4 Wikipedia Editing Scandals That Slipped Under Readers' Radars
Wikipedia is an invaluable resource for cheating at bar trivia, winning an argument with your dad about what year Bruce Willis’ R&B album came out, and reading a list of erotic video games at three in the morning after starting on the Battle of Lepanto five hours ago. But it’s not without its controversies, such as …
There Was A Huge Argument About Boobs
Wikipedia’s impenetrable bureaucracy rivals the Byzantine Empire, but their army of administrators sits near the top of the power structure. These scrupulous volunteers undergo a thorough vetting process before they’re given the power to ban users, edit protected pages, and otherwise rule Wikipedia with a typo-squashing iron fist. One of their most well-respected admins was Neelix, who was exactly as dedicated to Wikipedia as you’d expect someone named after a Star Trek character to be. But then he began a … personal project.
Wikipedia redirects common search terms to relevant pages, so if you search for “foxes” you’ll end up on the fox page instead of the Star Fox one. Neelix, however, created redirects for pages related to breasts, ensuring that if someone searched Wikipedia for “tittypumpers” they would be redirected to the breast pump page instead of the curated selection of pornography they were obviously looking for. He did this tens of thousands upon tens of thousands of times.
Upon discovery of his plot to transform the site into Urban Dictionary, Neelix was promptly taken to Wikipedia court. His defenders argued that deleting his redirects would be censorship, while his detractors said that having their serious intellectual endeavour display pages like “Mammary intercourse (redirected from A trip down mammary lane)” made them look like a bunch of juvenile morons. This all unfolded in late 2015, as the male-dominated Wikipedia faced its latest accusation of failing to write about women or defend its female users from harassment, so you could understand how they’d be worried about the site redirecting “atrophy of the titties” to “breast cancer.”
Neelix faced his accusations with all the stoicism you wouldn’t expect from a rogue boob obsessive, apologizing for the trouble but refusing to recant or explain himself. After six days of arguments by his fellow admins, with statements like “Who the f--- is going to search ‘suckling of the titties’ instead of ‘breastfeeding’?” entering the record with all the gravitas of the Nuremberg Trials, a consensus emerged that while a few odd redirects may have been well-intentioned, hordes of them suggested a bizarre lapse in judgement and/or a weird sex thing. The drama ended when Neelix voluntarily resigned. He hasn’t touched Wikipedia since, although we can think of a few subreddits he’s probably on.
Most Of The Scots Language Wikipedia Was Written By Someone Who Didn’t Know Scots
Wikipedia is available in 310 languages, and while the English version is far and away the most expansive, the big ones are much more than just simple translation efforts. If you want to study up on, say, co-discoverer of induced radioactivity Frederic Joliot-Curie, his French page is about three times heftier than his thin English one.
But many of those other languages are nascent efforts. While the French Wikipedia’s 2.32 million pages makes it the fifth largest, a lot are closer to Cree’s 154 pages. To help out minority Wikis, hobbyists often pick up a new language. A user dubbed AmaryllisGardener was especially enthusiastic about contributing to the Scots Wikipedia, with the 23,000 pages he created accounting for over a third of the encyclopaedia. The only problem was that he spoke Scots about as well as Otto von Bismarck.
The Scotland subreddit noticed the problem in August 2020. It appeared that AmaryllisGardener wrote his articles in English, used a dubious Scots dictionary to swap out some words, then posted the incoherent results. By showing zero regard to Scots grammar or word choice, he ended up with “English with strange misspellings.”
Given that Scots is often stereotyped as goofy English rather than a real language, you could imagine how people reacted to discovering thousands of Wikipedia pages written by someone who thought Groundskeeper Willie and Shrek were accurate cultural portrayals. The culprit turned out to be a North Carolinian teenager who had been plugging away for six years, and when he was outed he apologized and encouraged a purge of his work. He seemed to have good intentions, and while his Wikipedia history also showed that he’d arrogantly defended his work from people who actually spoke the language, let’s just say that he wouldn’t be Wikipedia’s first socially awkward contributor.
Regardless of his motivations, AmaryllisGardener slunk off, leaving behind a Wiki in such bad shape that there was talk of nuking it all and starting from scratch. Editors have instead been trying to salvage it, but the whole affair revealed how Wikipedia’s labyrinthine innards can leave problems festering for years. When everyone is focused on their own little domains, you can end up with one rogue actor perpetrating serious misinformation. Speaking of which…
Oops, Wikipedia Hosted A Holocaust Hoax For 15 Years
This one’s not as ha-ha funny, but it shows how Wikipedia can become a battleground. From 2004 until 2019, Wikipedia used dry, academic language to tell readers about the horrors of Konzentrationslager Warschau, where the Nazis exterminated over 200,000 Poles during their occupation of Warsaw. While the destruction of its records and gas chambers condemned the camp to obscurity, hardworking historians ensured that this crime against humanity wouldn’t be forgotten.
Except, in a sentence we beg you to never quote out of context, those camp’s supposed gas chambers never existed. KL Warschau was real, but it was “only” a slave labor camp where several thousand people were worked to death. Why does this distinction between various Nazi evils matter? Because Wikipedia’s claim of 200,000 murdered Poles was part of a long-running effort by far-right Polish nationalists to rewrite the Holocaust.
Poland did not, to put it mildly, have a good war. But hardcore nationalists have invented or rewritten crimes to equate the Polish experience with the Jewish one, allowing them to say “Look, we were all equally victimized, so please stop researching Polish collaboration.” Dubious think tanks and extremist media outlets have downplayed the number of Jewish victims and pushed false narratives about Jews and communists covering up evidence of crimes against Poles, and when a few Wikipedia editors incorporated this “research,” it sat overlooked for years.
So the article on “German camps in occupied Poland during World War II” quietly had the fake Warsaw deaths added and the line “the primary intention of these camps was the extermination of the Jews” deleted. The 1941 Radzilow pogrom, where locals forced their Jewish neighbors into a barn, set the barn on fire, then looted the corpses, was rewritten to have been committed by German soldiers. Only about seven editors were responsible, but if you can sneak a source that looks legitimate onto Wikipedia it can settle in and spread.
When one editor fought back, Wikipedia initially ruled against him until he brought the affair to journalists, who in turn asked professional historians to weigh in. That set the facts straight in a hurry, but this wasn’t an isolated incident; in 2009 a leaked email exchange showed nationalist editors plotting to create fake users to push their historical revisionism and get themselves elected to more powerful roles, and in 2018 it was revealed that Croatian Wikipedia had downplayed the crimes of occupied Croatia’s puppet state and the genocidal Croatian fascist movement. The full affair highlighted the limits of Wikipedia’s ability to write about history, and also vindicated teachers who still fail their students for only sourcing Wikipedia.
One Editor Went To War Against Authors Who’d Wronged Him, And Also Pagans For Some Reason
Hey, remember when we said that Wikipedia sometimes struggles to document women? When a New York Times article by author Amanda Filipacchi pointed out that Wikipedia was removing women from their “American Novelists” list, Wikipedia editor Qworty responded by gutting Filipacchi’s Wikipedia page. Qworty said he was simply enforcing Wikipedia’s rules on pages that read like self-promotion, but he also posted angry diabetes comparing the claim to Iraq War misinformation, and accusing the evil Times of being jealous of Wikipedia, all of which suggested that he wasn’t the clearheaded bastion of rationality he claimed to be.
Saner heads prevailed and all of this would have been forgotten, except Qworty was revealed to have had a history of revenge editing, which is far and away the lamest form of revenge. Among other examples, he removed a list of accolades from writer Barry Hannah’s page, changed Hannah’s cause of death from a heart attack to “alcoholism” (Hannah had beaten addiction and spent his final years sober), and removed a line about how Hannah had been “regarded as a good mentor.” The only writer he had good things to say about was the obscure Robert Clark Young. You can probably guess where this is going.
Salon writer Andrew Leonard confronted Young and Qworty, and while they initially claimed ignorance of each other, Qworty eventually posted a rambling essay about how Wikipedia is “the great postmodern novel” and fessed up. Not only had he fluffed his own page while attacking Filipacchi for supposedly doing the same, but Hannah’s only sin was not loving Young’s writing when Young attended his workshop. Damn, how could he have disliked an adult man who described himself as “a series of ironies, an inversion that you do or do not get”?
And that wasn’t his only weird grudge! Young also went to war against paganism, of all subjects, deleting or arguing for the deletion of pages on prominent concepts and people. He sometimes cited self-promotion again, but mostly he was just so outraged by the existence of modern pagans that he wrote long essays culminating in the comparison of Wikipedia humoring paganism to Wikipedia endorsing Holocaust denial.
You can see the obvious flaw here, in that even if you don’t believe in one of Young’s bugaboos, like an Italian form of witchcraft known as Stregheria, the concept still exists. Young’s crusade was like if we purged all talk of birds from Wikipedia because we hate how they wake us up in the morning. Oh, and while screaming that pagan writers weren’t notable enough to have their own pages (at one point calling an academic’s page an “ugly testament to self-advancement, self-promotion, and self-love”), Young was nurturing a page about a 2008 essay he wrote. He included a list of famous writers he thought his argument outsmarted, and the many prominent publications that had supposedly fought for the honor of publishing it. The page was eventually marked as non-notable, at which point it vanished in a puff of irony.
As you can imagine, all of this led to Qworty being blocked from Wikipedia, and Young’s page was deleted. But at least now he has more time to write a great American novel.
Mark is on Twitter and wrote a book.