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White House Communications Directors (and friends) lasso Wikipedia

by Gregory Kohs

The White House

The White House — Image Credit: Matt H. Wade – CC BY-SA 3.0

If watching the staffing changes taking place in the Donald Trump White House has made you queasy as if from a carnival ride, it’s possible you missed the recent August 16th appointment of Hope Hicks as the new (interim) communications director. She follows in the illustrious line of Jason Miller, Sean Spicer, Mike Dubke, Sean Spicer (a second time), and Anthony Scaramucci, whose tenure was so brief he was never sworn in. The Communications Director is essentially the White House’s top public relations expert who ensures that the administration’s message is consistent, clear, and effectively distributed.

One thing we’ve learned is that despite some protestations to the contrary, Wikipedia content is often manipulated by editors who primarily are not acting to build a neutral encyclopedia reference. Public relations professionals, in particular, may edit Wikipedia on the sly, in order to convey a slanted message that influences public opinion about a subject — usually their client — without completely undermining the appearance of an encyclopedic account of the subject.

Wikipediocracy decided to look for evidence of Wikipedia activity orchestrated by the current administration’s past and present communications heads or their career associates. Regardless of what we find, this in no way is intended to suggest that the current administration is any better or worse than previous administrations. We simply didn’t take the time (yet?) to look into the Obama or Bush administrations’ activity.

We hardly knew ye, Mr. Miller

Jason Miller

Jason Miller — Image Credit: Jason Miller

Kicking off with Jason Miller, who quit his communications position within Donald Trump’s post-election organization in late December 2016, he suffers an ignominious blurb in his Wikipedia biography: “He also fathered a child with A. J. Delgado during a brief extra-marital liaison, born six months after his second child.” That’s a rather harsh reality to have memorialized for posterity in an encyclopedia article. Oddly enough, even though Miller was most notable as an encyclopedia topic in the time prior to 2017, his biography was only created on January 1, 2017, after he had already quit working for Donald Trump and arguably became less famous. Within a day, the Miller bio was being edited by a User:Politico16, who three months later would be indefinitely blocked from editing for “abusing multiple accounts”. In February 2017, the Miller bio underwent a complete overhaul re-write by a User:GaryWMaloney, who by reasonable account appears to be Republican political consultant, Gary Maloney. (Maloney also has a Wikipedia biography that he’s edited. It was created by another user who devoted some years to polishing the Wikipedia bio of Liz Cheney.) Miller, while currently employed by Teneo, spent many years at Jamestown Associates, a consulting firm with strong ties to Donald Trump and other Republican leaders. Jamestown’s Wikipedia article was constructed in just a few days by a User:Wuchizm, who never so much as corrected a spelling mistake on any other Wikipedia article not related to Jamestown Associates. In March 2015, the Jamestown article got ample attention from a User:Pitcherreport, adding awards that the firm has won, which to our eye looks like it could be the work of a paid editor based in India. And remember User:GaryWMaloney and blocked editor User:Politico16? They’ve both worked on the Jamestown Associates article, too.

This is not to say that Jason Miller is “guilty” of any of the Wikipedia editing we have presented above. It’s possible that he has no knowledge whatsoever of what happens on the pages of Wikipedia. But what we are able to surmise is that there is a shallow network of editors who probably have a conflict of interest editing Mr. Miller’s biography and the article about the pro-Trump company which held him as a partner for over six years.

Spice, Spice, Baby

Sean Spicer

Sean Spicer — Image Credit US Government

Next up, there is Sean Spicer. Despite his having some fairly noteworthy roles in government prior to being hired by Trump (Communications Director of the House Budget Committee and Communications Director and Chief Strategist of the Republican National Committee), his Wikipedia biography only came into being about six weeks before he was hired to replace Jason Miller on team Trump. But if we jump back to February 2011, when Spicer took the communications helm at the RNC, isn’t it interesting that in that same month a brand new Wikipedia editor User:CloseEyeOnDC appeared, diving straight into the article about the RNC, along with making numerous edits to various Republican politicians’ pages? One especially suspicious edit deleted an entire section about the 2009 RNC Health Coverage-Abortion Controversy, but whitewashed the edit with the duplicitous summary, “Reorganized chairman sections”. For the next nine months, a quiet battle took place with one editor restoring the controversy section, then another removing it, and so on. Eventually, in November 2011, the section was removed by an IP address from a politically-conservative area of Georgia, and it has not since been restored.

A clean record

Mike Dubke

Mike Dubke — Image Credit: Mike Dubke

Mike Dubke held the post of White House communications director for less than three months. His Wikipedia article is similarly short. Surprisingly to Wikipediocracy, Dubke’s biography and the articles about other organizations with which he’s been associated appear to be genuine, unadulterated encyclopedia articles, free from the sanitizing brush of public relations editing. The lone exception may be the wiki article about the Ripon Society, with its long history of “single-purpose account” contributors — but Dubke was long gone from that organization well before Wikipedia was even invented.

The Mooch

Anthony Scaramucc

Anthony Scaramucci — Image Credit: Jdarsie11

Spicer returned again to fill the gap left by Mr. Dubke, which after 49 days paved the way for the grand entrance (and 10-day-later exit) of Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci. Even though Scaramucci came into the national limelight only in July 2017, thanks to his earlier accomplishments as an entrepreneurial financier, he’s had a Wikipedia biography since May 2011. The bio was launched by a single-purpose account, and with the name User:Bangalorecapital, it has the ring of another India-based paid editor. Further, Scaramucci’s company, SkyBridge Capital, had its Wikipedia article set up in late 2010 by another single-purpose editor who was active on Wikipedia for nearly three years, touching up the SkyBridge and Scaramucci articles exclusively. On March 7, 2017, User:Jdarsie11 removed thousands of bytes of information from Scaramucci’s article, in an attempt to diminish its discussion of The Mooch’s finances. As we look at that user name (Jdarsie11), we should not jump to conclusions and assume it is former SkyBridge vice president John Darsie.

Is there hope for Hicks?

Hope Hicks

Hope Hicks — Image Credit: Yahoo

And to draw this investigation to a close, we have the current acting director of White House communications, former model Hope Hicks. Even though she was brought to public attention in September 2015 by a New York Post article, her Wikipedia biography did not materialize until nine months later. Prior to joining the Trump Organization in 2014, Hicks worked at public relations firm Hiltzik Strategies, specifically on Ivanka Trump’s fashion brand. The founder of that PR firm, Matthew Hiltzik, has a Wikipedia article about himself, primarily authored by single-purpose accounts. Of particular interest is the editing history of one Wikipedia user who didn’t sign in, leaving only his New York IP address, 38.126.142.243, as a signature. Considering how this IP spent a considerable amount of effort on Wikipedia subjects like Hiltzik, Blumhouse Productions, and Paper Clips Project, it’s very possible that this IP editor is Josh Raffel — because Raffel has worked at both Hiltzik Strategies and Blumhouse Productions, and he owns a limited liability company called “Paper Clips Ejh18”. Why is Josh Raffel important? He is a recent hire of Jared Kushner for the White House Office of American Innovation.

For well over three years, readers of Wikipedia’s article about Matthew Hiltzik were warned that a “major contributor to this article appears to have a close connection with its subject”.

Wikipedia warning banner

But then in January 2017, an IP editor from New York removed the conflict-of-interest warning and it hasn’t been restored since. Despite the claims that Wikipedia is “always improving”, it would appear that the biographies of politically-connected individuals in public relations can be self-written or written almost entirely by political allies, with the average reader none the wiser. Only someone who might take an additional 30 or 40 minutes looking at the edit histories and contributors list could possibly figure out these biases.

Closing the circle

You have to be a bit amused, how Wikipedia and political PR connections all come full circle, too. That Wikipedia biography of Matthew Hiltzik says that he “teamed up with the U.K.-based publicity company, Freud Communications, to start up their U.S. operations.” That’s a special connection for people who follow certain Wikipedia personalities in the news.

6 comments to White House Communications Directors (and friends) lasso Wikipedia

  • This is how a blogpost should be. Clear, to the point, and understandeble for outsiders. Thanks, Gregory.

  • Kingsindian

    Excellent article. Conflict-of-interest editing is rampant in Wikipedia biographies. The impersonal tone of Wikipedia is a great asset for “reputation management”.

    One point to note is that COI editing is by no means always malign. For instance, the version of the article (https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jason_Miller_(communications_strategist)&oldid=766912133) written by Gary Maloney, is much better as a proper biography of Jason Miller, than the version prior to his involvement (https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jason_Miller_(communications_strategist)&oldid=763724571), which is a stub focused almost entirely on the controversy of his departure. Official Wikipedia policy acknowledges this. However, in practice, editors with a conflict of interest are often treated with suspicion, so many of them either don’t bother to declare it, or sometimes hide it altogether.

  • Captain Custard

    The author of this blog post is quite correct. It is indeed well known that Wikipedia can be manipulated this way. I would go so far as to say this is one of the most commonly known flaws of it, alongside its susceptibility to simple vandalism. Unlike other issues, some very major flaws, this has received lots of press coverage. As usual, nobody seems to care.

    Which all begs the question, why has it been written? Is there any belief in the Wikipediocracy upper management that this post would have triggered something prior discoveries have not? Do they surmise the mere mention of Trump would make this hot news? I doubt it will. Indeed I know it will not, given there are some bigger fish to fry in the Trump news cycle.

    Maybe if the blog had outlined why these people do what they do, what they benefit from it, it would be different. But as ever, such critical analysis appears thin on the from this outlet, or rather this author. To understand the real reason why this blog was written, you need only examine the last line, since that is the hook on which the entire piece was meant to rest. It is just the latest in a long long line of revenge pieces aimed squarely at Jimmy Wales, the personal nemesis of this author.

    This is despite the fact that Wales has little influence over Wikipedia anymore, indeed, as the author knows only too well, he has stated many times he does not condone it, and if he had the power to change Wikipedia in the ways that need to be changed to prevent it, he would. Maybe a blog post outlining why he cannot do it might have generated some actual interest…….since as far as I am aware, this insider knowledge of how Wikipedia really works, has not been given its due airing.

    • My dear Mr/Ms Custard… your concerns are mostly on point, but a blog post on Wikipediocracy is rarely going to compete with a 1,000-year hurricane like Harvey for news dominance. Regardless, you’ll be happy to know that Wikipediocracy Twitter account tweets about this particular blog post garnered over 920 impressions thus far, which already ranks it among the top 3 Wikipediocracy tweets of the past 12 months. So, clearly something “clicked” with this blog post.

      Since you seem to have an uncanny ability to figure out what makes for bad or good blog posts, I welcome your future submission of a blog draft that our “upper management” will consider for publication. I’m sure it will be “hot news”.

    • As usual, MMAR/Dark Knight/Angry Muppet/Cap’n Custard,

      A decent comment gets approved. An angry ankle-chewing comment goes straight in the trash (two so far).

  • Captain Custard

    (Editor’s note: Captain Custard’s submitted comment contained an unsubstantiated libel of a named individual, so the comment unfortunately had to be replaced with the following text.)

    I thought I was being really smart with using an email address of “biteme@zoloft.com”, but now I realize that I’m just a sad individual with a lousy life at home, that I have to get my jollies by haranguing a mildly-popular Wikipedia criticism site. I have nothing else of substance to show for myself, so this is my pathetic sum of output, all from behind a mask of a pseudonym. I know. Pitiful, right?

    (Editor’s note: We now return you to an excerpt of the Captain’s actual comment.)

    I have endless time and resources…

    (Editor’s note: You can fuckin’ say *that* again!)