The thornapple, a sweetly perfumed plant with trumpet-shaped flowers, is named for its spiky, spherical fruit. Last year, the curiously shaped fruit took on new meaning because of its uncanny resemblance to a coronavirus particle. As COVID-19 began infecting thousands of people in early 2020, a viral TikTok video claimed the thornapple’s seeds could protect against the virus.
It was untrue. Thornapples are highly poisonous, and eating their seeds can result in hallucinations, muscle fatigue, paralysis and even death. But the TikTok video convinced families in the large Indian village of Baireddipalle to ingest a mixture of the plant’s seeds and oils, resulting in 12 people being rushed to hospital.
When Netha Hussain, a medical doctor from Kerala, India, first read about the poisonings, she decided to compile a list of unproven methods against COVID-19 on the world’s largest online encyclopedia, Wikipedia. Hussain, who has been editing Wikipedia articles for a decade, dutifully edited pages relating to the coronavirus’ spread in India during the early days of the pandemic, but the thornapple story forced a rethink.
“That was when I decided to change route and write a little bit about misinformation,” she says.
Hussain, and an army of over 97,000 volunteers from around the world, have been monitoring and editing the thousands of COVID-19 pages created on Wikipedia since the virus first emerged. Pages cover everything from coronavirus variants to vaccination and monthly timelines.
Wikipedia’s policies and guidelines, strengthened by its two decades online, ensure misinformation and vandalism are snuffed out with great speed. Those who try to post conspiracy theories or pseudoscience are struck down by eagle-eyed editors surveying incremental, unsourced changes. With almost two edits made to COVID-19 pages every minute throughout 2020, the efforts of Hussain and Wikipedia’s volunteer army have proven invaluable, helping the encyclopedia become a bastion for truth in an era where lies run rampant online.
But behind the scenes, contributors have been locked in a year-long battle over one contentious aspect of the pandemic: Where did the new coronavirus come from? The prevailing hypothesis is that the virus arose naturally in bats. Another suggests it may have leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, China, which has long studied bat-borne coronaviruses and lies in close proximity to the location of the first cases.
Just as scientists and the popular press have wrestled with data, conspiracy theories and speculation around the theory, so have those dedicating hours to maintaining one of the world’s most popular repositories of human knowledge.
Wikipedia has not been immune to the squabbles, politicking and bad faith arguments engulfing other platforms. In recent months, dissenting voices have become louder as the lab leak theory has garnered more mainstream attention and scientists have pushed for a “proper” investigation. It has become a political issue as much as a scientific one.
On Wikipedia, disruptive “edit wars” have broken out. Users have been caught operating multiple accounts and pushing their own point of view. And while editors have held back the most spurious claims through much of 2020, a different atmosphere has descended over the debate in 2021. The community is divided, and some fear the endless discussions could tear a hole in the encyclopedia’s ironclad guidelines.
Talk the talk
The question of where the coronavirus came from is one of the most politically sensitive areas of discussion related to the pandemic, both on and off Wikipedia.
In recent weeks, increasing press coverage from the likes of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post has seen the lab leak hypothesis endlessly debated on social media, talk radio and primetime TV. It’s become unavoidable.
Unless you visit Wikipedia’s COVID-19 pandemic page.
The words “lab leak” aren’t mentioned anywhere. To find them, you have to know where to look: the “Talk” page. The Talk page is like a collaborative Google Doc, a place where the legion of volunteer editors can raise queries and kick around new ideas on how articles might be improved. Even veteran Wikipedia users might not notice the small tab at the top left of every article that takes you behind the curtain.
These pages can sometimes become battlegrounds — and that’s a good thing. They’re critical to Wikipedia’s success. One of the site’s three key principles is to represent “all the significant views that have been published by reliable sources on a topic.” You don’t need any special qualifications to write about COVID-19 (or any other topic) on Wikipedia, so these talk pages help editors reach the right conclusions.
“Without this kind of discussion, we would not come to any neutral point of view,” notes Hussain.
For instance, the page for Avernish, Scotland, is only three sentences long. Its Talk page is empty — there’s not a lot of controversy about Avernish. But at CNET’s Talk page, Wikipedia editors have been presenting for and against arguments on whether the page should be titled “CNET,” “Cnet” or “CNet” for years. For what it’s worth, we like to capitalize it (except in our logo, it seems).
The number of words on CNET’s Talk page is dwarfed by the mountain of text lurking behind “COVID-19 pandemic.” Dozens of editors have devoted thousands of words to the lab leak theory there, questioning how it should be presented to readers — or if it should be presented at all.
In May 2020, Roberto Fortich, an economist and volunteer editor on Wikipedia from Bogota, Colombia, issued a “request for comment,” a mechanism he says calls for Wiki contributors to “resolve contentious issues by presenting their arguments and voting.” He wanted to know whether the lab leak theory should be explained on the COVID-19 pandemic page.
Of the 19 editors who responded to his request, 13 opposed including the theory. A consensus was reached that holds to this day: “Do not mention the theory that the virus was accidentally leaked from a laboratory in the article.”
It was designed to put a full stop on the debate. It didn’t.
Arguments over the lab leak theory have spilled into Talk pages at the periphery of Wikipedia’s pandemic coverage. The pages for “SARS-CoV-2,” “the Wuhan Institute of Virology” and “COVID-19 misinformation” are filled with walls of text about contested material, news reports and quotes. Many of the pages are locked by Wikipedia’s administrators, preventing them from being edited by new or inexperienced users.
In February, an entirely new page was created under the title “COVID-19 lab leak hypothesis.” A month after its creation it was listed for “speedy deletion.” Normally, content disputes are settled on the Talk page but sometimes editors create an entirely new article on the same subject. The hypothesis page attempted to do this. After nine days and heated discussions, it was deleted.
The exclusion of the lab leak theory from Wikipedia predominantly rests on established guidelines. Chief among them is one known by editors as WP:MEDRS. It refers to the referencing of “biomedical” information on Wikipedia, stating sources must be “reliable, third-party published secondary sources, and must accurately reflect current knowledge.”
It’s a guideline that has launched a thousand Talk page disputes.
There are two battalions here: One suggests MEDRS is the appropriate guideline when it comes to sourcing information around the origins of a virus, and the other argues it’s being wrongly applied. The guideline, as it reads, was established to prevent medical misinformation from being propagated through Wikipedia. Because millions of people turn to the site for health advice and guidance, it’s critical Wikipedia get this correct — publishing the wrong advice could have deadly consequences.
For instance, the thornapple COVID-19 cure would never have survived Wikipedia’s editorial process. There are no sources that back up those claims.
The source of a virus is a little different, though. Should investigations relating to the source of the coronavirus be classified as “biomedical” information? It depends who you ask. “Epidemiology is a core biomedical science field,” says Catherine Bennett, chair in epidemiology at Deakin University in Australia. “The source of the virus sits within the field, so [it] should also be covered.”
Not all Wikipedia’s editors agree. Some argue that the origin of the virus is a matter of history, rather than epidemiology. Others say MEDRS is not being applied appropriately, that sources refuting the lab leak have been misrepresented and there is now enough reporting from reliable sources (like The New York Times) that the lab leak theory deserves to be included across the entire encyclopedia. They suggest upholding one of Wikipedia’s five pillars — that the encyclopedia is written from a neutral point of view — can only be maintained if the lab leak theory is given due weight in COVID-19 pages.
In May 2021, a request for comment was opened on the MEDRS page to determine if “disease and pandemic origins” are “a form of biomedical information.” Around 70% of the respondents opposed the idea.
But the endless to-and-fro extends beyond Wikipedia’s content guidelines. A user by the name of Colin, who helped create MEDRS in 2006, summed up the situation perfectly in a response to the request for comment.
“This isn’t a content problem. It is a people problem. And a hard one,” Colin wrote.
Wikipedia’s great challenge
The disruptions to COVID-19 Talk pages have led to accusations, bullying and harassment on site. The behavioral issues became so fraught the dispute was raised with Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee. ArbCom, as it’s known to Wikipedians, is the encyclopedia’s version of a Supreme Court. The last stop in resolving disputes.
Kevin Li, who studies public policy and computer science at Stanford University and goes by the name L235 on Wikipedia, is an ArbCom member. At 20, Li is younger than the encyclopedia but was elected to the committee in 2021 after five years editing the site. He notes the disputes around the lab leak theory are not necessarily unique. Article pages for abortion, Scientology and the Troubles in Northern Ireland have also spiraled out of control in the past.
Editing bans have been implemented for those who routinely push the lab leak hypothesis and engage in “wars” where contributors constantly override changes to a page. Some editors have been recruited off Wikipedia to join the cause and push for the lab leak’s inclusion — they, too, have been banned.
On the other side of the divide, editors have expressed concerns about Chinese state actors preventing discussion of the lab leak theory on COVID-19 pages, though they have not provided definitive evidence for this. They also see the bans as censorship or stifling discussion of the lab leak theory, which they now suggest is widely regarded as plausible, rather than a fringe theory. Some bans have been overturned as more sources report on the lab leak theory.
Despite the constant disruptions, Li says Wikipedia has “actually gotten pretty good at dealing with this over the years.”
But as good as Wikipedia has become at resolving content disputes, there may be a more pernicious issue here. The talk pages are useful for discussion, but the harassment and soapboxing have become a massive time sink for editors. Some users have been caught setting up secondary accounts (known as “sock puppets”) to reinforce their own point of view, pushing forward dubious sources to make their argument. The same debates are happening over and over again, with the same conclusions.
The discussions have become so labyrinthine and complex, stretching across dozens of pages, that it’s practically impossible to figure out where Wikipedia actually stands on the lab leak theory. The impenetrable walls of text that make up each page are “intimidating” to both experienced editors and newcomers, says Netha Hussain, the medical doctor from India.
“[U]sers spend more time arguing with each other … than they do writing an encyclopedia,” Colin wrote on one COVID-19 talk page.
And that’s a problem. While Wikipedia states that more than 280,000 volunteers make edits every month, Li says that in practice it’s just a core group of contributors numbering around in the tens of thousands, at most. Disputes can leave people “disillusioned with the project” and cause them to abandon editing Wikipedia altogether, he notes. Combined with a lack of new volunteers joining the cause, and a woeful onboarding process, there’s potential for brain drain.
“That does real, long-lasting damage,” Li notes. “Not just to COVID-19 articles, but to the rest of the encyclopedia.”
Down but not out
How Wikipedia deals with the lab leak theory may seem trivial. After all, practically every major newspaper, website (including this one), social media network and ex-late night TV host has wrangled with it in the past few months.
But there’s something uniquely powerful about Wikipedia.
Writing history while living through history should not work. A crowd-sourced encyclopedia anyone can edit seems like it’s destined to fall apart during a fast-moving pandemic. But it hasn’t. Even as battles rage behind the scenes of many COVID-19 Talk pages, the machine continues on. A thornapple cure could never survive.
“In this day and age, where journalists and social networks are debating how to present information, I think that Wikipedia is the gold standard in terms of a neutral point of view,” Roberto Fortich, the editor from Colombia, says.
But Wikipedia isn’t perfect. The lab leak debate has clearly divided Wikipedia’s volunteer editorial team. Editors on both sides have derailed discussions time and again and argued over some of the foundational principles of the encyclopedia’s mission. There have been calls to change long-standing guidelines for just this single issue. Those battles have been raging for 18 months.
On June 17, 2021, ArbCom passed a motion to place all COVID-19 pages under “discretionary sanctions,” which effectively moves the impetus for sanctioning users from the community of volunteers to administrators — a group of editors with the ability to perform special actions on the encyclopedia, like blocking users or protecting pages from editing.
Is the end in sight? It seems unlikely.
Thanks to a resurgence in the popular press, the pressure to include the lab leak theory on Wikipedia’s COVID-19 pages will only intensify. There may be growing circumstantial evidence for the theory, but there are still very few biomedical sources lending it weight. For that reason, editors have been able to knock it back. Is it plausible the coronavirus leaked from a lab? Yes. Is it the majority view of scientists? Not yet.
As the theory gains currency as a noteworthy element of the pandemic, it’s hard to see Wikipedia’s stance holding forever. Even Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales has weighed in, stating that the consensus in the mainstream media around the lab leak theory seems to have shifted from “this is highly unlikely, and only conspiracy theorists are pushing this narrative” to “this is one of the plausible hypotheses.”
Editors pushing to include the leak on site have a myriad of opinions about what should happen. Some say the theory should be linked in most, if not all, COVID-19 pages. Others suggest a dedicated page to the lab leak theory would be prudent and reinstating the page deleted in early February might help put an end to the bickering. As long as such a page is neutral and well sourced, Wikipedia’s guidelines allow for it. After all, Flat Earth has its own page, discussing how that theory evolved over time.
That’s process. There have been stumbles but, for the most part, it works.
“I enjoy editing Wikipedia,” Fortich says, “because ultimately the truth prevails.”
Originally published with the headline “Inside Wikipedia’s endless war over the coronavirus lab leak theory”