Lucian Wintrich and Gateway Pundit Apparent Subjects of Wikipedia Citogenesis Attack
Following Gateway Pundit reporter Lucian Wintrich being arrested at a speaking engagement for grabbing at an activist attempting to steal his notes, Wikipedia editors began making negative edits to his page. Some edits questioning Gateway Pundit’s reputation for accuracy cited Washington Post articles that appeared to get their characterization from Wikipedia’s page for the outlet.
The edits were largely copied from the Gateway Pundit page where the same articles were cited. Other media outlets also appear to have based descriptions of Gateway Pundit off its Wikipedia page.
Wintrich, the White House correspondent for Gateway Pundit, was holding a talk at the University of Connecticut when an activist snatched his notes for the talk from his podium. After Wintrich caught up to the activist he grappled with her for his papers. He was initially arrested for his actions but was released a couple weeks later and the activist arrested for theft instead. Charges were dropped when she agreed to a campus ban and donated to the college’s human rights center.
Soon as news was breaking of his initial arrest left-wing editors began editing his page to make demeaning edits. Editor Grayfell edited his article’s intro to characterize Gateway Pundit as a “far-right website” and stated Wintrich has been associated with the alt-right, though noting he had distanced himself from the movement. An IP user also added to the intro that Wintrich was a “conspiracy theorist” and was promptly reverted by another IP.
NorthBySouthBaranof then jumped into the dispute to push for describing Gateway Pundit as “a right-wing website which is known to publish hoaxes and conspiracy theories.” Baranof’s edit was undone by others and he restored it before finally providing sources to support the material. The citations he provided were lifted directly from the page on The Gateway Pundit. Among the citations he lifted, two were to Washington Post articles with one removed as it had not been properly transferred and the other removed for not mentioning Wintrich.
On the page for Gateway Pundit similar material was first added by editor Snooganssnoogans, who has been sanctioned for unrelated negative editing of articles on conservatives. The specific phrasing added by Snooganssnoogans stated Gateway Pundit “is known for publishing falsehoods and spreading hoaxes.” As editors began challenging this line, Snoogansnoogans gradually added more and more citations, none of which directly supported the statement, until another editor consolidated them into a single citation. When an IP merely adjusted the phrasing to reflect that the sources didn’t say the site was “known for” this, Snooganssnoogans reverted the user.
Under Wikipedia’s verifiability standards, using a large collection of sources to advance a claim not directly backed by any individual source constitutes original research, which is not permitted on Wikipedia article. Although numerous outlets have reported on instances where Gateway Pundit included false or dubious claims in reports that they had to remove or correct, the claim that it is “known” for this was not backed sufficiently by the sources. This is especially true for the article’s lede, which is intended as a summary of the article. Following reports appearing in the Washington Post that essentially corroborated the material, Snooganssnoogans added each one as citations.
Both articles in The Washington Post used similar phrasing that closely mirrored that of the Wikipedia article stating Gateway Pundit was “known for trafficking in falsehoods.” One article used this phrasing while mentioning Gateway Pundit’s describing the Mueller probe into Trump’s campaign as a “witch hunt” and the other used it after the site noted a Puerto Rican mayor criticizing Trump had previously endorsed Hillary Clinton.
The only other Washington Post article to make similar statements was about a study by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society of the news sources used most by Trump supporters and Clinton supporters. In the article Gateway Pundit was said to be “a site especially notorious for trafficking in hoaxes and falsehoods.” Although slightly different in phrasing, the evidence for this being derived from Wikipedia is the study itself.
Berkman Klein’s study includes an explicit quote that “publishing falsehoods and spreading hoaxes” is something for which Gateway Pundit is known. Prior to this study’s publication said quote only appears in Wikipedia or sites lifting from Wikipedia. The study falsely attributes this quote to an article in Politico and that article happens to be the very first article cited for the material on Wikipedia.
The author of the Washington Post article on the study did not reply to questions on whether his description of Gateway Pundit was based off the study’s wording. Neither of the authors of the other Washington Post articles would respond to identify how they came to their phrasing. Aside from the Washington Post, an article in Mother Jones also covered the study and included a direct quote of the portion concerning Gateway Pundit.
Using sources on Wikipedia to support claims those sources originally obtained from Wikipedia is known as citogenesis. Once a source exists that directly and explicitly supports a claim it leads to more sources that can further support the claim. This can lead to Wikipedia spreading hoaxes itself and, in less extreme cases, allows anyone capable of editing a page the ability to shape the narrative about that subject by creating original criticism.
Subsequent reporting about Gateway Pundit and Wintrich has also apparently been derived from Wikipedia, perpetuating the citogenesis cycle. An article in Newsweek covering Wintrich’s arrest at University of Connecticut included several paragraphs of detail at the end on Wintrich and Gateway Pundit. Nearly every detail included can be found on their respective Wikipedia pages. The author of the article did not respond when reached for comment. In a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial, the copying was more blatant with some differences being just changing suffixes.
Due to journalists using Wikipedia for quick and easy research, changes to the intros of articles can have considerable impact in defining a subject. For partisans this can be a way to poison the wells. As in two of the instances in the Washington Post, the effect of journalists using those descriptions is to cast doubt on legitimate or factual reports. This is worse when the sources cited on Wikipedia are also engaging in such tactics. Claims appearing in Newsweek and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch stating Gateway Pundit spread “false rumors” about Hillary Clinton’s health were cited on Wikipedia to a New York Times article referring to a piece on Clinton’s haggard appearance after the election, which is an unflattering and opinionated piece, but not inherently a false one.
So long as Wikipedia continues to be prominent and relied upon by the general public and especially by journalists, the incentive to introduce spin and bias into articles will remain. For those seeking to shape narratives favorable to their particular ideology, Wikipedia remains a great place to edit.
(Disclosure: the author has previously been involved in disputes on Wikipedia with NorthBySouthBaranof)