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How to control a topic

By Cla68

For whatever reason, Wikipedia (WP) still ranks high in Google search results. Although Wikipedia has been losing regular editors at a fairly steady clip since 2007, its “Google-juice” ensures that it retains significant cachet in the online environment. A large number of people still apparently check Wikipedia first when inquiring about a particular topic. For this reason, activists or proponents of certain ideas, movements, philosophies, subjects, ideologies, or theories presumably have a strong interest in influencing the content of the WP articles on their topic of interest. Doing so is not always easy, because other groups with opposing viewpoints on that topic and who are active in WP may stand in the way, often enforcing the “house POV (point of view)” on that particular topic. This isn’t really fair for the outsider group. So, this post is intended as a guide to help your outside group take over the topic of your choice in Wikipedia.

The in-house protectors of certain topics in WP have a significant advantage. They understand WP’s arcane policies and guidelines and know how to keep opposing editors at arm’s length. If you follow this guide with a sufficient number of people to back you up, however, you should be able to wrestle away control of any topic in WP. Established WP activists are sneaky and will try to trick you into making a mistake that they can use to get you banned or blocked. This guide should help you avoid those traps.

First, get your group together. Go out and recruit people to help in your effort. Wikipedia is structured to use crowdsourcing, which means that the larger crowd ultimately controls the content, all else being equal. The numbers that you need depends on the sensitivity of, and interest in, your topic. Taking over topics such as the Democratic or Republican parties, for example, would likely take more people than an obscure fringe political party. To be safe, recruit as many people as you can.


Next, set up your meeting and coordinating space. I suggest anonymous Facebook (or Google+) pages. In the past, editing groups using email to coordinate their efforts have been compromised. Facebook seems to be more secure. Have all your members put their Facebook walls on highest security settings so you can communicate securely and privately with each other. Designate three or four people who will lead your group and will be the main players in your plan to take over the topic.

Register your WP accounts. The leading participants in your group should register WP account names that look like the names of real people, i.e. “Ken Burroughs” and the like. This makes the account look more serious and credible. Don’t choose an account name that has any relation at all to your real name. The members of your group who will be giving background support can choose whimsical names like most WP editors do. Make sure you only register one account, and don’t edit while logged-out. If you have an old WP account, scramble the password and never use it again.

Now, all of you start editing. Edit topics that are NOT related to your primary topic of interest. Make at least one innocuous edit a day and continue with this indefinitely. Don’t post on each others’ talk pages and don’t edit the same articles as each other. To make it easier, I suggest that each person edit an article related to their favorite sport or hobby. Don’t engage in edit wars or get into any arguments with other editors. If you see an opportunity, help another editor copyedit an article on a harmless topic in which you share an interest. This will help you make wiki-friends who may come to your defense later if needed. Avoid WP’s administrative noticeboards and forums like the plague. Put the article(s) that belong to your primary topic of interest on your watchlist, but don’t touch them yet. Just watch what happens with them and unobtrusively watch the discussions, if any, taking place on the articles’ talk pages.

After innocently editing for a month or so, it’s time to get started on your real reason for being there. One of your group’s leaders needs to go to the topic/article in question and make a test edit. The edit needs to be arguably within WP’s policies, but be something that advocates on the opposite side of the issue would probably find disagreeable. This could be using a controversial source, changing the wording in the intro, or adding additional detail to the article that supports one side or the other. After making the edit, watch and see what happens. Is it immediately reverted?

If not, then go ahead and continue shaping the article in the way that you want. If your edit is reverted, or if you eventually start running into opposition from other editors, then it’s time to start using your group tactics in order to prevail. Whatever you do, DO NOT engage in a revert war with opposing editors. Don’t even revert them once, no matter how much you think you’re in the right. If you do make any reverts, it may be used against you later in WP’s administrative forums. Don’t argue with them on the article talk page. In fact, don’t respond at all to the revert even if a message is left about it on your talk page. You still want to try to stay off the opposing group’s radar at this point.

There are several ways to now proceed in getting the article changed to the way you want it, but I think the following way is the best. It requires a lot of time up front, but once complete will require only a little daily time by your group members to maintain.

Open a blank page in your “userspace” and completely rewrite the article from scratch the way you want it to read. Make it as good as you can get it. If you write it to support your POV, try not to make it too obvious. Use as many sources as you can. Make it a really great article. Try to have it done within a few days. One way to do this is to have already written the article in wiki markup on a word document on your home computer. Then, just copy and paste it into the page in your WP userspace.

Once done, start a discussion on the article’s talk page with a link to your draft in your userspace. Announce that you are proposing to replace the current article in its entirety with the draft in your userspace. The regular editors of the article will likely give various levels of disagreement. If they ignore you, then go ahead and copy your draft completely over the article in question. This will force their hand which is what you want to do.

When the other editors make it clear that they will not allow you to copy your draft over the current article, open a content request for comment (RfC)  about your proposal to replace the current article with your draft. Once the RfC opens, announce on your Facebook wall that the RfC is open and invite your group to engage. Your group members should now all pile in to the RfC and support your proposal. Be patient and allow the RfC to run its course. RfC’s sometimes run for 30 days. The opposing editors may fly off the handle once they see all these other editors they’ve never seen before showing up to vote against them. Ignore them and any comments or questions that they pose and wait patiently for the RfC to close.

Now, it’s possible that even though you have the numbers on your side, a WP administrator intent on preserving the house POV will swoop in and close the RfC in favor of your adversaries. Likely culprits include administrators MastCell, NuclearWarfare, Future Perfect at Sunrise, and JzG. If that happens don’t worry about it. Once an administrator has gotten involved in the article with a controversial decision like that, they will have to leave it alone from then on or it will look too obvious that they are using their administrative tools to promote a certain POV, which is a big no-no. Just go reorganize your draft article, then start another content RfC about it in a month or so. Again, announce it on your Facebook wall so your group can again pile in and support your proposal. Because you have the numbers, your proposal will eventually pass and you can replace the current article with your version.

Once you have the article you want in place, use your group numbers to shout down any major proposals to change it. Whenever someone tries to make a major change to the article, start a discussion about it on the talk page and link to the discussion on your Facebook wall so your group can pile in and make a consensus against the proposed change. Again, don’t edit war. When you control all conversations on the talk page with your numbers, you don’t have to edit war because you will always have consensus for keeping the article the way you want it.


Your WP insider adversaries will likely employ several tactics to try to trap you and your group members and get you all kicked-off of Wikipedia. First, they will initiate, either overtly, covertly, or both, sockpuppet investigations of you and your group members. You can beat this by simply not socking. Make sure all your group members understand that they must operate one account only and cannot, ever, share their accounts amongst themselves. If many of your group members work out of the same office, such as if you are a public relations firm or a political advocacy/lobbying group, then tell your group members to only edit WP from their home computers and not their office computers. Otherwise, a sockpuppet check may notice that many of the accounts are using close IP addresses, which will set off alarm bells within WP’s administration. The more geographically dispersed your group members’ residences are, the better.

Second, your adversaries will attempt to insult, belittle, provoke, and troll you and your group members on the article talk page(s) or on your user talk pages into making personal attacks. They may follow your group members to other, unrelated articles and try to entrap them into doing something wrong, such as revert warring. They may ask you, on WP or by email, if you have a relationship to the topic in question, if you know any other editors in real life, or have an account on Wikipediocracy. Ignore them completely. Never respond to any comment that attempts to personalize the debate over the topic. Since you have the numbers on your side, there is no reason to engage with them at all beyond what has already been detailed above. They may recruit friendly editors, unknown to you, to troll you on their behalf. Again, ignore any attempt by any WP editor to obtain personal information or to get a rise out of you. A good rule of thumb is that if another WP editor does something that makes you angry, immediately close WP and don’t return to it until at least 24 hours later when you have cooled down.

Finally, the enemy will try to link you all together by dragging one of you to a WP administrative forum and seeing how many editors show up to support you. If that happens, tell your group on Facebook not to get involved. If you lose one or two members to an unfair block or ban, so what? You still have the numbers you need to keep the topic the way you want it. If you get blocked or banned, stay involved on Facebook giving advice and suggestions to the rest of your group as they continue maintaining your topic. Don’t violate your ban by creating another account or editing without an account. Your adversaries will be watching to see if you do that and will use it against your group.

As you edit WP you will become more experienced in dealing with the passive-aggressive machinations and sneaky tactics employed by your adversaries. Remember, you have beaten them at their own game. Enjoy the fruits of your labors as you use Wikipedia to promote your cause. Happy editing!


Image credits: Flickr/AJC1, Flickr/Tony Fischer Photography ~ Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

18 comments to How to control a topic

  • metasonix

    Heh heh. Basically accurate, and the techniques have often been used by paid editors in the past. Someone’s probably shrieking about this item on Wikipedia IRC channels or elsewhere, off-wiki. Because it’s embarrassing.

  • Just watch out for moose and squirrel.

  • Don’t forget topic bans and interaction bans. Interaction bans can be particularity useful if you only have one or two users posting against your POV. Once you are successful in getting an interaction ban, the other user can’t bring complaints against you in the forums. If they do, or if they even ask if it is permitted, you can then get them blocked by using one of your other players to bring a complaint against them for violating their interaction ban. You may have to sacrifice one of your players, but not if you are careful, and it may be well worth it to get rid of the only person who is monitoring your edits.

  • The motto of the Special Air Service (S.A.S): “Who Dares Wins”.
    The motto of the Sly Arsehole System (S.A.S): “Who Stoops Wins”.

    Which S.A.S is busy at Wikipedia?

  • Hersch

    I think that the publication of this article may launch a social revolution of sorts at Wikipedia, because it makes available to new and inexperienced editors the methodologies which have been a closely guarded secret of Wikipedia’s most established and successful editors. I’m sure that there are legions of Wikipedians out there who have been banned or otherwise marginalized because they did not understand how the system works. If they had only had access to this information, they could have instead become part of the Wikipedian elite.

    However, as Neotarf’s comment above suggests, this article concentrates mainly on playing the sport using defensive strategies. Experienced Wikipedians who are able to stay in the game generally learn to play offense as well, by manipulating the rules in order to get their opponents banned, a sure-fire way to win arguments over article content. Fortunately, there is an essay (disguised as humor) on Wikipedia itself, which provides a step-by-step guide on how to accomplish that. It is called Wikipedia:9STEPS.

  • Eagle

    This is a well-written and accurate article. If you watch closely, it has been applied many times, particularly outside the zone of paid editors. There are a number of controversial areas, such as politics, Middle Eastern peace, and the “culture wars” where this is currently being played out.

    Unfortunately, Wikipedia claims to be the encyclopedia “which anyone can edit.” Instead, it should be branded “the encyclopedia where anyone can be easily banned.”

    I believe that for a collection of publicly-contributed knowledge to retain value over time, the collection needs to be professionally curated. If the Wikimedia Foundation could hire 20 professionals to work at resolving content disputes on the English Wikipedia for the next two years, it would be money well-spent. These professionals could put a disputed page (such as the one that comes under attack as described in the blog-post above) under protection, then sort out the sources and viewpoints, and release to the world a reliable article that would remain protected for six months. Once the ego-feeding sport of wikicombat is removed from Wikipedia, it can become a serious reference work.

    • Your suggestions for reform sound great to me. But some culture wars are not very secret and they need to get rid of projects like the LGBT (Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transvestites). I have no problems with those guys in the real world but what academic subject do they represent? They represent a point of view or set of viewpoints that seem to have favoured status at Wikipedia and there is no point trying to promote impartial scholarship with those guys getting involved as lifestyle advocates. Yes, such projects can and do have secret forums but project status gives them real strength e.g. they put their banner on articles and are thus entitled to a strategic say in how they are developed or not developed.

      • Radiant Orchid

        “…they need to get rid of projects like the LGBT (Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transvestites). I have no problems with those guys in the real world but what academic subject do they represent?”

        Is that a rhetorical question or did you really want an answer?

        • It requires a complicated answer? But let’s not get distracted by the possibility that I am just a stupid homophobe. My point is this: WP is not set up like a university and its projects do not correspond to academic disciplines. It is more like a badly regulated market place and the projects are like shop fronts. So while I like Eagle’s suggestion of curators, the reality is they can’t control an environment that is set up for that kind of competition. There the sly nod and wink is often more persuasive than a reasoned or scholarly argument. All you need is a gang and you are in business.

  • Abd

    Missing from the description: the most effective method for maintaining factional control: watchlists with email notification. It would be better than Facebook, and, of course, Facebook coordination would be, if detected, slapped down immediately, with, even, possible collateral damage. They get seriously crazy about off-wiki coordination. And security can be breached. The most likely source for the EEML breach was a member.

    Watchlist coordination is not against policy. So, basically, one would create a group, with anonymous members on Facebook, say, collect volunteers, and then *cut the links.* Shut down the Facebook page. Once the editors are established on-wiki, and the topic is known, they can watchlist the Talk pages of all editors involved. They don’t even need to know who is on their side. They may know who is a member of the group, or infer it, but that data would never be centralized. Any communication would be one-to-one, and one should always assume that a communication may be compromised.

    The accounts should not all register at the same time, the advice wasn’t clear about that. And if the goal is Wikipedia neutrality, in the presence of factional bias, it would all be perfectly according to policy (even though claims would be made otherwise, if discovered).

    Key is for the editors to develop general Wikipedia interests. That will inhibit their deprecation as SPAs. It can be as simple as playing Whac-a-Mole on Recent Changes, it’s a quick way to accumulate lots of edits and get your name out there. In addition, one will know more what is behind how much of the community thinks. Or edit, as suggested, other topics of interest. Have fun, and stay out of trouble. Stop immediately if trouble arises. If inclined to reach a large number of edits, go for administrator. Study the previous RfAs and see what is considered acceptable.

    The advice about not answering warnings with comments is quite sound. Don’t violate warnings, unless one is very, very sure of community support. Just ignore them, don’t do what was discouraged, let someone else do it. Or make a brief civil comment, like, “Thanks, I’ll be careful about that.” But maybe continue watching a page and tossing in an occasional revert. (Watch out of Discretionary Sanctions are involved. Those can be hair-trigger.)

    It takes patience to confront factional bias. What SPAs frequently fail to do is to be patient.

    If the collection of users is connected, one or two in pairs by email, it is possible to fairly quickly message the entire group off-wiki, without creating central data collection that can result in compromise. Such a message should more or less be reserved for “Stop!” Positive suggestions, such as “revert on page X” should be avoided, because actions can be correlated by time. Never post a “you have email” note on a user talk page. That reveals what checkuser can’t even see, that two users have email with each other. They can and will use this, I just saw it the other day.

    Of course, the dominant factions collaborate all the time, the established, “house point of view” factions.

    That’s a misnomer, because there actually is no house point of view, there are factions that collect in one place sufficiently to present an appearance of consensus. They tend to *lose* when issues are escalated, if they are POV-pushing. *It often depends on who shows up, and how quickly.*

    Early votes in discussions can heavily influence later ones. SPAs typically need to learn to be brief. Often they are subject matter experts, so they are highly tempted to over-explain.

    Watchlists with email notification handle this communication quickly. You need to watch talk pages of friendly users (and hostile ones). It can happen naturally, but one would want to ensure that this is done reliably, that’s all.

    And be sure to have fun.

  • Volunteer Marek


    This is like … so 2009. The strategies outlined in this blog post are so outdated that they make me want to pat Cla68 on the head and ask “how is that Maginot Line working out for you?”

    Not that the intent’s bad.

    • Walker T Gossipfest

      No, it’s not that outdated. It’s pretty accurate in the main.

      What is worth noting though is that in some culture wars, just one editor, by sheer dogged determination to stick to his or her viewpoint over many years and engage with the contraries with meticulous and mind-numbingly detailed autistic point scoring, can eventually prevail. Wikipedia has no defence against such individuals provided that they remain courteous, do not edit war and survive the occasional demand from the opponents that they be permabanned just for holding a POV. I can think of a number of editors like this and they prevail just because they hold out, long after their greatest enemies have retired from the fray.

      Another technique that has proven the test of time is to have at least a few admins on the side of your culture war POV and have them make the sort of subtle interventions that never land them in trouble but make a solid difference to the actual battle.

      In general though, the casualties of these endless guerilla wars are the articles themselves; the main piece here mentions George W Bush, but articles like that one are on the whole difficult to read (because they are so riddled with caveats and hotly contested inserted snippets) and miss many glaringly obvious points. It’s always instructive to glance at articles from now-forgotten engagements in ancient culture wars (say, from five years ago) that once seemed horribly important. The articles languish in a broken state, unreadable and stacked with dozens of pointless references inserted to try to prove a point.

  • […] how to get the most satisfying experience as Wikipedia editors. Last month, we provided a guide on how to control a topic, showing you techniques that were previously known only to Wikipedia’s most senior and […]

  • […] how a small group of editors typically goes about controlling a topic at Wikipedia, titled How to control a topic. I suggest that everyone who’s intending to participate in these articles at Wikipedia read […]

  • […] because if an editor can make enough friends and allies to become an admin, his or her ability to pursue an activist agenda will be dramatically […]

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