Yesterday, Wikipedia users saw images on entries that looked like—and claimed to be—ads. Affected entries included those for Mahjong and Hong Kong.
The “ad” images were racist, featuring badly photoshopped photographs of black people and the president, accompanied by a message calling for his impeachment.
A representative of Wikimedia, the non-profit that operates the encyclopedia, has confirmed that the images were no ads at all, but the product of vandalism.
“Yesterday there was some brief vandalism on a common Wikipedia style template, which impacted the appearance of a lot of articles,” said Wikimedia spokesman Jay Walsh in an email.
“It was not posted for very long, but that short ‘sponsorship’ message vandalism is what you saw. Wikipedians reverted it right away,” he wrote.
I’ve seen tweets floating around alleging that the images were ads. It’s not true—the free encyclopedia has long subsisted mostly on donations. Displaying ads would indicate a major change in policy.
Displaying-content-for-money is also now an especially fraught issue for Wikipedia. In October, an investigation by the Daily Dot revealed a massive network of users was paid to edit the encyclopedia to improve corporate entries. Wikimedia cracked down on those accounts, and has continued investigating exploitation of the encyclopedia for public relations.
Although Wikipedia struggles with maintaining the quality and quantity of editors overall, it remains a crucial information source for millions and one of the top ten most-visited websites globally.