Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2021-10-31/Opinion

A photo on Wikipedia can ruin your life: Section 230 in practice – this Black life should matter to us.

A photo on Wikipedia can ruin your life

Andreas Kolbe is a former co-editor-in-chief of The Signpost and has been a Wikipedia contributor since 2006. The views expressed in this opinion article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Signpost, its staff or of any other Wikipedian. Responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments section.
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WMF Legal Director Jacob Rogers

The Wikimedia Foundation's Legal Director, Jacob Rogers, this month published a triumphant essay on Wikimedia's Diff blog, titled "A victory for free knowledge: Florida judge rules Section 230 bars defamation claim against the Wikimedia Foundation". As he says in his post describing this legal victory for the Foundation,

The case began when plaintiff Nathaniel White sued the Wikimedia Foundation in January 2021, claiming that the Foundation was liable for the publication of photos that incorrectly identified him as a New York serial killer of the same name. Because of its open nature, sometimes inaccurate information is uploaded to Wikipedia and its companion projects, but the many members of our volunteer community are very effective at identifying and removing these inaccuracies when they do occur. Notably, this lawsuit was filed months after Wikipedia editors proactively corrected the error at issue in September 2020. Wikimedia moved to dismiss the amended complaint in June, arguing that plaintiff's claims were barred by Section 230.
In its order granting the Wikimedia Foundation's motion to dismiss, the court affirmed that "interactive computer service providers" such as the Foundation generally cannot be held liable for third-party content like Wikipedia articles and photographs. ... the plaintiff argued that the Foundation should be treated like a traditional offline publisher and held responsible as though it were vetting all posts made to the sites it hosts, despite the fact that it does not write or curate any of the content found on the projects. The court rejected this argument because it directly conflicts with Section 230 ...
This outcome perfectly demonstrates how critical Section 230 remains to crowdsourced projects and communities.
— Diff

So what actually happened on-wiki?

The case against the Wikimedia Foundation was dismissed by the Second Judicial Circuit court for Leon County, Florida. Picture shows Leon County Courthouse.

The case discussed in Rogers' essay on Diff concerned the Wikipedia biography of New York serial killer Nathaniel White. For more than two years this Wikipedia article had as its lead image a police photograph of a quite different Nathaniel White, an African-American man resident in Florida whose picture has also, equally erroneously, been used in a Discovery Channel broadcast on the New York serial killer of the same name.

The image was inserted into the Wikipedia article by User:Vwanweb on 28 May 2018, incorrectly identified as originating from the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. It was removed from the article on 4 September 2020 – an edit attributed by Wikipedia only to an American IP address, rather than a registered Wikipedia user account.

The removal of the image occurred about a week after Karl Etters, writing for the Tallahassee Democrat, reported that the Florida Mr. White had sued the Discovery Channel for defamation. In his article, Etters wrote that Wikipedia was also using the wrong picture to illustrate its article on the serial killer: "A Google search turns up the name of the Florida Nathaniel White with a Wikipedia page showing his photo and label as a serial killer."

Taken together, these facts contradict Rogers' characterization of how well Wikipedia deals with cases such as this:

  1. The photo was in the article for over two years. For a man to have his face presented to the world as that of a serial killer on a top-20 website, for such a significant amount of time, can hardly be described as indicative of "very effective" quality control on the part of the community.
  2. The picture was only removed after a press report pointed out that Wikipedia had the wrong picture. This means the deletion was in all likelihood reactive rather than "proactive", as it was described in the Diff essay.
  3. The wrong photograph appears to have been removed by an unknown member of the public, an IP address that had never edited before and has not edited since. The volunteer community seems to have been completely unaware of the problem throughout.

Image sourcing

2019 Discovery logo.svg
Vwanweb captioned Mr. White's picture as originating from the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision in the Wikipedia article but named, a site associated with Discovery, Inc., as the source in the picture upload. The Florida Nathaniel White first sued the Discovery Channel, with the Wikimedia Foundation added as a Defendant later on.

Now, surely no individual editor can be blamed for having failed to see the Tallahassee Democrat article. But it is just as surely inappropriate in a case like this, where real harm has been done to a living person – on which more below – to praise community processes. It would seem more appropriate –

  1. to acknowledge that community processes failed Mr. White to a quite egregious degree, and
  2. to alert the community to the fact that its quality control processes are in need of improvement.

The obvious issue is image sourcing, and especially the sourcing of photographs of criminals. The original upload of the picture by User:Vwanweb cited as the source of the picture. today redirects to, a site owned by Discovery, Inc., which also owns the Discovery Channel. The Web Archive shows that an article on Nathaniel White was indeed published on the site on August 2, 2017. The article itself is not in the archive, but its URL matches the truncated "" URL listed in the log of the upload.

If this, then, was Vwanweb's source, subsequent events clearly showed that it was unreliable. And even less trustworthy sites (such as have been and are used in Wikipedia to source police photographs. Surely Wikipedia's guidelines, policies and community practices for sourcing images, in particular images used to imply responsibility for specific crimes, would benefit from some strengthening, to ensure they actually depict the correct individual.

Correctly indicating image provenance in an article, along the lines of the "Say where you read it" guideline that applies to written texts, is another aspect that may require attention: according to the upload information, the picture came from a "true crime" site, not the New York State Department as was indicated in the article.

Section 230: a quick recap

Section 230.jpg
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has come under fire of late, from both sides of the political spectrum.

As Rogers explains in his Diff essay, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is essential to the way Wikipedia and other Wikimedia sites have operated for the past twenty years. The key sentence in Section 230 is this: "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." But the law has come under fire lately in the US, both from the political right and from the political left.

Republicans who feel their views are being censored online argue that social media websites have abandoned the ideals of plurality and political diversity, and that as a consequence websites should no longer enjoy Section 230 privileges that were originally designed to benefit neutral hosts. Some Democrats, meanwhile, have criticized sites for hiding behind Section 230 and doing too little about problematic content. In their view, Section 230 was created to enable sites to moderate content without liability risk to them, and if they don't do so, then the law is not fit for its purpose.

A common but mistaken idea about Section 230 in this context is that site operators like the Wikimedia Foundation would "lose" their protection if they started to moderate more content than they were legally required to remove (i.e. if they went beyond copyright infringements, child pornography, court-ordered removal of defamatory content, etc.). This notion is often expressed as follows: "If the Foundation were to start moderating content, it would no longer be a platform, but a publisher, and would become liable for everything posted on its sites."

This is almost the exact opposite of the truth. As Mike Godwin, former General Counsel of the Wikimedia Foundation, explained in Slate last year, Section 230 was actually "designed to empower internet companies to remove offensive, disturbing, or otherwise subscriber-alienating content without being liable for whatever else their users posted. The idea was that companies might be afraid to censor anything because in doing so, they would take on responsibility for everything." Section 230 was designed to remove that risk.

Interested readers can find more information on this issue in the following articles:

Who can the victim hold responsible?

Paula Angel (criminal).png
This picture, uploaded by Vwanweb in the same week in 2018, purports to show Paula Angel, a woman said to have been hanged in New Mexico in 1861. According to historian John Boessenecker, it is a fabrication of far more recent origin by Gladwell Richardson alias Maurice Kildare, a man described by Boessenecker as "a leader in publishing fake stories and fake photos of the history of the Southwest". Significantly, perhaps, the image is not – or no longer – present on the page cited as its source in the Wikipedia upload.

The Diff essay contains another paragraph related to Section 230 that is worthy of particular attention. It implies that Mr. White would have done better to direct his complaint at User:Vwanweb. Let's look at this passage in detail. Rogers states:

It is important to note that Section 230's broad protection of Wikimedia projects and other online services does not leave litigants like Mr. White without options. Instead, the law simply requires that litigants direct their complaints at the individuals who made the statements at issue, rather than the forums where the statements were made. This both allows litigants to challenge the appropriate parties responsible for their harm and protects online hosting companies like the Wikimedia Foundation from the costs associated with liability for user-generated content.
— Diff

This may sound plausible and equitable enough to the general reader, but Rogers surely knows that Wikipedia editors, by and large, write under the cover of pseudonymity – a practice which the Wikimedia Foundation explicitly encourages and vigorously defends. Identifying contributors is no easy task – and certainly not one the Foundation wants people to pursue. According to the Wikimedia Foundation's Universal Code of Conduct, which is in the process of being adopted, determining and sharing a contributor's identity is "unacceptable". So, how genuine is this advice given to Mr. White?

Moreover, there is no reason to assume that User:Vwanweb, the editor concerned, would have been able to give appropriate compensation to Mr. White. To cite a precedent, when John Seigenthaler learned the identity of his pseudonymous Wikipedia defamer, Brian Chase, Seigenthaler ended up feeling sorry for Chase, and interceded with Chase's employer, who had fired Chase, to give him his job back.

Nor is there any reason to assume any malice or racist motives on the part of Vwanweb. That user had been very involved in Wikipedia's crime articles for a while, frequently requesting and uploading police photographs. In 2016, Vwanweb argued passionately (and unsuccessfully) for including criticism of an instance of all-white jury selection in a criminal case in which the perpetrator was white and all the victims were black. Their insistence on including criticism of this practice eventually earned them a warning for edit-warring. If there was any race whose failings this editor was likely to highlight on Wikipedia, judging by that episode, it was Caucasians.

I believe that like many other editors, Vwanweb simply followed community practices they had observed here. In this subject area, this involves widespread use of "true crime" sources that present crime as entertainment, and whose level of reliability is akin to that of tabloids and other types of publications that are banned or deprecated as sources in other parts of Wikipedia.

When asked for comment by The Signpost the WMF legal department responded that they are not trying to encourage victims to sue Wikipedia contributors, only that there may be others beyond the WMF who can be held responsible.

In this particular case the Discovery Channel was sued and is not protected by Section 230. But in the general case, would the majority of victims be able to find another responsible party?

The effect on Nathaniel White of Florida

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As an interactive computer service provider, the Wikimedia Foundation is not considered to be exercising a publisher's traditional editorial functions. Instead, the court order said, "the relevant content was provided by another information content provider" – in other words, the volunteer who uploaded the picture and added it to the article.

Here are some excerpts from Mr. White's complaint. It states that after the 2018 Discovery Channel broadcast,

… friends and family contacted Plaintiff concerning the broadcast and asking Plaintiff if he actually murdered people in the state of New York.
Plaintiff assured these friends and family that even though he acknowledged his criminal past, he never murdered anyone nor has he ever been to the state of New York. …
Plaintiff has been threatened with harm to his person and shunning by members of the public who, because of the broadcast and social and digital media imagery, assumed that Plaintiff was the vicious killer who committed the murders in New York state. …
Plaintiff has resorted to dressing incognito so he is not recognized in order to preserve his life and damp down the threats he received.
Defendants published this false and defamatory image, photo and information regarding Plaintiff to a third party which is and was the public at large on its television broadcast, social media and digital & electronic audience which encompasses millions of people in Florida and billions of people around the world.
Plaintiff is an African-American man and Defendants appear to believe that all African-American men are interchangeable and that no one would notice or care Defendants were defaming an innocent man, not even other African-Americans, in their description of Plaintiff in this matter.
It is obvious in this case that Plaintiff is not the gruesome murderer that was supposed to be depicted in Defendants' broadcasts and media platforms and that this is more than a simple, excusable or inadvertent error.
African-Americans have always borne an unequal brunt of punishment in this country and this behavior continues from these private Defendants upon Plaintiff.
— Nathaniel White's complaint

This has clearly been an extremely harrowing experience for Mr. White, as it would surely have been for anyone.

While to the best of my belief the error did not originate in Wikipedia, but was imported into Wikipedia from an unreliable external site, for more than two years any vigilante Googling Nathaniel White serial killer would have seen Mr. White's color picture prominently displayed in Google's knowledge graph panel (multiple copies of it still appear there at the time of writing). And along with it they would have found a prominent link to the serial killer's Wikipedia biography, again featuring Mr. White's image – providing what looked like encyclopedic confirmation that Mr. White of Florida was indeed guilty of sickening crimes.

Moreover, it can be shown that Mr. White's image spread to other online sources via Wikipedia. On the very day the picture was removed from the article here, a video about the serial killer was uploaded to YouTube – complete with Mr. White's picture, citing Wikipedia. At the time of writing, the video's title page with Mr. White's color picture is the top Google image result in searches for the serial killer. All in all, seven of Google's top-fifteen image search results for Nathaniel White serial killer today feature Mr. White's image. Only two black-and-white photos show what seems to have been the real killer.

Black Lives Matter

Wandbild Portrait George Floyd von Eme Street Art im Mauerpark (Berlin).jpg
The Wikimedia Foundation has declared its solidarity with the worldwide George Floyd protests.

The Wikimedia Foundation has in the recent past cited the fate of George Floyd and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests as its inspiration for the Knowledge Equity Fund, a $4.5 million fund set up last year to support racial equity initiatives outside the Wikimedia movement. It has declared "We stand for racial justice", expressing the hope that the Wikimedia projects would "document a grand turning point – a time in the future when our communities, systems, and institutions acknowledge the equality and dignity of all people. Until that day, we stand with those who are fighting for justice and for enduring change. With every edit, we write history." A subsequent blog post on the AfroCROWD Juneteenth Conference again referenced the Black Lives Matter movement.

Yet here we have a case where a very real black life was severely harmed, with Wikipedia playing a secondary, but still highly significant part in the sorry tale. The Wikimedia blog post contains no acknowledgement of this fact. Instead it is jubilant – jubilant that the Wikimedia Foundation was absolved of all responsibility for the fact that Mr. White was for over two years misrepresented as a serial killer on its flagship site, the result of a pseudonymous Wikimedian trusting a source that proved unreliable.

Now we can shrug our shoulders and say, "This sort of thing will happen once in a while." Would we have accepted this sort of response from the police force in George Floyd's case?

The Seigenthaler case resulted in changes to Wikipedia's referencing requirements for biographies of living people. Will this present case result in similar changes to sourcing practices for images, especially those implying responsibility for a crime? Who will help Mr. White clean up his continuing Google footprint as a serial killer?

There is also a deeper moral question here. What kind of bright new world is this we are building, in which it is presented to us as a cause for celebration that it was possible for a black man – a man, perhaps, not unlike George Floyd – to be defamed on our global top-20 website with absolute impunity, without his having any realistic hope of redress for what happened to him here?