April 17, 2016
Right now, this very second, people are busily editing away on the website Wikipedia, at a rate of more than ten edits per second. There are over five million articles written in English on Wikipedia, with a thousand being added every day.
But there's a dark side to Wikipedia you probably don't know about. The promise of accurate, neutral articles and privacy for contributors is often just a mirage, according to two insiders. They say they've been left battle-scarred after troubling personal encounters with the world's most popular encyclopedia.
It's billed as "the encyclopedia anyone can edit." But for many, it's the opposite.
Greg Kohs is among the blocked. Banned, he says, for challenging Wikipedia policies.
Kohs: Just in the past four hours, 500 IP addresses and users have been blocked from editing Wikipedia.
In 2012, Kohs helped start an opposing website called, "Wikipediocracy," to expose what he calls Wikipedia's "misinformation, defamation and general nonsense."
Sharyl: So Wikipedia does censor users?
Kohs: Absolutely. In a given day, Wikipedia administrators typically are blocking about 1,000 different IP addresses.
Sharyl: 1,000 a day?
Kohs: 1,000 a day. Yes.
When Kohs ran afoul of Wikipedia, he was drawn into an unseen cyberworld. One where he says volunteer editors dole out punishment and retaliation, privacy is violated and special interests control information.
Sharyl: Most people don't know what?
Kohs: Wikipedia is often edited by people who have an agenda.
To understand how, it helps to start with the Wikipedia most know and love.
Co-founded in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, Wikipedia boasts 37 million-plus articles in 291 languages.
Research experts, like Mary Frances Forcier, count on Wikipedia.
Forcier: I think it's user-friendly. I think it's easy to use. It has a very appealing visual interface, and I do think that having the sources at the bottom of the page is really important.
Wikipedia's promise to volunteer editors: anonymity and privacy. Its promise to readers: unbiased articles.
But there were conflicts in this encyc-utopia from the start. Co-founder Sanger quickly broke away. He later told a reporter, "People that I would say are trolls sort of took over. The inmates started running the asylum."
Kohs says Wikipedia's "inmates" include some volunteer editors with an ax to grind or serious conflicts of interest.
Kohs: Sometimes editors will have very aggressive attitudes about what they want to appear in a Wikipedia article.
Sharyl: They can stop opposing opinions?
Kohs: Exactly, exactly.
Sharyl: Even opposing facts?
Kohs: Often times, yes.
When volunteer editors disagree, and they often do, it leads to "edit wars" fought out on Wikipedia's "talk" and "discussion" pages.
Kohs: There's drama on Wikipedia just about everyday. You just need to know where to go and look for it.
Edit wars fill thousands of pages deep inside Wikipedia with dialogue that ranges from civil to childish and hostile, like this argument that Kohs read us.
Kohs (reading from Wikipedia): He has violated NPA, which means no personal attacks by telling someone they are 'inferior' and to 'accept their station in life.' He wrote, 'I refuse to be blocked. I am not blocked. You can pretend that you block me all you like, but someone who is right can never be blocked. It is impossible.'
In Wikipedia's world, the ruling authorities are the hundreds of volunteer editors who've reached the most powerful editing status. They're called "administrators," known only by their pseudonyms or user names. They always win the edit wars.
Sharyl: The more edits you make, the longer you've been making them, the more power you're going to have?
But what happens when powerful editors improperly control content?
Kohs: You'll have different people with a particular scientific point of view and they'll edit and modify Wikipedia, so that its articles kind of reflect that point of view.
Wikipedia has given names to bad behavior: malicious editing is "vandalism" and editing for personal or financial gain is paid or "covert editing." Wikipedia discourages both, but they happen all the time.
Two trusted Wikipedia officials were exposed running businesses that covertly edited Wikipedia for PR clients.
Interests for Sony, the CIA, the Vatican, Barack Obama and John McCain all reportedly have been caught secretly editing their own Wikipedia pages to their advantage.
And anonymous Wikipedia editors maintain a stranglehold on selected topics. Kohs demonstrates with the case of Morgellons. The Mayo Clinic calls it "an unexplained skin disorder characterized by sores." But the Wikipedia page dismisses Morgellons as a "delusional belief."
Kohs: So I'm just going to make a little comment here.
Let's see what happens when Kohs adds a research footnote that differs with that narrative.
Kohs: They can just go to this link and you get the abstract of the study right there.
In less than an hour, Kohs' edit disappears.
Kohs: I see that our edit to Morgellons was reverted after about 38 minutes or so.
It was reverted by an administrator who is anonymous, but for his user name. If you know where to look, it's possible to see the many Wikipedia topics the same editor worked hard to control.
Kohs: It seems to me that this is someone who is either involved with the medical profession or the pharmaceutical profession. They probably have an agenda to discredit or to suppress alternative medicines, things of that nature.
One study found mistakes in nine out of ten Wikipedia medical entries.
Millions of dollars can depend on how an idea or product is portrayed within the computer pages.
That may be why Wikipedia editors reportedly linked to the pharmaceutical company, AstraZeneca, got caught posting negative material on competitors' pages and adding promotional material to their own.
Kohs sees himself as an equalizer. His business helps clients, including supposed victims of unfair edits, navigate Wikipedia's unbridled landscape. Wikipedia banned him for violating the policy against paid editing and when Kohs criticized the policy and continued under a borrowed account, Wikipedia editors targeted him.
They went to great lengths to track him, using inside information and computer addresses. They researched where Kohs grew up, and traced his movements all the way to Orlando, Florida, where he was making edits while on vacation.
Sharyl: Wikipedia editors that you didn't know at the time were tracking your movements, speculating that you went home for Thanksgiving?
Kohs: That's absolutely correct.
He only discovered that he was being tracked because somebody leaked internal Wikipedia discussions about him.
Kohs: And then somebody chimed in, 'looks like someone went home for Thanksgiving to visit mom and dad,' so you think you're editing with some degree of privacy, but if they want to they can really start to investigate.
Wales has publicly feuded with Kohs over the paid editing policy, but declined our interview requests. Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that runs Wikipedia, and the Wikipedia editors we asked also offered no comment for this report.
Another paid editor, Mike Wood, says his confrontation with Wikipedia was life-changing. Like Kohs, Wood publicly criticized Wikipedia's policies on editing for pay, which he did while on breaks as a casino inspector, until one day when his boss called him in for a meeting.
Wood: He says, 'We received an email and a phone call from the Wikimedia Foundation, telling us that you are using our servers to edit Wikipedia.' He said, 'Wikipedia,' meaning the Wikimedia Foundation, 'put a hard block on our servers, so now no one is allowed to access Wikipedia from our job site.'
That was enough to get Wood fired.
Wood: It was a huge violation of privacy. They put so much pressure on my employer by blocking access to Wikipedia, by telling them what was going on, just the embarrassment, the potential embarrassment alone of what the Wikimedia Foundation pressured my employer with was enough for the employer to terminate me.
Despite the controversies, Wikipedia has many devoted followers.
Mary Frances Forcier is with the Loudoun County Public Library in Virginia. She says Wikipedia is a valuable research tool, when used properly.
Forcier: It's accessible. It's in language everyone understands, and it does provide you the kind of source information that can lead you to scholarly works, encyclopedias, reference works and primary sources that can really help you out.
But the next time you visit the world's most popular encyclopedia, you may want to consider some advice you won't find within its pages.
Kohs: When you read Wikipedia, you have to be aware that the people who are writing it, who don't identify themselves, who don't necessarily have any credentials to be writing in the subject matter that they've chosen to write in, are very often pushing an agenda.
Wood: There is no privacy. If they want to know who you are, where you are editing from, they have that, and they can check it and they will. Do not step in front of the train, because they will run you over.
Kohs and Wood still edit Wikipedia for paid clients. And here's an inside tip: on any Wikipedia page, if you want to see what an editor has removed, you can click the tab that says, "view history" and see for yourself. Sometimes, the most interesting material is what's been deleted by those who are guarding the page. Wikimedia has said it makes an effort to prevent biased articles and, when a page is disputed, sometimes editors flag it with a warning notice.