The Wikipedia War That Shows How Ugly This Election Will Be

An editing battle over Kamala Harris’s race is a sign of what’s to come.

A photograph of Kamala Harris overlaid with screenshots of her Wikipedia page
Getty / Wikipedia / The Atlantic

At 4:14 p.m. Delaware time Tuesday, Joe Biden’s campaign sent out a mass text message announcing the presumptive Democratic nominee’s choice for vice president: Senator Kamala Harris of California.

Four minutes later, a user named Zvikorn updated Harris’s Wikipedia page to reflect the news, with the edit note: “(its official now!!!)”

Zvikorn, whose bio on the site describes an Israeli teen into sports history, has made more than 2,300 edits to Wikipedia articles over the past few years. “The main reason I edit Wikipedia is a strong belief that every person on the planet has the right to access the accumulated knowledge of humanity,” he wrote. “Today it is only getting more important for mankind to find out the truth and not be exposed to believe fake news.”

But after his breaking-news edit, Kamala Harris’s page on “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” quickly became a battleground—first over a sexist slur and then over racial identity—offering a grim preview of the attacks Harris is already facing as the presumptive Democratic nominee for vice president.

There’s a weird echo of recent history here. In the 2008 election cycle and during his two terms as president, Barack Obama faced repeated false claims—most prominently advanced by Donald Trump—that he was not a real American, that his origin story was a fraud, that he was somehow a foreigner infiltrating the American body politic. In her first few hours as Biden’s running mate, Harris faced something analogous, both in conservative media and on online platforms: claims that she’s not really an African American.

Once the news broke, many of the first edits to Harris’s Wikipedia page were the sort of structural maintenance done by veteran editors on the site: citing sources, attaching categories, improving captions, and adding a notice that Harris was “a person involved in a current event,” and as such, “information may change rapidly as the event progresses.” Someone clarified that, until she’s officially nominated at the Democratic convention next week, Harris is still only the “presumptive vice-presidential nominee.” Grammar was improved; typos were fixed.

But then at 4:42 p.m., a user named Eee302 changed Harris’s first name from “Kamala” to “Cuntala.” Another editor noticed and reversed the change within two minutes, banning Eee302 “because it appears that you are not here to build an encyclopedia.” But in that two-minute span, Google’s busy web crawlers had visited the page—meaning, for a brief time, “Cuntala Harris” was a top search result for anyone searching for the woman just named to the Democratic ticket.

A Wikipedia administrator then turned on a “semi-protected” feature that limited who could edit Harris’s page, which headed off further major vandalism—and moved debate to the article’s “talk” page, where editors can hash out their differences. There the activity shifted to a single core question: Is Kamala Harris an African American?

Harris was born in Oakland, California, to two immigrant parents: Donald Harris, a Black Jamaican economist, and Shyamala Gopalan, a cancer researcher born in Madras, India. As also happened to Obama, her biracial background has led some people, many of them conservatives interested in reducing Democrats’ support among Black voters, to question the validity of her Blackness.

Last year, in an explicit echo of birtherism, the right-wing troll Jacob Wohl claimed that “Kamala Harris is NOT eligible to be President” because her parents had not been legal residents of the United States for at least five years before her birth. (There is no such requirement.) The president’s son Donald Trump Jr. retweeted (and then deleted) a Black “alt-right” figure saying, “She’s not an American Black. Period.” Researchers found evidence suggesting that tweets questioning Harris’s heritage were part of a coordinated campaign “to wedge the issue of who counts as a black person in America.” (In the 2016 election, Russian-linked accounts repeatedly posed as Black Americans on social media. So have alt-right and white-supremacist groups. Last month, Facebook removed a Romanian network of accounts masquerading as Black Trump supporters.)

On Fox News Tuesday night, Tucker Carlson was busy mispronouncing Harris’s name (and continuing to do so after being corrected). Dinesh D’Souza was attacking her for what her father has claimed to be a distant relationship to a white Jamaican slave owner. (The overwhelming majority of African Americans have white male ancestors, largely because of white male slave owners who raped Black female slaves. A new study out last month found that only about one-third of the African slaves brought to the Americas were women and girls—but that they passed along nearly twice as much DNA to today’s Black population as African men. The reason: the “rape of enslaved African women by slave owners.”)

By Wednesday morning, the pro-Trump video blogging duo Diamond and Silk were claiming, “Kamala is not even Black. So you know when she talks about racism, that’s why she don’t care about it. She’s not even Black … I don’t know what she is.” And Newsweek ran an op-ed arguing, using a fringe legal theory, that Harris may not be eligible to be vice president.

The battles over Harris’s Wikipedia page played out primarily over the specific term African American. That debate began in earnest last week, when Harris was only a much-discussed potential running mate.

“How exactly can you describe someone with south-asian ancestry as ‘African American’?” one anonymous user wrote. “Does this term now mean ‘black’, ‘dark skinned’, or simply ‘non-white’? Please, this is disrespectful to people from the Indian sub-continent who have their own very distinct identities.”

“She identifies as African-American. End of story,” replied a user named Fowler&fowler, who frequently edits India-related articles on Wikipedia. “Please don’t rehearse tired old banalities about who is black who is African-American. Please also don’t imply (if you are doing so) for the hundredth time the other pieties about whether the Middle-Passage is a sine qua non for being one or another … By any definition, she is more African-American (in the traditional meaning of the word) than Barak [sic] Obama is.”

(Harris’s Senate bio describes her as “the second African-American woman and first South Asian-American senator in history.” When she was sworn in as California attorney general, her office described her as “the first African American” to hold the position.)

With Wikipedia’s article protection preventing them from making the edits themselves, a series of mostly anonymous users instead asked for Harris to be described as something other than African American:

“Some information is wrong. She is not a black. Her mother is Indian, her father is Latino. She is not either black nor native American.”

“She is Asian American. India, where her mother immigrated from, is part of Asia. Jamaica, where her father immigrated from, is part of North America.”

“Harris is the second African American woman is wrong, she is Jamaican / Indian.”

“Kamala Harris is not African American as this states. Her mother is Indian and her father Jamaican.”

“Change ‘first African American’ to ‘Jamaican American’. She is not African American because her father is from Jamaica and her mother is Indian. There is no Africa there.”

“She was born to a foreigner from India and a Foreigner from Jamaica. How does this combination make her an African American???????????????????”

“She is of Jamaican decent [sic] not African.”

Wikipedia administrators and other senior editors have stood by the use of African American, noting the many years of news stories and official documents that have identified her as such. Wikipedia editing thrives on consensus, and amid all the debate, the consensus of editors was that a consensus had been reached. (The word consensus currently appears 49 times in the discussion.)

“We went through this at length recently, and the consensus was ‘African-American’ and ‘South Asian-American,’” the editor Rklahn wrote. “Many points of view were represented, most of them being rehashed here. If we are now revisiting that consensus, please make that clear. Otherwise, please respect the work of the other editors who put a lot of thought into this issue.”

“Once again democratic edits are prevented by a cabal of politically motivated admins,” said one anonymous user unsatisfied with the consensus. “Unlock the page, let the people of San Francisco edit this page, they know her best.”

This is not the first time that Harris’s Wikipedia page has been in the news; this summer, The Intercept highlighted edit battles in which critical comments about her record as a prosecutor were removed by users who appeared to be her supporters.

The battle over how Harris is presented has extended to other, “non-protected” Wikipedia pages too. A new account created Wednesday claimed that the senator’s father was, specifically, the great-great-grandson of a white Jamaican slave owner—something for which there is no known evidence. When another Wikipedia editor added context and noted the lack of evidence for any direct relationship, the new user took it down, calling it “irrelevant background information which is misleading.” Another newly created account tried repeatedly to make the same unsupported claim today. “Controversial unverified claims about living persons do not belong here,” another editor wrote, reverting the changes.

As of this writing, the Kamala Harris article on Wikipedia says, accurately: “She is the first African American and the first Asian American to be chosen as the running mate of a major party’s presidential candidate.” That’s after 295 edits and more than 19,000 words of debate in less than 24 hours. All that debate matters; Harris’s Wikipedia article was viewed nearly 8.6 million times on Tuesday and Wednesday alone. But attempts to de-Americanize her background seem likely to survive whatever consensus Wikipedians could reach.