Breitbart Declares War on Wikipedia as Encyclopedia Gets Drafted Into Facebook's 'Fake News' Battle

Social network recently started using Wikipedia to help fight fake news, but the move now poses a major threat to the site and its trove of free information

Steve Bannon, who will be forever associated with the Breitbart News site, and Wikipedia's Breitbart article.
AFP/Joe Raefle; Wikipedia screengrab

Breitbart News has declared war on Wikipedia, following Facebook’s introduction of a new feature that uses the free encyclopedia to combat “fake news” being spread on the social media site.

The Facebook tool, launched last week, poses arguably the greatest test in years to the volunteer-run online encyclopedia, constituting a massive threat to the internet’s largest and ostensibly most trusted source of free knowledge.

The tool allows users to see information on publishers. This information is aggregated from Wikipedia, which is itself edited by millions of users.

When Breitbart discovered that, according to Wikipedia editors, people should treat its content with a grain of salt – describing the site as “intentionally misleading” – the response from the white nationalist alt-right movement’s self-proclaimed platform was fierce and quick. And its actions have wreaked havoc on Wikipedia.

The backlash comes while Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has testified before Congress, saying he will do more to take responsibility for content shared on the social media giant.

It also highlights the risks posed by Facebook’s efforts to seemingly outsource its problems to the online encyclopedia.

Indeed, Wikipedia has struggled to defend its standards in the face of its new role as the internet’s “good cop.” As more and more tech giants like Facebook and YouTube make use of its content, a new influx of users has flooded the website. And on Wikipedia, new readers means new editors – not all of them well intentioned.

In the past week, Breitbart’s Wikipedia page has become the scene of an epic battle, with alt-right trolls descending en masse to change its content.

After Breitbart ripped into Wikipedia, painting it as a bastion of the biased liberal elite, others followed suit. The Breitbart article saw a massive uptick in traffic, with more than 50,000 people visiting the Wikipedia page in recent weeks.

Dedicated Wikipedia editors struggled to deal with this influx. “Thanks guys, you have dragged us into the war between Facebook and its conservative critics. I don’t want to be the ministry of truth that Facebook uses to judge its customer’s content. Frankly, we are not good enough for that. We make far too many mistakes. So I beg you – keep us out of this,” one user wrote to Breitbart supporters posting on the article.

Others attempted to defend the Breitbart article’s content: “It’s all verifiable facts,” wrote one Wikipedia editor. “Breitbart has published a number of falsehoods and conspiracy theories? Verifiable fact. It aligned with the alt-right? Verifiable fact. Solicited ideas from neo-Nazis and white supremacists? Verifiable fact. These facts may not reflect well on Breitbart, but they are all verifiable and highly significant.”

Ironically, the surge in editorial attention prompted the Wikipedia community to take the “unWikipedic” step of locking the article for public editing. As a result, only registered and experienced Wikipedia users can now edit it.

However, the move has only fueled claims of bias from far-right circles.

“For everyone’s sake, please stop accusing editors of ‘left-wing bias.’ Remember: Wikipedia runs on consensus. Not just of the Wikipedia community, but of the sources seen front and center everywhere. Wikipedia will have a mainstream bias as long as the bias is mainstream,” wrote one Wikipedia editor.

Graphical representation of uptick in traffic to the Breitbart article on Wikipedia, March-April 2018.
Wikipedia

Wikipedia doesn’t respond to debates over its content, which it says are the responsibility of its “volunteer contributors” and not the Wikimedia Foundation that runs the site.

It did, however, respond to the news, issuing a statement that though it was not a result of a partnership with Facebook, “We’re happy to be used as one source in determining what information sources you should and should not trust.” Falling short of embracing its new role, the Wikimedia Foundation referred readers to the community policy page on what constitutes a reliable source, noting that in Wikipedia, “Articles should be based on reliable, third-party, published sources with a reputation for fact-checking and accuracy.”

Breitbart has long targeted Wikipedia, attempting to call into question the website’s reliability with headlines like “Five of the best examples of left-wing bias on Wikipedia in 2017” and “Wikipedia elites change reasons for banning dissident editor.”

These play into a larger Breitbart narrative against mainstream media, as well as its war with Facebook, which it has long cast as part of the liberal elite – and one run by a “globalist,” no less.

Breitbart News came to prominence with the rise of the alt-right and was long associated with Donald Trump’s former adviser, Steve Bannon. However, Bannon resigned as its executive chairman in January following the fallout from his comments in a tell-all book about the president’s first year in the White House.

It’s not just Breitbart that’s affected by the new Facebook took. Other media outlets have also seen an uptick in Wikipedia traffic, including the pages for CNN, Fox News and NBC.

Still, many believe that in the fake news war, the onus lies more with Facebook than Wikipedia, which, despite its efforts, still remains dangerously susceptible to political schemes.

Zuckerberg told American lawmakers Tuesday that his company does take responsibility for the content shared on its platform. Yet critics argue that the company’s new tool does the opposite, simply shifting the burden of responsibility from Facebook to Wikipedia’s community of volunteers – who are already struggling to maintain editorial standards in an age when the question of what is true has never been more politically loaded.