There are few grounds in the battle for the meaning of truth that are as hotly contested as the editing wars people wage on Wikipedia’s biographies of living people. As you might expect, the editing histories of polarizing figures like Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are a perpetual collection of counterclaims and counterclaims, but almost every well-known public figure has its detractors, benign as they seem.
Even those rare people who somehow manage not to upset anyone still attract vandals who try to insert whimsical slurs into their articles for the lulz (who can remember how we had to in 2006 laugh when someone claimed David Beckham was Chinese?), while there are dozens of examples of lies unknowingly plucked from the site and reported as fact in the newspapers, which is a never-ending battle in itself for libel lawyers.
But on the other side of the never-ending battle of keyboard warriors to prove that popular celebrities are all ultimately problematic, there’s the fringe celebrities’ fight for recognition and notoriety. Who decides who is famous enough for their own entry in the encyclopedia of everything? It is inevitably a matter of degrees, of lines drawn in the sand. But where do we draw them?
David Beckham is clearly remarkable, as is his friend Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise’s co-stars are noteworthy, but the extras that provide background in his big scenes usually aren’t. So are Beckham’s former teammates, even the ones he played with in the twilight years of his LA Galaxy career – but what about the junior members of the squad who might only take to the field once or twice a season? How far do we go in the pecking order for football players or actors? How far will we go for other semi-public figures, such as reality TV stars, academics, journeyman porn actors or journalists?
This is a question I can now answer, having been forced to argue to the editors of Wikipedia that I, a freelance journalist with a somewhat failed career at various national newspapers and publications, have left the mysteriously belligerent four-paragraph biography in the furthest was not worth it. someone had written about me.
Like most journalists, I have a healthy but fragile ego and have always wanted a career successful enough to warrant a Wikipedia page by merit (a ship that has, unfortunately, certainly sailed). So I was equally overjoyed when it was pointed out to me that I suddenly had one, apparently made three weeks earlier by a Wikipedian named “The Almightey Drill”. This joy turned to disappointment when it turned out that the page had been set up to attack me like an unhinged leftist agitator.
Now it turns out that I am an unhinged left-wing agitator, but my article was clearly malicious in nature; it pointed to my upper-middle-class background, discussed a brief period of my career, and spent the rest of its space attacking me for a modest proposalstyle article I had published but not written on the last day of a previous job. The article, which suggested that white men should withdraw from student politics for good in a show of affirmative action, had sparked much hatred among the Internet’s alt-rights, especially on a number of white supremacist websites (where many sanctuaries I believe zionist cuckoldry still exist). Before and since that day, I’d poked into the viper’s nest of the right-wing internet from time to time, earning me a few trolls and a serious attempt by GamerGate to get me fired, but I’ve barely been prominent enough to warrant my own Wikipedia attack page.
I’ve tried to edit the page myself for factual accuracy as I was claimed to have written the article. I was told by the editor himself to make my bed and lie in it, which seemed like a bad attitude from a neutral keeper of science like him, so I enlisted a friend with a significant presence on the site to make edits for me. This friend’s edits were also undone and he was charged with flesh puppetry, as the site calls one party acting through the other. Since we’d talked about it openly on Twitter, it seemed like The Almightey Drill was actively monitoring my Twitter page, which meant I had to escalate my concerns and prove to Wikipedia that I’m a nobody. Disappointingly, it didn’t take long at all.
Over the years, Wikipedia has been plagued by numerous defamation claims from anonymous editors about mildly famous people, and has been forced to improve its community standards to avoid lawsuits down to the last detail. The 2005 Seigenthaler incident is a famous formative incident, but as discussed, plenty of malicious falsehoods can creep in.
Fortunately, I got it all taken down very quickly, after making my plea here, the page where people can sign up to have bios of the living taken down. The hardest part was finding where to report it – Wikipedia’s Community Guidelines are gargantuan, sprawling, systematic and annoyingly difficult to find exactly what you want at any given time, but when you find the Articles for Takedown page it’s nice for five minutes to wade into the hubris of strangers. The debate was disturbingly short and I almost unanimously agreed that I would be nobody in a day. There were several disagreements, who were all determined to be sock puppets belonging to the same man. He was banned indefinitely, but not before accusing me of being racist and of being “one of the chosen people” on the discussion page, leaving Wikipedia forever deprived of its insights on European lower league footballers and the sequels to Crash Bandicoot.
I was pleased with the thoroughness of the Wikipedia engine, if you know, those five years as a small online section editor at the Independent didn’t qualify me as a big enough deal. Still, I felt it had been worth protecting my good name.
So if you search “Tom Mendelsohn Wikipedia” now, there’s nothing to suggest there ever was a conflict, except a link to this project that archives every page that’s been removed from the encyclopedia, making the whole exercise useless.