After President Trump was criticized for repeatedly failing to disavow far-right militants, his campaign last week tried to turn the tables: We’re not fostering political violence, the other side is! The team seized on what it said was a coded threat against the president from Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor of Michigan. The message was supposedly delivered in the form of an emblem with the numbers 86 and 45, which could be seen on a sticker placed behind Whitmer during an appearance on a Sunday morning talk show.
According to the Trump team, the 45 on the decal referred to 45th president Donald J. Trump, and the 86 meant he should be killed. In a tweet, the campaign claimed Whitmer was doing nothing less than “encouraging assassination attempts against President Trump.” The governor, who herself was the target of a kidnapping plot foiled by the FBI, responded by saying that the White House had to be joking, confusing waiter slang for an item taken off the menu (let’s get Trump out of our lives) with a call for murder.
The Trump campaign wouldn’t be so easily dismissed, and quickly tweeted its evidence: a screen-grab of the first line of the Wikipedia article on “86 (term),” highlighting the phrase “killing someone” in the definition. Wikipedia had spoken. Q.E.D.
This election, arguably even more than the last, has been mired in misinformation and lies—about voting procedures, about how Covid-19 spreads and how that spread can be minimized, about what policies the presidential candidates are actually proposing. Misinformation, even, about the plain meaning of words and phrases. This is where Wikipedia fits in, a project that in its early days was mocked as the untrustworthy encyclopedia anyone can edit, but is now revered as the rare, comprehensive resource that largely escapes being bogged down by crackpot theories or partisan hackery.
Or so it hopes. The challenge for Wikipedia in 2020 is to maintain its status as one of the last objective places on the internet, and emerge from the insanity of a pandemic and a polarizing election without being twisted into yet another tool for misinformation. Or, to put it bluntly, Wikipedia must not end up like the great, negligent social networks who barely resist as their platforms are put to nefarious uses.
On Wednesday, Wikipedia moved to protect its main 2020 election page, and will likely apply those safeguards to the many other articles that will need to be updated depending on the outcome of the race. The main tools for doing this are similar to the steps it has already deployed to resist disinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic: installing controls to prevent new, untested editors from even dipping a toe until well past Election Day and making sure that there are large teams of editors alerted to any and all changes to election-related articles. Wikipedia administrators will rely on a watchlist of “articles on all the elections in all the states, the congressional districts, and on a large number of names of people involved one way or another,” wrote Drmies, an administrator who helps watch over political articles.
Per Wednesday’s change, anyone editing the article about November’s election must have had a registered account for more than 30 days and already made 500 edits across the site. “I am hoping this will reduce the issue of new editors trying to change the page to what they believe to be accurate when it doesn’t meet the threshold that has been decided,” wrote Molly White, a software engineer living in Boston known on Wikipedia as GorillaWarfare, who put the order in place. The protection for that article, she wrote, was meant to keep away bad actors as well as overly exuberant editors who feel the “urge to be the ones to introduce a major fact like the winner of a presidential election.”
On Election Night, she wrote, Wikipedia is likely to impose even tighter restrictions, limiting the power to publish a winner in the presidential contest—sourced, of course, to reputable outlets like the Associated Press or big network news operations—to the most experienced, most trusted administrators on the project.
One administrator, who goes by the handle Muboshgu, compares the vigilance that will be needed to keep the political coverage reliable and accurate to the work he does tamping down baseball-focused editors eager to “break the news” of reported trades. “We try to explain that while those reports are often accurate, they are also inaccurate enough to merit caution,” he wrote in an email. “I plan to apply that same logic to 2020 election-related pages, if necessary.”
Moving slowly has been a Wikipedia super-power. By boringly adhering to rules of fairness and sourcing, and often slowly deliberating over knotty questions of accuracy and fairness, the resource has become less interesting to those bent on campaigns of misinformation with immediate payoffs.
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Wikipedia’s article on 86, for instance, was immediately revisited once it was used to bolster the Trump campaign’s case against Whitmer. At first, an editor took the reference to killing out of the article, noting that there was no reliable source provided for that definition. Others objected, arguing that such a swift response made it appear that Wikipedia was so hell bent on not helping the Trump campaign that it would change even accurate articles.
Ultimately, killing was returned to the article, but not in the first line. Instead, it was included this way: “The term is now more generally used to get rid of someone or something. In the 1970s its meaning expanded to refer to murder.” It’s hard to imagine the Trump campaign would tweet a screen grab of the revised article now, with its explanation that 86 mainly means what Whitmer obviously intended it to, even if it at times is used in this other, violent way.
Similarly, the Wikipedia article on the QAnon far-right conspiracy theory is straightforward and evidence based, laying out the claims of a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles plotting against Trump and concluding, “No part of the theory is based on fact.” This summation disturbed the libertarian economist Tyler Cowen, however, who recently wrote in Bloomberg Opinion that it “makes me slightly uncomfortable” because there isn’t a similar disclaimer on the pages for the world’s major sects and religions, or “for the Book of Revelation of the Bible, which shares with QAnon an apocalyptic spirit.” QAnon may best be thought of as an inarticulate revolt against elites, he offered.
Being a stickler for accuracy is a drag. It requires making enemies and pushing aside people or institutions who don’t act in good faith. To some, you may be losing the poetry and performance of politics. To profit-making ventures like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, you may be losing the users who make you money.
And lurking in the background, spreading the misinformation and conspiracy theories, are those who see elections as a battle between warring cults, and bend the facts accordingly. Wikipedia insists, however, that contemporary politics can and should still be distilled down to reason and shared facts, including who won a free and fair election. Let’s hope they are right.
Updated 10/26/2020 1:45 pm ET: This article has been updated to correct that the phrase the Trump campaign highlighted in the "86 (term)" Wikipedia article was "killing someone," not "killing something."