This article is a joint effort between the Daily Dot and Wikipediocracy, an investigative website that works to shine the light of scrutiny into the dark crevices of Wikipedia and related projects. Wikipediocracy recently exposed a Rhode Island lobbyist who faked his own death and used his Wikipedia biography to cover it up.
In March 2020, drag performer and trans rights activist Peppermint tweeted:
Let it be known. Please do not use my birth name and any articles stories or retrospectives. Not only do I not want anyone to do that, I will not participate or continue a relationship with anyone who decides to do that. #deadName
Peppermint rose to fame after appearing in RuPaul’s Drag Race. But since 2013, she has had the dubious honor of being saddled with a Wikipedia entry. Peppermint changed her name upon transitioning and asks that publications refrain from mentioning her birth name. In the trans community, doing so is known as “deadnaming.”
It’s straightforward: Peppermint abandoned her original name, became famous under a new name, and asked everyone to use it. No problem, right? Well, some Wikipedia editors do have a problem. For one high-profile Wikipedia user with curious ties to a high-profile IRL entertainment reporter, it was a totally unacceptable imposition.
That’d be Tenebrae, who boasts more than 154,400 edits since 2005. Judging by their actions with regard to Peppermint, they have discarded this courtesy in their devotion to Wikipedia’s cult of free knowledge. Some would deem Tenebrae’s actions as transphobic—and hypocritical given their own anonymous identity. Either way, they are strangely obsessed with a New York-area film critic.
Until recently, it was common for newspapers or websites to include a trans person’s birth name. Now it is seen as insensitive or even deliberately offensive.
On Wikipedia, it is generally accepted that birth names needn’t be mentioned when the subject becomes notable under a different name. When a subject isn’t a household name, their wish for privacy is meant to be taken into account, a practice outlined at Wikipedia in a policy called “Biographies of living people: Privacy of names.”
Wikipedia’s general guidelines state three principles: Content should be neutral, verifiable, and not original research. But many Wikipedians take the guidelines a step further than just “information should be free.”
And when it comes to celebrities, every minor fling, every brush with the law, and every last incident that can be dredged from the bowels of the internet is fair game. Wikipedia editors generally believe that if it happened, it must be reported, enshrined forever and immediately accessible to billions as the top result on Google. It’s an attitude; on Wikipedia it’s a general “more is always better” philosophy common to social libertarians and anti-copyright activists, according to Wikipediocracy’s researchers.
On Wikipedia, celebrities’ personal lives are dissected, anatomized, and regurgitated by the faceless mob of editors. And unlike tabloids where journalists publish under their real names, anonymous Wikipedia editors—and the site itself—can’t be held accountable.
One person, in particular, bristled at Peppermint’s request to not be deadnamed: Tenebrae. For over two years, Tenebrae insisted on using Peppermint’s deadname.
“One’s birth name is a fact and belongs here,” Tenebrae wrote in 2017.
Tenebrae fought to add Peppermint’s deadname to her biography, doing so around 20 times, according to an investigation by Wikipediocracy. Whenever a conscientious editor deleted it, up popped Tenebrae to restore it. Tenebrae was accused of editing while logged out and suspended for two weeks over the Peppermint disagreement.
When Peppermint herself requested her deadname be removed from Wikipedia, Tenebrae flatly refused.
“I cannot respect her whitewashing and censorship; it’s ironic and hypocritical,” they apparently wrote from an IP address they later admitted was theirs. They likewise whined that “not” using the deadname was somehow a policy violation. They accused those who tried to act with kindness of having an “agenda” or being on a “crusade.”
A longtime editor, “Tenebrae” is accustomed to getting their own way. Despite fervent protests, during the battle to deadname Peppermint, others opined that the available sources for her birth name were not reliable enough. Outgunned and outnumbered, Tenebrae was accused of coming up with an apparently nifty, some might say cruel, solution.
On March 6, 2018, Newsday published a piece about RuPaul’s Drag Race that deadnamed Peppermint. It was written by film critic Frank Lovece.
Back on Wikipedia, Tenebrae repeatedly used this new source to confirm the truth of Peppermint’s birth name less than 48 hours after it went live and at least seven times thereafter. A name apparently not in the public interest. A name Peppermint had abandoned and found hurtful. A name she specifically asked Wikipedia not to use.
We’ve reached out to Peppermint’s team.
Tenebrae’s curious history
Who is Tenebrae, a word that means “darkness” in Latin, in real life? Asking that question is forbidden on Wikipedia.
When reached for comment, a Wikipedia arbitrator who was involved in the Tenebrae drama pointed the Daily Dot toward Wikipedia’s policy against outing editors, saying they do not want to be associated with this report.
To users aware of Tenebrae’s editing history, however, it seems obvious.
The website allows users to defame, denigrate, and distort the lives of its subjects without repercussion, but to “out” an account is a cardinal sin. Wikipedians cherish their cloaks of anonymity, and Tenebrae is no exception.
Why is Tenebrae keen to keep their real name secret? Perhaps because, just like Peppermint, they too are famous enough to warrant a Wikipedia biography.
Lovece is a 60-something journalist and film contributor to New York’s Newsday. Lovece’s biography was created in 2005 by Tenebrae. It has been edited 179 times by Tenebrae. If you want to add something to Lovece’s biography, best clear it with Tenebrae first. A user named Cloven Freak once linked Tenebrae and Lovece and was banned after doing so.
Frank Lovece’s name is referenced an unusual amount on Wikipedia. His name can be found in several hundred articles. Only a few renowned critics such as Roger Ebert are referenced or quoted more. It was often Tenebrae who added all this material about Frank Lovece.
The person who photographed Lovece for his biography is named Luigi Novi, and Wikipediocracy found that Tenebrae has a history of communicating with Novi regularly. (Novi publicly goes by Nightscream on Wikipedia.) Novi did not reply to an inquiry.
Others have accused Tenebrae of using sock puppet accounts on Wikipedia, though many of their comments are now deleted. Some of the edits to Lovece were by logged-out accounts. An “editor interaction analyzer” tool used by Wikipediocracy shows links between Tenebrae and other accounts that have added quotes and references about Lovece and his work to various articles.
Reached by phone, Lovece denies any connection to the Wikipedia user Tenebrae.
“I don’t know anything about that,” Lovece tells the Daily Dot.
Lovece clarifies that he considers himself an ally to the transgender community. He says in the ’90s, when working as a comics writer, Lovece supported his trans friends in the industry.
“There’s always Wikipedia trolls causing ruckuses,” he says. As for the RuPaul’s Drag Race story, Lovece says, “Sounds like I wrote a pro, positive article on Peppermint,” noting that the deadnaming was not political but an act of journalistic fact-finding. Lovece says that for example, in his upcoming reporting on rapper Cardi B, he plans to mention her legal name, though he notes that reporting expectations have changed recently.
“In 2018, clearly the concept of deadnaming was not in the mainstream,” Lovece says. He adds: “I never heard of deadnaming until a year ago.”
As for the 2018 fallout from deadnaming Peppermint, Lovece says that Peppermint, who still follows Lovece on Twitter, reached out to him after the story ran. “I said ‘OK if it bothers you, I will call my editor and see if we can remove [Peppermint’s deadname].” Lovece says his editors weren’t able to update the story per house guidelines.
Tenebrae is so interested in Lovece that he dug up a fan zine from 1977 that Lovece wrote. Tenebrae admits to being a journalist with his own Wikipedia biography, but Lovece says he has no idea who this person is.
There are other examples of users connecting Lovece to Tenebrae and having their edits deleted. In 2012, user Stuart.Jamieson’s comment was suppressed by an “oversighter.” It was logged by Wikipediocracy before deletion: “Tenebrae, to be frank you’re hardly anonymous. You have at least outed yourself a couple of times on this page—though I have to admit it wasn’t until last night that the pieces came together for me (partly because I thought you were still at EW)—editors with a better knowledge of U.S. newspapers will get it much quicker. I’ve also now seen the article we have on you—which was created by you, to which you are the primary contributor, which is mostly sourced to your own website, and cites your place of birth to a self-identification in an article you have written. It looks like steaming pile of hypocrisy to me, but that’s just me—as we’re having a disagreement I don’t want to touch that page myself but it certainly needs wider community attention from someone.”
One can ask Tenebrae directly on Wikipedia who they are via their interactive talkpage. When Wikipediocracy asked if Tenebrae wrote the Drag Race story for Newsday, the edit was “oversighted,” totally removed from the page history so that even administrators cannot view it. This may imply that the comment was removed with the intent to protect Tenebrae’s anonymity, which would be revealed by even asking such a question.
The Wikimedia Foundation tells the Daily dot that it doesn’t set editorial policy or police content, and that it’s instead “determined by Wikipedia’s global community of volunteer editors.” It does have a “Trust and Safety” team that focuses on the personal welfare of its volunteers but again, doesn’t get involved with “community-member disputes.”
In February, the Wikimedia Foundation introduced its first Universal Code of Conduct, which a spokesperson says “outlines a universal baseline of acceptable behavior for the entire Wikimedia movement and all its projects.”
Ten years ago, Tenebrae insisted on using Demi Moore’s real name in her bio. They said that her birth name is Demetria. They cited her yearbook as proof (which isn’t proof that it’s her birth name). Then they added:
And by the way, believe me or not, but I interviewed Moore when”A Few Good Men” came out, and she ”and” the movie’s press kit both lied and said she never did ”Piranha”.
Lovece wrote an article from 1992 that questions Moore’s early roles in the press kit.
In another talkpage archive, Tenebrae is furious that a Wikipedia user questions why Lovece is cited so often onsite. The discussion was blanked, the editor banned. Here, Tenebrae writes:
I would also note a pattern of attempted WP:OUTING, which is hugely frowned upon. I’ve said I’m a journalist, and outing me affects not just me but periodicals for which I write. I protest this attempt at Outing and would ask that this talk-page section be expunged.
Sometimes, Tenebrae and Lovece act with curious timing. In an interview with David Schwimmer, Lovece asked the Friends star if he was in the 1988 movie Biloxi Blues.
“No. I don’t know why that’s on IMDb, but I never was in that,” Schwimmer replied, to which Lovece said: “Bad news—that claim’s in Wikipedia, too! But don’t worry—I will take that rumor and bash it to the ground.”
Tenebrae removed the mention from the actor’s Wikipedia.
Update 9:29am CT, March 2: Reader disclosure: The author of this story previously clashed with Tenebrae and other Wikipedia editors and was ultimately banned from Wikipedia over political disagreements. We’ve also updated language to clarify that the Wikipedia arbitrator was not speaking directly for Wikipedia in their correspondence with the Daily Dot.
Additional reporting by Ramon Ramirez.