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Down the Rabbit Hole

By March Hare

Today’s story began when we investigated one of the usual Wikipedia feuds. A Wikipedia editor with a background in science criticized the work of a more prominent editor, claiming that many of the articles she created or embellished contained “made up information, inaccurate information, random pieces of information that give undue weight to what she has added, and plagiarism”. After the usual shouting and insults on both sides, some credentialled editors stepped in and determined that the critic was right. In one article, which received a million views a year, the editor had written that the average winter temperature in polar deserts like Greenland and Antarctica was between –2 and +4 °C. The mistake had been there for almost a year. She had written that birds in cold deserts avoid “the problem of their feet becoming chilled by maintaining their lower limbs at external temperatures”, even though penguins’ feet would freeze solid if they dropped to -30 °C, and the poor things would die of frostbite and gangrene. Nearly all the articles selected for review showed problems. The problem was the editor’s use of published sources. She could not use them verbatim, because of copyright violation, and so she changed the wording. But in changing the wording, in many cases she managed to change the meaning also.

She is extremly hardworking, patient etc. but the fact she is constantly peppering articles with mistaken paraphrases, original research and other factual errors is extremly worrying, especially because she is completely blind to the errors she is making.

The critic was right, but on Wikipedia it is considered bad manners and bad faith to criticise the work of an editor in good standing. The editor was popular in the ‘Good Article’ group on Wikipedia, and contributors lined up to defend her against these attacks. It was harassment, they said, it was aggressive hounding. One contributor in particular – we will call him Henry – outdid all the rest in venom, piling obloquy and spleen upon the unfortunate critic.

PUT UP OR SHUT UP. Identify the specific errors succinctly (no rhetoric), fix them yourself, or go back to your day job pushing a mop at walmart and be a intolerable miserable curmudgeon on your own time. Henry – 00:15, 9 April 2014 (UTC)

Whether or not the message was correct, the method of bludgeoning another editor relentlessly is inimical to the project’s state goals. Henry – 20:44, 9 April 2014 (UTC)

A swift punitive blow

The critic needed to be dealt a swift punitive blow, he shouted, and with her the members of the Wikipediocracy site, who were a ‘nasty little gang’ who were hounding good editors. “Letting this go by without a sanction sets a bad precedent”.

Why the vitriol? Criticism is the life-blood of any project aiming to build a reliable reference work. The editor was well-meaning but incompetent. Why should Henry be so hostile to criticism, both from Wikipedia insiders and from a site such as Wikipediocracy?

I’m not held in high regard by the handful of sanctimonious bellyaching twits that participate at Wikipediocracy’s forum. They can go fuck themselves. None of them really contribute content anyway…so again, they can go fuck themselves.

What does Henry have against a site like this, whose purpose is to lift up the drains on Wikipedia? His case was so striking that we decided to explore the rabbit hole for ourselves.

A long history on Wikipedia

It turns out that Henry has a long history on Wikipedia. He began his present account in May 2012, saying “I am returning to editing after a haitus of over five years. I am a published author (among other things) with a few graduate degrees”. What was his previous account? The following year he mentioned on Wikipedia that he had not been to a social meetup since December 2006. This immediately identified him as a user who had a long history of inserting false and misleading information onto Wikipedia, whose first identified hoax was the article Cayley-Newbirth operation matrix, now deleted but written some time in 2004. It was spotted by brainy maths whiz Cambridge professor Charles Matthews, who raised it at Wikipedia’s “Articles for deletion” noticeboard. ‘Delete’, agreed editor Dominus.

I have examined Abramowitz and Stegun, and until and unless somone posts a page number, I won’t believe it is in there. It’s not a 40-year old hoax; it’s an 8-month old hoax, one perpetrated with enough pseudo-mathematical nonsense to take in an uneducated or careless reviewer. Dominus 23:54, 22 Dec 2004 (UTC)

When Matthews raised the pattern of Henry’s edits at Wikipedia’s ‘Project Mathematics’, it provoked an extreme reaction from Henry. He compared Matthews to Torquemada, the Spanish inquisitor. “Go fuck off you pompous windbag!” he suggested. He denied any knowledge of the hoax article. When Dominus accused him of lying, he lashed out again.

In my opinion, Dominus, you’re a jackass who hasn’t seen straight for years…that’s the problem with your head so far up your ass. Henry – 02:09, 26 Dec 2004 (UTC)

Sorry, but there’s no sense refuting the deluded close-minded rantings of someone (Dominus) who should have been institutionalized long ago. Only the insane engage in exercises of futility, and I’m not close to being driven insane (yet). Just rage. — Henry – 26 Dec 2004 (UTC)

It was the same pattern of hostility that we saw in the more recent editor review. If people will question stuff you have made up, the best way to put them off is to dismiss them as as inquisitors and ‘detectives’. Or just shout at them.

An earlier punitive blow

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Henry had a long history of making things up in real life, too. After a violent physical attack on a female student in December 2004, he invented all kinds of stories to avoid blame. He split the woman’s head open with the heavy end of a pool cue, with such violence that the cue shattered, but his attitude throughout the legal process was to deny everything, or to make up excuses. He claimed that the girl had attacked him with a knife after he had declined her advances, that he was forced to defend himself with the pool cue, which he claimed was already broken. She had not suffered “serious bodily injury”, he said. The defence was rejected. The woman had required eleven stitches for two lacerations on her head. How hard do you have to hit someone over the head in order to shatter a pool cue?

He pretended the victim was not a young woman, but a hardened criminal. On his Wikipedia user page (now deleted) he boasted that he had “given a guy the business end of a [pool] cue”, claiming that he was an enforcer for the Mafia – “someone who knows about the mob from the inside”, and that he was involved with the Gambino Crime Family (“another thing, regrettably, that I know too much about”).

He was indicted in 6 April 2005 (telling another Wiki editor that he was “away on business, internet access opportunities are few and far between”). After a protracted legal process he was convicted in April 2007.

Unable to edit Wikipedia in prison, he made up stories for the federal authorities. He contacted Melanie McGuire’s defence team after her April 2007 conviction for the murder of her husband William in 2004, claiming that her husband was killed by the mob, who were seeking to retrieve a $90,000 debt. However, a State Police investigation determined that Henry was “entirely incredible and routinely and habitually fabricates stories”. “This witness is in no way shape or form credible,” said McGuire’s lawyer. He contacted the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force about terrorist attacks which he claimed would take place in May. They eventually dismissed the claim as nonsensical. Another time he told the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office about a murder confession, even though this was impossible, the alleged killer having been in prison at the time of the murder. He claimed to various law enforcement authorities that he was a singer, an aspiring Anglican priest, an intelligence officer in Afghanistan, a soldier of fortune in Somalia, a millionaire financial consultant and owner of a financial conglomerate, and a member of the Irish Republican Army.

While ‘The Man’ quickly saw through his delusions, he was hardly ever challenged on Wikipedia. His Wikipedia page claimed a Mafia and an IRA connection. He created an article about an (entirely fictitious) financial group he headed up. He created Wikipedia articles, most of which still exist, about a fictitious university secret society along the lines of the Skull and Bones, of which he was a prominent member. Wikipedia requires citations and sources, but these are rarely checked. When he was challenged, he would provide sources that were not online and which required access to specialist libraries. Sometimes he just invented the source, inventing books under his real-life name (although he changed both his real life name after serving five years out of the seven-year sentence, and his Wikipedia user name). The articles are still there. In one comical incident, a reviewer challenged him. “Your forthcoming book on place names does seem most intriguing, and I would be interested in seeing a copy” . Henry offered to send advance copies, but “never guaranteed they would be free”.

If you want an advance copy, because I don’t like you, I will have to demand payment. Other people, who I do like, will receive them free. Sorry, I don’t like you, and that’s the way it’s going to be.

Still making things up

Now this is all very unfortunate. Henry’s father told police that his son’s situation is ‘very sad.’ He had never held a steady job, not even at Walmart, and he was troubled. The judge said at his sentencing hearing that he had emotional problems and even the prosecutors believed that he didn’t have a clear grasp on his own standing in relationship to other people. So does it matter that he is still editing Wikipedia? He has been released from prison and he has been punished for what he did.

It does matter. Henry has the same violent and confrontational attitude as before. In particular, he will not stand being challenged about matters of fact.

When a user seems fit to be creating an unnecessary fight on a infinitesimal minor matter of formatting on a claim that is ridiculous (especially since to space or not to space is an entirely subjective matter where no one is wrong and WP:ENGVAR and WP:RETAIN should prevail over such edit-warring bullshit), your attempt to come to a related FAC to purposefully place an oppose as if to thwart the candidate’s promotion just because of a damned space is (a) spiteful (b) pointy, (c) tendentious, and (d) potential battleground mentality. It is entirely and unequivocably unacceptable and contemptible. The fact that you think getting called out for spiteful behaviour is the functional equivalent to getting “stabbed in the face”–aside from being WP:IDIDNTHEARTHAT and ridiculous, it’s reprehensibly arrogant. That’s all I have to say on the matter.

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And he is still making things up, creating and maintaining bogus articles with the help of multiple ‘sockpuppet’ accounts. ‘Bogus’ because a hoax is something created in the knowledge that it is a hoax. Henry, by contrast, believes passionately that he is a writer, a composer, the chief executive of a financial conglomerate, and he makes it real through Wikipedia. It was a cliché of the old asylums that the inmates believed they were Napoleon, Gladstone, King George II. This was harmless, because nobody believed them. Today, you can say the same thing on Wikipedia, and everybody will believe you, because everybody believes Wikipedia. This is why the Wikipedia rabbit hole draws people like Henry, who, despite his being a violent individual, is welcomed by the Wikipedia community (and even invited to the “Wiki-meetups”) because he is willing to aggressively defend the scientific errors of a fellow editor who is in ‘good standing’ with the Wikipedia community.

 

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

Announcing Wikipediocracy’s Student Microgrant Program

Beginning June 1, 2014, Wikipediocracy will launch a $1,000 microgrant program that is intended to fund the news reporting efforts of college journalism students. Qualifying applicants will submit short proposals describing how they would write provocative news stories about Wikipedia, with an emphasis on unexplored and innovative topic areas that have been neglected heretofore by the mainstream news media.

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In the past 30 days, there have been over 800 news stories that mention “Wikipedia” in the body of the article, and over 150 have mentioned the “Wikimedia Foundation” in the copy. In numerous cases, mainstream journalists (from Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, Salon, Fox News, Daily Dot, The Register, and others) have cooperated extensively with Wikipediocracy to inspire or inform their published works about Wikipedia. Obviously, Wikipedia and the governing charity organization that runs its servers are popular fodder for journalists to write about.

But at

…continue reading Announcing Wikipediocracy’s Student Microgrant Program

New German study on PR in Wikipedia

By Marvin Oppong

The case of Sarah Stierch has once again demonstrated that paid editing remains an issue with Wikipedia – not only in the English Wikipedia, but also in the German Wikipedia, the second-largest worldwide. Otto Brenner Stiftung, the scientific division of the German trade union IG Metall, the largest individual trade union in the world, published my study on covert PR in Wikipedia entitled “Covert PR in Wikipedia – companies set their sights on the knowledge of the world”.

Jimmy Wales with German Wikipedia book

The results of the study: PR and manipulation are omnipresent in Wikipedia. Not only companies, but also associations, federations, political parties and individuals are trying to improve their public images by editing the online encyclopaedia’s articles, in a number of ways. Intervention does not stop any of this effectively. Manipulation attempts were made in topics such as nuclear power, the history of

…continue reading New German study on PR in Wikipedia