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Current Controversies, Crises, & Censorship in Cyberspace

Wikipedia Controversies 2
Response to Guy Chapman re The Durova Incident

This essay is in response to this one by Guy Chapman, aka Wikipedia’s JzG. More background can be found in the articles from The Register, “Secret mailing list rocks Wikipedia” and “Wikipedia black helicopters circle Utah’s Traverse Mountain”.

There is a lot of noise and fury about Wikipedia doing the rounds. A lot of this noise is being made by Guy Chapman (User JzG), who feels compelled to reply vociferously (and sometimes obnoxiously) to every critical comment he comes across, often pouring gasoline on the flames of controversy.

Needless to say, the clique of high-ranking Wikipedia administrators and their hangers-on, which has a tendency to take on a degree of defensiveness, has gotten even more intense about circling their wagons against the critics who are coming fast and furiously now that the problems of Wikipedia have gotten greater exposure. This is unfortunate given that one of the main things the critics are complaining about is the heavy-handed attitude the “Wikipedia establishment” shows towards critics, so reacting with more heavy-handedness only proves the critics’ point. This reminds me of the government of Singapore, which a few years ago responded to a critic who alleged that the government silenced critics by bringing legal action against them, by suing the critic for libel. Way to make their point!

“Harassment” on Wikipedia

A major means the clique has of exerting its power is by claiming “harassment” or “stalking”. By playing the “harassment card” (like the “race card” in American politics), their members get a good shot at the upper hand in any dispute they can claim somehow involves such harassment (even in a very peripheral way), and a ready-made smear that can be applied to anybody who opposes them.

Now, harassment and stalking is a genuine problem, and in a (thankfully) extremely small number of cases, it has escalated to the point of impacting Wikipedians in the real world. A handful of such cases have reached the point where real-world authorities such as the police and courts have become involved. This makes sense, because those authorities, unlike Wikipedia “authorities”, actually have powers that are capable of stopping real-world harassment, such as putting the perpetrators in jail (which actually happened to one Wikipedia-related stalker). In contrast, anything Wikipedia admins can do, such as banning a user, will have no effect on their ability to do off-wiki harassment and stalking (and might even increase the amount of it given that the now-banned user has something new to be angry about).

On-wiki actions against stalkers and harassers, as I said, generally do no good toward actually stopping the harassment; however, they do some good at helping soothe the feelings of the victims. Unfortunately, this laudable impulse to help victims of nasty behavior feel better is easy to abuse. If the definitions of “stalking” and “harassment” are stretched and distorted, all sorts of behavior can be classified that way, and used to extend the extreme remedies used against genuine harassers to cover a wide range of critics and nonconformists.

Misuse of the term “harassment” (and “stalking” and other related terms) is real and has been used to describe:

As a result of having their actions dubiously deemed “harassment”, editors have been blocked, banned, personally attacked with impunity, had their ideas dismissed without serious consideration, and sometimes driven from Wikipedia. Editors and administrators have effectively owned articles by demanding that all discussion of changing them from their preferred version be squelched because it’s “contributing to harassment”, or “repeating harassment”, or some such thing. It is obvious to most reasonable people that this is not an approach conducive to free and fair exploration of ideas, but any attempts to make this point get shouted down and the person doing it is accused of being an enabler for harassment.

One of Guy’s favorite arguments is that expressing any ideas similar to those of a banned harasser is “promotion of harassment memes”. To me, the most pernicious meme of all is the one that holds that “harassment” is everywhere and needs to be suppressed in a draconian way. Taken to its logical conclusion, this would demand that we suppress the fact that 2+2=4 if that were one of the ideas expressed by a banned harasser. As a matter of fact, the Catholic Church used a similar line of argument in suppressing the view that the Earth revolves around the Sun instead of the other way around; this idea had been advocated by “banned user” Galileo, who was reputed to be quite an obnoxious cuss. Some say that Galileo actually held back progress of this idea for a century or so by provoking the church elders into taking a hardline position that they might not have done in response to a more tactful presentation of the view.

And, by the way, Guy has it correct that I favor “hard-line free speech advocacy”... but he says it like it’s a bad thing! I’m a hard-line free-speecher, and damn proud of it! Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice!

One of the things I always liked about Wikipedia was that Wikipedia was incredibly tolerant of criticism. Unfortunately, that seems to be going the way of the dodo. Guy should know that; he’s the one who left a message on my talk page saying I was “on thin ice” due to my refusal to back down from principle.

The list

Some of the drama centers around a “secret mailing list” used by some high-ranking Wikipedians. Or, a “private” list; some, including Guy, are adamant about maintaining the distinction between “secret” and “private”, since “private” spins much better. On the other hand, the way to maintain privacy, in general, is to keep things secret, so it becomes a distinction with no difference. Anyway, since actual facts about the list were extremely hard to pry out of the people who knew them, some beliefs flourished about it being a place where a sinister cabal plotted bannings and other coordinated action. This was actually supported, to an extent, by the leaked Durova message, which referred in turn to this diff where, after a controversial block, an editor raised questions about whether off-wiki coordination was taking place to enact and support such moves. Durova’s comments were that “They don’t know this list exists”, and that list members need to be “tight lipped about this”.

However, given that actual details about what really goes on in the list besides that one message were and are fragmentary except to the insiders who are actually there, nobody outside really knows the truth, and some will let their imaginations run wild. Given that there has been a tendency, for years, for a certain group of prominent Wikipedians to gang up in order to get their way on various issues, and this same group has “harassment” and “cyberstalking” as one of its major hot-button issues, one can easily envision a secretive list devoted to this topic to be a place where moves are plotted. For instance, when Gracenotes’ request for adminship was voted down by a swarm of editors saying “Oppose per SlimVirgin”, where SlimVirgin is a prominent member of the “anti-cyberstalking clique” who opposed that editor for failing to toe the line in supporting a draconian ban on linking to so-called “attack sites”, it was easy to hypothesize that some external list was being used to canvass for this... and the fact that until recently Slim was listed as the owner of the “cyberstalking” list plays right into this theory. Unfortunately for the theory, the list didn’t actually exist yet (Guy says it started following an August, 2007 e-mail chain, and the confroversial RFA was in May), but this fact wasn’t yet known when the debate first raged.

So, some of the things that were said about this list were a bit overblown. Big free-speech buff as I am, I can hardly logically insist that people who regard themselves as victims of harassment have no right to get together and talk privately about it. If they want to have an online group therapy session, great for them! But that doesn’t stop there from being some potential problems when the people getting together in that way are prominent Wikipedians, many of whom have special roles such as administrator, ArbCom, or even God King.

One doesn’t have to go for any of the “black helicopter” theories to see issues here. You can fully assume good faith, and not suppose there to be any sort of overt conspiring, plotting, or canvassing going on in the list, and still worry that there will be negative effects arising from the list’s activity. The presence of so many people who share a common mindset (and, reportedly, entry into the list is tightly screened to ensure that only the “right sort of people” get in) can’t help but create an “echo chamber” effect where ideas get reinforced in the minds of the participants until they’re ready to “Charge!” (Durova’s “battle cry” in her signature line) into Wikipedia to right all the perceived wrongs. Innocent people could get trampled in the stampede. This, in fact, is one of the things people such as Guy hold against the so-called “attack sites” -- that they gather together people of somewhat like mind (on the subject of their disliking Wikipedia, anyway) and often in mentally-unbalanced states, and use this environment to incubate and amplify pernicious memes that cause the participants to go charging into Wikipedia (banned or not, openly or with hidden sockpuppets) to do their nefarious deeds to the detriment of the site and its community. This is just the sort of thing some critics of the “cyberstalking” list feel might happen with it; the specific memes are different, and ostensibly pro-Wikipedia rather than anti-, but they could still be harmful if they result in such things as innocent users getting blocked for nonexistent offenses, and a general atmosphere of acrimony and recrimination.

Where “canvassing” for votes, polls, consensus discussions, etc., is concerned, there needn’t be anything so crass as somebody saying outright to “Go to User:Xyz’s RFA and (support | oppose) it.” Rather, given the mindset convergence of the group, a simple casual mention of the sort “I see User:Xyz is up for adminship; (he | she) is a (despicable enabler of trolls | courageous warrior against harassers and cyberstalkers)” would be sufficient to bring about a “spontaneous” outpouring of (opposition | support) from the list members. In fact, people have raised charges of canvassing in the past when somebody has, for instance, mentioned their favorite webcomic being up for deletion on a forum of webcomic fans; with the likemindedness and fervor found there, a wave of votes may follow. The “cyberstalking” list can easily produce similar effects, without necessarily even intending it. One wonders if there were other private off-wiki forums before this list existed in which some of the same members gathered earlier; that would explain a lot.

Of course, given the privacy of the list, one who isn’t an insider can never know how much of this is true or false (and even the insiders might not really know the big picture; being too close to the people involved is likely to lead to a lack of a broader perspective beyond the personal concerns and emotions involved). Maybe, as Guy says, the “hurt and anger” gets talked down rather than amplified. But nobody can really know this, and to merely speculate makes one be considered “insensitive” in some circles. I wonder if I’m the one Guy talks about “whose contributions to the project in the last twelve months have been almost exclusively restricted to arguing in project space.” (Yep, I’m so vain I probably think that essay is about me.) Actually, it’s only about 8 months now that I’ve been focused on wiki-politics (starting around April, 2007 when I got worked up over the “BADSITES” issue); before that my edits were overwhelmingly in article space.

The other list

The other list, “investigations”, is so new (set up in November) that it’s unlikely to have actually managed to do very much yet in the area of its stated purpose. Still, it raises some red flags as a possible venue intended for just the sort of thing that Guy insists didn’t take place in the other list: the airing of secret investigations of the Durova sort, and the organizing of administrators to go en masse back to Wikipedia to announce their latest ban as a fait accompli, with the reasons confidential and the decision already endorsed by a bunch of bigwigs before any public discussion has even been able to begin.

The Durova affair

I have nothing personally against Durova; in fact, like a number of people, I’m starting to feel at least a little sorry for her. She’s getting an awful lot of negative attention focused on her for one mistake. To me, the big point is not her mistake specifically, but the whole culture and mindset that led to it, in which she was hardly the only one who participated (even if others are correct that nobody else actually endorsed that particular block, despite her claims of having at least five supporters). But, since others who are part of this culture are dead-set against having the broader problems be examined and criticized, there is a tendency for them to let Durova be thrown to the wolves as a sacrificial animal to distract everybody from the fact that there are other people at fault as well. Once she’s been completely scapegoated, then they can start expressing friendly sympathy for her excessive vilification, but only when it’s certain that this won’t spread the blame anywhere else... unless it can be reflected back to the critics themselves or the ever-handy bogeymen of the “attack sites” and banned users.

In Wikipedia’s acronym soup, there’s a commonly-cited item called “RBI” -- no, in this context it doesn’t mean “Runs Batted In” (an American baseball term), but Revert, Block, Ignore. This is actually an essay, not a policy, though such essays do sometimes get cited as if they were in some way binding. Another essay exists that would seem at first glance to be contradictory: “BRD” (Bold, Revert, Discuss). Both have an “R” for “revert” in them, but in the former the revert is followed by ignoring the person who made the original edit, while in the latter it is followed by discussing the edit with them. One seems suited to Judge Dredd types who want to pass quick judgment, and the other to friendly types who want to talk things out. However, they can actually both coexist if they are kept in their proper place -- RBI is a suggested way to deal with bad-faith, non-constructive edits and the people who make them, while BRD is the way to deal with good-faith edits with which you happen to disagree. The 64,000 (dollar | pound | euro) question is how to tell the difference.

If everybody had a perfect “trolldar” to perfectly distinguish a malicious troll from a person of strong principle who holds an opposing viewpoint, then these principles might be followed with good effect. The real world, however, is never so simple, and one is well-advised to temper one’s boldness with a consideration that perhaps one might not be correct in one’s initial judgments. Maybe the person you thought was a sinister troll is actually capable of having a reasonable discussion if you calm down and try to start one. But maybe the person you’re trying to discuss things reasonably with is really just trolling you; it does cut both ways. However, the principle of Assume Good Faith calls for you to at least give it a try.

You’ve got the additional problem that, as Guy said, “A key part of the strategy of our most determined abusers is to exploit divisions and apparent absurdities.” However, I reach the opposite conclusion to this from his. He thinks this requires a draconian, “banned means banned” approach where anything considered to be associated in any way with a banned user gets ruthlessly purged; but given that the abusers are going out of their way to try to exploit everything we do to stir up trouble, aren’t they going to notice and exploit that? The more predictable one’s responses are, the more trollable they are. If obvious sockpuppets are reverted on sight, then trolls will create obvious sockpuppets and use them to do reasonable things like correcting typos and reverting vandalism just to see “troll-fighters” insist on reinstating vandalism and misspellings out of mindless rule-following. They get bonus “troll points” if the warrior admins not only revert their good edits, but even get nasty to editors in good standing who re-revert back to them, calling them “meatpuppets of a banned editor”. A much more carefully nuanced approach is called for.

Burn the witch!

It’s interesting that Guy brings up witch-hunts, given that the “War on Trolls” of which he’s a major supporter has many elements of one itself. It especially resembles the McCarthyite hysteria about Communism that the United States endured in the 1950s. People get smeared with labels based on their beliefs, opinions, and speech, and they are tarred with guilt by association for their real or imagined connection with a disliked group. Some people get blacklisted for political reasons, and are barred from pursuing the activities they are talented and productive at; some get around this by resuming their activity under false names. People are hauled into hearings and grilled about their beliefs and associations, and can get in trouble for having the wrong friends and refusing to abandon and denounce them. A hateful atmosphere of persecution prevails, and ultimately many of the values that make “our side” better than “the enemy” are undermined in the process. Are you now, or have you ever been, a communist Wikipedia Review supporter?

The Twilight Zone episode, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”, is a must-see item for those who want to experience a well-done fictional exploration of how a group can become its own worst enemy. In the episode, an enemy (who is real, and genuinely seeks to destroy the community) uses the cunning technique of committing a fairly small amount of direct destruction, in a way calculated to lead the people of the community to turn on one another, suspecting everybody of being “sleeper agents” for the enemy, until a once-harmonious neighborhood descends into fighting and chaos. A few real-life experiments such as the Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison experiment unfortunately bear out the idea that it doesn’t take much to convert normal, reasonable people into sadistic tyrants, if they’re given a social structure and (even a flimsy) motive and justification.


Jimbo thinks Giano is “trolling” and “unacceptable” and heading for being banned. Guy thinks he’s got “chronic civility issues” and is responsible for “silliness” and “wikidrama”. The Wikipedia community, however, has given him at last look 295 votes in favor of placing him on the ArbCom (against 208 opposes). The majority is certainly not always right, but it does appear that, even with “God-King” Jimbo on the same side, Guy’s beliefs do not enjoy universal support. I guess you can keep labeling a sizable portion (maybe even a majority) of the community as stupid or foolish or evil or “troll-enabling”, but that’s not particularly useful.

Enter Bagley

Every group needs an arch-enemy, so that the group can stay focused on hating him/her/it, rather than be distracted into other stuff like infighting (or pointless things like creating an encyclopedia). Wikipedia has been gifted by having more than one of these. Daniel Brandt has served as the all-purpose bogeyman for quite a while. Various other banned editors have played fleeting or longer-term roles as antagonists. However, lately, Judd Bagley has been the enemy of choice for the periodic Two Minute Hates needed to ensure community cohesiveness.

Depending on who you ask, his site has stunning revelations about some high-ranking Wikipedians, or unmitigated bullshit. There are some on Wikipedia who are determined to keep you from seeing any of this information and making up your own mind about it, via the “Zero Tolerance: Shoot on Sight” pseudo-policy towards anything with the slightest taint of perceived connection with Bagley or his ideas. Even a link to a New York Times article is being fought over as being too much “promotion of Bagley’s memes”. By the way, people engaging in this sort of fighting are clearly not following the aforementioned “RBI” principle, though some of them are purportedly advocates of it; screaming “You’re spreading Bagley’s memes!” all the time is about as strongly opposite to “ignoring” him as you can get.

By the way, the subject that Bagley and his various friends and enemies are getting all heated about is naked short selling, which is apparently either an evil fraud on the stock market or a useful and legitimate investment option, depending on which side you believe... but on Wikipedia there is a powerful faction determined to make sure that only one side gets heard. It’s not much of a debate with only one side allowed to speak... as Bart Simpson might say, “Eat my naked shorts!”

The memes

There are a number of pernicious memes being pushed by the draconian “War on Trolls” crowd:

  • We must scorch the earth around banned users! Somebody who has been banned for any reason must be treated as an unperson, or a Suppressive Person. Damnatio memoriae is the proper approach to them. This strikes me as an attitude better suited to an authoritarian regime or a mind-control cult than a group devoted to the free gathering and dissemination of information. Perhaps with his Randian background, founder Jimbo Wales was influenced by the cultish Rand inner circle’s purges of people such as Nathaniel Branden; even decades after this purge, and long after Rand’s death, what remained of the inner circle was still issuing pronouncements insisting that true Objectivists must not read Branden’s books. Getting back to Wikipedia, some seem to have forgotten that bans and blocks were, in their original conception, not intended as a means of punishment or revenge, but simply a means of protecting Wikipedia from harm by stopping directly abusive activity. Ruthlessly suppressing everything that can be seen as having any connection with a banned user, even if there’s no other problem with the specific action itself, and calling for more punitive action on any Wikipedian who is seen as consorting or collaborating with banned users, does not fall under this remit.

  • If somebody’s a jerk, that means their ideas are false! This complements the above meme about banned users, and is used to justify dismissing out of hand any idea that is believed to have originated with somebody who is considered a troublesome person, including but not limited to banned users. If the clique can get a label of “trolling” or “corporate smear campaign” or “harassment meme” to stick on a particular set of ideas, then no rational argument is considered necessary to automatically reject the ideas any time they come up. This is fallacious logic, but it’s still constantly used. They’ll sometimes say “That’s already been refuted many times; see the talk history”, but a look at this history will show that it’s never been logically refuted, only repeatedly dismissed and its proponents name-called and shouted down, until the very frequency of such dismissals is itself cited as a reason to refuse to discuss the ideas. Anybody who pushes the issue is likely to be labeled as trying to “edit on behalf of a banned user”, a serious thoughtcrime on Wikipedia.

  • Wikipedia is a private club, and should be run that way! Technically, they’re right; Wikipedia (and its parent the Wikimedia Foundation) is a private organization, not part of any government and hence not subject directly to provisions such as free speech and right to due process found in national constitutions or the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Still, it’s a very special sort of private organization, one that is devoted to principles such as free exchange of information, and one that has very rapidly moved from being a geeky little project to being a significant part of the world’s information infrastructure. As such, it’s taken on some moral responsibilities to its participants and to the world in general, which are not well served by running it as if it’s the private plaything of a few insiders who can use it to pursue grudge matches and obsessions, and to give support to people they like and kick out people they dislike. When the in-group takes on a bunker mentality, they’re not really protecting Wikipedia as a whole, but only their little club-within-a-club.

  • There’s a red troll under every bed! The evil trolls are omnipresent and omnipotent, and are a constant and enormous threat to our bodily fluids Wikipedia. Thus, we all need to sacrifice minor, petty things like free speech, due process, and writing a free encyclopedia in order that the War on Trolls can proceed unhampered. The Wikipedia clique is a lot like the Bush administration on this; perhaps we need a Wikipedian Gitmo.

  • Linking to something is the same as endorsing it! This is the attitude that leads to such silliness as the “BADSITES” proposal (about which I wrote an essay). If anything you link to is implying endorsement from the site where the link is present, then there’s good cause to fight against links to anything you think is evil. However, the Web tradition is more along the lines of a link being a pointer to additional information so that the reader can be fully informed; it is quite commonplace to link to things of which you personally disapprove in the course of discussing an issue on which you’d like to present a wide variety of relevant information.

The role of Wikipedia Review

Wikipedia Review is a forum where Wikipedia is discussed in a critical manner. It’s got its share of crackpots, cranks, crazies, and people with anger-management issues, and many of its criticisms are unfair, off-base, and veering into silly attacks and empty threats. On the other hand, it sometimes is right on target. At times when the Wikipedia ruling clique is developing a bunker mentality and censoring discussions it dislikes, sites like this serve an extremely valuable function as “free speech zones” for talking about what’s going on. When the clique tries to suppress all mention of Wikipedia Review in the name of stopping “attacks” or “harassment”, they only increase the appeal and popularity of that site, similarly to how, in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the slimy Professor Umbridge imposes a ban on a tabloid where Harry Potter gave an interview with opinions contrary to the Ministry of Magic party line, and as a result it becomes the most popular reading material at Hogwarts.

But, if anybody is prevented or dissuaded from looking at WR due to the taboo against linking to it, that means that they would be inclined to believe the smear campaigns against that site promoted by the clique, without any information to the contrary. I believe you should make up your own mind about what that site is like and whether it’s good, evil, or neutral, rather than taking anybody else’s word (including mine) for it; that is why I included a link to it, which Guy didn’t do when he wrote about it in his essay.


This page was first created 13 Dec 2007, and was last modified 02 May 2008.
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Daniel R. Tobias. All rights reserved.