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Ducks Redux

By Hersch

This is an updated look at The Duck Test.

Duck
For those ranking Wikipedians who toil day in and day out, with no hope of remuneration, there can be another kind of reward: the satisfaction of knowing that one’s personal set of prejudices, or what is known at Wikipedia as one’s Point of View (POV), has become the dominant one on a given set of articles. Once an editor has ascended high enough in the pecking order, becoming one of Wikipedia’s leading peckers, he or she may hope to have his or her prejudices incorporated into the “House POV.” But Wikipedia articles change frequently — how does one defend the House POV against interlopers? Initially it was not easy, but as Wikipedia has evolved and matured over the years, the means of defense have been perfected in the “Duck Test.”

Because Wikipedians edit using pseudonymous screen names and therefore have no legal responsibility for what they write, sockpuppetry becomes an issue. Does Wikipedia oppose the practice of sockpuppetry? That depends, as usual, on who is doing it. Plus, it is difficult to detect, and difficult to prove. In fact, because of the way Wikipedia is structured, it is difficult to prove that any given editor is not a sock. But don’t take my word for it:

Do not make an unblock request that includes a request for checkuser to “prove your innocence” … as indicated at Sockpuppet investigations those are so rarely done that you’re better off not asking (besides, it is difficult to use it to prove that two editors are different people). Most administrators consider such an unblock request a sure sign of a sock account (particularly one with very few edits otherwise) and will decline on that basis. Wikipedia: Guide to appealing blocks

So, welcome to the world of sockpuppet investigations. What is the point of having them, when most of the editors are pseudonymous anyway? Well, to ban editors who display an incorrect POV. At one time it was considered necessary to have some sort of evidence, generally demonstrating that the accounts in question shared an IP address, or minimally that they geolocate to the same general neck of the woods. But none of that is necessary today, thanks to the Duck Test.

What is the Duck Test? Here, in its entirety, is the definition as presented by Wikipedia:

The duck test—”if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck”—suggests that a person can identify an unknown subject by observing that subject’s habitual characteristics.

There are certain standards and terminology that are often used to judge assertions:

1. Beyond a reasonable doubt
2. Clear and convincing evidence
3. Preponderance of the evidence
4. Duck test (suspicion) Wikipedia:DUCK

So, we may dispense with the inconvenience of establishing clear and convincing evidence, and simply use “Duck test (suspicion).”

The most comprehensive and eloquent elaboration of the philosophy behind the Duck Test was presented at Wikipedia talk:Banning policy by User:McWeenie, whose Mayfly-like edit history is comprised of only 2 edits on August 30, 2009:

One must never lose sight of the fact that your banned user is a veritable criminal mastermind. He changes IP addresses with the greatest of ease; he laughs at geolocators; no technical security feature can stop him. Yet there is one thing he cannot change, one tell-tale, DNA-like feature which will inevitably trip him up: his POV. Try as he may to change his spots, the banned user’s POV will always surface, sooner or later. Therefore, we must not shrink from the only viable solution. Ultimately, we must publish an Index of Prohibited POVs. This will of course take time to prepare. In the meantime, we should instute (sic) a new feature, similar to the Village Pump, to be called the Wikipedia Post Office Wall. We will produce of gallery of known POVs attributed to banned users. Restoring, or creating, material that reflects these POVs will be considered prima facie evidence of guilt. Admins who represent the forces of righteousness must be empowered to take all necessary measures against these marauders from the outside world, including the ability to execute “spot bans” whenever a telltale POV is detected. Can we do any less to protect the project? –McWeenie (talk) 07:32, 30 August 2009 (UTC)

So, let’s say that you are attempting to edit an article with an incorrect POV. If you are the first person ever to do it, which is unlikely, you are disruptive and you will eventually be banned after a brief period of commotion and discussion. That’s the sort of thing that was common during Wikipedia’s Wonder Years. Nowadays, most incorrect POVs are already well established, and editors who display those POVs have been identified and banned. So, if you edit with a similar POV, you can be:

  • A sockpuppet. Well, can you prove you aren’t? Don’t even think about asking for an IP check.
  • meatpuppet or proxy, meaning that you are the running-dog lackey of a banned user.

That’s it. There are no other possibilities. Congratulations! You’re banned. (See also Dan Tobias’s policy gem, Wikipedia: How to Ban a POV You Dislike in 9 Easy Steps.)

Now, the question may be fairly asked, in the continual Great Sock Hunt, is there collateral damage? You bet there is. The number of new editors who have wandered innocently into a POV war zone, and were banned for their trouble, may number in the thousands. But nowadays, as the general mob-frenzy over Sockpuppet Investigations has intensified, it is possible to get denounced and banned as a sock without ever becoming involved in a controversial topic. You may be branded as a sock for attempting to add historical photos to the Village of Montebello Wiki page at the same time that your son is doing so. Or, you may be branded as a sock without ever editing Wikipedia at all.

A post made last year to the Wikipediocracy Forum tells a remarkable tale:

I’ve never made an edit to WP. I signed up at my wife’s urging while I was being vetted by Citizendium or within days of that. Then I was accepted to CZ and never thought about WP again until my wife explained I was now accused of being a sockpuppet. She had to explain the word to me.

The poor guy who we were accused of being sockpuppets of has been cleared of those charges. Part of the basis of the charges was that we all live on the same continent. I’m only surprised no one noticed that we all log-in from Earth and so must be guilty. Only people on the International Space Station should be ruled out as socks.

My wife is still blocked though the sockpuppet investigation revealed she freely admitted “editing logged out by accident – the fact that he goes back and confirms it is him means there is no problem with the identification.”

This started when my wife showed compassion for a guy getting kicked while he was down. To replace the disproven accusation that we are sockpuppets someone has a new theory that we are meatpuppets of the poor guy. Meatpuppets is another new word I learned today. The guy has offered to show the e-mails he exchanged with my wife which indicate their lack of a relationship prior to perhaps three days ago.

My wife has been proven innocent of being a “sockmaster” and the guy she was sticking up for has been proven innocent of being a “puppetmaster” at his second not-guilty sock verdict this month. I think he’s been on trial three more times in various places in possibly less than three weeks.

Lavrentii Beria would have been proud of the way innocent people are guilty on WP.

That’s one way of putting it. Others might say that this is Kafkaesque.  But a word of caution — don’t say that at Wikipedia. One person who did so was User:Hullaballoo Wolfowitz. He, too, had been blocked after being accused of being someone other than himself. As his attempts to prove his innocence were repeatedly rebuffed, he remarked on his talk page, “This is Kafkaesque.” Whereupon the ever-vigilant User:Sandahl confronted him as follows:

You say you are Kafkaesque, if you are User:Kafkaesque you need to need to make this unblock request in this account name.—Sandahl (talk) 03:50, 29 January 2009 (UTC)

It is very likely the case that sock-hunting has now moved beyond its function as a system-gaming tactic in article content disputes, to becoming an end in itself for young nerd-obsessive admins who were raised on “World of Warcraft.” This would include the phenomenon of the so-called “evil patrollers,” Wikipedians who do not contribute content, but instead concentrate their efforts on reverting purported vandalism and then, once they have accumulated enough brownie points to become admins, they concentrate on finding excuses to ban people. The admin with the highest ban count wins.

In conclusion, let’s get back to the duck test, shall we? In the following video dramatization by the Monty Python Web 2.0 Social Dynamics Research Unit, a typical Sock Puppet Investigation is documented from its inception to the the critical dénouement where the duck test is administered. Both technical and behavioral evidence is taken into consideration by the presiding Wikipedia administrator, who is subsequently made a member of the ArbCom.

 

 

 

 

Photo credit: © Armand | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

10 comments to Ducks Redux

  • Eric Barbour

    Well done. You could expand this into a book–there’s no shortage of examples to list.

    The Piotrus/Digwuren stuff is staggering, involves SEVEN useless Arbcom decisions and hundreds of probable sockpuppets, and is still not “resolved”, after five years. And that’s just one.

  • Oz

    As the saying goes, there’s a socker born every minute.

  • Hersch

    The Germans put it this way: “Ente gut, alles gut.”

  • Heat

    The McWeenie post was obviously meant to be satirical.

  • Hersch

    I certainly wouldn’t exclude that possibility. It seems to be the conclusion reached by Cool Hand Luke on McWeenie’s talk page.

  • David Wainwright

    I used to be heavily involved with editting Wikipedia policies, and from what I saw socketpuppet investigations are typically initiated after someone was investigated for something else, and either they were not guilty of the original “crime” or they appealed the “sentence” for the initial offense. For example, someone does not like how a person is editting, and so they complain on some administrator complaint board about edit warring, biased editting, or some other policy violation.

    This complaint results in a long discussion involving multiple editors about whether the person violated policy or not. Typically these complaints get off-topic very quickly, and focus more on whether the people like the content of the edits, rather than the user’s behavior. In the end, no sanction is issue for the initial offense.

    All of a sudden, some admin suspends the user’s account for alleged sockpupetry, and as this article confirms, it is an undefendable charge. The other variation of this theme is that the person is sanctioned for another offense, and commits sacrilege by appealing the sanction. Now the user’s one-week block for edit warring becomes an indefinite block for edit warring and sockpuppetry.

    Like most of Wikipedia’s policies, it’s all BS. Wikipedia has a problem with sockpuppetry because despite their denial, many editting decisions are based on votes rather than factual accuracy. Sockpuppetry is often used by lousy editors to promote a political agenda, and occasionally by better editors to protect their articles from a hoard of nimrods. Being blocked for sockpuppetry essentially means that you crossed the wrong person. Wikipedia is like the book “Lord of the Flies” where there are no adults, and savage children kill the child who is different.

  • James Salsman

    Future historians of Wikipedia will find that most crucial and introductory summarization passages in serious instructional and political articles weighted by their number of page views are disproportionately authored by confirmed sockpuppets and IP editors. We are fortunate that WikiTrust has remained down for so long or this would be obvious today and would make the editing environment far more draconian.

    Even the unsanctioned editor has a huge incentive to use sockpuppets and log out to edit on the most important topics. The contribution history of a longtime editor is the most powerful weapon someone opposed to their point of view can wield against them, stalking all past edits, cherry-picking the most useful for persuading others to punish, and mass reverting to erase opposing viewpoints all at once.

    Anyone who does not recognize the primacy of the WP:IAR policy over the socking and banning policies is an imbecile trying to curry favor with the hegemony.

  • Kauffner

    There is a regular crew of 10-15 editors at SPI, and they have a judicial-like approach to sockpuppetry cases. But under the duck principle, any of Wikipedia’s 1,400 admins, many whom have grudges and agendas of various kinds, can bypass that, declare a user to be a duck, and block as they like.

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