How rich and famous people influence Wikipedia


There were two prominent stories this week about how rich and famous people tried to influence Wikipedia's coverage, and depending on your point of view, got their way. I think the coverage of both stories missed the mark so I'd like to dive into them a bit deeper.

But first, Canada is currently discussing enacting a new gun control law, known as Bill C-21. A prominent ice hockey player, Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price, spoke out in opposition to the bill, aligning himself with the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights. At the same time the CCFR was under fire for creating a online coupon code, "POLY", which people assumed referred to the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre (the group denies this).

If you had wanted to look up the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights on Wikipedia prior to December 7, you wouldn't have found anything. You probably wouldn't have learned that in 2019 they asked members to file complaints against a doctor who called for a ban on assault rifles, or that their CEO shot his first firearm in...the United States.

I'm not very in tune with Canadian politics, so it's unclear to me how prominent this group is actually (doesn't seem to be on the level of the NRA in the US). But Price put them on the map and now there's a Wikipedia article that will educate people on its history. (It's even been approved to go on the Main Page, just pending scheduling.) 1 point for rich and famous people influencing Wikipedia's coverage for the better.

OK, so now onto author Emily St. John Mandel, who is divorced and wanted Wikipedia to not falsely say she was married. She posted on Twitter, "Friends, did you know that if you have a Wikipedia page and you get a divorce, the only way to update your Wikipedia is to say you’re divorced in an interview?"

She then did an interview in Slate, where she was specifically asked and answered that she was divorced.

The thing is, that probably wasn't necessary. Yes, Wikipedia strongly prefers independent, reliable sources as the "Wikipedia:Reliable sources" policy page goes into great detail about. But in certain cases, using the person themselves as a source is fine. In the section "Self-published and questionable sources as sources on themselves", the policy lists 5 criteria that should be met:

  1. The material is neither unduly self-serving nor an exceptional claim.
  2. It does not involve claims about third parties (such as people, organizations, or other entities).
  3. It does not involve claims about events not directly related to the subject.
  4. There is no reasonable doubt as to its authenticity.
  5. The Wikipedia article is not based primarily on such sources.

On top of this, Wikipedia has a strict policy regarding biographies of living persons (BLP), that would lend more weight to using the self-published source.

If Mandel had just tweeted, "I'm divorced now.", that would've been fine. In fact, the first person to update her article with a citation about her divorce used her tweet, not the Slate interview! In the past I've also used people's tweets to remove incorrect information from Wikipedia.

(That said, people do lie about their age, height, etc. So far the worst case I've ever run into was Taio Cruz, who reached the level of sending in a fake birth certificate. You can read the talk page, it's a giant mess.)

And then there's Elon Musk (sigh), who tweeted about how Wikipedia is biased, right after an "Articles for deletion" discussion was started on the Twitter Files article.

Vice covered it with: "We Are Watching Elon Musk and His Fans Create a Conspiracy Theory About Wikipedia in Real Time". It goes into good detail about the Wikipedia deletion process, but I don't fully agree with the conclusion that this is how the process is supposed to work, and how it usually works.

I cast a vote in the discussion, stating it was easily notable and an obvious keep. By the time it was closed, the tally was 73 keep votes, 27 delete votes, and 23 merge votes. Wikipedians will tell you that these discussions are not a vote, rather the conclusion is based on the strength of the arguments. But in this case, I want to focus on the direction of the discussion rather than the final result.

At the time Musk tweeted (Dec 6, 18:46 UTC), the vote count was 12 delete votes, 4 keep votes, 4 merge votes (I should say that I'm relying on Enterprisey's vote-history analysis for these numbers). The votes post-tweet were 69 keep, 15 delete, 19 merge. That's a pretty big shift!

I would like to think that Wikipedians would have reached the same (and IMO correct) conclusion regarding the existence of the Twitter Files article without Musk's "intervention", but it's hard to say that for sure.

But, as I've hopefully demonstrated, Musk is not alone in trying to influence Wikipedia. Rich and famous people do it all the time, for entirely different goals, and sometimes without even realizing it!