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Wikipedia’s struggles with harassment and criticism: past and present

by Kingsindian

Early in October, Buzzfeed published a expose, titled “Here’s How Breitbart And Milo Smuggled Nazi and White Nationalist Ideas Into The Mainstream”, based on leaked emails of Milo Yiannapoulos, a former writer for Breitbart News.

Milo Yiannopoulos

Milo Yiannopoulos
Image Credit: Kmeron
License: CC BY 2.0

The story is long and complicated and covers lots of areas. Among the revelations in the story were some email exchanges between Yiannopoulos and journalists in the “liberal media” which Breitbart News frequently rails against. Some of the emails exchanged between Yiannopoulos and David Auerbach, then a journalist at Slate, were about governance issues at Wikipedia. Auerbach has broadly denied Buzzfeed’s claims, saying: “Inasmuch as the story concerns me, it is utter bullshit”.

The story which follows spans several areas including harassment, politics, anonymity, and the nature of online discourse. Like in the Buzzfeed story, one theme connecting many of these areas is a long-running and ever-evolving saga called Gamergate, which started in mid-2014. The issues discussed here go beyond Wikipedia and affect the lives, politics, and culture in the “real world” as well. While we will touch on the real-world issues as appropriate, our focus will be on how these issues affect and are affected by, the mechanisms and personalities on Wikipedia.

An ArbCom judgment
One email mentioned in the Buzzfeed story was allegedly written by Auerbach in 2016, dealing with a pseudonymous Wikipedia editor known as “The Devil’s Advocate” (hereafter, “TDA”). (Disclosure: TDA is a member of the Wikipediocracy Forum, and has co-written one post for the blog. They were banned from Wikipediocracy for some time but are unbanned now.) The facts of the case are as follows:

In early 2016, the Wikipedia Arbitration Committee (also known as “ArbCom”, sort of the “supreme court” of Wikipedia) passed a motion indefinitely banning TDA from Wikipedia, for “continuing harassment of other editors”. No further details were provided. At the time, TDA had some active sanctions on them: a “topic ban” from “Gamergate and gender-related” areas on Wikipedia (a topic to which we will return), and a block from editing Wikipedia for three months — starting in October 2015 — up to the time of their eventual banning. Since ArbCom does not directly discuss details of cases dealing with harassment or privacy issues, we don’t know what exactly transpired. However, TDA has given their account of the incident in various fora, which is summarized in a Medium post. Piecing together various parts of their story with various comments made by ArbCom members, the following picture emerges.

Since TDA was not active on Wikipedia for the preceding several months, their “off-wiki” actions were the cause of their ban. TDA’s complaint concerned an admin on WP who, TDA believed, was engaging in editing pages on which they have a “conflict of interest”, without any disclosure of this conflict. The alleged conflict of interest and the admin in question were not related to Gamergate. TDA says they initially contacted the admin, but since their warnings were ignored, they sent their evidence to ArbCom. ArbCom acknowledged the receipt of the evidence but made no further communication before TDA was banned. ArbCom says that they investigated the complaints and did not consider the charges to have any merit. The “arbitration policy” on Wikipedia allows for private hearings in cases of harassment, but mandates that the parties have a chance to respond to the charges leveled against them. Asked repeatedly, ArbCom did not deny that this step was violated but argued that they did not carry out the step because they did not want to perpetuate the harassment.

David Auerbach

David Auerbach

The decision by ArbCom led to a lot of discussion on the ArbCom noticeboard, with many negative comments and a Request for Comments, overwhelmingly rejecting the argument made by ArbCom. However, ArbCom stuck to their decision and an appeal to Jimmy Wales went nowhere, so there the matter rested. Recent questions by this author, addressed to one of the Arbitrators who is running for re-election, resulted in them largely reiterating their earlier stand and declining to discuss the matter further. TDA made an appeal to ArbCom after 12 months asking to be unbanned; the appeal was declined. In recent months, TDA has written several pieces for Breitbart Tech under the alias “T. D. Adler”, criticizing Wikipedia for its “liberal bias”.

After the initial ArbCom decision, Auerbach allegedly sent the email to Yiannopoulos, commenting that “Apparently, Wikipedia can ban any of its users for their activity on other sites and publicly claim them to be harassers”. An article on Breitbart Tech with the title “Wikipedia Can Now Ban You For What You Do On Other Websites” soon appeared. However, this practice is not new; indeed there was a case contemporaneous with the case described above, where an administrator named “Soap” was stripped of their administrator position and banned, as a consequence of their behavior on IRC (Internet Relay Chat). Indeed, “off-wiki attacks” have been a bugbear on Wikipedia for more than a decade now. The story behind this practice is illuminating in its own right and illuminates many of the fundamental issues involved, so it is worth a closer look.

A trip down memory lane: BADSITES
The roots of complaints about “off-wiki attacks” go back to almost the beginning of Wikipedia. Starting sometime around 2005, Wikipedia pages began ranking quite high in search engine results. Consequently, traffic and volunteers increased dramatically. With this increase in influence came efforts to control the content of various pages, and a concomitant increase in scrutiny of the “editors” (the name Wikipedia gives to contributors to the website). Since many Wikipedia editors are anonymous, one favorite pastime of the scrutineers was to try to sleuth out the real-life identity of WP editors. Wikipedia has strict policies against “doxing” or “outing,” namely: connecting Wikipedia usernames to real-world identities. Indeed, many of the complaints against “attack sites” have been directed against Wikipediocracy and especially its predecessor, Wikipedia Review.

Encyclopedia Dramatica Logo

Encyclopedia Dramatica Logo

One of the earliest instances of an “attack sites” ruling by ArbCom revolved around a satirical website called Encyclopedia Dramatica (ED). ED, sometimes known as the bastard child of Wikipedia, often hosted unfiltered, vulgar and sometimes libelous content about various people on the Internet. After a contentious “Articles for Deletion” discussion on Wikipedia about ED (after which the article was deleted), a Wikipedia editor known as MONGO was the subject of a satirical article on the ED front page, links to which were posted on Wikipedia. The matter was brought to the Arbitration Committee of Wikipedia, which ruled that off-wiki attacks on Wikipedia members could be grounds of sanctions on Wikipedia. In the ArbCom case, one user on Wikipedia was deemed to be the same as the user on who created the ED page; this user was banned from Wikipedia. Ironically, this determination was made after some Internet sleuthing by a Wikipedia editor. The basic idea behind the ArbCom ruling was a principle titled “solidarity”, which they articulated as: “Wikipedia users, especially administrators, will not permit a user under attack to be isolated, but will support them.” One of the Arbitrators, Fred Bauder, later elaborated: “…if you let this go … valued contributors feel isolated and quit because we seem indifferent to the attacks and harassment which is being made.”

ArbCom is not a proper court or legislature, but is akin to a “discipline committee”, in former Wikipedia Arbitrator (and former Wikipediocracy Trustee) Kelly Martin’s apt phrase. ArbCom does not make policy and it does not follow precedent; rather it treats each case on its own and tries to address it using basic Wikipedia policies and whatever the ArbCom members think is appropriate. Nevertheless, by virtue of the being the venue of last resort, ArbCom’s pronouncements do carry some weight among the broader Wikipedia population. In 2007 a proposal called “BADSITES” was mooted, ostensibly based on the ArbCom decision. The proposal, prohibiting “linking to attack sites”, failed but controversy continued, resulting in another ArbCom case. In statements to ArbCom, many editors expressed concern that the ArbCom prohibition was being interpreted too broadly to remove links to sites which criticized Wikipedia editors. A spirited discussion also ensued on the Wikipedia mailing list: former Arbitrator David Gerard complained, “the supporters of BADSITES talk sweet reason, but every time they *act* upon the idea they act like rabid killbots on crack.” ArbCom responded by explicitly narrowing the scope of their decision and asking the community to come up with a policy. After intense edit wars on the “No personal attacks” policy page, a new page titled “Linking to external harassment” was created and made a “behavioral guideline”. “Policy” and “Guideline” are terms of art on Wikipedia: policies are supposed to be followed rather rigidly, while guidelines are “best treated with common sense”. In practice, the distinction is often murky, and numerous exceptions apply to both.

Structural issues
These issues are inseparable from the basic structure of Wikipedia: the exhortations to “assume good faith”, “no personal attacks” and “everyone can edit,” in an environment where many contributors are anonymous and “outing” is prohibited, directly lead to these outcomes. A plaintive complaint from administrator SlimVirgin is illustrative: she wrote, “One of the most vocal opponents of no-links-to-attack-sites is simultaneously posting to WR [Wikipedia Review] that he’s been doing Google research on me to see how easy it is to identify me. It’s impossible to assume good faith with that going on, and I have to question why someone like that is allowed to interfere with our policies. But they are, because we allow anyone to edit anything.”

There are other difficulties. At what point does legitimate criticism turn into harassment? What is really achieved by banning pseudonymous editors from Wikipedia — many of whom happily continue editing Wikipedia under alternate names (“sockpuppets”). Should a bunch of unqualified volunteers be given responsibility for addressing serious harassment with real-world consequences? On the last point, many on ArbCom itself have in the past expressed frustration that the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit in charge of Wikipedia, does not handle cases of harassment in a serious and proactive fashion. Earlier this year, the Wikimedia Foundation launched an initiative, with a funding of half a million dollars from Craig Newmark, to address harassment. The effectiveness of such initiatives remains to be shown.

In this context, it is interesting to recall one of David Auerbach’s articles, written in 2012 for Triple Canopy, a magazine devoted to literary and cultural topics, especially on the Internet. These articles discussed what Auerbach called “A-culture”: culture associated with Internet platforms where anonymity is a core feature, platforms which include Encyclopedia Dramatica, 4chan, and Anonymous. Strictly speaking, Wikipedia does not fall under his definition of A-culture, but as a child of the Internet in the early 2000s, it shares many of the characters and many of the mechanisms. Many of the people who came into Wikipedia during its growth phase (roughly 2005-2007) were from platforms which were immersed in, or were precursors to A-culture: platforms like Slashdot, various online forums and online roleplaying games. As the original ArbCom case notes, many Wikipedia editors edited Encyclopedia Dramatica and vice versa. Auerbach observes that the evolution of A-culture is inseparable from the medium which it employs. We might add here: and the same is true of Wikipedia as well.

These elements are useful in understanding the phenomenon of Gamergate, a phenomenon which exploded into the public discourse in mid-2014, and by extension into Wikipedia; a phenomenon which assaulted one’s senses and attention whether one was prepared or not. This story will be explored in the next part of this series.

4 comments to Wikipedia’s struggles with harassment and criticism: past and present

  • Very good you are making a connection to Gamersgate, Kingsindian, because that’s indeed the same phenomenon. People who lose the connection with the reality and get lost in a digital sub culture.
    My compliments for this blogpost. Graaf Statler

  • Hyatt

    https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:Contributions/Charginghawk is a Democratic Party activist giving barnstars to four of the people setting a party line on the Gamergate Controversy page. How long would a partisan edit warrior for the other side last on Wikipedia if they were getting barnstars from Steve Bannon? How about if they, as Gamaliel did to Auerbach, contacted another Wikipedian’s employer and tried to get him fired? That might be the clearest act of harassment by one Wikipedian to another in the history of the encyclopedia.

  • Wikipedia, We Have a Problem

    This one one of the better editorials on Wikipediocracy that I’ve read to date. I’ve done the best I can to publish both a personal account/case study of Wikipedia harassment (editor suppression) practiced by a small group of Wiki editors – and in return I’ve had my website listed as a “harassment website” back on Wikipedia for publishing these criticisms! What’s more, I’ve made sure my site is pretty non toxic, considering I’ve had to confront some pretty nasty characters from Wikipedia who have targeted me for years, and I treat the subject matter pretty responsibly. http://wikipediawehaveaproblem.com/2017/06/censorship-suppression-the-shining-light-of-wikipedia-and-other-disappointments/

  • Kumioko

    Far better write-up than anything coming out of that Signpost rag these days. Well Done