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.