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Anonymous revenge editing on Wikipedia – the case of Robert Clark Young aka Qworty

by Wikipediocracy

When asking for donations, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales likes to refer to the site as “a temple for the mind” and “a place we can all go to think, to learn, to share our knowledge with others.” And when reflecting on what makes Wikipedia contributors want to share their knowledge with the world, current Executive Director Sue Gardner claims that “Wikipedians do it for love. Really.” That may well be so for some of Wikipedia’s more casual and idealistic writers, but many of the regular editors of the encyclopedia flock to it not so much for love but out of a desire to promote their political views, advertise their websites and novels, plump up their Wikipedia biographies and damage the reputations of people they don’t get along with in life.

Wikipedia is the sixth most-read site on the Internet, yet anyone with a computer and an internet connection can change its entries at any time while hiding behind an anonymous handle. Some Wikipedia contributors are experts at manipulating the site’s articles to reflect their own versions of reality, and some have been doing it for a long time without being discovered. The case of the British journalist Johann Hari using Wikipedia under a pseudonym to smear a number of his colleagues is not an isolated one. Welcome to the age of Wikipedia revenge editing.

Wikipedia editor Qworty – the early days

One of the site’s more prolific contributors, at over 13,000 edits, goes by the pseudonym of Qworty. He specializes in editing the Wikipedia biographies of writers, and, like many Wikipedians, Qworty prefers not to reveal his real-life identity. Is Qworty editing Wikipedia for love? His very first contribution to the site might suggest so. On March 10, 2007, Qworty removed a large section of negative comments from the discussion page for minor American writer Robert Clark Young. Wikipedia editor Alabamaboy had discovered a blog post by bestselling novelist Michelle Richmond alleging that Young had bragged about having written his “weirdly glowing” biography himself. Alabamaboy went on to delete “a ton of his self promo items” not just from Robert Clark Young’s biography, but from other articles as well which had been linked to Young’s biography. This is in line with the site’s autobiography guideline which strongly discourages biographical subjects from writing about themselves. The Talk page for Robert Clark Young contained other unflattering material: two contributors had suspected that Young was still secretly editing his biography under the user names of Berenise and John Bryson. And while both accounts vehemently denied this, Wikipedia editor Imladros was convinced they were run by the same person, Robert Clark Young:

Does someone here know to which WP authorities people like [[User:Berenise]]/[[User:John Bryson]] can be reported to stop him from making this project a complete joke? You’re so obvious, man, and it just keeps in line with the allegations of anonymous self-promotion and vengeful behaviour made against the subject of this article on various blogs and forums! — [[User:Imladros|Imladros]] 01:31, 23 October 2006 (UTC)

Was Qworty’s removal of this embarrassing page motivated by a wish to protect a virtually unknown writer from ridicule – Wikipedia readers do occasionally come across an article’s Talk page – or did he have a different reason? Why was this supposedly new Wikipedia user already familiar enough with the site’s idiosyncratic mark-up language to not just delete the content, but to “archive” it, making it harder to find for future readers? This behavior usually indicates that an experienced user has either returned to Wikipedia under a different name or that he is operating several alternative accounts known as “sockpuppets”. Such accounts have often been used to manipulate consensus in polls where Wikipedia editors decide whether a person is notable enough to have a biography on the site, and what goes into that person’s article.

Qworty and his promotion of Robert Clark Young

Let’s assume, for the time being, that Qworty was a genuine newcomer who simply upheld Wikipedia’s policy on biographies of living persons which forbids adding poorly sourced derogatory information to Wikipedia. Qworty certainly has a lot of love for Robert Clark Young, and has so far made 25 edits to Young’s biography with this account alone. In July 2011, Qworty created an article about director Terisa Greenan. At that time, Greenan was most notable for a web series about her polyandrous lifestyle. In April 2012 she released a documentary called “Someday You”. The subject of “Someday You”: Robert Clark Young. And in August 2012, Qworty created a flattering Wikipedia article on Young’s 2008 essay “The Death of the Death of the Novel”. Sometimes Qworty failed to provide any sources when writing about Young. In more than one instance, Qworty referenced his articles on Young and his projects with mentions on obscure blogs and articles written by Young himself, which are not usually considered acceptable as sources on Wikipedia.

 

Qworty stands firm against self-promotional edits

Qworty stands firm against self-promotional edits

 

Qworty and Robert Clark Young’s critics – a pattern emerges

Qworty’s interpretation of what counts as a trusted reference on Wikipedia is very different when he edits the articles on other writers: In this edit, he removed large amounts of useful information from the biography for novelist Michelle Richmond and left the article in a skeletal, almost unreadable state, dotted with tags claiming “citation needed”.

 

Michelle-Richmond-qwortyfie

 

Remember, Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling novelist who had mentioned on her blog that Young was bragging about having written his Wikipedia biography himself. Contrast this with Qworty’s glowing Wikipedia article on Young’s essay “The Death of the Death of the Novel”, which is sourced exclusively to blog posts and Amazon.com sales pages and includes a lovingly detailed, completely unsourced print history which one might think only the author himself or somebody close to him could have been aware of.

“Does not play well with others”

Robert Clark Young’s claim to literary fame is founded more on his attacks on other writers than on his only commercially published novel, “One of the Guys”. The book, which appeared in 1999, was only moderately successful and received generally poor reviews. Publishers Weekly criticized the “improbable plot” and called it an “awkward debut novel.” Kirkus Review spoke of the book’s “one-line premise” and clichéd opening situation. Yet Young’s Wikipedia article chronicles his life in great detail, and the lavish Selected bibliography section seems to list every essay and newspaper article Young has produced since 1982.

Yes, a reader happening upon Young’s Wikipedia biography might come away with the impression that Robert Clark Young is quite the prolific writer who overcame his struggles with alcohol addiction, cares deeply about his infirm parents, and fearlessly calls out authors like Brad Vice for acts of plagiarism.

Young’s Wikipedia entry is significantly longer and more flattering than that of far more productive contemporary writers like Richard Bausch, who has eleven novels and eight short story collections under his belt. Coincidentally, Young had once accused Bausch of literary cronyism and of “greasing” Brad Vice’s career. Bausch in turn implied that Young was on a clear personal vendetta and that he felt nothing but pity for him. Coincidentally, the Qworty account subsequently edited Bausch’s Wikipedia entry, and reduced the formerly well-structured biography that contained all of Bausch’s achievements and awards to something far less appealing.

The background to this involves a scathing New York Press article by Young, published in December 2005, accusing Alabama author Brad Vice of plagiarism. Vice’s award-winning short story collection “The Bear Bryant Funeral Train” had been withdrawn from publication after allegations surfaced that one of the stories contained material from a 1934 book by Carl Carmer. Southern writers were divided on the issue of whether Vice had plagiarized or merely evoked Carmer. In Young’s piece for the New York Press, he not only condemned Vice, but also attacked the prestigious Sewanee Writers’ Conference for its hand in advancing Vice’s career, and tore into seemingly anyone who ever had anything nice to say about Vice or his book. Other authors commenting, including Richard Bausch, considered Young’s criticism more motivated by the fact that he had attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and received a less-than-enthusiastic reception after presenting one of his pieces in a workshop led by the late novelist Barry Hannah, a friend of Brad Vice’s. A large section of Young’s New York Press article was dedicated to mocking the friendship between Vice and his mentor Hannah. According to this commenter, nurturing friendships does not rank highly on Young’s list of priorities:

I used to know Robert Clark Young personally, though I ended our friendship some time ago due to his paranoia and other mental problems. Bob is one of the most vengeful persons I have ever met. If you ever managed to cross him somehow, in his estimation–no matter if it was ten years ago–he takes pains to make sure he gets even for it. He lives for it, folks. I have no problem with the idea that something happened between Bob in a workshop at Sewanee–an evening with Bob is a litany on his part of those who’ve “done him wrong.” It’s somewhat satisfying to see him display that in print for a change, but I feel sorry for anyone who’s the focus of Bob’s venom.

By now, it should come as no surprise that Qworty has also edited the Wikipedia biography for Brad Vice, repeatedly deleting passages suggesting that Young’s attack article on Brad Vice contained inaccuracies and was motivated by revenge. Vice’s article was eventually fully protected, which means that only Wikipedia administrators can update or change it.

Qworty has also had his fingers all over Barry Hannah’s biography. Since March 2, 2010, he has repeatedly deleted information on Hannah’s achievements while leaving misleading comments in the “edit summary” field in which Wikipedians explain their actions to their fellow contributors. On January 27, 2013, Qworty removed two paragraphs which illustrated Hannah’s evolution as a writer and mentioned his awards and nominations as “unsourced”. The sources were in fact listed in the extensive External Links/Webliography section at the bottom of the article. A little later, he deleted the list of prizes Hannah won as “unsourced”, which was again untrue. Hannah was featured and eulogized in respected publications like The Paris Review, Vanity Fair, and The Guardian, and these articles were all included in the bottom section. In his next edit, Qworty completed the trick by deleting that list of sources as well, as “spam” and “links to avoid”. But Qworty wasn’t done yet. In what appears like petty cruelty rather than improvements to the deceased novelist’s biography, he removed the mention of Hannah as a generous mentor. His most egregiously spiteful “edit” by far: changing Barry Hannah’s cause of death from “natural causes” to “alcoholism”, an untrue assertion not found in the cited source.

Wikipedia and the cost of anonymity – Qworty revealed at last

Is Qworty a neutral Wikipedia editor? Absolutely not. The evidence members of our site collected over the past two weeks suggested that Qworty is either Robert Clark Young himself or someone with an obsessive interest in promoting Young. And an equally obsessive interest in people that Young dislikes. The above is only a small sample of what we managed to find out about Robert Clark Young and his Qworty persona. We passed all of it over to journalist Andrew Leonard of Salon, who told us that when he contacted Robert Clark Young via his Facebook page, Young denied ever having edited Wikipedia. In yet another coincidence, the Qworty account then stopped editing Wikipedia for several days. A few days later, on May 16, 2013, Qworty replaced the contents of his Wikipedia user page with an essay: “Who is Qworty?

About halfway through the rambling 1,400-word self-justification, Qworty wrote, “I was never much interested in Wikipedia until I was attacked on Wikipedia. People from the real world, who had volunteered to be my enemies, came here to create ‘fictions’ – in ordinary life known as ‘lies’ – about me, so I came here to correct a few things.”

Eleven hours later, after another Facebook exchange with Andrew Leonard, Robert Clark Young conceded defeat and admitted on his Wikipedia talk page that he has been editing Wikipedia as Qworty. And that he intends to continue to do so, especially when it comes to his own article. Far from apologizing to the many writers whose biographies he defaced, Young defiantly states that he stands by the spate of revenge edits he performed, given that they were “in compliance with Wikipedia policies.”

The case of Robert Clark Young aka Qworty demonstrates the cost of allowing anybody to edit Wikipedia biographies anonymously. How many Robert Clark Youngs are there on Wikipedia, chipping away at the biographies of those who have offended them, or merely been more successful? Throughout all these years, Qworty was never sanctioned for his activities. If people like Robert Clark Young and Johann Hari can get away with such clumsy biased editing for years and years, until outside observers decide to investigate their Wikipedia history, how many others have managed to slip under the radar?

Andrew Leonard’s phenomenal piece on Salon.com is here.

Image credits: Wikipedia (1), Wikipedia (2),  CC-BY-SA

28 comments to Anonymous revenge editing on Wikipedia – the case of Robert Clark Young aka Qworty

  • SB_Johnny

    For some of the background on how this all came to Wikipediocracy’s attention, see the thread on our forum here: http://wikipediocracy.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=8&t=2162

  • This article is a tour de force, and many kudos to the Wikipediocracy team members who helped Salon’s Andrew Leonard with his version of the story. I am very proud to be the owner of the Wikipediocracy.com domain name, considering the outstanding work that we do here. Every time I hear a Wikipedian say that our site is an “attack” site or other similar whining, I have to laugh! We are the level-headed site that carefully and cautiously points to the very “attack” mentality that pervades Wikipedia. Akahele!

    • Quiddity

      Kudos to Wikipediocracy and Leonard regarding this issue. (BTW, I’m not happy today to have a handle that’s similar to Quorty). For a long time I’ve been concerned about the ability of rogue editors to damage a lot of quality work on Wikipedia. Some of that stems from the founders libertarian outlook which celebrates a kind of anarchy in defense of freedom of speech along with a disinclination to banish. Those principles are fine if everybody is well behaved, but presents a vulnerable target to people wishing to do harm.

      I want Wikipedia to succeed and Wikipediocracy is a vital tool in making that happen.

  • Not a direct comment OT, but worth noting, I think. When somebody first set up my Wikipedia entry many years ago, it was a nice little accurate bio with plenty of interesting info. Then I checked it a few years later and found that it had been reduced to a few sentences (by somebody who wished me ill, or just jealous?). I checked it again a few years after that, and found a longer article again, but this time rife with inaccuracies. So I asked my biographer to write up a reasonable entry and post it, which he did. Fine. Only, the other day a friend of my wife’s in Germany looked me up on wikipedia.de and found an entirely different text with blatant falsehoods. So we’re good to go with Qworty being tossed, I guess, but has anybody looked at the various (possibly derogatory) entries about them in foreign languages? And what can be done about it there, especially if you don’t know the language?

    • Delicious carbuncle

      Jack, on the Farsi-language Wikipedia, Jack Hill is an entry for a British footballer, but your picture is used. The caption says (in English) “Jack Hill in March 2012″. No one seems to think it odd that since he was born in 1897 he would be 115 in that picture…

      Since each language Wikipedia is separate, there isn’t a one-stop shop for getting errors dealt with. It’s hard enough for subjects to get things fixed on the English-language one, which is the largest (and arguably the best maintained). My advice would be to find a friendly editor who happens to be multilingual and a film fan. Try Phil Hall of Film Threat – he knows a few things about WP editing. :)

      • Jack Hill

        Thanks, Carb. I guess these kinds of errors are not just due to the Internet. I recall in my old Encyclopedia Brittannica the article about Albert Spalding the baseball player was illustrated with a picture of his nephew Albert Spalding the violinist. The lousy picture of me that you refer to was posted without my knowledge, and I don’t know how to replace it. I don’t even know who took it, or where. Could be worse, might have been a picture of a football player.

  • EricBarbour

    If you like this kind of thing, here’s another one. Unlike Qworty, this guy came to Wikipediocracy and posted it himself, and then admitted writing his own insanely-long and bizarre WP bio.

    http://wikipediocracy.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=16&t=2247

    Unlike Young’s bio, this is funny.

  • [...] Anonymous revenge editing on Wikipedia – the case of Robert Clark Young aka Qworty (wikipediocracy.com) [...]

  • I came to this site through the Salon article. I find this issue fascinating, but there is so much material on it its a bit daunting to try and learn more. Can anybody recommend a link to a controversy any where near as juicy as this would. Would be much appreciated. Thank you.

  • Chuck Lane

    I’m another WP user who came here through the fascinating Salon article on Qworty. After reading it, and the article here, I was wondering if the creators of WP ever considered what might happen if obviously mentally unbalanced individuals used and edited WP in the manner described? Is there a solution in the WP guidelines?

    • John Lilburne

      There are 100s of policies on the site any one of which should fix the issue. The problem is that the site has no way of telling who is unbalanced and who is not. If you study some of the discussion pages, you’ll be likely to come away with the conclusion that they are all lunatics.

      Day after day, the Creationists battle the Evolutionists, The Israelis battle the Palestinians, Republicans battle Democrats, citizens of neighboring countries denigrate each other, fringe science battles against established science, aromatherapy fights for recognition as cure for cancer.

      Whilst all that is going on petty revenge edits are being added, people defamed.

    • HRIP7

      The Wikipedia arbitration committee deal with many such cases, but behind closed doors, for reasons that are quite understandable. Unfortunately though this has the side effect that the public never gets to hear about them.

  • A solution is not to allow anonymous editors to edit biographies of living people. Another solution would be to implement Flagged Revisions, known under a few names, where changes are held for trusted editors to review.

    Both these ideas have been formally rejected at Wikipedia.

    Ask Jimbo Wales why this is so.

    • Delicious carbuncle

      But can people trust those “trusted editors” you mention? If an editor is trusted to accurately describe video games, does that mean that they are automatically trusted to follow the rules when it comes to editing the biography of the software developer who wrote the latest buggy release of their favourite game?

  • Andrew,
    I really don’t know how to thank you.
    Qworthy has been (hopefully I can finally use the past tense as a result of your brilliant work) by far, the biggest burr in my communications saddle ever and now it really helps me to know the evil bastard has been ferreted out for all to see. I don’t feel so alone and realize my horrible feelings towards this creep and the damage he loves to do (serial truth decay!) is in fact on target, logical, and straight thinking – no doubt shared by countless other reputable, hard working people in the arts who have played by the rules! To look at his timeline, he could rip apart entire pages at a clip of 2 or 3 per minute and it was an endless list. He seemed to spend 24 hours a day pushing the erase button on people’s honest profiles, careers and achievements.
    His extreme ‘clear cutting’ approach he brought to to my page is beyond anything I have ever encountered. Where his personal vendetta comes from, I haven’t a clue but it was consistent – pure hate reigning on my hit parade.
    It was curious to see at first then as he deleted, people put more on my page and he would undo it with in minutes. I began to feel stalked by this crazy person. Strong accusation yes, but in all honesty, it’s the best way I can put it.
    I went ‘face to face’ in the little chat area and let him know how perhaps a phone call might be best (I didn’t feel my problem with him needed to be aired out in public). That call never took place, so I felt empowered to inform the wiki peeps about his abuse and careless regard for facts, truth or anything posted – then he declared of war. Anything anyone posted on my page was pulled instantly. I even began playing with it just to see if he was watching and yup, as soon as I’d press go, he pressed no!
    Having developed strong mixed feelings about wiki at best, I still used the editors forum and pulled facts and quotes to essentially expose him as a parasite, fraud and other choice descriptions and the response across the board from all editors/contributors that wrote were in my defense. They all found him unreasonable and even went as far as to attempt to get him to post future edits (always deletions) and allow a committee viewing before posting but it’s wiki – the honour system – a game he clearly knows nothing of…
    So, I hope he’s in wiki hell and we can crawl from the wreckage he’s left and build a better community. My guess is he may have changed identities and begun his routine again but do you have any sense he has laid down his sword?
    All praise for your fine work. You caught a terrorist.

  • [...] “Anonymous Revenge Editing on Wikipedia—the Case of Robert Clark Young aka Qworty,” Wikipediocracy, May 17, 2013. [...]

  • Ha!

    Oh, the irony of outing a disgruntled man’s unending quest for revenge via Wikipedia on a website that is a testament to and a product of Gregory Kohs’ unending quest for revenge against Wikipedia.

  • [...] Nagyszerű és alaposan utánanyomozott botrány a Wikipédia háza táján, önjelölt igazságosztó szuperhős úgy beírt a szerinte rosszalkodók életrajzi cikkébe, vagy éppen kihúzott, korrigált saját szája ízére, mint a pinty. Hálás téma a Wikipédia valóságtartalma, egyedi világtorzítása. [...]

  • [...] Anonymous revenge editing on Wikipedia – the case of Robert Clark Young aka Qworty [...]

  • [...] 又一则最新消息:关于此次事件的更多内容,如Q沃提进行编辑修改的细节,请参阅维基百科修正小组的朋友们发表的博客文章。 [...]

  • Liz

    I have tried to locate User:Alabamaboy to hear his take on this (after all, he first spotted Young’s sockpuppets in 2006!) but his account has been completely expunged from Wikipedia, despite being an Admin, it’s impossible to find a record of his contributions (edits) or Talk Page conversation. If you do a user search in all of the various databases (including inactive Admins), you come up blank. I knew that Oversighters could “blank” a page but I didn’t know that, except for a few Talk Page comments on assorted articles, that Wiki crats could completely erase almost all evidence that an editor existed and was active on Wikipedia.

    I’m just hoping it had something to do with taking on editing for controversial topics like the KKK and not because of any Young shenanigans. Still, considering the concern Wikipedia expresses about preserving a historic record, it’s odd to see a person purged from the system and erased.

  • Tippi Hadron

    Liz, Alabamaboy is still around, under a different name. He seems like a thoroughly decent sort. We left him out of the story to avoid putting him back on Robert Clark Young’s revenge radar after all these years. Look at what Young did to Brad Vice. Meanwhile, “Bob” Clark Young is showing no signs of having learned anything from his unmasking. Here he is on twitter, trying to pass himself off as the selfless guru of eldercare: https://twitter.com/wryandsardonic.

    Oh hai, “Bob”! Yes, we are keeping a close eye on your Internet activities, and that includes watching over the Wikipedia articles of your literary enemies. You will never get another chance at spreading your poison. Ever. Again.

  • https://twitter.comhttp://wikipediocracy.com/2013/05/17/anonymous-revenge-editing-on-wikipedia-the-case-of-robert-clark-young-aka-qworty/#/wryandsardonic
    L1f3H4ck3r (Milton)Edita para 183 Up Idiomas del Mundo sin Salario para que no exista fanatismo negativo solo ayuda a una “ModeracionGlobal”para toda la CiberNet para todos los Usuarios en conciencia avanzada.-
    Anonymous tambien puede estar compremetido en trabajar para Wikipedia como cualquier otro Organismo que tenga sus voluntades para una mejor Enciclopedia Libre.-

  • [...] of India) Revenge, ego and the corruption of Wikipedia (Salon) Wikipedia’s shame (Salon) Anonymous revenge editing on Wikipedia – the case of Robert Clark Young aka Qworty (Wikipediocracy) The tale of Mr Hari and Dr Rose – A false and malicious identity is admitted. [...]

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