A Brief History of NRA Employees Editing Wikipedia for Fun and Possibly Profit

Illustration: Angelica Alzona (G/O Media)

The grammar on Wikipedia’s Holocaust Denial page didn’t fix itself. Someone, perhaps finished with their paperwork for the day but still chained to a desk around 5:40 on a June afternoon, noticed a single missing preposition in their perusal of the page’s 12,000 words. It should have read “in his view,” not “as his view.” As in: In the notorious Holocaust denier Harry Elmer Barnes’s view, Germany never actually desired war, and the slaughtering of 11 million people was, in fact, propaganda used to justify a “war of aggression.” So one enterprising person contributed three bytes to maintain the unity of a sentence and thus correct the record, in whatever small way they could.

Edits like these are inevitable and unremarkable. The entire Wikipedia project depends on millions of tiny updates to keep the record current and grammatically correct. However, it just so happens that this edit, along with at least 150 others identified by Splinter, was submitted from the same location that the National Rifle Association files its taxes, on an NRA-operated network in Fairfax, VA, where the NRA’s headquarters are located.

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At NRA HQ, visitors can take selfies next to a transcription of (part of) the Second Amendment, rendered in gold script. They can target shoot at the NRA range. They can visit a museum showcasing over 2,500 guns—which, as one person inside the building noted when they altered its Wikipedia page, is not simply a “weapons museum” but rather a “museum focused on the evolution of firearms throughout the years.”

NRA HQ is also the group’s largest office building, where a number of its desk-bound employees work; the NRA itself employed just over 800 people as of 2017. The property is also the registered address for the NRA Foundation, the organization’s charitable arm, and the NRA Freedom Action Fund, which mobilizes gun owners and registers them to vote.

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Splinter identified the NRA’s network address by cross referencing metadata from the NRA’s electronically filed IRS 990s with network registration information maintained by ARIN, the American Registry of Internet Numbers. When private foundations, public charities, and other nonprofits file their tax documents with the IRS electronically, a record of their IP address from the network is stored. Because Wikipedia records the IP address for each anonymous editor, we were able to search the site for edits made from the NRA HQ.

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The NRA’s propaganda machine has been well documented over the years. The organization refers to itself as the country’s “longest standing civil rights organization,” and it has spent $9.6 million in just the last two years on lobbying efforts. It hosts gun clubs in every state and creates gun-safety content for children. Its media arm has published several magazines over a period spanning decades, produced a video suggesting liberals are “assassinating real news,” and referred to gun-control advocates as “target practice.”

But the Wikipedia edits coming from inside the building paint a picture of something more banal: some of the NRA’s hundreds of employees, perhaps its communications specialists or its range officers or its administrative assistants, editing the world’s largest repository for crowdsourced knowledge to please their bosses or to waste time at work.

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Over a period of just under a decade, 155 anonymous edits were made from this network, more than half during regular work hours. And while it’s entirely possible that some of these edits were made by visitors, the additions quite regularly inserted NRA promotional materials into Wikipedia under the guise of fact. Last year, a Wikipedia moderator flagged one editor who he believed had been an NRA communications manager for almost 10 years.

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IP addresses traced to the NRA have deleted unflattering additions and attempted to rewrite executives’ biographies in almost comically flattering lights. These edits have occasionally influenced the terms on which Americans first encounter high-profile issues: In one instance Splinter found, the first Wikipedia page dedicated to a landmark “stand your ground” Supreme Court decision, Brown v. United States, appears to have been written by an NRA lawyer days after George Zimmerman was acquitted.

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The more unremarkable edits suggest NRA employees with omnivorous, if somewhat bizarre tastes. Over the last decade, people on the building’s network have tweaked entries for crystal skulls, the likely fake “ancient artifacts” thought to retain supernatural powers, and clarified that the film adaption of the combat game Twisted Metal will probably never go into production. They have edited entries on blackouts (drug-related,) the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, stink bugs, “great comets,” Steve King, and Woodbury Kane, a hunter, “noted yachtsman, and bon viviant.” In the mid-2000s, an editor in the NRA building contested one contributor’s interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol,” a song based explicitly on news stories about a wealthy man killing a black mother during a drunken, racist tirade. Another brushed up the televised history of the character Tami Taylor, who plays the supportive wife to a football coach in the show Friday Night Lights. In 2010, someone clarified Wikipedia’s entry on religious slurs, adding additional material to the entry for “clam,” a mean word for members of the Scientologist church.

The edits that dealt directly with executives and lobbyists within the NRA were, if more cohesive in their intention, still occasionally pretty weird. Someone added Trevor W. Santos, at one point a lobbyist for the organization, to Wikipedia’s “list of redheads.” On the page for Ro-Tel, a Texan brand of canned tomatoes and chilis, an editor from the NRA added that “famous American chef” Kristiana Cupp, once an NRA grassroots organizer, makes a particularly good one on New Year’s Eve.

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All of this would be easily explained as a bit of workplace trolling, but the NRA edits frequently veered into more insidious territory. In the entry for “disability,” among sections on justice movements and sports, someone added an article from Shooting Illustrated that referenced “shocking statistics” about how often people with disabilities are the victims of violent crime—a reflection of the NRA’s longstanding effort to compel a society to be more paranoid, and thus better armed.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the editing efforts have also been concentrated on various NRA-specific issues over the years. In June, someone from inside the NRA’s HQ attempted to edit an Australian politician’s Wikipedia page, briefly deleting an entire paragraph describing recordings an undercover Al Jazeera reporter obtained of an NRA media operative. The deleted content detailed NRA-suggested talking points, instructing the politician to feign anger at gun control advocates who called for stricter measures after a mass shooting. (For example: “How dare you stand on the graves of those children and put forth your political agenda?”)

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In the spring of 2017, someone tried to rehabilitate the page of Marion Hammer, the first female president of the NRA. The edits, which were ultimately rejected, added nearly 20 paragraphs of congratulatory promotional text without any citations. For five hours, the page read like the focus group-tested biography of a candidate for city council. One paragraph began, “As a lobbyist and life-long shooter, Marion Hammer has seen every conceivable target and has never missed her mark.” Hammer, who was recently the subject of an investigation for over $270,000 in undisclosed payments to block gun control reforms, was described as “legendary,” and as a person with unbending “skill and integrity” who has “broken through the wall of bias built by the news media around the NRA.” The conclusion the anonymous editor contributed to the page is worth quoting in full:

“Tough. Professional. Skillful. Persistent. Honest. A person whose word you can count on. A legendary leader whose community service, devotion to America’s youth, and legendary leadership are all qualities that make Marion P. Hammer one of the most successful and respected Second Amendment freedom fighters of our time.”

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The Wikimedia Foundation’s current terms of service mandate that, “editors, including paid editors, are expected to disclose whenever they seek to change an affected article’s content.” But since 2011, the details of the “Friends of NRA” page, one of the organization’s fundraising arms, have been maintained semi-regularly by the NRA, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by moderators.

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In March of 2018, a moderator named Robert Fernandez flagged the suspicious edits to Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee, a panel of editors who have the ultimate authority to kick someone off the site. “I was looking at the Friends of the NRA article and noticed that some account copied in promotional material from the NRA website,” Fernandez told Splinter. “The account’s username strongly resembled a real person employed by the NRA,” a communications manager employed by the non-profit through 2016. “So I contacted the arbitration committee and said you really need to do something about this,” he says. The potential conflict of interest was so concerning that he emailed the Wikimedia Foundation’s press team as well. According to the Arbitration Committee’s record of the dispute, the organization didn’t act because the account had made the revisions before Wikipedia’s Terms of Use provision on undisclosed paid editing went into effect.

The NRA’s efforts to dictate the terms on which Wikipedia discusses the organization’s causes can be occasionally indirect. In 2013, a few days after George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder charges after shooting the unarmed Trayvon Martin, and as “stand your ground” laws made national news, a Wikipedia user named SkippG created the first Wikipedia page for Brown v. United States, the 1921 case that set a precedent for Americans with no “duty to retreat” to legally kill someone in “self-defense.” SkippG also attempted some revisions to Marion Hammer’s page, insisting so thoroughly on their edits despite the protests of other editors that their account was later frozen. Coincidentally, a man named Skipp Galythly has been an assistant general counsel at the NRA for 20 years.

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In the days after the Brown page was created, another user, this one inside NRA headquarters, filled in some copy about the case, meaning anyone Googling the origins of “stand your ground” laws during those initial news reports would have likely been reading the NRA’s words. Today, the summary of the case on Wikipedia remains almost exactly the same as it was originally written. Though in the years since, another editor added a line noting some justices dissented in the final opinion.

Galythly, like other NRA employees we contacted for comment on these edits, could not be reached or did not respond to our questions—the organization, after all, is currently embroiled in an intense public scandal over its relationship to foreign governments and the tax-exempt status that allows it to thrive. The promise of Wikipedia was something like radical transparency, an early-internet optimism that now seems quaint: Large organizations and powerful men have always shaped the historical record with their interests in mind. But in this case, at least, the NRA probably believed Wikipedia’s unique editing structure meant their attempts to influence the record would be relatively covert.

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About the author

Molly Osberg

Molly Osberg is a Senior Reporter with G/O Media.

Dhruv Mehrotra

Data Reporter - Investigations with Technology

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