wikipedia and the grayzone hissyfit

wikipedia and the grayzone hissyfit

December 2020

Unlike Syria or China or Nicaragua, where obstacles in the form of distance, language, censorship, and propaganda mean people often have to ultimately rely on third-party reporting to learn about events there, you can just look at Wikipedia yourself. It's very easy. This makes the antics of Grayzone—a website that runs on conspiracy and insinuation, often in stark alignment with the views of non-Western autocracies worldwide—much more difficult to conceal when they choose to move from their usual subject matter to Wikipedia. The website is a frequent target of left-wing conspiracy theorists.

Some within the further reaches of the left treat Grayzone as a respectable, if somewhat rambunctious, outlet. Their two-part meltdown about Wikipedia is a great illustration of their maliciously incompetent and dishonest modus operandi. I'm going into this because I am a huge dork and edit Wikipedia as a hobby, and love to talk shit about it and its numerous problems. I get annoyed when you talk shit about it unfairly, though.

Some background: At they very beginning of this year, the Wikipedia community determined that the Grayzone did not qualify as a generally reliable and trustworthy source for citation within articles. In December 2019, a formal Request for Comment (RfC) was made, basically a centralized discussion for issues that have wider implication on English Wikipedia (or that have deadlocked on more specific fora). Around three dozen different editors partook in the discussion, viewable here.

The discussion was contentious, and the Grayzone staff were notified and began angrily tweeting about it, which is very professional. Ultimately, an uninvolved editor (who tends to focus mostly on administrative tasks) closed the RfC after it had gone on for over a month, declaring that consensus roughly had been reached in favor of deprecating Grayzone. No one has challenged the move since then—literally anyone can start another RfC—though I would triple dog dare a Grayzone writer to do so. You can do so here.

Anyways, here's a selection of some of the issues brought up in the deprecation RfC discussion:

  • Founder and lead editor Max Blumenthal has been shown to have fabricated quotations.
  • Blumenthal has used Grayzone to push narratives based on deceptively edited videos and the website frequently uses weasel wording to imply CIA or US government involvement in certain controversies without further substantation.
  • Grayzone has a habit of calling anything on the left it doesn't like stooges for the US government without documentable evidence. (It has accused Democratic Socialists of America of being funded by the State Department, for example.)

The upshot is the claims that the group makes about topics it covers already have an issue of reliability that we don't have for, say, Reuters. If you don't believe me, just read the rest of this post. This is not to say Reuters is a perfect arbiter of truth, but unlike Grayzone, Reuters sometimes issues mea culpas and retractions. That’s significant.

After the deprecation, Grayzone writers had an absolute meltdown, ragetweeting like it was their very job (it is). Assistant editor Benjamin Norton published a two-piece "investigative" reporting series about Wikipedia in retaliation, apparently. It’s one of the best things I've ever read, because it so transparently lays out the indignant rhetorical style that defines Grayzone. Like a rabbit on cocaine, Grayzone is incredibly productive, incredibly paranoid, and incredibly hard to pin down—so it takes a lot more time to refute bullshit than to produce it.

So here is a selected breakdown of the nonsense Ben et al. wrote about Wikipedia in their fit of righteous rage. Draw what conclusions you may about their editorial standards.

The campaign to blacklist The Grayzone was initiated by Wikipedia editors who identify as Venezuelans and openly support the country’s right-wing, US-backed opposition.

Deliberately deceptive. The RfC was submitted by a single user who has no control over the discussion's outcome, User:ZiaLater, although it's certainly possible that they did so as the result of discussion with other users on various article talk pages (that's normally how RfCs happen—discussion at a more local source is inconclusive, so someone escalates it for broader input). As the RfC notes, the question of reliability had come up independently before. Quite literally anyone—including a non-registered IP address—could have done this. I'm frankly surprised it didn't happen earlier. If Ben wants a reconsideration, he can do so himself, too. No one is stopping him.

ZiaLater is a self-identified Venezeuelan democratic socialist who was involved in extensive discussion about the neutrality of the article on self-proclaimed President of Venezuela Juan Guaidó. The article read as overly sympathetic to Guaidó at the time and thus needed to be edited to reflect Wikipedia's policy of neutrality (an inherently aspirational policy, as any editor will tell you). This appears to be one of the reasons Ben thinks ZiaLater is a CIA operative or something. As the talk page archives make clear, ZiaLater is operating in good faith, even if you disagree with him (imagine that). In fact, after another user tagged the article as needing work, ZiaLater deleted content that was overly laudatory, etc., even though he appears to oppose Maduro, out of the interest of balance (imagine that). Is this user free of bias? No. Does that negate the substance of the RfC discussion, which Grayzone never addresses directly? Also no.

What is deceptive about this assertion is that it insinuates bad faith interference while ignoring any and all evidence to the contrary, and without understanding of the community in which the controversy takes place. Grayzone does that a lot.

These users obsessively monitor Venezuela-related articles, aggressively pushing a regime-change line and working to excise any piece of information or opinion that interferes with their agenda.

False. Again, it's unclear who "these users" are—Ben appears to be referring to basically anyone who finds Grayzone unreliable in the discussion, because he thinks he is always right and anyone who disagrees with him is a CIA plant, I guess. A few of the three dozen editors, like User:SandyGeorgia, are indeed often involved in Venezuela-related topics and very much not fans of Maduro. Imagine that! People with other opinions.

Besides, there are two other problems with this statement:

First, users tend to gravitate towards articles in subject areas they know, and presumably avoid blathering on about things they know absolutely nothing about (imagine that). I don't do much editing on nuclear physics, for instance, because I am not that smart. A Venezuelan Spanish speaker is the exact kind of person you'd expect to be really into articles about Venezuela. Again, refer to the above talk page if you actually want to see how these users operate. The insinuation that there is some force pushing them to work for regime change is just that: vapid insinuation.

Second, there were, again, over three dozen editors involved in the discussion, most of whom were not involved in editing related to Venezuela. All you have to do is look at the discussion and click on their user pages. A user's complete contribution history is available for anyone to see. It requires some basic factchecking.

This online cabal of Venezuelan opposition supporters has been joined by an assortment of neoconservatives who spend countless hours per day, every day of the week, inundating Wikipedia articles with talking points defending Western intervention and demonizing NATO’s Official Enemies.

Tinfoil hat bullshit. People use Wikipedia, some very frequently. Sometimes they make lots of edits. Sometimes they disagree with you. This is not proof of a "cabal" or any meaningful organized opposition.

As an aspiring encyclopedia, moreover, Wikipedia is very clear that its goal is not dedicated to exhaustively catologing the truth: it is not a community of investigators, but archivers. The standard for inclusion is verifiability of an assertion, not truth. That's a critical distinction, without which the project could not function. If you want to convince the world Bashar al-Assad is a saint and that Stalin was just misunderstood, by all means, go for it. Wikipedia will not do that for you, though; its job is to catalogue prevailing opinion, including dissent, but it does not seek to entertain tinfoil hat bullshit just because you want it to.

It is entirely true that Wikipedia has a systematic bias towards mainstream sources. That is a deliberate, imperfect choice by the community. We cannot rely heavily on tweets, forum posts, blogs, and whatnot to try to decipher truth and falsehood — at that point, Wikipedia becomes a vehicle for original research. That would be an insurmountable task.

The thoroughly flawed option we are left with is to go with a preference for mainsteam sources (very, very broadly defined) when writing articles. As an editor, that can be frustrating, trust me, Lord knows CNN gets a lot of stuff wrong, but it's hard to overstate how ridiculous things would get if that norm broke down. This norm is what keeps anti-vaxxers and tinfoil hat conspiracy theorists at bay.

Together, this tiny handful of editors has successfully banned Wikipedia from citing The Grayzone...

Deliberately deceptive, and also really whiny. Deprecation still allows narrow usage of related sources, though this is controversial within Wikipedia. Again, the large volume of editors who took part (three dozen is actually a decent size for an RfC, especially since GrayZone is not that widely used of a source) and the fact that another RfC has not been requested indicate that as far as Wikipedia is concerned, it is indeed community consensus. You may not like it, but sometimes the world doesn't work out the way you want, and it's not because of some "cabal" (imagine that).

In fact, in its more than four years of existence, including its first two years hosted at the website AlterNet (whose use is not forbidden on Wikipedia) ...

Deliberately deceptive. AlterNet is not deprecated, but it is considered a "generally unreliable" source. It has been for years. One of the reasons it was listed as generally unreliable is because of its hosting of pseudoscientific medical articles that would find their way into Wikipedia, some with fun titles like "Alternative Remedies for Anthrax." (Since deleted, lol). That was the primary concern referenced in the initiation of this unanimous discussion from late 2018, the most recent one affirming AlterNet's unreliability.

... The Grayzone has never had to issue a major correction or retract a story.

Deliberately deceptive. First, it has had to make at least one correction, which was noted by a user trying to argue Grayzone is reliable—Grayzone had to backtrack on a blatantly false claim made by someone they interviewed, showing that, again, they don't do basic factchecking (see the bottom of this article). (I can see it now: "well that's not a major correction!") Second, "we've never been wrong in four whole years" is not quite the admission of journalistic integrity Norton thinks it is, but I'll let the continued buffoonery that is his Wikipedia investigation do the talking.

the editors behind the campaign to blacklist The Grayzone made it clear in their public discussions that they were motivated to censor The Grayzone’s reporting based on the political perspective of its writers – not on the basis of any falsehoods or distortions that appeared on its website.

False. See above. The core issue was reliability as a journalistic source. Reliability is determined by the ability to corroborate information from other reliable sources (no, the Global Times does not count). Even if the motive of the user who requested the RfC was political, the ultimate decision based on the discussion (go check for yourself!) was one of reliability. This was not a one-off, either; the issue of Grayzone's reliability was first raised by User:ReyHahn in August 2019 here on the "Reliable Sources Noticeboard," a hub for initial discussions about the status of a given source.

The Wikipedia editor who presided over the official “survey” to censor The Grayzone is a hyper-partisan supporter of the Venezuelan opposition. This figure also initiated and moderated the surveys to successfully blacklist TeleSUR and Venezuelanalysis, among the few news sources that challenge the hegemonic anti-Chavista perspective furthered by Western mainstream media.

Deliberately deceptive. First, again, the user ZiaLater did not "preside" in any meaningful sense. Ben is either being deliberately deceptive, or, if not, revealing that he just has no idea what he's talking about.

Take Venezuelanalysis: it has been deprecated because it deliberately falsifies basic, factual information based on the political needs of the Venezuelan government. For example, the organization carried an article about government's demonstrably false claim that African Union nations almost all supported Maduro over Guaidó; this lie was directly repudiated by letter from the AU Vice President (see copy of the letter here), who asserted member states' desire to remain neutral. Venezuelanalysis has not retracted its claims, because it is not an outlet that even pretends to be dedicated to factual accuracy. Ditto, TeleSUR. Sources that only support a party line are generally unreliable because they are incapable of publishing anything truly negative about said party (imagine that). That also extends to anticommunist or rightwing websites like The Epoch Times, Daily Mail, or Newsmax.

Wikipedia has imposed numerous “guidelines” against this kind of advocacy editing, which blatantly violates the platform’s founding principle mandating a “neutral point of view.”

True in that English Wikipedia does prohibit advocacy editing. It should be noted, however, that "Wikipedia" has not done so as a centralized authority; those guidelines are the result of community consensus discussions and can and do change.

But the website, and the Wikimedia Foundation that runs it, has taken no action against the gang of politically motivated editors that targeted The Grayzone. Instead, it has given them free rein to flagrantly sabotage the encyclopedia’s ostensible commitment to neutrality, and shield the public from critical reporting that conflicts with Washington’s agenda.

Deliberately deceptive. Again, this is an example of Ben being either deliberately deceptive or just a moron who did not bother to research the subject of his polemic.

Wikimedia Foundation almost never intervenes in community decisions. That is a core, organizing principle of the entire project. In the few occasions it has, it is often for legal reasons, and even this set off controversy before. (In fact, there is major discontent with the Foundation, not so much over any actual content policies it influences, but over the lack of transparency in board meetings and about how grant money is spent.) It would be wildly innapropriate for the Foundation—which does not "run" the content of Wikipedia, nor handle the community itself—to intervene in any decision on source deprecation. The solution, again, is to make another RfC, where anyone is free to demonstrate how reliable and verifiable Grayzone is.

The cast of editors seeking to censor The Grayzone runs the gamut from Russiagate conspiracy theorists to anarcho-neocons to regime-change lobbyists to elite Venezuelan opposition members – basically anyone threatened by journalism that challenges the Washington consensus.

Tinfoil hat bullshit. Just because they think your glorified blog is unreliable doesn't mean they are out to get you and enforce the Washington Consensus. Citation needed, as they say.

The internet encyclopedia has become a deeply undemocratic platform, dominated by Western state-backed actors and corporate public relations flacks, easily manipulated by powerful forces. ... [W]hile the website markets itself as an open-source encyclopedia that anyone in the world can edit, the reality is the platform is tightly controlled by a small group of administrators and editors – and heavily dominated by powerful institutions that have the resources to mobilize users to advance their interests.

Deliberately deceptive. So we've mostly moved on from insinuations of CIA or god-knows-what interventionism by a, quote, "cabal" of editors out to get poor Ben and his friends, so now it's time to attack Wikipedia as a website itself. These are all based on valid criticisms that the Wikipedia community is very aware of, but Ben doesn't really tell us what these facts mean for his larger argument.

Ben correctly notes that Wikipedia has a major problem with companies trying to edit their own articles for promotional purposes. There's a noticeboard of editors investigating such conflicts of interest. He's actually right—it's an uphill battle, and there are only so many editors who can fight back against PR firms and such. Every stupid startup wants a Wikipedia article to make themselves feel special. But again, as is typical for Grayzone, Ben sidesteps the criticisms of reliability made against Grayzone and devotes most of his energy towards listing out all the ways the global elites are involved, so that he can say the deprecation was a fait accompli instigated by powerful forces, not because of anything wrong with Grayzone's editorial practices and the quality of its "reporters".

An academic study found that, from 2001 to 2010, a staggering 80 percent of edits on Wikipedia were made by just 1 percent of users. In fact, statistics provided by Wikipedia shows that just over 3,000 editors are “very active” on the website, meaning they contribute more than 100 edits per month.

False. The number of very active editors has not dropped below 4,000 since late 2005. Per Wikimedia Stats, there were 5,536 in June 2020, when Ben published his article. Ben is bad at research, and Grayzone clearly doesn't fact-check.

Regardless, the "very active" metric is misleading in this context—100 edits is a lot, especially for people just focused on content. Despite unquestionably being very active myself, I have not met that 100 edit threshold every single month, even in those when I have spent literal hours researching and writing, because my edits will tend to be larger (one for every new paragraph I write, for example) and take longer. A better breakdown makes the shady cabal appear much less cabal-y and more like, I dunno, a medium-sized town's worth of people:


This is related to the 80%-1% thing, which is deliberately deceptive: tons of edits are minor ones done by bots or through other semiautomated tools by superactive users, so it's inaccurate to imply that 80% of substantive content is written by 1% of users. For example, User:Giraffedata has over 80,000 edits, almost all of which are dedicated exclusively replacing the phrase "comprised of" with "composed of". Even so, Ben fails to show why the concentration of edits at the top makes the process any less reliable than it already is (Wikipedia is unreliable, which any Wikipedian will tell you).

In other words, a tiny handful of editors have disproportionate control of what people across the world read when they research something online.

Deliberately deceptive. As the charts above show, for all its flaws—it's very white and male, for instance, a fact that I am surprised Ben didn't mention—Wikipedia is still much more democratic than really any other platform out there, so the point of this screed makes very little sense to me. Ben is free to add whatever you like to any such article. If you are so pressed about all of this, join yourself, dammit.

Regardless, this dynamic—a small, active userbase using a website much more than other users—is a common phenomenon; the top 10% of tweeters produced about 80% of all tweets in the US, according to Pew (this was a survey of active users, too; if we counted inactive accounts, randomly sampled like the accounts in the Wikipedia study Ben references, the ratio of tweets:tweeters would be even more skewed towards the most active users). It is ultimately true that active users are going to be much more busy and productive and Wikipedia, and that they, despite being smaller in number, will have outsize influence on the processes that govern the country’s sixth-most visited site. There are certainly drawbacks to this arrangement. The relevance for Grayzone, though, is unclear, except to imply an evil cabal deprecated Grayzone, not just regular people.

Even more troubling is the fact that governments, intelligence agencies, and large corporations maintain significant influence over Wikipedia, editing the encyclopedia to push their agendas, while carefully monitoring articles and policing new edits. The CIA, FBI, New York Police Department, Vatican, and fossil fuel colossus BP, to name just a few, have all been caught directly editing Wikipedia articles.

Deliberately deceptive. This is all true, to a degree (and the organizations Ben cites were discovered by Wikipedians before being reported by the mainstream media he loathes so much) but I think I see Ben's attempt at a point now—he's trying to imply that Grayzone was blacklisted as the result of a similar corporate or government interest.

But the rot goes much deeper. Powerful interests, from states to companies, hire Wikipedia editors to sanitize entries about themselves. Past clients for these services have included social media giant Facebook itself, along with corporate media juggernauts like NBC and the Koch Brothers oligarchs.

True! Technically. I've personally rewritten articles linked to powerful people who clearly wanted to have some better coverage. Welcome to Wikipedia, Ben.

Wikipedia is essentially a bulletin board for powerful interests. And the group that runs it, the Wikimedia Foundation, has expressed little interest in combating this corruption. In the 2007 Times report, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said that, while they discouraged conflicts of interests, “We don’t make it an absolute rule”; it is just a “guideline.”

False, again. The Foundation does not take a role in the day-to-day affairs of Wikipedia, their "refusal" to combat the issue is not because they are some cabal bent on allowing Wal-Mart to boost its image, but because the Wikipedia Community itself sets the guidelines.

These Wikipedia guidelines do technically forbid conflict-of-interest editing, but virtually nothing is done to stop it.

False. Recall the noticeboard linked above.

In fact Wikipedia also simultaneously tells editors they can simply “ignore all rules,” assuring them there are “no firm rules.” This contradiction shows how the encyclopedia can have its cake and eat it too, claiming to be decentralized, democratic, and opposed to political bias and special interests, while at the same time being utterly overwhelmed by these problems.

Whining. The "ignore all rules" pillar is there to remind us that there is never going to be a one-size-fits all solution to problems that will inevitably arise when you're compiling the largest single collection of human knowledge ever assembled. Congratulations, Ben: Wikipedia is not a perfect project. There's a lot of bullshit, lies, and sketchy stuff on it.

In this way, a few elite editors have a massively outsize influence on the global population, manipulating public opinion to push their political line. And few people even know they exist.

Bitch, I'm right here. I exist. People know me!!

There has been some coverage in alternative media, for instance, of the mysterious editor Philip Cross. This lone user spends hours per day, virtually every of the week, obsessively monitoring and editing articles to smear anti-war journalists and politicians.

Irrelevant. What's funny about this one is that Ben links to another dubiously sourced blog post about Philip Cross, one which ultimately relies on reporting by the BBC. But wait—I thought Wikipedia was run by a cabal of unknown editors working at the behest of the Empire? Why would BBC of all organizations expose one of their own digital soldiers?

Indeed, Wikipedia is dominated by editors that show a clear bias, and that use edits to push their ideology and political interests.

More whining. To be clear, Ben is angry that people who don't agree with him (people who represent the vast majority of the English world, frankly) edit Wikipedia.

The platform has no mechanisms to hold these editors accountable and prevent this from happening.

False. Wikipedia has a formal process for bans requests—which can be by any editor against any other editor—to administrators. In cases where things get contentious, an elected body, the Arbitration Committee, will get involved, though this is typically a court of last resort, and it has only outright banned a few dozen users. Last April, ArbCom banned one person in a case that went on for over four weeks and involved written statements by one hundred and eleven different users.

In the very rare cases that an editor is banned, ...

Deliberately deceptive. There are, quite literally, over 100,000 accounts that have been blocked/banned (cf. 50,000 accounts with 5+ edits per month in 2020 on average). See here. That's hardly a "rare" occurrence given the number of active editors. Still, disciplinary sanctions are much more common for serious editors, because outright bans—preventing someone from editing Wikipedia permanently—runs counter to Wikipedia's stated goals.

... they can simply create a new account; if their IP address is blocked, they can use a new device to edit.

Deliberately deceptive. This is true of quite literally any website ever. Congrats, Grayzone: you have detected a fatal flaw in Internet security. People can buy VPNs to get around IP address blocks.

In conclusion: Grayzone "reporters" are either too lazy or to do their research or just morons. Or, my personal theory, they are washed up, sad excuses for journalists who consistently rely on cheap tricks to get clicks. In so doing, they shout over the voices of marginalized people worldwide, but that's for another post. For Wikipedia, whatever kernels of reasonable discussion might be lying underneath Grayzone whining—how source deprecation discussions are disorganized, how they might privilege Western sources, etc.—is drowned out by the utter bullshit.

P.S. This only covers Part I of the laughable investigative series. Part II is basically "JIMMY WALES IS A LIBERTARIAN" which we all know anyways. But guess what—he doesn't actually run Wikipedia as a project.

P.P.S. final score: