The Wikipedia War That Shows How Ugly This Election Will Be
At 4:14 p.m. Delaware time Tuesday, Joe Biden’s campaign sent out a mass text message announcing the presumptive Democratic nominee’s choice for vice president: Senator Kamala Harris of California.
Four minutes later, a user named Zvikorn updated Harris’s Wikipedia page to reflect the news, with the edit note: “(its official now!!!)”
Zvikorn, whose bio on the site describes an Israeli teen into sports history, has made more than 2,300 edits to Wikipedia articles over the past few years. “The main reason I edit Wikipedia is a strong belief that every person on the planet has the right to access the accumulated knowledge of humanity,” he wrote. “Today it is only getting more important for mankind to find out the truth and not be exposed to believe fake news.”
But after his breaking-news edit, Kamala Harris’s page on “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” quickly became a battleground—first over a sexist slur and then over racial identity—offering a grim preview of the attacks Harris is already facing as the presumptive Democratic nominee for vice president.
There’s a weird echo of recent history here. In the 2008 election cycle and during his two terms as president, Barack Obama faced repeated false claims—most prominently advanced by Donald Trump—that he was not a real American, that his origin story was a fraud, that he was somehow a foreigner infiltrating the American body politic. In her first few hours as Biden’s running mate, Harris faced something analogous, both in conservative media and on online platforms: claims that she’s not really an African American.
Once the news broke, many of the first edits to Harris’s Wikipedia page were the sort of structural maintenance done by veteran editors on the site: citing sources, attaching categories, improving captions, and adding a notice that Harris was “a person involved in a current event,” and as such, “information may change rapidly as the event progresses.” Someone clarified that, until she’s officially nominated at the Democratic convention next week, Harris is still only the “presumptive vice-presidential nominee.” Grammar was improved; typos were fixed.
But then at 4:42 p.m., a user named Eee302 changed Harris’s first name from “Kamala” to “Cuntala.” Another editor noticed and reversed the change within two minutes, banning Eee302 “because it appears that you are not here to build an encyclopedia.” But in that two-minute span, Google’s busy web crawlers had visited the page—meaning, for a brief time, “Cuntala Harris” was a top search result for anyone searching for the woman just named to the Democratic ticket.
[ Read: Kamala Harris’s nomination reopens the wounds of 2016 ]
A Wikipedia administrator then turned on a “semi-protected” feature that limited who could edit Harris’s page, which headed off further major vandalism—and moved debate to the article’s “talk” page,...