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Roger Davies: Wikipedia’s Imperial Arbitrator

By  Agahnim and TDA

Unlike other ‘Top Ten’ websites such as Google and Facebook, Wikipedia has no corporate hierarchy to maintain control. The well-funded Wikimedia Foundation exerts no authority over its content, instead leaving the site’s loose-knit community to govern everything. Wikipedia’s editors create and control its content through a continual series of conflicts and wars of attrition, governed by a system of inconsistent and vague policies and rules where one rule may be negated by another rule. Should these factions fail to settle their differences, then Wikipedia’s highest authority, known as the Arbitration Committee, settles disputes based on its evaluation of the parties’ conduct.

The Arbitration Committee, also known as ArbCom, is officially leaderless and its membership is changed in part every year by elections and resignations, leaving its longest-serving members with substantial influence over its operations. Its cases are decided by discussion on the Committee’s secretive mailing list and the Committee is kept functioning as a cohesive unit by a “Coordinating Arbitrator”, who may serve in that position as long as he or she remains on the Committee.

So, who is the longest-serving Arbitrator? Who runs the mailing list? Who is the Coordinating Arbitrator? All three positions are currently held by the same man, possibly the most powerful leader in Wikipedia’s chaotic power structure, who has authored many of the Arbitration Committee’s important decisions.

His name is Roger Davies.

Who is Roger Davies? How did he become so become so influential? More importantly, how has he wielded this influence over Wikipedia’s community? Unfortunately, just as Richard Nixon used his influence as President of the United States to protect supporters and to crush dissent from undesirables, so has Roger Davies used his power to aid his cronies and be rid of people who annoy him.

His rise to power and weathering controversy

Roger Davies is a mysterious figure. Although he edits under his real name, he has given no further information about his identity — unlike many of his colleagues. Most of what we know about him is gleaned from his editing history on Wikipedia. Roger Davies spent much of his early editing history working on articles for the Military History WikiProject alongside arbitrator Kirill Lokshin, whom Davies eventually succeeded as lead coordinator of the project. Davies had been active at Wikipedia for less than two years, and an administrator for only ten months, when he first successfully ran for ArbCom in December 2008.

The position of “Coordinating Arbitrator” was created the next month and given to Kirill Lokshin, with the newly-elected Roger Davies as his deputy. Six months later, Kirill temporarily resigned and the still green Roger Davies became Coordinating Arbitrator, a position he continued to hold even after Kirill returned to ArbCom in 2010.

Davies had his first brush with scandal during his time on the Committee in February 2010, when it was discovered that in several of the Wikipedia articles Roger Davies helped write, he had lifted entire sentences or paragraphs from sources and passed them off as his own writing (as previously discussed at Wikipedia Review.) One explanation he offered is known on Wikipedia as the Oops defense:

Roger Davies wrote:

My apologies: the text should have been enclosed in quotes and at this distance in time (nearly two years) I really don’t know why I didn’t do so.

And in response to another person’s complaint:

I used to cut and paste sources into Word and then edit them and I guess this got tangled up with article (sic).

These quotes refer to examples which were a few years old at the time, but some cases of plagiarism reported there include those he committed while serving as an arbitrator. This carelessness from a major authority figure, papered over with a thin layer of excuses, was a taste of things to come.

The plagiarism debacle did not slow Roger Davies’ ascent to power. Although it’s unclear when Davies was promoted to mailing administrator, this role was revealed in June 2011 following the ArbCom mailing list leaks.

Every politician has a few incidents that embarrass them in front of their constituency, whether it’s George Bush Senior throwing up on the prime minister of Japan, or his son nearly choking to death on a pretzel. Then there are scandals, such as Bill Clinton’s attempt to cover up his trysts with a White House intern, or Reagan’s Iran-Contra debacle. Citizens tolerate perhaps a few minor examples and one major example of this per politician, and when a politician such as Richard Nixon exceeds his allotment of scandal and dishonesty, the powers behind the scenes typically tell him it’s time to leave. What makes Roger Davies unique is that while he’s been tangled in scandals and negligence for years, there has not yet been any check to his authority.

Protecting his own

The true mark of an arbitrator is how effectively he or she resolves disputes. For Roger Davies, his first serious test was an arbitration case about the ninth most controversial topic at Wikipedia: race and intelligence. Handling such an emotionally loaded topic with Wikipedia’s required neutrality is understandably complicated, but the Arbitration Committee seemed up to the task. One goal of arbitration in such cases is to remove misbehaving editors, regardless of their affiliations, in order to minimize conflict.

In his initial handling of the case as the drafter of its final decision, Davies stayed true to this principle. However, in subsequent reviews and amendments, Davies expanded the area of conflict by creating site-wide restrictions on how to interact with editors “associated with” race and intelligence. Instead of resolving disputes related to the topic, this abnormal approach brought only marginally involved editors into the case.

Davies first took this approach with sanctions against two editors named SightWatcher and TrevelyanL85A2, prohibiting them from discussing the conduct of editors “who have worked in the topic”, even if said conduct was from an unrelated dispute. A few months later, he drafted a new rule mandating that when a change made by a banned editor is undone, it cannot be restored if it “relates, directly or indirectly, to either the R&I topic or to any editor associated with the R&I topic.” Due to these extremely broad restrictions, people were reported for violating his “race and intelligence” rules even if they had never edited anything remotely related to race or intelligence. One person reported for violating these restrictions, D. Lazard, had edited nothing but mathematics articles. Another, SilkTork, was one of Davies’ fellow arbitrators.

Problems these restrictions caused were brought before ArbCom six times, by five different people in the last six months of 2012. Combined with reports accusing editors of violating his remedies, this amounted to well over a hundred hours of other people’s time. Several arbitrators knew that the remedies Roger Davies had written were responsible for creating these problems, or suggested the restrictions be modified. But instead of trying to fix the problems he’d created, in both August-September 2012 and December 2012 Roger Davies made every effort to prevent other arbitrators from repairing them. The first instance was especially egregious, as Davies hijacked a legitimate complaint about his existing remedies in order to expand them even further.

The mishandling of this case may seem like mere incompetence, but there’s another important piece of the puzzle. Each “remedy” was proposed in response to other editors’ complaints about Mathsci, an editor topic-banned in the original R&I case for abusive behavior and whose ban Davies had unexpectedly rescinded a few months later. These subsequent complaints concerned conduct Davies himself had previously criticized. But instead of addressing this ongoing misconduct, Davies’ remedies protected Mathsci, who then used these remedies against his critics. Davies even violated the procedure for a review case by adding SightWatcher and TrevelyanL85A2 as parties so they could be sanctioned, after Mathsci had lobbied for it. As both editors were added to the months-long case a week before it concluded and had been offline nearly the whole time, they did not get to confront the evidence presented against them, even though allowing editors that opportunity is standard practice for arbitration.

Davies was somewhat evasive about why he used such tactics. Mathsci, on the other hand, had fewer qualms about discussing the apparent favoritism. In one somewhat vague response he stated: “About cronyism: I do admit to liking Roger Davies. Is there something wrong with that?” He was a little more upfront in this statement:

On a personal note, did you know that Roger Davies is almost a neighbour down here?

This friendly relationship was often mentioned cavalierly by Mathsci whenever his conduct was raised as an issue, but it did not save him forever. In October 2013, Mathsci publicized where another editor lived and worked. Mathsci was breaking one of Wikipedia’s cardinal rules by posting another editor’s personal information, and Davies could no longer be seen defending him without diminishing his own standing within the Committee. As a matter of political expediency, Davies had no choice but to have Mathsci banned.

The Davies approach to harassment

One reason Davies frequently gave for deferring any action against Mathsci, in favor of increasingly vague and broad restrictions, was that Mathsci had been harassed by banned editors using sockpuppet accounts. It is not uncommon that editors cite harassment as a reason why they or others should receive special treatment. But while Davies seemed to take a very permissive stance when it came to Mathsci, later decisions show a different attitude when it came to disputes regarding gender politics.

In a case concerning the Gender Gap Task Force, a WikiProject established to address potential gender bias on Wikipedia, Davies voted with other arbitrators to ban two members of the group, one female and another of unstated gender. Several male editors, who were heckling the GGTF due to a belief it was being used to push a feminist agenda, received lighter sanctions. In its finding supporting the ban of female GGTF member Carol Moore, ArbCom primarily cited comments she made about a male critic, Sitush, after he engaged in an intimidating pattern of behavior that included an attempt to write an unflattering Wikipedia page about her. Davies endorsed this finding, the site-ban based on it, and an ingratiatingly tepid finding about Sitush’s behavior. The result of the case was criticized by David Auerbach at Slate who went on to state Wikipedia had “become a rancorous, sexist, elitist, stupidly bureaucratic mess.”

Even as that case was closing ArbCom had accepted another case touching on gender politics, this time concerning the infamous controversy over GamerGate, and on this case Davies was one of the final decision’s drafters. Once more there was a question of the Committee’s stance on harassment, since even the initial draft decision noted that one editor critical of GamerGate had received repeated harassment on Wikipedia. Though editors on both sides of the controversy received harassment and sanctions, the draft decision came down hard on editors critical of GamerGate, proposing that four of its most active critics should be banned from articles related to gender or sexuality. One outraged Wikipedian wrote multiple blog posts condemning the initial proposed decision, prompting a firestorm of criticism from news media. The Committee issued a press release clarifying some erroneous claims in the blog posts. However, rather than citing the litany of offenses for which editors were sanctioned, it only mentioned civility as the reason for the sanctions. This just served to further inflame critics, who saw the decision as punishing editors for losing their cool after repeated harassment from an “anonymous hate mob”, as GamerGate has been labeled.

Despite the previous two cases being criticized in the media as examples of a sexist and male-oriented culture on Wikipedia, Davies showed no sensitivity to these concerns when ArbCom took on yet another case tied to gender politics where he served as drafter once again. The case regarded Lightbreather, a female editor who edited primarily on gun control before getting involved in discussions about civility on Wikipedia and how it may threaten the participation of female editors. Soon after the case started, Lightbreather found that someone named Avrgguy01 had uploaded several pornographic images of women on a sex site and tagged them with Lightbreather’s username. Her efforts to privately get ArbCom to take action against whoever posted the images resulted in no action. The Committee claimed they were unable to confidently prove who from Wikipedia was responsible. Lightbreather then went public with the information on the Wikipediocracy thread about the case.

Amidst the resulting discussion of this and other harassment allegations, Roger Davies published his initial draft of the decision on Lightbreather and included two questionable principles regarding harassment. One argued editors who have been harassed should not “fight back” and seemed to treat harassment the same as legitimate criticism. Another principle suggested editors should keep a “low profile” when faced with harassment. Both proposals were criticized by several different editors and on social media as tone-deaf and insensitive, prompting several subsequent revisions and an alternative proposal. Though the final decision included a finding that Lightbreather had been sexually harassed off-site by Avrgguy01, it also included a finding seemingly castigating Lightbreather for attempting to identify this user. In the end, the toxic cocktail of sanctions against Lightbreather that Davies proposed was approved by ArbCom and she was banned from Wikipedia, though not without protest from some arbitrators, including what arbitrator Courcelles described as“perhaps my strongest dissent with the outcome in two and a half years on this committee”.

Given his earlier experience with Mathsci and how his enabling of that editor only caused endless grief, it would be tempting to conclude this apparent change in attitude from Davies regarding harassment was simply him overcompensating for earlier mistakes. However, we have to wonder if, just as it would seem with Mathsci, Davies was basing his decisions off pre-existing biases.

Davies in the flesh

Perhaps a clue could be found in his comments at the London Wikimania conference in August 2014, where Davies spoke indecorously about efforts by the Wikimedia Foundation to address the gender gap on Wikipedia. This is how it was described by a member of Wikipediocracy who observed it in person:

At the London conference, Steven Walling, assisted by Mariana Pinchuk, gave a talk to a packed audience on how to make Wikipedia more attractive to women. After the talk, a group of Wikipediocrats met Davies in the corridor and mentioned the talk. Davies hadn’t even heard of Walling. It was explained that Walling was charged with retention of female editors at Wikipedia. Roger Davies was astonished. “WHAT, THE ONES WITH BIG TITS?? HAR HAR!!” Davies has a loud and penetrating voice. At that very moment, Katy Love, who is in charge of the Funds Dissemination Committee at the Foundation, passed behind us, carrying her young daughter. Her face froze in horror and dismay.

Roger’s point was the absurdity of having a man in charge of gender issues at the Foundation, or so he explained after realising the gaffe, but Katy did not have the context. After he had gone, Katy reappeared. Who was that man, and had he gone, she asked? It was explained he was a long-standing administrator and important member of the English WP arbitration committee. She seemed upset that they were doing all this work to make Wikipedia a kinder and more welcoming place for women, and then they had people like this making foul-mouthed comments in front of her and her young daughter.

These were not the only questionable remarks Davies made at the event. On Wikipedia, Davies has presented himself as a person who cares about enforcing the site’s civility policy and setting a good example of it. When Wikipedia user LT910001 requested a “civility” arbitration case in August 2014, Roger Davies turned it down in what seemed to be a polite and carefully-reasoned manner:

I’m not seeing an actionable issue here, and even if there were – given the broad spectrum of sharply differing opinions about what constititues incivility that exist within the community – it’s difficult to see how a case would do any good at all.

Yet, when discussing the same request in real life at Wikimania 2014, Davies was more candid about his feelings:

Civility case? (Har har) no fucking way you cunts!

As it so happens, the requested civility case stemmed from a civility discussionstarted by Lightbreather herself over another editor’s use of the term “cunt” in an earlier civility discussion, nearly a year before Davies would draft the decision banning Lightbreather.

The authors stand by the accuracy of this account of Davies’ conduct at Wikimania, which was observed firsthand by two other members of Wikipediocracy.

This situation is an example of the frequent contradiction between the Wikimedia Foundation’s goals and the reality of how Wikipedia operates. The Wikimedia Foundation considers it important to change the perception that Wikipedia is hostile to its female editors, and to close the gender gap in its contributors, as evidenced by the Wikimania presentation from Walling and Pinchuk. On the other hand, since the WMF has no day-to-day involvement in how Wikipedia is run, they can accomplish very little in this area without ArbCom’s cooperation — and, by extension, the cooperation of Roger Davies.

Putting the interests of the community first

As of 2015, Roger Davies has been a member of ArbCom for nearly twice as long as any other currently serving arbitrator, and has held the position of coordinating arbitrator for over 90% of the time that the position has existed.

Roger Davies on Arbcom(On-Wiki source for this graph)

Being the most influential figure on ArbCom, Roger Davies has greater power over Wikipedia’s community than any other single person, and more than anyone else can shape how people perceive that community both on Wikipedia and off. Many Wikipedians seem to view him as the model of a good arbitrator — an honest, level-headed person who works hard to dispense justice in an impartial way. Yet in his actions he has shown a tendency to move heaven and earth for those willing to ingratiate themselves to him, while bringing heaven and earth down around those who were not. In person he seems to regard some of the biggest issues facing the site with blithe dismissal, even as he projects a calm and rational demeanor about them on Wikipedia.

Those of us who live in the United States, and who remember the early 1970s, will remember what it is like to be under an elected authority figure who tarnished the reputation of his office. From 1969 until 1974, the most powerful person in the United States was someone who was willing to bend the rules for the benefit of himself and his associates; whose arrogance and corruption created immense amounts of turmoil and work for others; and whose smooth public persona concealed the bigoted comments he made when he thought nobody important was listening. Like Roger Davies, Richard Nixon had many legitimate accomplishments during his time in power, but when his abuses were uncovered the American people were unwilling to forgive him. Will the people of Wikipedia continue to forgive Roger Davies?

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Edit: The graph had an error and has been corrected (09/03/2015)

Wikipedia: as accurate as Britannica?

By Andreas Kolbe

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A factoid regularly cited in the press to this day is that a 2005 study by Nature found Wikipedia to be almost as reliable as Britannica. While the study’s (if that is the right word – it wasn’t a peer-reviewed study, but a news story) methodology and conclusions were disputed by Britannica, the result of the Nature comparison has become part of received knowledge for much of the media. As the saying goes, a lie told often enough becomes the truth.

A meme is born

The problems really began as soon as the Nature piece was published. Many news outlets failed to mention that in its survey, Nature looked at hard science topics only – subjects like physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy and paleontology – despite the fact that Nature clearly said so, in the very first line of its piece. The following headline

…continue reading Wikipedia: as accurate as Britannica?

A Compendium of Wikipedia Criticism

Once upon a time, Gomi of the late great Wikipedia Review compiled an introductory survey of criticism that is intended to provide the public with a range of different reasons to shun Wikipedia as an authoritative source of information.

Wikipedia Content

1. Wikipedia contains incorrect, misleading, and biased information. Whether through vandalism, subtle disinformation, or the prolonged battling over biased accounts, many of Wikipedia’s articles are unsuitable for scholarly use. Because of poor standards of sourcing and citation, it is often difficult to determine the origin of statements made in Wikipedia in order to determine their correctness. Pursuit of biased points of view by powerful administrators is considered a particular problem, as opposing voices are often permanently banned from Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s culture of disrespect for expertise and scholarship (see below) makes it difficult to trust anything there.

2. Wikipedia’s articles are used to spread gossip, abet character assassination, and invade the privacy of the general

…continue reading A Compendium of Wikipedia Criticism