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Twitterbots and the Iron Law

By Hersch


Lately, in press coverage of Wikipedia, the talk has been about “Twitterbots”, Twitter robots that track edits made to Wikipedia from IP addresses that correspond to government offices. The first version was @ParliamentEdits, which tracks edits made from parliament offices in the U.K. After the source code was released to the public, other Twitterbots quickly emerged. There are at least a dozen that we know of,  including @CongressEdits for the U.S.,  @Gov. of Canada edits, @AussieParlEdits for Australia, @Riksdagen redigerar for Sweden, and @Госправки (RuGovEdits) for Russia. This is causing people who don’t normally write about Wikipedia to write about Wikipedia. For example, Global Voices reports that there has been an edit war at the German Wikipedia over whether to call the insurgent forces in eastern Ukraine Aufständischen (“rebels”), or Separatisten (“separatists”). What’s the difference, you may ask? Well, these are the sort of nuances that propagandists thrive on, because they can subliminally affect the way the viewer conceives of political developments. “Separatists” has become the preferred term by Western diplomats, because it carries the implication that the insurgents are acting as running dog lackeys of the Russians, whereas “rebels” is taken to mean that these fighters are simply Ukrainians who don’t like the new regime. Edits were made from an IP address that traces back to the Russian Secret Service (FSO), changing “separatists” to “rebels” (these attempted changes were swiftly beaten back by the opposing camp).

What advice can we at Wikipediocracy offer the government official who aspires to exploit Wikipedia as a propaganda megaphone? Well, first of all, only rank amateurs edit without first establishing a Wikipedia account (this illustrates the limitations of the Twitterbots, which only detect these amateur edits). If you edit without an account, Wikipedia displays your IP address as the author of the edit. It has become customary at Wikpedia to refer to these edits as “anons” or anonymous edits. This is ironic, because your IP address actually reveals who you are, or at least, where you are. So, learn from the mistakes of the Russians, or the British parliamentarians, or the US congressional offices (which were banned from editing by Wikipedia in late July) — get a Wikipedia account. There are several advantages, the preeminent one being that you are now truly anonymous; your IP address is hidden and the general public will not know from where you are editing. You can also choose a clever pseudonym, or a dry, generic-sounding one, and you are free to invent all sorts of stories about who you are in real life.

Bear in mind that the established editors at Wikipedia don’t want you to understand how all this works. Whether you are a government official, a Nobel laureate, or just a public-spirited citizen, it’s all the same to them — if you are a new editor, you’re an interloper who threatens their control over article content, and until you have managed to worm your way into the Wikipedia establishment, you will be viewed with suspicion if not downright animosity.

The key to successful use of Wikipedia as a propaganda megaphone, is learning how to game the system. Wikipedia has constructed an enormous edifice of rules and policies. None of them are enforced in a consistent manner. You will want to learn how to manipulate these rules in order to reward those editors who support your propaganda line, and punish those who oppose it. To do this successfully, you must befriend those senior Wikipedians who are in charge of enforcing the rules, and ultimately you must become one of them yourself. This takes time, and involves doing things that you may find degrading, but as they say in the world of personal fitness, “No pain, no gain.

As we discussed here a few months ago, it is likely that some more sophisticated government operatives may already be up to their eyeballs in the exploitation of Wikipedia, undetected by the Twitterbots. They certainly have the tools at their disposal, including an ”online persona management service” where each operative can control up to 10 separate “sockpuppet” identities based all over the world. But Wait, you ask — why would a Wikipedia editor want to control 10 separate “sockpuppet” identities? Well, because that is one way to control the content of articles: either by fraudulently influencing “consensus” by deploying multiple bogus identities; or alternatively, by successfully framing your opponents with trumped-up allegations that they are sockpuppets, in order to get their accounts blocked;  or in some celebrated cases, by doing both simultaneously.

Buonaparte closing the farce of Egalité

Now, if you are a corrupt politician or a ruthless intelligence operative, this may be beginning to sound familiar to you. In fact, your real-life experiences may have prepared you in advance for successful exploitation of Wikipedia. Let’s step back for a moment and examine this from the historical perspective. In 1911, the German sociologist Robert Michels presented a theory he called the “Iron Law of Oligarchy”, which claims that rule by an elite, or oligarchy, is inevitable as an “iron law” within any democratic organization as part of the “tactical and technical necessities” of organization. According to Wikipedia’s own article on the Iron Law, Michels claimed that “any large organization has to create a bureaucracy in order to maintain its efficiency as it becomes larger—many decisions have to be made daily that cannot be made by large numbers of disorganized people. For the organization to function effectively, centralization has to occur and power will end up in the hands of a few. Those few—the oligarchy—will use all means necessary to preserve and further increase their power.” Michels later moved to Italy and joined Mussolini’s fascist movement, but never mind that.

Recently, Aaron Shaw of Northwestern University and Benjamin Mako Hill of the University of Washington presented a paper at the Collective Intelligence Conference, which took place in June at M.I.T. It was entitled “Laboratories of Oligarchy? How the Iron Law Extends to Peer Production.”  In the conclusion of their study, which mentions Wikipedia among other, similar organizations, the authors state that:

We find strong evidence that, on average, as wikis become larger, a small group – present at the beginning – monopolizes positions of formal authority in the community and accounts for more administrative activity while also using their authority to restrict contributions from experienced community members.

…These results are consistent with Michels’ iron law of oligarchy and contradict prevailing theoretical and empirical findings regarding organizational democracy in peer production.

It should be noted that Benjamin Mako Hill currently serves on the advisory board of the Wikimedia Foundation.

What have we learned so far? If  you, gentle reader, are in fact a government official that desires to have your propaganda appear, free of charge, in the website that reigns supreme in Google searches, you must first open a Wikipedia account, thus evading the Twitterbots. Then you must discreetly get the lay of the land, identify those alpha-Wikipedians who belong to what the aforementioned study calls the “small group… that monopolizes positions of formal authority”, and then attach yourself, lamprey-like, to their flanks. Add your comments to support them in Wikipedia’s incessant debates. Be obsequious, but don’t overdo it, or you may arouse their suspicion. In time, you will begin to win their trust and become accepted as a courtier, at which point you may begin to violate Wikipedia’s many rules with impunity, and with a few insinuations whispered into the right ears, you can get your opponents at Wikipedia blocked forever.

But there is something else to consider, when approaching the subject of oligarchies. A few years ago a commentary appeared in the New York Times, which pointed out the strong parallels between our modern-day American social, political and economic structures, and those of the classic model of an oligarchical society, 14th Century Venice. Author Chrystia Freeland points out that:

In 1315, when the Venetian city-state was at the height of its economic powers, the upper class acted to lock in its privileges, putting a formal stop to social mobility with the publication of the Libro d’Oro, or Book of Gold, an official register of the nobility. If you weren’t on it, you couldn’t join the ruling oligarchy.

The political shift, which had begun nearly two decades earlier, was so striking a change that the Venetians gave it a name: La Serrata, or the closure. It wasn’t long before the political Serrata became an economic one, too. Under the control of the oligarchs, Venice gradually cut off commercial opportunities for new entrants. Eventually, the colleganza was banned. The reigning elites were acting in their immediate self-interest, but in the longer term, La Serrata was the beginning of the end for them, and for Venetian prosperity more generally.

Might there be a lesson here for Wikipedians? It has been noted that both the number of Wikipedia editors, and the number of page views, are already in decline. Has Wikipedia entered the phase of oligarchical self-destruction? And if so, dear political operative, is it really worth the time and effort it would require for you to successfully attach yourself to its backside?



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

2 comments to Twitterbots and the Iron Law

  • EricBarbour

    >>Has Wikipedia entered the phase of oligarchical self-destruction? And if so, dear political operative, is it really worth the time and effort it would require for you to successfully attach yourself to its backside?

    Yes, and probably not. No guarantee it will last long enough for WMF employees to make a “life career” out of employment there. Clear public evidence has been slowly accumulating that WMF is poorly run and dysfunctional; the sheer need for third-party Twitterbots shows how wrong things are internally. Add that to the endless squabbles over Visual Editor, Flow, Media Viewer etc, plus the exodus of content writers, and you have a really embarrassing pile of smelly political feces.

    Once Wikipedia’s student-age users begin to realize they can’t use or trust the information on it (or more likely, someone invents a better and easier mousetrap), it will shrivel up like MySpace.

    One of the funniest aspects of Wikipedia is its extreme dorkiness. Regard this by way of example.


    A movie that hasn’t been released yet, and won’t appear till next May. Derived from comic books. And it already has a 75kbyte article with 107 references on Wikipedia.

  • […] opponent banned; Wikipedia considers sockpuppetry to be a serious offense (except when it is done by Wikipedia administrators.) For technical reasons, it is extremely difficult to prove either guilt or innocence. Generally, […]