It’s hard to know where to begin with a description of Michael Ferro. I’ll put it this way: He turned the widely recognized brand of Tribune Publishing into the media industry punchline that is tronc; he dawdled over what to do with the company’s newspapers for two years while enriching himself, jet-setting with corporate money, and alienating staffers; and he “retired” from his position as executive chairman in March just hours before Fortune magazine published on-the-record accounts of sexual harassment allegations by two women.
Yet Ferro is still tronc’s largest shareholder; a two-month-long attempt to sell off more than $200 million in stocks—and end his cartoon villain-like association with tronc forever—fell through yesterday.
Curiously, for much of that time, there’s also been a quiet editing war being waged over whether Ferro’s sexual harassment allegations appear on his Wikipedia page.
The fight was started by Clayton Guse, a digital editor at Time Out New York and former staffer at the Chicago Sun-Times, which Ferro’s investment firm once owned. “I had seen the effect he had on the Chicago journalism community firsthand,” he told me by phone Wednesday. In late April, about a month after the allegations were reported, Guse noticed that the accusations were nowhere to be found on Ferro’s Wikipedia page. “Considering that Wikipedia articles are crawled by Google, and Facebook is pulling in Wikipedia data here and there, I felt like, ‘Ok, this should probably be included,” he said.
But a weird thing happened after Guse added a mention of the accusations against Ferro to the lead paragraph his page, in addition to a standalone section fleshing out the Fortune article: A person under the username Mstubbs80 erased them. Here is the record of a typical skirmish, which shows Mstubbs80 deleting the relevant information less than a day after Guse—who has the user name Clawgoose, on the left—added it:
This happened over and over again. All told, the pair went back and forth a half-dozen times—and the page’s edit history suggests Mstubbs80 was similarly dueling with other Wikipedia users. “It was this passive aggressive edit war,” Guse said. “Every week or two I checked in to see if it was taken down, and sure enough, it was.”
Last night, Guse finally publicized his effort on Twitter, and since then some reinforcements have rushed to his aid. But the page’s publicly available edit history shows that Mstubbs80 has edited out information related to Ferro’s sexual harassment allegations twice today alone.
Wikipedia is an open-source encyclopedia, meaning that a non-obsessive number of these exchanges are to be expected on any entry. It also means that the entirety of Mstubbs80's contributions to the platform are publicly available. Whoever it is apparently has a very narrow set of interests:
Mstubbs80 has kept at it, despite racking up a long rap sheet from the volunteer editors and administrators who police Wikipedia. The user has received multiple warnings and was blocked for three days in early May. Today, an administrator handed down a two-week suspension. It’s a more severe sentence in the world of open-source information, Samantha Lien, a spokesperson for the parent Wikimedia Foundation, told me Wednesday. But there are additional steps up the ladder before the equivalent of a death sentence. “Users can be banned from specific projects—like English Wikipedia—or that can be escalated to all Wikimedia Foundation projects,” she added.
Who is this person taking the time and energy to consistently monitor and edit Ferro’s Wikipedia page and scrub his controversial past? What sort of user might be using the platform solely for this purpose? It could be anyone. So I left a phone message with the office of Ferro’s investment firm, Merrick Ventures, to ask if the entrepreneur had any idea this editing war was being waged on his Wikipedia page’s turf. I’ll update this post if I hear from them.
If you have any leads on who our mystery man might be, please give a shout.