A Wikipedia editor called Philip Cross has been at the center of a very strange and public affair in recent weeks, one that has seen Russian media outlets follow leading figures in the British left in shaming him for what they call systematic and biased edits.
George Galloway – the former U.K. Labour Party lawmaker known for his anti-Israel positions – has even offered 1,000 British pounds to anyone who has Cross’ address and real identity.
The main allegation against Cross is that he is using Wikipedia to push his own political positions, on everything from foreign policy to the biographies of journalists and politicians he disagrees with – like Galloway, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London who quit the Labour Party this week amid repeated anti-Semitic allegations.
Some have even gone as far as claiming that Cross is not a real person, but rather a front for either the British defense establishment or a disgruntled journalist from the “mainstream media” with an ax to grind.
The affair has sparked a crisis of faith among the left in the collaborative encyclopedia usually accused of being too liberal, with some claiming the sheer scope of Cross’ editorial reach – spanning hundreds of articles, with countless page views – undermines their trust in the entire Wikipedia project. This claim has now been taken up by the Russian media.
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“A mystery online figure called Philip Cross is targeting anti-war and non-mainstream UK figures by prolifically editing their Wikipedia pages,” said a recent profile in RT (formerly Russia Today), the Kremlin-backed Russian news network, with a similar report appearing in Sputnik, Moscow’s semi-official English language news service.
WikiLeaks, long accused of serving Russian interests, tweeted a blog post by one of the anti-war figures, Craig Murray, a British diplomat-turned-whistleblower and human rights activists who analyzed Cross’ contribution to Wikipedia and concluded that he “makes no effort at all to hide the fact that he has the strongest of neo-conservative biases, hates the Left and anti-war movement, and strongly supports Israel [and] is part of an active social media network trolling these views.”
So what stands behind this attempt – arguably the biggest and most coordinated to date – to out and shame a possibly biased Wikipedia editor?
‘Goons’ and doxers
“Cross has edited Galloway’s page more than 1,700 times,” RT wrote in its second report dedicated to the affair, noting that “the Wikipedia enthusiast has, for more than 14 years, been mass editing articles, 133,612 in total, adding up to 30 edits a day.”
Indeed, Cross is an extremely active editor – among the site’s top 500 contributors, no small feat in an online community numbering over 150,000 active editors. According to a review of his work, it does seem Cross edits on an almost inhuman scale, contributing multiple times a day for years on end.
Contacted by Haaretz through his Wikipedia page, Cross denied the allegations of any “conspiracy or anything suspicious.”
“Don’t believe everything you read online,” he wrote, declining to comment further for this article.
Cross’ edits clearly concentrate on a number of topics: British culture, international politics (especially in the Middle East) and journalists’ biographies.
His edits also reveal a strong anti-Russian bias: In one case, he replaced the links to RT materials in the section on Turkey in the article on “State-sponsored terrorism” – one of the entries that promoted Ankara’s ban on Wikipedia.
In other cases he targeted those he deemed apologists of the Bashar Assad regime in Syria – for example, claiming one writer wore a “I [heart] Bashar” bracelet – and actively policed articles like “Antisemitism in the UK Labour Party.”
He also made personal edits, for example, deleting the fact that a journalist had written for The Guardian from their biography. (See Cross’ full list of Wikipedia contributions.)
His edits reveal a political bent that has spilled over from Wikipedia to Twitter, where Cross has frequently locked horns with Galloway, Murray and other journalists, whom he has described as “goons.”
The comments show Cross may have been breaking Wikipedia’s conflict-of-interest guidelines that may have barred him from editing the Wikipedia pages of those whom he was actively feuding against online.
“There’s a cluster of people who have certain things in common, some differences, but the things they have in common are defending Russia, for example, against unjust accusations and sanctions, supporting the Palestinian cause rather than the side of Israel, opposing American foreign policy in various places,” Galloway told Sputnik.
“We have another thing in common: We all attract the unremitting attention on Wikipedia of this Philip Cross, who claims to be a real person. This person, if it’s a person, is doing this at 3 and 4 o’clock in the morning and is doing it on Christmas Day.
“So either this is a deep state operation [or someone] madly obsessive ... or [maybe] it is a group of people who are either working directly for the state, or certainly if they’re not they might as well be, because they are directly serving the state narrative,” Galloway said, promoting his online bid to “dox” Cross.
Galloway has been frequently targeted by Cross and the article on him was among the top 10 most edited entries by the prolific Wikipedian, along with Corbyn’s and alternative media outlet MediaLens. But he has also been very active on nonpolitical topics like jazz legend Duke Ellington, suggesting he may not be as nefarious as his critics claim.
Galloway wants to sue Cross for defamation and, according to Wikipedians who spoke to Haaretz, there is a growing fear in the community over the potential legal implications of the demand – as it could, in theory, force Wikipedia to either reveal Cross’ identity or risk standing trial in his place.
Jimbo the ‘Blairite’
A recent attempt to create a Wikipedia article for Cross himself failed. The article – which described him as a “jazz and drama enthusiast” and a “controversial Wikipedia user” – was deleted shortly after going live, with the creating editor being banned for the move. The deletion has fueled conspiratorial claims that somehow Wikipedia is defending Cross.
The impetus for the allegation was a rare comment on the Cross affair by Jimmy Wales – Wikipedia’s co-founder and public face. Wales rarely gets involved in content disputes on the site. However, in this case, “Jimbo” – as he is called in the Wikipedia community – chimed in, tweeting that the allegations against Cross seem “risible.”
Wales, an avowed libertarian who was born in the United States, has a somewhat special relation to the United Kingdom, where he now spends most of his time after marrying Kate Garvey, a former secretary for Britain’s ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair. The connection to Blair has led some to speculate this is why Wales is defending Cross against far-leftists like Galloway, who were hostile to the centrist Labour politician.
On Wikipedia, Jimbo’s user page is a pilgrimage site of sorts and, after the campaign to out Cross began, the Wikipedia editor went to his page to ask for help. Cross has since gone silent, but the Wikipedia community is fervently debating the case.
“Philip Cross has disgraced Wikipedia in the public eye,” a user called Kal Holmann wrote, suggesting that until the storm passes, Cross be barred from editing the pages of those journalists he argued with online. After numerous attempts to get Cross banned were shut down, Holmann suggested “that Wikipedia is circling its wagons around Philip Cross.”
Others have been more skeptical, suggesting that although he edits a lot, Cross’ contributions are not infeasible: “[Cross] averages 27 edits daily of an average of 52 characters each [that] equals to some 30-60 minutes spent on Wikipedia a day. I see no statistical grounds for suggestions that this is an institutional account which edits round the clock 365 days a year,” a user called Kashmiri explained. “George Galloway piggybacked the theory that the account is run out of GCHQ [Britain’s signal intelligence agency] or the like on this ‘nonstop editing’ notion,” a user called William Avery wrote.
In his interview with Sputnik, Galloway used Cross to question the very concept of the free online encyclopedia: “The bigger picture is Wikipedia itself: How can you have what purports to be an encyclopedia, which can be altered at will by a selected number of other members of the public?”
The problem with the accusations against Cross is that they suffer from a fundamental misunderstanding of how Wikipedia works and point to an alliance between the far left and Russia’s propaganda machine.
Despite popular belief, Wikipedia does not strive to be “true,” but rather only “factual” – which means reflecting the mainstream consensus on different topics. Though anyone can edit, not every claim can be defended as a well-accepted fact within Wikipedia’s complex systems of rules and guidelines.
Moreover, biases and conflicts of interest are a key part of Wikipedia’s editorial process, the idea being that many conflicting biases will be balanced out as editors strive to reach a “consensus.”
Regardless of whether this crowdsourced model delivers on its potential, Wikipedia has succeeded in being accused of being both too liberal and too conservative, and has critics from across the spectrum.
Wikipedia is playing an increasingly larger role in the so-called war on “disinformation,” with both YouTube and Facebook aggregating content from Wikipedia to contextualize possible “fake news.” Therefore, it is easy to see why some Russian media outlets may have a clear interest in undermining the site’s newfound credibility.
Though Cross does have a clear political bent, it is not necessarily one that undermines the entire project that openly strives to reflect mainstream bias.
The willingness of Russian media outlets to push the narrative that Wikipedia is rife with disinformation, true as it may be, should raise no less eyebrows than the disinformation allegedly spread by Cross.