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Unpaid Advocacy on Wikipedia

by The Unpaid Critic

Neelix’ namesake, a character from the “Star Trek” TV series

One of Wikipedia’s most active editors left abruptly last week, with little notice or comment. Why would Neelix, a Wikipedia admin and campus ambassador who had been editing since 2006, suddenly quit the project which had occupied so much of his free time for so many years? At first glance it looked like he was the target of a bullying campaign from an internet forum, but a closer look reveals a much more interesting story.

Hipinion
Tara Teng was Miss World Canada 2012. In late March 2013, Neelix created an article about her on Wikipedia. About a year later, a discussion titled “this is the story of an abolitionist as told by her stalker” was started on a web forum called Hipinion. Based on the length of the article and amount of detail included, the participants of that forum suspected that Neelix was obsessed with Teng and was using Wikipedia as a vehicle to further this obsession.

It isn’t hard to understand why Hipinion members might come to the conclusion that Neelix was obsessed with Tara Teng. Neelix made literally hundreds of edits to the article over many months. At its largest, the biography was over 100,000 bytes of wikitext. To put this in context, the biography of former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell is only 40,337 bytes. It is difficult to imagine that a 20-something beauty pageant winner merits a biography that is more than twice as long as that of Canada’s first female head of government, a woman who has also had careers as a lawyer, university professor, and diplomat.

The Hipinion thread is no longer publicly viewable, although some of the postings can be seen in this thread. Hipinion seems to be a general purpose forum with no particular interest in Wikipedia, but some of the members took it upon themselves to make edits to Neelix’s page or articles to which he had added Tara Teng. Neelix’s user page was protected near the end of April so that only admins would be able to edit it.

Neelix’s surprise exit (stage left)
The Hipinion discussion thread remained active. Hipinion members seemed to enjoy mocking Neelix but their interest in annoying Neelix on Wikipedia does not seem to have been sustained for very long. The Wikipedia article remained overly long and overly detailed. Then on January 4 2015, a Twitter account named @turnoffthenews (almost certainly a Hipinion member) had this exchange with Jimmy Wales:

generic ‏@turnoffthenews Jan 4
@jimmy_wales Look at this shit jimmy. look at what your administrators are doing to your encyclopedia http://forums.hipinion.com/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=71863

generic ‏@turnoffthenews Jan 4
@jimmy_wales lovestruck wiki editor builds a universe of fluff articles around a canadian abolitionist beauty queen

Jimmy Wales ‏@jimmy_wales
@turnoffthenews I don’t understand why that bothers you.

Shortly after this tweet was mentioned on Wikipediocracy, a Wikipediocracy member and longtime Wikipedia editor asked Neelix about what appears to be an improper block of a user. Neelix had indefinitely blocked a user named Dicklickerish as a “vandalism-only account” when the only edit ever made by that account was some light copy-editing of an article created by Neelix. Rather than explain himself, Neelix posted a retirement message and an apology to the questioner:

I have just retired from Wikipedia. Thank you for your constructive criticisms. I apologize for my presumptuous behaviour in the matter you mention. I hope things will be partially rectified by my retirement. I wish you well in your continued efforts to improve the project.

It looked like Hipinion had succeeded in driving Neelix of the project — and continued to pick at his articles even after his departure.

Looking For Clues

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So were the members of Hipinion right? Was Neelix obsessed with beauty queen Tara Teng? No. At least not in the way they thought. Tara Teng is just one of a number of inter-related articles created by Neelix. The common theme to those articles is human trafficking. At the bottom of Teng’s article is a template (created by Neelix, of course) that lists articles related to “Human trafficking in Canada”. Of the 15 articles included in that template, Neelix created 14.

Human trafficking is obviously a problem everywhere it occurs, and nobody on Wikipediocracy would want to suggest that such activity is in any way morally supportable. But the problem here is clearly one of emphasis. Aside from the “optics” of the Tara Teng article’s length, is human trafficking really a serious problem in Canada, more so than in other countries, or than in English-speaking countries specifically? Yes, according to Wikipedia, although the most recent US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report seems to suggest otherwise.

But Neelix appears to have a more specific interest than just human trafficking. He has also created several articles relating to prostitution in Canada. One of those articles is about a 2012 play called “She Has A Name”, written by playwright Andrew Kooman. Over 80,000 bytes describe this rather minor play that toured regional fringe festivals. And yet, there is also a 50,000 byte article about the tour and still another 50,000 bytes about the “critical reception” to this play. Unbelievably, the latter of the two was given “featured article” status. That means “it (or a previous version of it) has been identified as one of the best articles produced by the Wikipedia community”. For comparison, the article on Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize winning “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is about 30,000 bytes long. Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” trilogy, which won 7 Tony awards, doesn’t even break 10,000 bytes. Something is very wrong here.

Neelix’s agenda
Why is Neelix writing these ridiculously detailed and lengthy articles? Does he merely have an obsessive personality or is there something else going on?

Off Wikipedia, Neelix is known as David Mark Purdy. He tells you this right on his Wikipedia user page. Purdy has been the subject of more than one media interview as one of Wikipedia’s top 50 editors. He comes across as a quiet, gentle person.

What may not be obvious is that Purdy is a Salvationist. The Salvation Army opposes human trafficking and prostitution. Most people, including the person(s) writing this blog entry, don’t consider prostitution to be a good thing. At the same time, most people probably also believe that a “neutral” encyclopedia should not treat prostitution and human trafficking as synonymous terms, nor is the question of sex-work legalization (at least in Canada) as clear-cut as Wikipedia currently makes it out to be.

A 2013 article about the human trafficking documentary Nefarious: Merchant of Souls says:

David Purdy, an advocate, researcher and well-respected Wikipedia writer, has a license to screen the documentary.

Purdy got involved in raising awareness about human trafficking last summer after watching Alberta playwright Andrew Kooman’s ‘She Has a Name,’ a play about human trafficking in Thailand.

“I have been consuming as much media on the subject as possible since then, having watched several human trafficking-related films, I have found Nefarious to be the best documentary on the subject by far,” said Purdy.

This is precisely the problem – Purdy is an advocate and takes his advocacy to Wikipedia as Neelix (where he is not merely an editor, but also an administrator — administrators enjoy special privileges, including, in practice, a sort of immunity from punishment, should they break the rules). Wikipedia’s policy on neutrality states: “All encyclopedic content on Wikipedia must be written from a neutral point of view (NPOV), which means representing fairly, proportionately, and, as far as possible, without bias, all of the significant views that have been published by reliable sources on a topic”. By creating extremely long and detailed articles which emphasize his own beliefs, Purdy is violating at least the spirit of this policy. But take this passage from Neelix’s Nefarious article:

Nevada prostitutes describe having gone into prostitution in Las Vegas after watching the film Pretty Woman. Several former prostitutes talk about their conversion to Christianity, escape from sexual oppression, and subsequent education or marriage. Some of them cry while telling their stories. Lobert calls prostitution “the greatest acting job”, explaining that prostitutes have to constantly feign enjoyment while actually feeling none. Before Nefarious was completed, one of the former prostitutes interviewed for the film returned to prostitution, a fact acknowledged in the film.

In her interview, Swedish Detective Superintendent Kajsa Wahlberg describes purchasing sex from a prostitute as paying to masturbate into someone.

This is not describing the documentary – it is using the content of the documentary to advocate a position.

Neelix’s Legacy
Many Wikipedia battles take place as offshoots of disputes in the real world. One side battles the other for control of Wikipedia articles and tries to dominate the debate with their point of view and choice of language.

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In the case of articles on Wikipedia about human trafficking in Canada, there is virtually no opposition. This means that Neelix has almost single-handedly defined this area on Wikipedia. He has redefined the word “abolitionist” in his articles to refer to someone who opposes human trafficking instead of the historical use in opposing (legal) slavery. Hence, he adopts Tara Teng’s description of herself: as “an abolitionist”, rather than a former pageant winner, which under Wikipedia’s “notability” criteria is her claim to fame.

Worse, Neelix has defined the debate on prostitution in Canada by creating biographies of people and organizations who oppose legalization of prostitution. Although they may receive local media attention, many of these are marginal at best. Amazingly, Wikipedia has no articles on Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch or Valerie Scott, the applicants in a case which caused the Supreme Court of Canada to strike down the existing laws against prostitution as unconstitutional.

In Neelix’s “Prostitution in Canada” template, there are only three entities listed under “pro-prostitution”. One of those is an article about a gang of pimps in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia (which happens to be where Neelix is located). An editor dared to question the lunacy of including a street gang as “pro-prostitution”, but Neelix rebuffed him. Including that gang was no oversight on Neelix’s part. This was a deliberate, considered attempt to malign organizations who believe prostitution should be legalized. Another entry in that template, “Stephen Charlie’s prostitution of a child”, takes what is a sad but very unremarkable case and casts it as a key incident in the history of prostitution in Canada. This article should not be on Wikipedia at all. It is not precedent setting and received virtually no national attention. Yet, it has been reviewed by another high profile editor and declared to be a “good article” despite the fact that it violates Wikipedia’s own guidelines about crimes.

Wikipedia poster boy HJ Mitchell enters the fray

Wikipedia poster boy HJ Mitchell enters the fray

 

A few of Neelix’s more obvious and unnecessary puff pieces have been nominated for deletion since he left, but there are many more that will likely remain untouched, serving no purpose but to bolster the network of anti-human trafficking and anti-prostitution articles created to advance Neelix’s Salvationist viewpoint. Jimmy Wales makes a big deal about paid advocacy, but the type of unpaid advocacy quietly practiced by well-connected Wikipedia editors can be much more difficult to resolve, if the goal is really “neutrality” as Wikipedia claims.

Meanwhile, at Wikipedia’s Administrators’ Noticeboard, some of Wikipedia’s chronic offenders have rushed to exploit the Neelix case for their own purposes, resulting in the typical ball of confusion and a blocking spree by Wikipedia admin HJ Mitchell (T-C-L).

 

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons, Flickr/Carla216, Flickr/otisarchives3, Wikimedia Commons ~ licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Wikipedia and pop culture ~ a special symbiosis

by Hersch

There may be a few of you out there who, like myself a few short hours ago, did not know that Lily Cole is the successful supermodel who put the “LOL” in “Lolita.” And then, just a few years ago, she adopted the business model that was first perfected by Bono, and augmented her career by becoming a social activist. All this inevitably attracted the attention of Wikipedia’s own Jimmy Wales, who gave his support to Cole’s project called “Impossible.com,” described as an “altruistic social network.” Those of you who have followed Jimmy’s career may now be asking, “Altruistic? But Jimmy is a devotee of Ayn Rand, who rejects altruism.” But as it turns out, Ms. Cole has made her own unique contribution to this debate:

When you give, you release chemicals – oxytosin [sic] – that make you happy. The act of giving is self-involved, it has enriched my life.

…continue reading Wikipedia and pop culture ~ a special symbiosis

Happy New Year 2015

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by the Masked Maggot

I saw something today that reminded me that we Wikipedia critics should remember something: the vast majority of the volunteers who write the encyclopedia-article-like pages are in general just good people interested in learning and sharing knowledge. Here’s what I saw (an excerpt from this):

When asked by people why I contribute to Wikipedia my response is not based on altruism (a useful side product), but on pragmatic utility. Wikipedia functions as a “magic notebook”: when I come across an interesting fact which I would like to remember, Wikipedia offers an extension to my natural faculties. I can record the fact, along with any appropriate reference, on the relevant Wikipedia page. I can even start a page where no page existed before. And I don’t even have to remember where I made the note. If I have put in suitable links

…continue reading Happy New Year 2015