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The ‘Guerrilla’ Wikipedia Editors Who Combat Conspiracy Theories

Susan Gerbic spent her career photographing babies at a department store in Salinas, California, just 100 miles south of San Francisco. Today, the retired 55-year-old has dedicated her life to something entirely different: Wikipedia.

As a member of the skeptical movement, Gerbic is committed to promoting critical thinking, scientific inquiry, and empirical evidence—particularly when it comes to fringe ideas. In 2010, she started a Wikipedia project to “improve skeptical content” on the crowdsourced encyclopedia, by writing new articles about topics like people who claim to have supernatural abilities and improving existing ones about groups like those who believe the Earth is flat.

Today, the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project has more than 120 volunteer editors from around the world, each of whom Gerbic has recruited and trained herself. They’re collectively responsible for some of the site’s most heavily trafficked articles on topics like scientology, UFOs, and vaccines.

Over the past several years, companies like YouTube, Google, and Facebook have turned to Wikipedia to help fight the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories on their own platforms. While the crowdsourced encyclopedia isn’t totally immune from being manipulated, it’s proven to be a largely reliable resource for accurate information. GSoW often debunks the same harmful conspiracy theories tech platforms struggle to combat, meaning it stands to play an important role in that battle.

GSoW editors have collectively created or completely rewritten more than 630 Wikipedia pages, which together have garnered over 28 million page visits. They’ve worked in multiple languages in addition to English, including Spanish, French, and Arabic. A private group on Facebook called the Secret Cabal functions as a sort of headquarters, where members discuss edits and decide which articles to tackle next.

Their subjects provide a window into the various ways people end up on Wikipedia, and how they find information on the internet more generally. Take Stan Romanek, a UFO enthusiast who says he’s been contacted by aliens. GSoW editors wrote his page years ago and included information casting doubt on his claims, such as an interview Romanek gave in which he admitted to faking some of his evidence. But the page became newly relevant last July when Netflix added a 2013 documentary called Extraordinary: The Stan Romanek Story to its streaming service. Traffic to Romanek’s Wikipedia page spiked that month, reaching nearly 45,000 visitors one day.

The incident wasn’t a fluke; platforms like Netflix have the power to drive traffic to Wikipedia in other circumstances, too. For example, GSoW wrote the page for What the Health, a vegan documentary also released last year that was criticized for its claims about the risks of eating meat and dairy. It now has over 600,000 page views. But Gerbic’s team just as often finds itself fact-checking dubious claims from their family and friends.

My Friend's Fake News

Robin Cantin, 47, a public servant from Montreal who edits in French and English, joined GSoW last year. At the time, people close to him had just been diagnosed with cancer, and well-meaning friends were sending unscientific health information they found online.

“People sent me links to miracle cures on the web, to try carrot juice, to try oxygen therapy,” Cantin says. “Wikipedia gave clear information about those strange things. I saw what [Wikipedia editors do] as a solution to something I was experiencing personally.”

Since joining GSoW, Cantin has worked on pages for miracle cures, but he particularly likes creating pages for scientists and science communicators, especially if they’re from Canada. He created the page for Jennifer Gunter, a Canadian-American gynecologist and author known for challenging health claims made by celebrities. (She’s the doctor who said it’s not a good idea to put Gwyneth Paltrow’s jade eggs in your vagina.)

'I saw what [Wikipedia editors do] as a solution to something I was experiencing personally'

Robin Cantin, Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia editor

Rob Palmer, 60, a GSoW editor from New Jersey, says he’s also written articles to refute claims made by friends and family. He overheard his coworkers raving about the health benefits of elastic therapeutic tape—a type of adhesive cotton athletes wear supposedly to treat pain—and decided to look into it. It turns out that scientists have found few real health benefits associated with wearing the tape, so Palmer edited Wikipedia to reflect that. Sticky cotton tape might seem obscure, but as Palmer points out, it was worn by numerous athletes during the Winter Olympics in South Korea earlier this year.

“I saw it on the figure skaters, I was very disappointed,” Palmer says. “It ruined the whole look of their outfits!”

Palmer and other GSoW editors are helping to populate search engine queries for which few unbiased and relatively trustworthy results exist. When you search for “elastic therapeutic tape” on Google, for example, a number of companies likely pop up who want to sell their product to you. There’s also a difficult-to-parse article from a medical journal, but for the most part, the Wikipedia page Palmer edited is one of the only approachable, unbiased resources for athletes or others interested in using the tape.

Wikipedia pages are also particularly crucial real estate in search results because Google often includes information from them in its “knowledge panels,” windows of information displayed before users even click on another website. (And when Wikipedia articles are vandalized, knowledge panels sometimes display inaccurate, problematic information.)

Youtube Taps Wikipedia

Earlier this year, YouTube announced a new feature designed to combat the spread of misinformation on its platform, after numerous reports documented how its recommendation algorithms often suggest increasingly radical content. Alongside certain conspiracy theory videos, the company will now also link out to third-party resources like Wikipedia to provide viewers with more accurate information.

The announcement came as a surprise to Wikipedia’s editors and to the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that makes the encyclopedia possible. Some criticized YouTube—whose parent company just reported a second-quarter profit of $3.2 billion—for outsourcing content moderation to an organization powered by volunteers.

“I find it amazing that a wealthy [company like] Google and YouTube would do this,” Gerbic says. GSoW is anticipating an uptick in traffic to Wikipedia pages about conspiracy theories and planning edits to related articles. There’s also the potential for vandalism, although Wikipedia does have safeguards in place, like the ability for administrators to lock pages.

Still, YouTube’s decision to rely on Wikipedia “shows that we’re a success and I am super excited about it,” Gerbic says. “This is exactly what my team is trained for.”

Technically, anyone can edit Wikipedia, but the site has been criticized as overly bureaucratic in practice and difficult for newcomers to learn. For example, all edits need to be made in a unique markup language called Wikitext, which can be a pain.

Gerbic herself struggled to make her first edits years ago. So she designed a comprehensive training program for new GSoW members, covering skills and tricks that someone working on their own might take years to master. GSoW also provides editors a community for additional support and collaboration. Wikipedia is made up of thousands of WikiProjects—groups of editors who work together to tackle articles on similar topics—but not all of them offer the same level of training that Gerbic does.

GSoW members say that, for the most part, their work is welcomed by other Wikipedia editors, who are generally detail-oriented and similarly value scientific evidence.

“Anything that isn’t well supported, that isn’t robustly sourced—it doesn’t last long there. [Wikipedia] has very strong antibodies. If the bots don’t catch it, then some editor will catch it,” says Patrick Maher, 36, a GSoW editor who enjoys working on controversial pages, like the one for the MMR vaccine (which has been falsely linked to autism).

That doesn’t mean Gerbic and her team never face pushback. When they worked on the page for Tyler Henry—a celebrity psychic who claims to communicate with the dead—another editor came to the article and tried to delete their updates.

The editor, Palmer says, attempted to revise the page so that it no longer cited sources questioning the star’s supernatural abilities. Their changes were quickly quashed by another Wikipedia editor.1

1 UPDATED 7/25/2018, 5:04 PM EST: This story has been updated to reflect who made the changes to Tyler Henry's Wikipedia page. They were made by another Wikipedia editor, not by a member of GSoW.


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