identity in many cases remains unknown.
Moreover, studies have shown that 80% of all Wikipedia content is written by just 1% of all Wikipedia editors, which again amounts to just a few hundred mostly unknown people.
Obviously, such a non-transparent and hierarchical structure is susceptible to corruption and manipulation, the notorious “paid editors” hired by corporations being just one example.
Indeed, already in 2007, researchers found that CIA and FBI employees were editing Wikipedia articles on controversial topics including the Iraq war and the Guantanamo military prison.
Also in 2007, researchers found that one of the most active and influential English Wikipedia administrators, called “Slim Virgin”, was in fact a former British intelligence informer.
In Germany, one of the most aggressive Wikipedia editors was exposed, after a two-year legal battle, as a political operative formerly serving in the Israeli army as a foreign volunteer.
Even in Switzerland, unidentified government employees were caught whitewashing Wikipedia entries about the Swiss secret service just prior to a public referendum about the agency.
Many of these Wikipedia personae are editing articles almost all day and every day, indicating that they are either highly dedicated individuals, or in fact, operated by a group of people.
In addition, articles edited by these personae cannot easily be revised, since the above-mentioned administrators can always revert changes or simply block disagreeing users altogether.
Articles most affected by this kind of manipulation include political, geopolitical and certain historical topics as well as biographies of non-conformist academics, journalists, and politicians.
Moreover, US social media and video platforms are increasingly referring to Wikipedia to frame or combat “controversial” topics. The revelations discussed above may perhaps help explain why.
To add at least some degree of transparency, German researchers have developed a free web browser tool called WikiWho that lets readers color code just who edited what in Wikipedia.
In many cases, the result looks as discomforting as one might expect.
- CIA, FBI computers used for Wikipedia edits (Reuters, 2007)
- Wikipedia and the Intelligence Services (OhMyNews, 2007)
- Spies in Wikipedia (Computerra Magazine, 2007, archived)
- What we know about SlimVirgin (Wikipedia Review, 2007)
- Wikipedia and the Spooks – The Remake? (Intel Today, 2018)
- The Mystery Wikipedia Editor Targeting Anti-War Sites (ML, 2018)
- Wikipedia: Rotten to the Core (Helen Buyniski, 2018)
- Time to ditch Wikipedia? (Five Filters Analysis, 2018)
- Wikipedia Editing Scandal Continues (Neil Clark, 2019)