Wikispooks; Samantha Lee/Insider
Data compiled for Insider by the analytics firm SimilarWeb showed that an online conspiracy-theory encyclopedia called Wikispooks saw a 90% traffic increase in the US from March to May, during the height of the US coronavirus pandemic.
The data indicates that many people are landing on Wikispooks' website through organic search from search engines like Google.
Misinformation and conspiracy theories have run rampant during the pandemic and recent protests.
Wikispooks, founded in 2010, is centered on the unfounded conspiracy theory that a "deep-state" cabal of elites has massive power over essentially every sector of the world.
It contains large amounts of misinformation.
An online encyclopedia used by conspiracy theorists to expose a "deep state" within world governments has had a 93.1% traffic increase in the US during the coronavirus pandemic compared with its metrics from March to May 2019, according to research conducted for Insider by SimilarWeb, a popular digital analytics firm.
When Wikispooks' traffic hit a recent peak in May, visits to the site from the US were up 132.9% compared with May 2019.
The data also indicates that people are finding Wikispooks, a website that describes New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo as a "US politician and suspected deep state operative," through organic search results on search engines like Google. According to SimilarWeb, 72.1% of visits to Wikispooks came from search traffic between March and May, meaning that nearly three-quarters of users on the site arrived there from search queries, rather than from other sources or direct traffic to the Wikispooks URL.
This data "suggests a high level of discoverability, with Wikispooks.com earning its traffic through inclusion of content around popular search queries," Ilana Marks, a marketing analyst at SimilarWeb, said. All of this search traffic is organic, which means it's not paid for by Wikispooks to drive readers to the site, Marks said.
Courtesy of SimilarWeb
Between March and May, the number of unique visitors to the website was up 113.9%, compared to 2019. This is in juxtaposition with the decline in unique viewership on Wikipedia in the same time frame. SimilarWeb estimates that the number of unique visitors to Wikipedia was down 2.4% from March to May, compared with its 2019 metrics.
While SimilarWeb's search data covers all search engines, including Bing and Yahoo, Google is widely regarded the top search engine worldwide, with more than 90% of search-engine market share, according to StatCounter, an online statistics tool.
Exploring Google with Wikispooks' top search terms paints a picture similar to the data. The top search term for the site is "Lori Klausutis," who was a staffer of Joe Scarborough when he was a congressman before she died in 2001. President Donald Trump has repeatedly shared unproven conspiracy theories about her death. Trump — a longtime foe of Scarborough, who is now an MSNBC host — has alleged that the former Florida congressman was somehow involved in Klausutis' death.
An autopsy showed that she died of complications from an undiagnosed heart condition, but the Wikispooks entry on Klausutis explains in detail the conspiracy theories surrounding her death.
During the writing of this piece, the top search result for Klausutis' name on Google was the Wikispooks entry. But as of Thursday afternoon, after reaching out to Google for comment, the Wikispooks page appeared as the second, third, or fourth result on most browsers.
A Google search for Maurene Comey, the daughter of former FBI Director James Comey and one of the lead prosecutors for the Jeffrey Epstein sex-trafficking case, yields a Wikispooks article on the first page of results.
Maurene Comey's Wikispooks entry cites a conversation from the internet forum Saidit.net, often considered a fringe Reddit alternative, which falsely says that the attorney was the person who lost footage from Epstein's prison cell. In a filing, Comey placed the blame for the lost footage on the jail where Epstein was held. The circumstances surrounding Epstein's death have led to some of the most mainstream conspiracy theories this year, with the phrase "Epstein didn't kill himself" spreading even to meme accounts on Instagram.
On Bing, a search for "Lori Klausutis" also presents the Wikispooks article among its top results, and a search for "Maurene Comey" presents that Wikispooks entry on its second page of results. A representative for Microsoft, which owns Bing, declined to comment.
A representative for Google said search results are dynamic and change over time and that the company does not intentionally rank specific sites above others for organic results. While the search engine's algorithm prioritizes reliable, authoritative sources, the representative said it is possible for misinformation to rise to the top of the heap of content, adding that the company works to improve its overall systems to prevent false information from gaining top Google real estate.
Wikispooks deals in conspiracy theories and verifiable falsehoods
Wikispooks was founded a decade ago in the United Kingdom by a former businessman named Peter Presland, who has denied facts about the Holocaust and is a prominent promoter of the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that the Israeli government was behind the September 11, 2001, attacks, according to radio interviews featuring Presland.
In May 2010, Presland wrote in a note archived online that his website would be a "collaborative project aimed at building a comprehensive reference source of deep political structures and events, together with the people and organisations connected to them."
Presland doesn't produce the website's content alone, as other users are able to submit and edit pages, like on Wikipedia. But according to the editing history of the site, the only changes to its main page in the past five years were made by Presland and a user named Robin Upton, whose profile page on Wikispooks describes him as an "economic dissident" and says he was born in the UK in 1970. When reached for comment, Upton told Insider that he tries to remove "verifiable falsehoods" from the site.
But changes throughout the rest of the site have been made by a handful of others, too. The entry on the George Floyd protests, for example, was made by a user called Urban, whose page says they're a German software engineer, and a person named Sunvalley, whose page says they're also German. The protest page says the demonstrations "have been called a color revolution attacking Trump."
Wikispooks' existence is predicated on the notion that information shared by Wikipedia, a digital encyclopedia, is corrupt. The website says Wikipedia is "little more than just one more corporate media outlet for the official (i.e. establishment-controlled) narrative."
In many articles, Wikispooks is anti-media, anti-government, and antiestablishment. While its focus is on worldwide "deep politics" — or the site's stated belief that there are "clandestine groups who seek to exercise control over publicly acknowledged governments of nation states" — it places extra attention on US politics and media. Specifically, Democrats and traditional publications are the subjects of intense lore.
In its entry for The New York Times, for example, Wikispooks calls the paper a "long established and respected newspaper with 'a venerable history of eliding references to any US role in overthrowing governments or murdering foreign leaders.'"
While the website is not directly affiliated with Wikipedia, both websites run on MediaWiki, open-source software that is freely available for download online. The Wikimedia Foundation, which developed MediaWiki and hosts Wikipedia, is a nonprofit organization with no control over what people use the software to create, a spokesperson said. "Like any web browser, the Mediawiki software is available to everyone, which means that sometimes it can also be misused by bad actors to spread misinformation," the Wikimedia spokesperson told Insider via email.
On Wikispooks, that misinformation includes the theory that a top-secret cabal of important political figures controls the US government and has a grip on the global weaponry trade, drug trafficking, and Silicon Valley tech companies. The deep-state theory is very similar to the theories proposed within the QAnon conspiracy-theory movement, which follows the anonymous (and likely nonexistent) figure who serves as a prophet for believers of these deep-state conspiracies.
Conspiracy theories have thrived online during the coronavirus pandemic
While there are many reasons that could explain Wikispooks estimated traffic increase, it's hard to ignore the prevalence of conspiracy theories around the coronavirus. Wikispooks' entry on the pandemic suggests that users of the site tend to disagree with the science on COVID-19.
Wikispooks says the virus is "generally mild or even asymptomatic, but occasionally fatal for those with weakened immune system." While many cases of COVID-19 can present with mild symptoms, or no symptoms, the disease has killed more than 473,000 people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Weill Cornell Medicine reported that the estimated chance of death from COVID-19 is "more than 13 percent for patients 80 and older, compared to about 0.15 percent for patients in their 30s, and virtually zero percent for patients under 20."
The coronavirus entry doubles down on its minimization of the severity of this virus, saying WHO's categorization of the disease as a pandemic, and an "overstatement" of cases, led to "COVID Panic." There has been no evidence that death counts, in the US and worldwide, are in any way overstated.
During the coronavirus pandemic, people of all stripes have propagated conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus, its best course of treatment, and its severity. Even fashion and lifestyle influencers, as well as celebrities and politicians, have adopted and spread some of these beliefs.
These theories — including false explanations for why mask wearing is dangerous, an idea popularized by the widely shared "Plandemic" video — are created "to go viral and to spread quickly," Gabby Deutch, the Washington correspondent for the internet-trust-analysis tool NewsGuard, said. Deutch added that COVID-19 misinformation, which offers people easy answers or solutions for the complicated virus, could be seen as more entertaining than the actual health information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and WHO.
Researchers from the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford wrote in April that the majority of engagement with coronavirus misinformation online came from posts by politicians, celebrities, and social-media influencers. "Members of the public appear to have many reasons for sharing pieces of misinformation, including a desire to 'troll,' the legitimate belief information is true, and political partisanship," the report said.
"The reason why they catch on, especially during a situation like the pandemic or the protests, is because they claim to have all the answers, and they attract people who feel like they are alienated or are afraid, or just don't really understand what's happening in the world," said Alex Newhouse, the digital research lead at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at Middlebury College's Institute of International Studies. "And so QAnon or Wikispooks, or what have you, professes to give them a reason why that is happening."
The "comprehensive resource" Presland created can now lead people to believe things that are categorically untrue and foster a sense of credibility among deep-state believers. "People are absolutely emboldened by something like Wikispooks," Newhouse said.
"They're able to go to that website; they're able to see a very clear-cut explanation that fits in with the suspicions and the paranoia that they already have, and it makes them feel better because they're able to connect the dots," he added.
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