Author Archives: Olivia Conti

Reframing the Narrative and Revealing Bias: The NYPD’s Wikipedia Edits

Last week, Capital New York revealed that Wikipedia edits made to a number of entries on police brutality traced back to 1 Police Plaza, the headquarters of the NYPD. Among the entries edited were those for Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo, and Sean Bell—all unarmed black men killed by police in New York—as well as the entry for the city’s unconstitutional stop-and-frisk program. The two officers involved will face minimal punishment for using NYPD computers for “personal activity.” While some may see this as a lesson on the credibility of Wikipedia, I argue that it’s simply a more blatant illustration of the racial biases that suffuse narratives of police brutality across all media.


All of the edits were intended to minimize or erase traces of police brutality and misconduct from the entries in question. For instance, in the Eric Garner entry, the phrase “chokehold” was replaced by “headlock” and an extra phrase was added claiming that Garner was “significantly larger” than the officers involved. Elsewhere, an NYPD user suggested the entry on Sean Bell, an unarmed black man killed by NYPD officers, for deletion, writing: “He was in the news for about two months, and now no one except Al Sharpton cares anymore. The police shoot people every day, and times with a lot more than 50 bullets.” There were also other unrelated edits to the entries for the band Chumbawumba, croissant, and Sailor Moon.


As Kate Knibbs on Gizmodo notes, no law was broken in the course of editing these entries—anyone can edit Wikipedia. However, Wikipedia’s code of ethics cautions against conflict of interest editing. As the Wikipedia guideline on conflict of interest states:

When an external relationship undermines, or could reasonably be said to undermine, your role as a Wikipedian, you have a conflict of interest. This is often expressed as: when advancing outside interests is more important to an editor than advancing the aims of Wikipedia, that editor stands in a conflict of interest.

There is little question that the NYPD employees editing Wikipedia were experiencing a conflict of interest when editing entries on police brutality and NYPD conduct. Based on the limited editing history, the officers involved were not active “Wikipedians,” but were rather attempting to “bluewash” the narratives of police brutality on Wikipedia, reframing the narrative of these events in a manner more favorable to the NYPD.


Edits to the Eric Garner entry -- blue highlights were NYPD additions

Edits to the Eric Garner entry — blue highlights were NYPD additions

First, as many have noted, the tendency to cast black men as violent thugs, dangerous to police due to their size and aggression, reveals racial biases that lead to a staggeringly high instance of lethal force used against suspects of color. Take for instance Ferguson officer Darren Wilson’s testimony on the shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown: “When I grabbed him the only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” As Jamelle Brouie writes, “Wilson describes the ‘black brute,’ a stock figure of white supremacist rhetoric in the lynching era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” Unfortunately, as the recent spate of police brutality and its attending discourse has revealed, the figure of the “black brute” is still alive and well in the media. In the Eric Garner entry, the altered lines about Garner’s physical stature and his behavior at the time of his arrest (“waving his hands in the air”) all point to this same characterization, which in turn supports the NYPD’s assertion that the violent chokehold that killed Garner was a justified use of force. These edits do nothing to enhance the accuracy of the entry, but rather work to support the NYPD’s narrative. In instances such as these, physical size or a less-than-complacent temperament are seen as violent or dangerous in and of themselves.


Second, the edits show a clear attempt to sanitize the discourse of violence in an attempt to justify the NYPD’s actions and programs. For instance, the erasure of the phrase “chokehold” (the illegal maneuver that killed Eric Garner) in favor of the more neutral phrase “headlock” removes not just a phrase from the narrative, but a central question in the debate about Garner’s death. While the officer involved claimed that the maneuver used was not a chokehold, the medical examiner who ruled Garner’s death a homicide noted that Garner was killed by “compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” The removal of the phrase changes the terms of the conversation, and erases a significant debate in the subsequent discourse surrounding Garner’s death. In turn, it takes the focus off of physical trauma and violence wrought by white officers upon bodies of color.


Another notable facet of this controversy is its location: the crowd-sourced encyclopedia Wikipedia. On some level, it may not be surprising that the NYPD edits Wikipedia entries pertaining to their actions—after all, Congress and the UK government employees have been caught in the act before. Indeed, college instructors malign Wikipedia as inaccurate and take points off of student assignments when Wikipedia is cited. While as instructors we may frown upon our students citing a crowdsourced body of knowledge, the fact remains that Wikipedia is a commonly-used source of information, and often a valid source for basic information as long as one is willing to engage in some basic fact-checking.


As danah boyd, a prominent internet researcher, writes, while Wikipedia is not a proper encyclopedia, it can be a very effective resource for students when combined with effective media literacy education. Yet, what is most troubling about the NYPD’s edits is that they demonstrate a much more insidious bias that is omnipresent even in so-called mainstream media—those outlets employing professional journalists and fact-checkers who abide by strict codes of ethics. While the officers’ edits may have been made consciously in order to swing the narratives more favorably towards the NYPD, the fact remains that even mainstream news outlets often cast young men of color as criminals and addicts, police brutality as justified, and protests as needless anger. The NYPD’s Wikipedia edits were merely a more blatant manifestation of the bias and strategic reframing that suffuses discourse about race in the United States.

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#ifmyphonegothacked: “Nothing to Hide” with a Side of Victim-Blaming

The “nothing to hide” argument has been a common fixture of post-Snowden discussion about surveillance and privacy. Most likely, you’ve heard some iteration of it in conversation—“I have nothing to hide, so why would I care if the government knows who I call on my cell phone?” Widely considered a fallacious argument by cybersecurity and legal experts, the “nothing to hide” argument also contains implicit assumptions about the divide between public and private–themes that pervade our discussions of digital communication more broadly. Most notably, shades of the “nothing to hide” argument appeared in recent discussions surrounding the leak of nude celebrity photos stolen from iCloud.


In the “nothing to hide” argument, citizenship trumps privacy—the statement declares that one is willing to exchange the privacy of their information for increased national security. With this in mind, many have objected to the “nothing to hide” argument for its legal implications. For instance, danah boyd wrote that the argument fails to consider the ways that data can be manipulated and filtered to cast an individual as guilty, and in so doing, it comes dangerously close to bypassing the “innocent until proven guilty” standard on which U.S. justice allegedly rests.


Importantly, the “nothing to hide” argument also rests on a conception of privacy as a form of secrecy, as Daniel Solove wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Rather than seeing privacy as an essential right that contributes to a healthy life, the “nothing to hide” argument rests on a deep skepticism about why anyone would desire to keep certain information private. Additionally, as Solove notes, privacy is a particularly difficult concept to articulate. He writes that:

It is a plurality of different things that do not share any one element but nevertheless bear a resemblance to one another. For example, privacy can be invaded by the disclosure of your deepest secrets. It might also be invaded if you’re watched by a peeping Tom, even if no secrets are ever revealed.

The difficulty of articulating privacy means that, in instances where an individual claims their privacy has been invaded, they are often met with resistance. For instance, someone spied on by a peeping Tom may find their claim to privacy invalidated because of vague laws that fail to accurately define a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” In digital environments, this becomes all the more fraught.


After the September 2014 release of nude celebrity photos (crudely nicknamed “The Fappening”), a strain of commentary emerged that highlighted the public/private tension of the “nothing to hide” argument. In the aftermath of the leak, many took to Twitter with the hashtag #ifmyphonegothacked. These posts were often jokes about the fact that the users in question only had the most innocuous pictures phones—excessive animal photos, photos of food, and so on. The tweet generally included an example of the type of picture on the user’s phone, and sometimes included a comment that the user was “smart enough” not to take nude selfies.  As Jill Scharr notes, this not only misses the point that the leak was an invasion of privacy due to lax security on iCloud’s part, but crosses over into victim-blaming and moralizing.


The #ifmyphonegothacked tweets point to the same misconception about privacy that pervades the “nothing to hide” argument—that privacy is a form of secrecy, and thus should be regarded with suspicion. In arguing that the most scandalous photo a hacker would be likely to find on one’s device is an awkward (clothed) selfie sent to a friend, and by posting this photo along with the #ifmyphonegothacked hashtag, the user is putting seemingly private or embarrassing content on a public forum. The subtext here is that while, yes, it may be embarrassing for a third party to see the photos, the user has nothing to hide—and that if you do have something to hide, you have done something wrong.


In this way, the #ifmyphonegothacked hashtag makes a much more chilling statement—that the women in question are in the wrong for maintaining private lives, for using their devices to express their sexuality (an increasingly common phenomenon). As Kelsey McKinney writes:

In reality, few people are above this. There is nothing wrong with libido, nothing wrong with sending a picture or a video or a snapchat to another consenting adult. What’s wrong about these photos isn’t that they exist or that they were shown on the internet. What’s wrong is that they were taken and distributed without consent from the parties involved.

In this way, the #ifmyphonegothacked hashtag not only misses the point about the crime at hand, but combines one of the most problematic arguments about security and privacy with the cultural bias against female sexual expression.


While the difficulty of articulating a right to privacy in digital environments remains a problem, some of the responses taken after the hacking and theft do hint at potential solutions. For example, 4chan (the message board site where the photos were initially posted) instituted a DMCA policy that would allow victims of hacking to have their photos removed on copyright grounds. However, these solutions come no closer to preventing these leaks in the first place, and certainly do not make up for the violation suffered by those whose intimate images are posted—violations that occur as much through the revelation of the images as well as the shaming and victim-blaming that follows.

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