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Wikipedia as a political battleground: after a GMO/Monsanto content dispute, longtime Wikipedia contributor Viriditas is blocked

by Wer900 (with Eric Barbour, Hersch, and others)

A lie told often enough becomes [The Truth™].     —Vladimir Lenin

The dispute summary
Many editors of Wikipedia, particularly those who have high social status in its “community” or are employed by the Wikimedia Foundation, are  (or at least appear to be) fervent believers that corporations and government lack any significant influence on Wikipedia. They like to pretend that their “conflict of interest”, or COI, regulations keep Wikipedia a “neutral” and trustworthy reference. If the encyclopedia’s history, social structure, and its leaders’ dealings are any guide, though, one can only conclude that Wikipedia is an arena of combat for competing groups of propagandists. A case in point is the controversy over genetically modified organisms (GMOs), in particular those relating to large biotechnology corporation Monsanto.

Viriditas, a long-standing editor of Wikipedia, reverted edits by various users on the March Against Monsanto article, many of which removed or mitigated the impact of information critical of Monsanto or GMOs. These edits included a removal of content on the March Against Monsanto proteststhe excisiontwice, of CNN journalist Jake Tapper‘s reporting on Monsanto’s government ties and questionable ethics practices, and even the burying of the fact that the Hawaiian Crop Improvement Association (HCIA), a nonprofit whose research is oft-cited by GMO advocates in favor of their position, is “partially funded by Monsanto.” Two columns supporting the march, one in The Louisiana Weekly and another in the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, were allowed to stay in the article, but in a highly mitigated form. A (failed) attempt was even made to delete the article. (Bear in mind that a major reason for Monsanto’s interest in GMO crops is to make them “Roundup-ready”, meaning resistant to their own industrial glyphosate herbicide products. So they can sell both seed stock, and Roundup, to farmers in great quantities. GMO foods aren’t necessarily harmful to humans or the environment, but Roundup herbicide clearly is.)

Here is an example of how the bias in an article can shift from moment to moment, as one team or the other gains the temporary upper hand:

Here are the dramatis personae for the battle over the “March” article:

Involved users (opposed to changes in favor of GMOs/Monsanto)

  • Viriditas (T-C-L) is a long-time member of the encyclopedia, and has created much valuable content in the past. Although his block log is not extremely long, he has, in the words of the involved administrator JamesBWatson, a high propensity to accuse others of having “ulterior motives“. Viriditas has a history of opposing efforts to subvert the neutral point of view policy, but has amassed a long block log for perceived incivility. (since 2004, 121,000+ edits)
  • Petrarchan47 (T-C-L) was also involved in the dispute, on the side of Viriditas and against the pro-GMO editors. His talk page shows that he opposed editors who seemed pro-corporate in the past. He was involved in the BP editing scandal of late 2012. (since 2011, 4,500+ edits)
  • Wer900 (T-C-L), as stated in the disclaimer, has had a minor involvement in the dispute, and has worked productively in the past with Viriditas. He has not edited Monsanto-related articles in the context of the dispute. (since 2011, 3,600+ edits)
  • Canoe1967 (T-C-L) is another longtime user who has become involved in the dispute. He generally supported the additions by Viriditas and Petrarchan47. (since 2011, 8,900+ edits)
  • groupuscule (T-C-L) has wide and diverse interests as a Wikipedia editor, and has been a member for a long time. (since Feb. 2011, 2,600+ edits)
  • The Magnificent Clean-keeper (T-C-L) supported Viriditas against the pro-GMO editors on the “March Against Monsanto” talk page. (since 2008, 11,800+ edits)

Involved users (apparent pro-GMO editors)

  • Thargor Orlando (T-C-L) has created several substantial articles in the past, but has recently taken to upholding Monsanto’s version of events in the “March Against Monsanto” article, and in particular added that it was the “scientific consensus” that GMOs are safe. He is enabled by several single-purpose accounts (following) in doing so. (since 2010, 2,500+ edits)
  • Gobbleygook (T-C-L) was accused by Viriditas, on the basis of behavioral evidence, of being a sockpuppet of Festermunk (T-C-L), though a sockpuppet investigation cleared him of wrongdoing (IP spoofing cannot be ruled out, though). He has not edited the “March Against Monsanto” article directly, but 10.7% of his 140 talk-page edits (15 edits) have been to the “March Against Monsanto” talk page. He had previously done battle with Viriditas on subjects regarding political leftism. (since Apr. 2013, 400+ edits)
  • Firemylasers (T-C-L) is an obvious single-purpose account designed to insert a pro-GMO view into “March Against Monsanto” articles, and has written no content himself. All of his talk page edits (23 edits), totaling 82.1% of all of his edits, are to the “March against Monsanto” article’s talk page, and three more edits are to AN/I threads regarding the March. His only other live edits created his user page and user talk page. (since Jul. 2012, 28 edits)
  • SpectraValor (T-C-L) is a user who has exclusively edited genetics topics, though it is too early to say if the account exists only for one purpose. Whatever his motivation, SpectraValor is strongly pro-GMO and favorable to Monsanto’s position, with 43.4% of his talk-page edits (23 edits) to the “March” article’s talk page, and 13.2% (7 edits) to the “Genetically modified food controversies” talk-page, out of 53 total. A further 2.1% of his article-space edits (10 edits) are directly to the “March Against Monsanto” article, and a further 0.9% (4 edits) are to “Genetically modified food controversies“. (since Mar 2012, 500+ edits)
  • Ttguy (T-C-L): a fascinating case study. Did not edit the “March Against Monsanto” article, but did edit the Glyophosate article. He systematically removed anti-GMO statements on Wikipedia, including court cases and studies. He states on his Wikipedia page that he is an Australian plant geneticist, a claim which has been validated by researching his online profiles. His statements towards anti-GMO advocates are often abrasive, disingenuous, and fail to reach the point. He writes pro-GMO screeds for a website that has connections to the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute, a group that is funded by corporations that do research in GMO organisms, notably DuPont. Most recently, Ttguy has begun patrolling vandalism on Wikipedia using a software “bot”, atypical of a dedicated content writer but quite typical of a user who seeks power on Wikipedia. He created this website in 1999, apparently to mock anyone who was opposed to GMO-based food crops. (since 2004, 1,155 edits)
  • Arzel (T-C-L) was involved in a dispute over the number of participants in the “March Against Monsanto”, claiming that only 200,000 people participated while most sources (and, to be fair, the organizers) estimated the figure was closer to 2,000,000. (since 2005, 10,000+ edits)
  • Robert McClenon (T-C-L), a longtime AN/I inhabitant, had little interest in the content dispute but did participate in the superficial “civility” dispute. Describes himself as “an Internet addict and is proud of it.” (since 2005, 4000+ edits)
  • Martin Hogbin (T-C-L), like many others in this dispute, was opposed to putting a quote by the organizer of the March into the article, stating that it promoted a “fringe theory” despite evidence that herbicides used with GMOs have caused developmental harm to cells of several species, and placing anti-GMO activism on the same footing as moon-landing conspiracy theories. It must be noted that Hogbin is one of Wikipedia’s most dedicated trolls and systemic manipulators. He was deeply involved in the Monty Hall problem war, the Speed of Light war, and the BP editing scandal. As a reviewer of this blog post, and longtime Wikipedia editor who had crossed paths with Hogbin before, commented: “He struck me as quite insane.” (since 2006, 14,000+ edits)

Involved users (neutral or other)

  • IRWolfie (T-C-L) is a longtime content contributor on Wikipedia, and has worked productively in various areas of science combating pseudoscience. He is included in the “neutral” category because while he did largely oppose Viriditas’s changes to the page and filed the second deletion nomination, he was also not responsible for a significant portion of pro-Monsanto edits.
  • Tryptofish (T-C-L) was, like IRWolfie, an initial supporter of the pro-Monsanto changes, but was able to reach a working settlement with Viriditas on the dispute. He is, like other parties to the dispute, a veteran of the encyclopedia.
  • Alexbrn (T-C-L) broadly supported Viriditas’s content views, but was strongly opposed to his conduct regarding the dispute.
  • North8000 (T-C-L), a longtime Wikipedia editor, opposed Viriditas but was somewhat receptive to material critical of Monsanto being added to the article.

Which team will control article content?

As is often typical in such cases, the perpetrators invoked Wikipedia policies such as “civility” and the “three-revert rule” in order to gain impunity for the manipulation of the dispute in their favor, despite the fact that the technology remains in its infancy. Predictably, Viriditas was blocked for one week by JamesBWatson, sanctions which were given without a proper investigation into the content aspects of the case and which are all too typical for content writers on Wikipedia. (Incidentally, Viriditas was “unblocked” mere hours before his block was about to end.) Subsequently, Viriditas was repeatedly hounded by his enemies on various noticeboards, as well as on his own user talk page (many earlier accusations have been archived). These “inquiries” resulted in a second block of Viriditas, with a length of two weeks.

The early successes against Viriditas emboldened the pro-GMO group, who went on to post, in the “March Against Monsanto” article, that there was a “scientific consensus” that GMOs were safe for human consumption and that “some people” believed that GMOs were unsafe in spite of “many scientists” believing otherwise. “Concerns” about the safety of GMOs became unsubstantiated “beliefs”, and the article was even nominated a second time for deletion (though the nomination again failed by a wide margin).
 
The latest chapter in the drama has been a dispute at the Administrators’ Incident board, which resulted in closure by an editor who was not an administrator, a violation of normal practice. In keeping with Wikipedia’s time-honored traditions, administrator JamesBWatson blocked Viriditas for the same edit-warring and civility reasons he cited before. Regardless of what happens to Viriditas in the near future, Monsanto supporters may have won some control over one of the many Wikipedia articles relating to GMO. The resulting “March Against Monsanto” article, as usual in these disputes, is a lengthy and semi-coherent screed, still subject to editwarring and bias. Meanwhile, there are a dazzling number of other Wikipedia articles that also serve as a battleground for the GMO controversy, and in many of these, the anti-GMO team appears to have the upper hand:

One of the hidden “features” of Wikipedia is the way competing groups will spin off articles when they can’t get their way in a main article, where they abandon the main article and content themselves with creating standalone articles about individual features of the debate. These are called coatrack articles, where some otherwise inconsequential item is padded out with all the information for or against the real subject. Within Wikipedia circles, the most famous series was the “Allegations of Israeli Apartheid”, which spawned much internal debate and a case in Wikipedia’s Supreme Court – the ArbCom. There are two opposing reasons for these articles – firstly to provide a dumping ground for information seen as critical to the supported cause, so that it can be “fairly” removed from the main article with a long term aim of making the spawned article wither and die; or secondly, to spread propaganda for the cause across as many articles as possible, each with a scope that makes it easy to support unbalanced criticism. For example, a single march, or a single product recall, a minor footnote in the grand scale of things, is inflated into an important encyclopedic event. Wikipedia’s rules actually encourage this activity, based on the idea that articles will expand infinitely as facts are gathered so splits should be made to keep the articles manageable; and in Wikipedia, no fact should be lost, however trivial it might appear to those involved.

In conclusion
The prevailing belief among AN/I dwellers and POV warriors that civility, decorum, and politeness matter more than accuracy, neutrality, and verifiability was once again observed and upheld. Viriditas was blocked, and the case is ripe for escalation to the usual venues of dispute resolutionrequests for comment, and eventually the Arbitration Committee, where a second show trial is likely to legitimize his banning and further reduce hope for much-needed massive reform of Wikipedia. Given the past history of Wikipedia arbitrations, the important victim — the article content — will be degraded, while people fight and sockpuppet.

Genetic engineering of food crops is still in an early state. Regardless of its overall safety, GMO food remains a “hot-button” political issue with many consumers. And regardless of who “wins” this argument, the general public loses — because they might read the associated Wikipedia articles, and not realize they are being caught in a crossfire between contending groups who strive to use the purported encyclopedia as a soapbox. Plus, a good writer of content has been tossed out of Wikipedia. Given its ongoing loss of content authors, this might yet be another nail in Wikipedia’s eventual coffin.

Further reading

(Disclaimer: The author of this piece has worked productively with Viriditas and his collaborators in the past. His involvement in the dispute has been extremely minimal and almost exclusively related to the meta-disputes surrounding the conduct and content problems.)

 

Image credits:

Flickr/tr.robinson – licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

Wikipedia

 

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