The NYPD editing scandal is bad for Eric Garner but great news for Wikipedia

The greatest accomplishment of Wikipedia is that it doesn’t read like one enormous argument. You would think a website dedicated to amassing the world’s information through volunteerism would be little more than a hot mess, filled with conspiracy theories, trolls, and obscenities. But more than a decade of building the most loyal and active following of any online community has turned Wikipedia into the web’s ultimate paradox: a resource trusted by no one yet used by everyone, an idea that fails horribly in theory yet massively succeeds in reality.

Those contradictions became very apparent this week when a Capital New York investigation found hundreds of choice edits made to Wikipedia by the New York Police Department, specifically changes made to either hide or fluff mentions of NYPD officers killing unarmed black men. In their revisionist history, Eric Garner was put into a “headlock,” not a chokehold. Garner putting his hands into the air becomes “flailing his arms about.” An officer shooting an unarmed man becomes an officer shooting an armed man. The 2006 death of an unarmed black man ceases to exist.

While highlighting the degree to which the NYPD is a self-interested and borderline deceptive organization, these actions would also seem to raise the age old question of Wikipedia’s veracity. How are we supposed to trust a resource anyone can edit? Far from raising questions about Wikipedia’s reliability, however, this scandal and others like it have enforced Wikipedia as a communal bastion of knowledge and truth. The attention to this story—Mayor Bill de Blasio himself was forced to answer for the edits—shows us Wikipedia is an honorable institution to which we all owe our respect and trust.

More than a decade of building the most loyal and active following of any online community has turned Wikipedia into the web’s ultimate paradox.

That might sound a little high-minded, but so is Wikipedia. There has truly never been a mission like the Wikimedia Foundation’s aim of gathering as much relevant knowledge as possible all through a volunteer force. In its pages is an online battle between the truth and deception, be it over obscure details of a manga or the relevancy of details in the CIA torture report. Edits like those made by the NYPD are on the wrong side of that battle but only make Wikipedia stronger, and the good guys always win.

Using Wikipedia as a PR tool is far from an original idea. In 2006, shortly after the site gained mass popularity, a flurry of revelations about edits coming from the U.S. Congress made headlines. Congressmen were caught ordering their staff to replace independently written Wikipedia pages with campaign literature, also erasing connections to questionable Big Pharma firms. Even Joe Biden, then a senator preparing for a 2008 presidential campaign, had his staff remove any mention of a plagiarism scandal that ended his 1988 run for the Oval Office.

The practice remains common among politicians to this day, so much so that an automated Twitter feed was created to chart every Wikipedia edit made within the halls of Congress. An initial investigation of these edits by Wikipedia found the vast majority were “in good faith” and had the same intentions of most other Wikipedia editors: to make the site more accurate and more encompassing in its coverage. Indeed, the NYPD also made far more factual corrections than they did self-interested ones, ranging from information about the Lombardi Trophy to providing details about the 1990’s Fran Drescher sitcom The Nanny.

The reports of Congressional staffers’ activities also spawned the invention of WikiScanner, a site that could find the geolocation of any Wikipedia edit from its IP address. Outside of public institutions, WikiScanner found hundreds of corporations editing pages to paint their company in a more positive light or hide stains on their record altogether. Diebold, the largest producer of electronic voting machines in the world, was seen scrubbing its relation to the infamous “hanging chad” incident from the 2000 presidential election. SeaWorld looked to remove a large section on that company’s page about their now-famous mistreatment of killer whales. Fox News removed any mention of host Shepard Smith’s arrest record.

Edits like those made by the NYPD only make Wikipedia stronger.

Wikipedia does have extensive conflict of interest policies, which its community often struggles to enforce given the anonymous nature of most edits, something tools like WikiScanner and CongressEdits have tried to fix. Some institutions have even disclosed their Wikipedia editing practices in the interest of staying within Wikipedia’s policies. British Petroleum, for example, had their press office form an official corporate account on the site in the interest of being “abundantly clear to all parties I may interact with on Wikipedia.”  

At a conference last August concerning the edits made by Congressional staffers, libertarian think tank the Cato Institute actually argued in favor of Congressional staffers editing Wikipedia pages on policy matters. One panelist, a “decorated Wikipedian” who has worked on over 300 articles, even urged staffers to list their possible conflicts of interest on their profile page so they can provide their knowledge and expertise to Wikipedia without seeming like an agent of covert propaganda or part of a censorship campaign—like the actions of the NYPD certainly appear.

Attempting to clear negative press through Wikipedia is no original move by the NYPD and is actually a longstanding issue on the site. However, the focus and attention of the actions of the department shows that Wikipedia has already won. For more than a decade, the site has fought to become a reliable resource of information to all the world’s people, something society as a whole can hold up as sacrosanct and above the usual subjective bickering that fills our media both on and offline. Study after study has found the site to be as or more accurate than established resources like scientific journals or the Encyclopedia Britannica, a competitor Wikipedia basically laid to waste.

The negative attention the NYPD has earned itself for spreading misinformation on Wikipedia means that reputation has now gone mainstream. Respect for the sanctity of Wikipedia is institutionalized within our culture and has survived the opportunism of corporate interests and desperate politicians; even the CIA can’t edit Wikipedia without being called out. The NYPD’s edits show a troubling lack of remorse over the deaths of Eric Garner and others killed by the NYPD, but it’s exactly this sort of misinformation Wikipedia is best at dispelling, a habit it owes every user and every user owes it.

Photo via Diana_Robinson/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter is a reporter and essayist who specializes in the intersection of technology, LGBTQ issues, and privacy. In April 2018, she joined the National Center for Transgender Equality as a media relations manager.