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Arbs gone wild

by Yerucham Turing & Eric Barbour

There are two elements which form the structural bedrock of Wikipedia, and which combine to cause an insoluble problem:

1. Wikipedia insists upon the principle of anonymous editing. This is considered sacrosanct, and it means that ultimately, no real-life person is responsible for the accuracy or veracity of article content.

2. On any controversial topic, a Wikipedia article is a battleground in which the contestants vie for control of content. The stakes are high; the winner may use that Wikipedia article as a soapbox for propaganda, which will shoot right to the top of a typical Google search. Officially, Wikipedia wishes that this were not the case, but wishes are not yet horses. The battle for control is settled by two criteria: “consensus” (which in practice means majority rule), and debates over policy (which in practice means gaming the system). Disputes are resolved, on a temporary basis, by bullying and sophistry, but the only lasting resolution is via the banning by Wikipedia administrators of one faction of the contestants, generally through the connivance of the other faction. The banned editors are generally not prepared to simply give up and find another hobby; many are psychologically addicted to Wikipedia as a MMORPG. There is an appeals process for banned editors, which has roughly the same success rate as attempts to build a perpetual-motion machine.

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These two elements combine to ensure that Wikipedia is dominated by what it calls “sockpuppetry“. Because of the “majority rule” feature, and because Wikipedia editors are not real-life individuals, but rather, “accounts,” the temptation to create more than one account in order to sway the “consensus” is a powerful one. Consequently, many Wikipedians become sockpuppeteers. And as well, many Wikipedians who do not become sockpuppeteers are nonethless accused of it, because it is a convenient pretext for getting one’s 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, just the allegation will suffice. But for many, having one’s account banned for sockpuppetry, whether justified or not, is simply an incentive to start another account. Or several of them. Other casualties of WikiCombat, banned for other spurious reasons, may do the same. And many users acquire a technical sophistication that enables their socks to elude detection for protracted periods of time.

Wikipedia maintains a User creation log. Every minute, 5-10 user accounts are created. On the average, there will be 5000-6000 new user accounts created every day, more than 150,000 every month. The new user creation log starts on September 7, 2005. On September 8, 1649 accounts were created. By 2006 that figure had roughly quadrupled, and remained roughly the same since, though it has been declining slowly since 2008.

Two Wikipedians, who garnered a reputation for persistently evading efforts to keep them off Wikipedia, went by the screennames “Kumioko” and “Poetlister” (among many, many others.) At certain points the administrators became exhausted by playing whack-a-mole with their myriad accounts, and the matter was referred to Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee. The Arbitration Committee, or “ArbCom”, is supposedly where the “buck stops” in the dispute resolution process (in reality, the buck never stops at Wikipedia.) Here is where one would hope to see the most mature judgment that Wikipedia has to offer; instead, we find shocking lapses of judgment.

One ArbCom member (or “Arb”) who goes by the moniker “AGK” has attempted to play the role of Captain Ahab, with the White Whale being Kumioko (who seems to enjoy being the elusive quarry.) One day last year, AGK threatened to send a TOS complaint to the editor’s employer — which happened to be the Department of Defense. AGK announced to the editor:

Hi. You occasionally edit from U.S. Department of Defense IP addresses. You must be aware that an abuse report will shortly be filed with this organisation, alerting them to your refusal to abide by Wikimedia’s Terms of Use. As I understand from previous, similar abuse reports filed with the Navy etc., the DOD take an extremely dim view of employees using their networks in this manner. If you are in the armed forces, or a civilian employee of them, you are jeopardising your employment and risking real life disciplinary action. Please do not force us to contact your employer.

What is implied but not immediately obvious from that quote is that AGK acknowledged (with “occasionally”) that only a small fraction of the editor’s edits came from his work IP address, which is likely shared by many people. But having pegged his real-life identity on the ArbCom mailing list (what’s known in Wiki-vernacular as being “outed”), AGK has found “Kumioko’s” vulnerability. Why poke at the editor’s home ISP (like Verizon or Comcast) as responsible for the vast majority of his edits, when you can really hurt him (using his real name) by notifying his work supervisor? After a discussion thread on Wikipediocracy’s forum provoked a kerfuffle on Jimmy Wales’ Wikipedia talk page, AGK had this to say in his own defense:

This e-mail alerted Kumioko to the fact that when an abuse report is filed, as it inevitably would be if he did not let up, it is likely to affect his employment and cause trouble to his real life. I did not say “I will call your employer and rat you out.” This would be abhorrent, and I am outraged at the people who suggest this is what I did. My message was very clearly framed as a plea for Kumioko not to force Wikipedia’s hand, with such desperate consequences. I am utterly certain that I would write this e-mail again, even if I knew some people here would misinterpret it, because the alternative is to wreck a man’s livelihood and life. A misguided man waging a farcical campaign against a website, but a real, living man nevertheless.

So, in other words, what AGK really said was, “If you do not let up, I will call your employer and rat you out,” thank you very much. This is vicious behavior, and a majority of his fellow Arbitrators endorsed this act.

In the case of Poetlister, who was apparently addicted to role-playing on Wikipedia and elsewhere on the internet, an Arbitrator who hides behind the pseudonym “FT2” sent a threatening message back in 2008 that came to be known as the “Anvil e-mail“. We quote only an excerpt here, because the whole thing is over 2,800 words long:

You have a deadline below, and I’ll repeat everything as often as you need to hear it, and consider concerns all the way till then. One minute after that, gloves come off all the way, without any further warning, starting with [your wife’s] workplace for evidence, and [your workplace], and probably unavoidably, ending with family or someone will inform the police. Do you actually love your family, or need them? Or are they toys too? Sacrifice your fictions, games and abuses for yourself and them. Put right the abuses you have done over the last 3 years and you may survive, or take complete responsibility for any unfortunate results of forcible removal. I don’t know [your wife], but she seems tough, and people don’t like being deceived. I don’t know what settlement you’d get, but I bet it won’t include the things in real life you care most about. Risk it if you like. Your call. And watch me not minding if it hurts you to put this all right.

gangster

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It reads like an outtake from “The Godfather.” It also did little to deter Poetlister, who found ways to remain active at Wikipedia and related projects, and recently joined the elite group of miscreants who have been globally banned by the Wikimedia Foundation.

Is there a sensible, humane, and effective way to deal with the problem of multiple accounts? Probably not. It is an inherent and probably permanent feature of Wikipedia’s flawed design. The Wikipedia establishment’s fixation on trying to suppress it is like cutting off a head of the Lernaean Hydra, causing two more to take its place. Trying to do it in an ever more vindictive manner simply adds to the toxicity of the social environment at the “encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” Perhaps the Arbs and their buddies are asking the wrong questions about what needs to be done.

 

Image credits: Flickr/CarbonNYC [in SF!], Flickr/sacks08 ~ licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Note: a third un-named co-author strongly objects to this article as written. This article is not intended to express their thoughts or opinions. It is intended to express the opinions of the authors in the byline –Zoloft

12 comments to Arbs gone wild

  • EricBarbour

    The trolls are sleeping tonight. (Or more likely, they’re getting drunk because they bet on the Seahawks. Ho ho ho.)

  • Ross McPherson

    Excellent summary. I disagree with only one thing: consensus=majority rule.

    Consensus at Wikipedia is when people in a train carriage vote and decide that graffitti is art. If you try to wash off some of the scrawl in spite of them, because you think the majority of people in the real world regard “Fuck you” as graffitti, you are in danger of getting thrown off the train because you won’t accept consensus.

    i.e. consensus=mob rule.

    • Harald K

      You’re being uncharitable to mobs. In a mob, there’s not the crazy level of intrigue. In a mob, people don’t bring an army of masked clones.

      I think “cult” is more appropriate analogy than mob, even though cults haven’t managed to pull off cloning yet.

  • Sidereal

    Wikipedians really should have realised long ago that the only sort of sock-puppetry they should be concerned with, is the sort that seeks to actively distort consensus on content matters.

    If anonymous editing is to persist (and given the complete lack of a credible alternative, it has to), then obviously you need to expend all possible time and effort to stop people registering multiple accounts to either win edit wars on articles or stack votes/sway discussions about what should be in, or not in, articles.

    But sock-hunting on Wikipedia long ago developed an extremely pointless aspect to it – at some point, someone decided that socks shouldn’t be allowed to comment in Wikipedia’s ‘project space’ about anything, ever (project space is wiki-speak for the back office areas like the admin noticeboards and arbitration pages).

    [edited for brevity]

    • Radiant Orchid

      Not allowing anonymous editing is a credible alternative. You might disagree with it, but it is a credible alternative.

      The problem is that once you disallow IP editing and/or institute some form of identity verification, the “vandal patrollers” will find that they don’t have much to do. You don’t really think those people are there to actually write an encyclopedia, do you?

      • Hersch

        By “anonymous editing,” I take it you mean editing that is not done with a logged-in Wikipedia account (so that edits are “signed” with an IP number)? Because truth be told, editing with a logged-in Wikipedia account is also anonymous, for all intents and purposes.

  • Ross McPherson

    Wikipedia’s problems are due to personalities yes but only because it gives so much room for personal choices. If it stuck to the literary genre of a general encyclopaedia, there would be less content and there would be fewer quarrels – you can’t quarrel with the basic facts of general knowledge, which is all that readers really go there for. Instead we find the silliest articles almost without any content and other articles over-loaded with content, in both cases thanks to the personal choices of people with a viewpoint about what is or is not worthy of inclusion. Wikipedia is intellectually obese.

  • Eric Barbour

    Sidereal, lol.

    Dude, seriously, stop. The mods won’t let you. Why don’t you take it over to Encyclopedia Dramatica? I heard they are desperate for new editors. You can bitch about Corbett all you want there, as long as people laugh at it.

    • Well, some of the Wikipedia related articles at Encyclopedia Dramatica are in desperate need of updating. Other subcultures like DeviantArt, furries, and bronies are well covered, but the Wikipedians have either lost interest in ED, or are afraid of being banned from Wikipedia for contributing there.

  • Carol Moore

    Multiple accounts “is an inherent and probably permanent feature of Wikipedia’s flawed design.” So what is Wikipediocracy’s alternative? Even self-identified people can cause all sorts of trouble (especially if they are women because women opining drives guys nuts).

  • kelsey

    Multiple accounts are very hard to make now due to bans on TOR and many commonly known proxy services. You have to be pretty sophisticated these days to pull it off.

    Furthermore, since reputation is linked to edit history, it’s quite a lot of work to build up credibility on multiple accounts to do it without looking like a sockpuppet, given so many SJW’s will jump quickly to try to get you banned.

    One way wikipedia could improve this state of affairs is ask for a phone number. That’s how Google and Yahoo cut down on fake accounts big time — though such an approach is decidely a bit against the open ethos of Wikipedia.

  • kelsey

    Wikipedia’s content is driven by a simple formula: number of editors x their editing skill ^ persistence