We Are Watching Elon Musk and His Fans Create a Conspiracy Theory About Wikipedia in Real Time

Here’s what actually happened with the ‘Twitter Files’ Wikipedia page.
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Pool / Pool

Fresh off his disastrous acquisition of Twitter and a batch of new promises about Neuralink, Elon Musk fans have been eager to find the next project for the billionaire to sink his teeth into.

Some have suggested he "buy" Wikipedia, the global, collective non-profit encyclopedia that serves as an international commons for knowledge online. 

There is just one problem, however, it’s not for sale. Wikipedia has long espoused as one of its core principles that it’s not for sale and will be operated exclusively through Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit foundation behind the encyclopedia. Still that hasn’t stopped Musk fans from insisting Musk turns his eyes there—or that the website may become (or already be) a hotbed of censorship without the South African billionaire’s intervention.

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Why, exactly, do people want Musk to buy Wikipedia? Because several Wikipedia editors debated—as they do for essentially every new article—whether Musk's "Twitter Files" deserved its own article page, or whether the information contained in Musk's latest publicity stunt should simply be assimilated into other relevant articles. 

Over the past week, there’s been a weird row that has emerged in debates over how to deal with the “Twitter Files” editorially.

Last week, Musk promised to unveil a trove of internal company documents showing how Twitter had suppressed reporting on Hunter Biden's laptop and its contents during 2020. "The Twitter Files on free speech suppression soon to be published on Twitter itself. The public deserves to know what really happened ..." Musk tweeted on November 28. The dump was uneventful, delayed from its original time then shown to have revealed little if anything new.

Enter what became a weird little debate among Wikipedia editors about whether the Twitter Files warranted their own page, should be amended to previous pages about Hunter Biden's laptop, or deleted altogether.

What was initially an obscure internal debate, which, again, is how a collective, open-source encyclopedia worlds, ballooned after Ian Miles Cheong tweeted that the Twitter Files were being censored by Wikipedia editors, and Musk responded.

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“Wikipedia is voting on the deletion of the entry for Elon Musk’s Twitter Files because the editors have deemed it a “nothing burger” that is “not notable” because the media didn’t give it enough coverage. These people work hand in hand with the MSM to shape the narrative.”

"Most of Earth: 'The MSM is biased.' Wikipedia: 'Cite MSM source to confirm this claim.' Wikipedia has a non-trivial left-wing bias. @jimmy_wales, what are your thoughts?," Musk tweeted.

It is possible, actually, to discuss bias on Wikipedia in a way that understands how Wikipedia works and why it might have specific biases, and what those biases may be. In fact, there is an article on Wikipedia called "Ideological Bias on Wikipedia," which engages with this topic directly, and cites various academic papers that have been published on the subject. 

Because Musk has shown a recent propensity to pretend that the only politics in the world are woke warriors vs free speech absolutists in the United States (to acknowledge other countries would be to admit that Musk's free speech absolutism starts and ends in the United States), perhaps he has read the nuanced, academically rigorous papers that have shown there is a slight Democratic bias on Wikipedia on several topics of U.S. politics, particularly on issues such as civil rights and corporations. Wikipedia has a rightward slant on issues such as immigration.

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This is because, again, Wikipedia is a volunteer encyclopedia edited by people who feel inspired by Wikipedia's mission, people who have an intense interest in specific topics, and, critically and crucially, people who live all over the world, including places that are not the United States. Researchers have found that Wikipedia has a slight Democratic bias on issues of US politics because many of Wikipedia's editors are international, and the average country has views that are to the left of the incredibly centrist Democratic party on issues such as healthcare, climate change, corporate power, capitalism, etc. 

This bias disappears as more people edit an article (which always happens on Wikipedia), does not hold for all topics, is less than it was in the early days of Wikipedia, and does not exist in the same way for international politics. In fact, several non-English language Wikipedias have faced scandal over overtly right-wing, fascist, and Holocaust-denying content on, for example, the Croatian and Japanese versions of Wikipedia. 

So, maybe Musk knew all that and wanted to start a thoughtful conversation about representation on Wikipedia, the fact that most articles are written by 1 percent of editors, the fact that Wikipedia is losing editors, the issues of obsession from some administrators and editors who won't allow edits to pages they feel ownership over. Or maybe the world's (former?) richest man saw that a pseudonymous Wikipedia editor from Panama or Germany dared to have an opinion that differed from his on the internet, saw a chance to own the woke leftists, and started a war on perhaps the single most useful collective informational undertaking in the history of humankind. Or maybe he just wanted to continue to court Ian Miles Cheong, a known simp and troll.

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Anyways, because it should matter to anyone who actually cares about how Wikipedia works, it's worth talking about what actually happened here. Last week, Musk released the "Twitter Files." Someone then wrote a very short, half-assed Wikipedia article called "The Twitter Files." Wikipedians then discussed whether the information in that article, as it stood in its underdeveloped state, should remain a standalone article or whether it should be merged into other existing articles on Twitter and Hunter Biden's laptop. As many conversations like this on Wikipedia are, the topic was contentious, but very quickly administrators decided that the "Twitter Files" did deserve its own page, and it does still have its own page today. In other words, a couple mostly random people on the internet suggested that the article should be deleted, were quickly overruled, and the page remains up and was never in serious threat of actually getting deleted. Cheong cherry picked a few people who suggested that the article be deleted, screenshotted their thoughts (again, these people lost), and tweeted them as evidence of a conspiracy against Musk and the right. It would have been equally as easy to screenshot the many Wikipedia editors arguing to keep the article as somehow being evidence of a right-wing bias. 

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"A 'delete' consensus after seven days strikes me as practically impossible, given that most 'delete' opinions were offered at the very start of the [Articles for Deletion] when the article was very underdeveloped, and that almost no 'delete' opinions were provided towards the end," Sandstein, the Wikipedia editor who ultimately decided to close debate on the article, wrote.  

In actuality, debates about what should go into an article and whether the article itself should exist is just how Wikipedia works, has always worked, and probably will always work. 

Musk and Cheong's tweets, of course, did have the intended effect of starting a balanced conversation about the fact that Wikipedia is indeed very important but has some flaws we should all work on, together: 

“It is not considered ‘routine’ for a political entity, namely a political party acting in the interest of a particular candidate for office, to conspire with Big Tech companies to suppress and injure the confidences of the United States enfranchised citizenry, nor to suppress possible evidence of criminal activity by that candidate or their children,” one participant argued. “The content of these Files constitutes the assertions of a person with actual knowledge of the material fact at issue. The material facts at issue point to possible imputation of government agent status to the Twitter company, to clandestinely act on the requests of a US government-connected entity, for improper search as well. Thus, the 4th Amendment may be implicated.”

Well then!

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Ian Miles Cheong.