Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2020-03-29/In focus
The life of reputed billionaire Jeffrey Epstein took many strange turns. So did the articles about him on Wikipedia. In 2008, he was convicted of soliciting a minor for prostitution, served 13 months in a Florida jail, and was required to register as a sex offender. He allegedly committed illicit sexual activities while he was on work release from jail, and was suspected of continuing them through at least 2015.
Ultimately, he was accused of additional serious offenses, including sex trafficking, resulting in his July 2019 arrest. That month, publicity about the lenient plea deal in Epstein's 2008 case resulted in the resignation of US Secretary of Labor, Alexander Acosta, who as U.S. attorney for Southern Florida had approved the deal. Epstein died in jail in August 2019, his death ruled a suicide by the New York City medical examiner.
Between his 2009 release from jail and his second arrest, the editing got interesting on Wikipedia. Epstein began an extensive campaign to whitewash his reputation. Most notably, he claimed large donations to well-known academics through his charitable foundations. Given his heinous crimes, the probable high-level political interest in the story, and the campaign to whitewash his reputation, in retrospect Wikipedia's article on Epstein seems like an obvious potential target for conflict-of-interest or paid editing.
The New York Times on November 26, 2019, broke a story about Wikipedia editing by accounts with probable links to Epstein. The Times wrote that after his 2008 conviction, Epstein named reputation management services that he used, and a Wikipedia user account, "Turville", appeared in information Epstein provided. However there is no User:Turville registered on Wikipedia, and the Times suggested that User:Turvill (without an "e"), was the account referred to.
This Signpost report investigates whether User:Turvill and other accounts were associated with Epstein and how their edits affected two articles on Epstein. It is important to note that no purely on-Wiki investigation can prove the identity of a user account. For example other people may impersonate an editor in order to embarrass them, a tactic known as Joe jobbing. We cannot conclusively determine whether Epstein himself, employees of the Jeffrey Epstein VI Foundation, reputation management companies, or other types of paid editors edited the Wikipedia articles about Epstein. We can however gather evidence about how editors who associated themselves in some way with Epstein affected the articles.
The Epstein article
The Wikipedia article on Epstein was created on August 4, 2006, a week after Epstein's first indictment and two years before his conviction. Within hours a reliable source was added, citing CNN on the indictment.
Over the next two years the article grew to include 15 references, almost all of them about the sex scandal or investigation, until on June 30, 2008, when Epstein pleaded guilty and the plea was noted in Wikipedia.
However, not all was well with the article during this time. A lot of material, mostly unreferenced and complimentary to Epstein was added to the top of the article and all the referenced material on the criminal case was pushed to the bottom. From October 2007 to February 2008 one IP editor made six major deletions of material on the sexual allegations and related lawsuits.
In December 2011 there was more conflict among editors. Wikipedia editors had been keeping the article up to date, with reliable sources—until the arrival of editors favoring Epstein. Trouble began when User:Stgeorge12 reverted an administrator and removed material about the sexual offense conviction with the edit summary "I have been asked by Jeffrey Epstein to describe his biography in a professional and accurate way, that does not involve any scandals or disreputable content. As a living person, this is his right." On January 7, 2012, Stgeorge12 was indefinitely blocked for this and similar edits, at exactly the same time as another new editor, User:Ottotiv, who had made similar edits. These single-purpose accounts had established a pattern of obstruction and interference that would continue with User:Turvill.
Six weeks after Stgeorge12 was indefinitely blocked, User:Turvill made their first edits, with five of the first seven edits on talk pages discussing deleting the Jeffrey Epstein article or protesting the proposed deletion of Jeffrey Epstein (plastic surgeon), which they called "my article".
Turvill has associated themself with Epstein by uploading flattering photos of Epstein to Wikimedia Commons with one described "Previously published: on my website, on facebook www.jeffreyepstein.org". When these files were deleted from Commons because the copyright permission was poorly formatted, Turvill implied that Epstein's foundation would release the photos. Turvill also tried to get a public domain Florida mugshot of Epstein speedily deleted from Commons because it was a "personal attack; violation of biography of a living person."
Turvill's main topic for editing was an article they helped create on the Jeffrey Epstein VI Foundation. Using the articles for creation procedure, an IP editor proposed the article on March 24, 2013, but Turvill took control of it two days later and made the vast majority of edits on it until August 20, 2013, when it was accepted as an article.
The article as first accepted claimed that the foundation funded projects worth "$200 million a year." The New York Times published financial statements from the foundation showing that, in total over 18 years, the foundation funded less than $20 million in projects. The article as first accepted also included a 100 word biography of Epstein which did not mention his conviction for soliciting a minor for prostitution.
Turvill was a single-purpose account devoted to articles related to Epstein. Turvill occasionally signed an edit in text as "Turville" (with an "e") or once as "Tuville" resulting in their IP address being posted on talk pages. The IP editor posted 25 of their 31 edits on the same pages where Turvill contributed. Turvill's last edit on Wikipedia was in January 2015 when they removed the words "convicted paedophile" from the foundation article.
In March 2012 and again in July 2012, Turvill was warned about editing warring on the Jeffrey Epstein article. Following the November 26 New York Times article, asked Turvill whether they would make a paid editing declaration, even though Turvill had not edited in almost five years. The next day Turvill was indefinitely blocked for "(Spam / advertising-only account WP:UPE)", where "UPE" refers to "undeclared paid editing".
Connections with MIT Media Lab
In the same month that Turvill began editing the Jeffrey Epstein VI Foundation article, Epstein met the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, Joi Ito for the first time, with both interested in a donation to the Media Lab. On March 2, 2013, Ito requested staff members to conduct due diligence on Epstein. One of them responded by email two days later:
|“||You should read his Wikipedia bio, there may be some other things to consider. Though he seems to be a generous philanthropist, he might not be an individual the Lab should work with.
In an independent report commissioned by MIT, the authors noted six sentences or paragraphs in the Wikipedia article that could have warned Ito that MIT should not accept Epstein's money, although the article "also included statements that could be read as undercutting the strength of some of the allegations."
The MIT report noted that MIT did consider the possible risks to MIT's reputation when they accepted Epstein's money, but MIT "did not appropriately take into account the significant damage to the MIT community, particularly victims of sexual assault and abuse, from allowing Epstein to associate himself with MIT."
Some staffers at the Media Lab were clearly worried about Epstein's victims. Epstein visited the MIT Media Lab in 2016, about a year after Turvill's final edit. According to an MIT staffer interviewed by Ronan Farrow in The New Yorker, two young women accompanied Epstein on the visit. "They were models. Eastern European, definitely … All of us women made it a point to be super nice to them. We literally had a conversation about how, on the off chance that they're not there by choice, we could maybe help them."
Wikipedians reported on the Epstein investigation soon after it was announced in 2006, and they reported his conviction and many details of other allegations against him. But they were regularly opposed by single-purpose editors who removed material on Epstein's conviction or otherwise whitewashed the articles. Two of these editors associated themselves with Epstein or his foundation.
These Epstein-related accounts were not enough to prevent the Wikipedia article on Epstein from alerting MIT to Epstein's offenses, but they did soft-pedal the story enough that MIT managed to ignore the alert long enough to accept Epstein's money. Wikipedia's editors performed their work well in a difficult situation.
- Voytko, Lisette (16 July 2019). "Court Documents Confirm Jeffrey Epstein Is Nowhere Near A Billionaire". Forbes. Retrieved 21 March 2020.
- Baker, Mike (17 July 2019). "Sheriff to Investigate Jeffrey Epstein 'Work Release' After Allegation of Nude Meeting". The New York Times. Retrieved 21 March 2020.
- Farrow, Ronan (7 September 2019). "How an Élite University Research Center Concealed Its Relationship with Jeffrey Epstein". The New Yorker. Retrieved 21 March 2020.
- Helmore, Edward (12 July 2019). "Alex Acosta resigns as US labor secretary following Epstein plea deal scandal". Guardian. Retrieved 21 March 2020.
- Barrett, Devlin (14 August 2019). "Jeffrey Epstein's autopsy concludes his death was a suicide by hanging". Washington Post. Retrieved 20 March 2020.
- Eder, Steven; Goldstein, Matthew (26 November 2019). "Jeffrey Epstein's Charity: An Image Boost Built on Deception". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 9 December 2019. Retrieved 21 March 2020.
- "J. Epstein Virgin Islands Foundation , Inc" (PDF). The New York Times. Retrieved 21 March 2020.
- Braceras, Roberto M.; Chunias, Jennifer L.; Martin, Kevin P. (10 March 2020). "Report Concerning Jeffrey Epstein's Interactions with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 10 January 2020. Retrieved 22 March 2020.