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Disinformation report

Missed and Dissed

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By JPxG, Smallbones, Adam Cuerden

It's hardly controversial to note that the government of a certain country has had a troubling history of being involved with shady things and then lying about it (and that this is hardly a problem unique to that nation). But the fact that this is true in many cases does not necessarily make it true in any given case. Before we continue, I will pose you a question: Bernie Madoff is well-known to have stolen a bunch of stuff in 2008, and someone stole my bicycle in 2008, so do you think it was Bernie Madoff?

More to the point: do you think the United States Department of Homeland Security is dicking around with pages on Wikipedia?

Stephen Harrison answers "no", in his (aptly-titled) Slate article No, Wikipedia Is Not Colluding With DHS. He responds to claims from various online raconteurs on Twitter that the United States Department of Homeland Security and the Wikimedia Foundation colluded to influence content on Wikipedia prior to the 2020 United States elections (said raconteurs overlapping with the much-vaunted recession affair which the Signpost covered previously). Harrison goes into how Wikipedia actually dealt with the 2020 elections, mentioning that all the meetings between the WMF and the DHS were publicly announced at the time, and detailing what volunteers did to help Wikipedia maintain neutrality. See coverage in The Signpost's post-2020 election "Relying on Wikipedia: voters, scientists, and a Canadian border guard". Harrison calls the framing of the events "insulting, especially to the volunteer Wikipedia editors who do the hard work of curating reliable information for the site."

But what was the whole deal of it? Well, the specific claims Harrison addresses from Twitter loudmouths are based on much broader claims (and implications) from The Intercept in their October article "Truth Cops" (which TechDirt ripped the bajeezus out of), featuring a lot of stuff like this:

One has to admit that this sounds pretty disconcerting, but a trained eye can see some cracks in the concrete. First of all, Wikipedia isn't a "tech company", it's an encyclopedia, hosted on a website where all the discussions are public. I sure as hell didn't see User:Winston (Ministry of Truth) poking around at the Village Pump, so the only possible thing this could be referring to is the Wikimedia Foundation, which is a whole different entity, and most importantly, does not concern itself with editing articles here.

This brings us to the second thing, which is the crux of it all – few understand this – the WMF is not in charge of editing articles. It is true that they often "tackle" something, "assign a team" to something, or "investigate" something, but they do not "edit articles" except under extremely limited circumstances, which generally create peculiarly-shaped clouds of wikidrama visible from outer space, of which none have been spied over any American politics articles lately.

Yes, it is true that they put out an enormous report about tackling disinformation during the 2020 election. And it is true that this report contains a bunch of broad gesturing to the effect that they took a bunch of direct actions. But here, you can again read between the lines, and see that they were borrowing a shoulder for the tackle, so to speak: "Security and T&S, once it hit their radars respectively, moved quickly in trying to identify and coordinate resolutions". Coordinate resolutions? That's not editing! They sent a bunch of emails, to volunteer editors, telling them that someone was trying to dick around with Wikipedia, which is already very much against the rules, and the volunteers dealt with it.

I mean, look at this: "T&S needed some time to find an active steward on IRC". What kind of lousy COINTELPRO operation would need to sit around twiddling its thumbs while waiting for some random unpaid hobbyist to tab over to irssi?

Now, why the WMF has such a penchant for exaggerating their role in political editing, and for making their own activities sound creepy – like offering recommendations about a "Content Oversight Committee" to issue binding decisions about "harmful content" – is hard to understand. And, indeed, much has been written about the troubling recent phenomenon where vague, protean categories of harmful information are being increasingly "tackled", "addressed" and "investigated" by vague, protean organizations and consortia. However, in this instance, it would seem that Bernie Madoff did not steal my bicycle.

J, S, AC

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