Vox Day thinks that Wikipedia is the worst. But the things that bug him aren’t the typical complaints you’ll hear about the crowd-sourced encyclopedia—that it’s plagued by trolls, say, or that its pages on Pokémon lore are overly comprehensive.
Day is bothered because he believes that Wikipedia is a Democratic tool, run “by the left-wing thought police who administer it,” he tells me over email. Yet the millions of articles and stubs that make up the end product are used as fact. And that makes the science fiction writer and alt-right personality, who uses Vox Day as his pen name, angry.
So last fall, in the midst of a public debate about what, exactly, constitutes a fact, Day decided it was time to do something about the Wikipedia problem. He chose to launch his own version of it. He made a copy of the entire site and invited his followers to start rewriting its pages. “Wikipedia was the easiest and the most important of the social justice-converged social media giants to replace,” Day told me.
That site, Infogalactic, is made with Wikipedia’s MediaWiki software—so by design it looks a lot like Wikipedia. At first glance, so does its content. On the homepage is a featured article about peregrine falcons; a highlighted image of a Botticelli masterwork, housed in the Uffizi in Florence, is featured underneath.
But break into some of the more contentious topics and differences begin to emerge. On Infogalactic, Mike Cernovich is a respected bestselling author, “independent journalist,” “writer, attorney, and documentary filmmaker.” On Wikipedia, the Twitter pundit is a “social media personality, writer, and conspiracy theorist.”
The idea is that a stringent, Trump-supporting member of the alt-right shouldn’t have to read the same ideas as a Marxist, or a bleeding-heart college professor. (Day initially considered the tagline, “your universe, your view.”) But Infogalactic is only one of a number of crowdsourced encyclopedias tailored to various conservative factions. There’s Metapedia, a wiki with a white supremacist bent, which is published in 16 languages but is especially popular in Hungary and Germany. (On Metapedia, Barack Obama isn’t just a former president, he’s a “mixed race former president,” and the Holocaust is a genocide only according to “politically correct history.”) Or there’s Conservapedia, a version aimed at religious conservatives and created by Andrew Schlafly, son of the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly. There’s even a wiki devoted solely to Pizzagate: pizzagate.wiki.
On their own, none of these sites draws a huge audience. According to Alexa’s traffic rankings, Conservapedia is the 18,066th most popular site in the US. Infogalactic clocks in at 14,710. Wikipedia, by comparison, ranks fifth. But since last fall—just as the notion of alternative facts gained cultural primacy—such sites have seen a clear rise in traffic and interest. In the subreddit The_Donald, complaints about Wikipedia’s entries on Hillary Clinton, Seth Rich, Breitbart, and Pizzagate have become opportunities for commenters to steer readers to Infogalactic and Metapedia. Breitbart, meanwhile, has published numerous stories calling out lefty bias on Wikipedia.
As what was once the political fringe becomes increasingly entrenched in the halls of power, members of the alt-right are looking to formalize their ideology beyond the White House. With the notion of facts under siege, they are taking aim at the documents that most closely resemble a holy text of mainstream consensus reality: Wikipedia.
It’s not much of a stretch to call Wikipedia a miracle. Sure, in the almost two decades the site has owned information on the internet, it’s bred its share of scandals—factual mistakes, conflicts of interest, racism, misogyny, and, of course, the trolls. Yet with limited oversight and minimal funding, it thrives. “We have this saying,” Juliet Barbara, communications director at the Wikimedia foundation, tells me. “‘It’s a good thing it works in practice because it would never work in theory.”‘
When Wikipedia first launched in 2001 (under its original name: Nupedia), it operated within the traditional parameters of an encyclopedia. Entries were written by carefully selected experts, who wrote on topics relevant to their field. The site’s first editor-in-chief, Larry Sanger—then a philosophy PhD student—drew his contributors largely from academic communities.
But finding and vetting devoted contributors took too long for the scale of the task. So a few years in, Sanger and founder Jimmy Wales opened it up to masses of editors. The plan worked, and the number of entries exploded. To everyone’s surprise, the power of the crowd propelled Wikipedia to something shockingly close to objectivity.
Neutrality doesn’t have much of a place in internet forums, which live or die by the strength of people’s passions. At its best, Wikipedia works differently, something Sanger credits to the cultural norms established by the site’s earliest editors. “Online communities are self-selecting,” Sanger tells me. “They will tend to drive out people—not by force—but simply people will self-select out of projects that have policies they dislike. So if there is a really strong initial commitment to neutrality, then people who are strong ideologues will tend to steer clear.” Or, if they didn’t stay clear, the process of battling for control of the site tamed their tempers. A working paper published recently by professors at the Harvard Business School suggests that long-time editors find their opinions driven closer to the center. The longer people edited the site, the more centrist their edits became.
Today, however, an alternate but influential cultural consensus exists in opposition to that of Wikipedia. Conservapedia, for example, has a rundown of the top examples of liberal bias on Wikipedia. “Articles on genocide, murder, and homicide have no mention of abortion,” is a major complaint. Another common gripe is that “Wikipedia changed the Bradley Manning article to Chelsea Manning and gave the article subject female attributes.”
The concerns are not altogether specious, as the site seems to attract slightly more Democratic editors. In 2014, a team of Harvard researchers coded language on Wikipedia’s article pages—tallying up conservative phrases like “illegal immigration and border security” and liberal phrases like “war in Iraq” or “trade deficit.” They found that Wikipedia was slightly more politically biased than Encyclopedia Britannica, containing about 11 percent more left-leaning phrases than right-leaning formulations. A more recent working paper found the number of edits from contributors whose language skewed “Democratic” to be about 1.5 times that of Republican-skewed editors.
“There’s certainly a sense that Wikipedia is something of a lost cause,” Allum Bokhari, a writer who covers tech for Breitbart, tells me. The kinds of things that liberals credit with helping improve Wikipedia over the last few years, such as editing campaigns to include more voices of women and people of color, he sees as further alienating conservatives from the site. “You have professors giving extra credit for people adding on those feminist viewpoints,” he says.
That is why the conservative strategy has shifted. Instead of launching countervailing editing campaigns, people like Vox Day want alienated right wingers to stop trying to change the argument, and just opt out.
How do you know what is true? President Trump seized on a potent media strategy when, instead of holding press conferences, he began dismantling the institution of information. The process is shockingly easy: If you don’t like the fact, lash out at the sources. Discredit the sources, and the center falls.
Nowhere is the debate over sources more pointed than on Wikipedia, where editors vet entries by policing their citations. What counts as a reliable source is highly contentious. Just a handful of tabloid-style sites, like the Daily Mail and the National Enquirer, are explicitly banned as sources on Wikipedia. From there it gets murky. First-hand knowledge alone doesn’t count, so, for example, you wouldn’t be an acceptable reference for the entry on a book you yourself authored, as Philip Roth discovered in 2012. What they’re looking for, Barbara tells me several times, is “fact-based information”—academic sources and media outlets with a history of fact-checking.
The problem is, not everyone agrees on the facts. “Just look at the source list,” Bokhari tells me. “The most respectable news organizations on Wikipedia are things like the New York Times and the Washington Post.” (By the tone of his voice, he might as well preface those names with “fake” and “failing.”) Meanwhile, alt-right mainstays like Infowars or the Daily Caller don’t have the kind of traditional fact-checking programs to make it into the site.
“If you try to use a Breitbart citation on a controversial article, you’ll get shot down immediately,” Bokhari says. Barbara confirms: “Breitbart is not usually considered a reliable source.”
That is the crux of the problem. For better or for worse, Wikipedia was one of the few places on the web where both sides of the aisle could meet and agree on a single set of information. It was hacker idealism at its most utopian: The more people you have throwing ideas at the wall, the more likely they are to build something good and true.
Until recently, however, widely consumed media sources largely agreed on a single consensus reality. But with Alexa regularly placing Breitbart in the top 100 sites in the US (where it is currently 60th, beating out both Fox News and the Huffington Post), that is no longer the case. We can’t agree on the sources that make a fact a fact.
It’s true that the reach and impact of right-wing encyclopedias like Infogalactic and Metapedia remains muted, for now. Yet their mere existence is a sign that the appeal of a centralized forum for hashing out the truth is fading. Wikipedia might find that its days at the top are numbered.