Editor’s note: This story was updated on Wednesday to report that the Durham city attorney’s letter was sent to the wrong postal address and to include comments from a Wikipedia spokesperson.

At the request of several elected officials, Durham city attorney Kimberly Rehberg last month asked Wikipedia to unmask the identities of users who have published accurate but unfavorable information about said officials to the crowdsourced encyclopedia—a move that experts call inappropriate and troubling.

In a certified letter to the Wikimedia Foundation dated June 29 and obtained by the INDY last week, Rehberg explained that she was writing at the “express request” of Mayor Elaine O’Neal and city council members DeDreana Freeman and Monique Holsey-Hyman, each of whom took issues with content on their Wikipedia pages. 

Rehberg said the three officials wanted the real names of volunteer contributors “Willthacheerleader18,” “Mako001,” and “Johnson524” and asked Wikipedia to permanently prohibit an image of O’Neal’s facsimile signature from appearing on the site.

O’Neal is not seeking a second term. But for Freeman, who recently announced a mayoral run, and Holsey-Hyman, who was appointed to the council last year and is running to keep her seat, the unmasking requests appear to be a pre-election attempt to clean up web pages that prominently feature allegations of misconduct.

O’Neal, Holsey-Hyman, and Freeman did not respond to the INDY’s request for comment. 

Holsey-Hyman is being investigated by the State Bureau of Investigation following a developer’s allegation that she attempted to solicit a bribe in exchange for her vote on a rezoning proposal. She has also been accused of improperly attempting to enlist city staff to work on her reelection campaign. 

Freeman made news in March when her defense of Holsey-Hyman during a contentious city council meeting led to a profane shouting match that reportedly turned physical.

On Wikipedia, the allegations and shouting match are summarized without any apparent factual error and with links to news articles as references. But Rehberg wrote in the letter that Holsey-Hyman “contends that the allegations are fabricated” and thus seeks to obtain the identity of user Willthacheerleader18, who created Holsey-Hyman’s page and wrote much of its content. Holsey-Hyman also requested the identity of user Mako001, who “insisted on preserving a link to Durham City Councilwoman Jillian Johnson” on her page after another user removed it. 


It’s unclear why Holsey-Hyman would take issue with Johnson’s name being linked on her page, though, notably, the edit history on Holsey-Hyman’s page shows that Mako001’s revisions involved more than the link reinstatement. 

On April 2, a user called Mpink10 made 14 edits to Holsey-Hyman’s page. (Mpink10 had not made Wikipedia edits of any kind prior to this day, and has not since.) The first edit was a deletion of the page’s entire “extortion allegations and investigation” section, which is where Johnson’s name is linked. Mako001 reversed the revision almost immediately, noting that Mpink10 had “removed content without adequately explaining why.” Five minutes later, Mpink10 deleted the extortion section again and also deleted the “personal life” section, which listed the names of Holsey-Hyman’s husband and daughters. Mako001 reverted the edits soon after; Mpink10 subsequently deleted the extortion section for a third time. 

When another user, Ushistorygeek, restored the section two minutes later, Mpink10 stopped trying.

Holsey-Hyman did not respond to an email from the INDY asking if she was user Mpink10.

Anyone can edit a Wikipedia entry, though to help guard against vandalism, erroneous material, and unjustified content removals, new revisions are listed on an “unapproved edits” page until they’re green-lit or reverted by reputable users like Mako001. These volunteer editors are fiercely protective, and push back hard when a single user—Mpink10, for instance—makes edits to sanitize a page. 

With their requests, council members appeared to show significant misunderstanding of Internet protocol. Freeman, according to Rehberg’s letter, viewed Wikipedia’s summary of her public defense of Holsey-Hyman as “unflattering” and conveyed “deep unease” that the same user who created Holsey-Hyman’s page, Willthacheerleader18, had created Freeman’s own page.

It’s standard for a single user to pen multiple related entries and make edits across a range of pages. On the day Mako001 reverted edits on Holsey-Hyman’s page, the user also worked on more than 200 other pages including  “List of WWE SmackDown Tag Team Champions,” “Siege (video game),” and “Norse mythology.” Willthacheerleader18, who created the page, also created the Wikipedia pages for Johnson and city council member Javiera Caballero.

The person behind Willthacheerleader18, a Raleigh resident who asked the INDY not to reveal her name, says she’s crafted more than 1,000 Wikipedia pages, mostly about women in leadership positions. She’s part of a Wikipedia initiative called Women in Red that aims to reduce gender bias on the platform.

“That’s kind of terrifying,” she says, when told about the city’s request that Wikipedia unmask her identity. “Nothing that’s in their Wikipedia articles is unsourced. It’s all based off of news stories, which is where you get your cited information. I do find it interesting that they’re not going after news sources for reporting those stories. Wikipedia is just an encyclopedia that gathers public information.”

While both city council members were focused on their Wikipedia pages’ portrayal of certain reported events, O’Neal was concentrated on an image of her signature. Writing on the mayor’s behalf, Rehberg asked Wikimedia to identify user Johnson524, who had uploaded the signature image. O’Neal found it “problematic for her personally and professionally,” Rehberg wrote.

Under state law, O’Neal’s facsimile signature is not a public record, says Brooks Fuller, the director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition at Elon University. But while it’s illegal to use her signature inappropriately, there’s nothing illegal about posting an image of it on Wikipedia. The city had no legal basis to ask to take it down, Fuller says—especially because O’Neal already knew where the image came from. 

After discovering O’Neal’s signature on her Wikipedia page in May, the city opened an internal investigation into its origin. The five people with authorized access to O’Neal’s facsimile signature denied uploading it. So in late June, Rehberg became user Kimlynn69 and reached out to Johnson524 through Wikipedia’s talk feature. 

“I am the City Attorney for the City of Durham, North Carolina. Mayor Elaine O’Neal’s City staff recently noticed that an image of her signature had been added to her Wikipedia page, which raised concern about the presence of the unauthorized signature on the page increasing the likelihood of signature fraud,” Rehberg told him. O’Neal “requested that the City Attorney’s Office reach out to legal counsel at Wikimedia Foundation to ask that they disclose the identity of the party who uploaded the signature image,” she added. 

Johnson524—who tells the INDY he’s a 17-year-old Johnston County high-school student—responded apologetically, telling Rehberg that he was “terribly ashamed” of his actions and explaining that he’d taken a photo of O’Neal’s signature that appeared at the bottom of her boilerplate welcome letter in playbills at the Durham Performing Arts Center. 

“After reading the mayors [sic] (very kind) message and seeing her signature, I thought it could also make a good addition to the encyclopedia,” he wrote. 

That was good enough for Rehberg.

“In light of the information and assurances that User Johnson524 provided, I am going to hold off on reaching out to Wiki legal counsel for now,” Rehberg told O’Neal in an email chain obtained by the INDY. “Given the terms of service for Wiki, and the fact that the User obtained the information from materials that are widely disseminated to the public, there is little legal basis to demand that Wiki reveal the identity of the User or prohibit the upload of a photo of the signature to the Mayor’s Wiki page.”

Less than an hour later, O’Neal responded: “Our request still stands and it is a specific request.”

That evening, Rehberg replied that the deed was done.

Fuller says Rehberg should not have sent the letter—especially the parts pertaining to Freeman and Holsey-Hyman. As a city attorney, she represents the city, not individual politicians. If they believed their Wikipedia pages were defamatory, he says, they are welcome to hire their own attorneys and file a lawsuit.

In a phone call Friday afternoon, Rehberg told the INDY that she has “been through a lot this year with the city council” and that her decision to send the letter (via the postal system only) came after “great consideration.” Ultimately, she determined that the electeds were making requests in their official capacities.

“The scope of my duties do extend to representation of elected officials in their official capacities,” Rehberg says. 

“I don’t expect that Wikipedia will pay one mind to that letter. And there won’t be next steps from my office, because I do not have authorization from the city council to pursue this as a legal matter.”

In a July 25 email, a spokesperson for Wikimedia Foundation told the INDY that it “has not received any requests from the City of Durham” and noted that the address at the top of Rehberg’s letter is not a current Foundation address. (For general inquiries, the Foundation’s postal address is 1 Montgomery Street, Suite 1600, in San Francisco, California, though for legal requests to disclose user information, it lists a different address in Glendale, California. Rehberg addressed the letter to 140 Montgomery Street in San Francisco.)

The spokesperson also wrote that Wikimedia Foundation is “strongly committed to protecting the privacy of editors and users on Wikimedia projects.”

“As part of our commitment, we intentionally collect very little data about our users; the data we collect is deleted, aggregated, or anonymized after 90 days,” the spokesperson wrote. 

Requests for non-public user data require a “valid legal process” and are carefully reviewed under the Foundation’s standards for privacy and freedom of expression.

“When we do receive a legally valid request, we often work with the requester to narrow the parameters of the information sought,” the spokesperson wrote. “And because we keep very little data, we often don’t have data to provide in the first place.”

Even if Rehberg had sent the letter to the right address, then, it seems there wasn’t any chance that Wikimedia Foundation would have produced the identities of Willthacheerleader18, Mako001, and Johnson524.

Still, the request has a cost. “It’s not a good look for public officials to be expending public resources, public tax dollars, and the city attorney’s time to try to identify people” who publish factual information they don’t like, says Enrique Armijo, a professor at Elon University School of Law who specializes in First Amendment issues. 

“Never mind the whole long-standing First Amendment interest in protecting the anonymity of people who criticize public officials,” he adds. “It’s just not what we want to be doing.”

With additional reporting by Jeffrey Billman.

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