Wikipedia’s arbitration committee, the highest user-run body on the site, has voted to ban a number of editors from making corrections to articles about feminism, in an attempt to stop a long-running edit war over the entry on the “Gamergate controversy”.
The editors, who were all actively attempting to prevent the article from being rewritten with a pro-Gamergate slant, were sanctioned by “arbcom” in its preliminary decision. While that may change as it is finalised, the body, known as Wikipedia’s supreme court, rarely reverses its decisions.
The sanction bars the editors from having anything to do with any articles covering Gamergate, but also from any other article about “gender or sexuality, broadly construed”.
Editors who had been pushing for the Wikipedia article to be fairer to Gamergate have also been sanctioned by the committee
Mark Bernstein, a writer and former Wikipedia editor, said that, “This takes care of social justice warriors with a vengeance — not only do the Gamergaters get to rewrite their own page (and Zoe Quinn’s, Brianna Wu’s, Anita Sarkeesian’s, etc); feminists are to be purged en bloc from the encyclopedia.”
The conflict on the site began almost alongside Gamergate, a grassroots campaign broadly targeting alleged corruption in games journalism and perceived feminist influence in the videogame industry. Even the title of the article was fought over: Gamergate itself is taken by an article about a type of ant, leaving the article about video games to move to “Gamergate Controversy”.
At one point, Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, was drawn into the debate, telling a student who had emailed him over perceived bias in the article that “Gamergate has been permanently tarnished and hijacked by a handful of people who are not what you would hope.”
Wales’ advice for Gamergate supporters who wanted to change the Wikipedia article was to be constructive, and present a vision for the article which they wanted to read rather than engage in a war with feminist editors who were trying to maintain their vision.
Arbcom’s rulings don’t mean the war is over, but for some editors it’s still giving cause for concern. Abigail Brady, a former Wikipedia editor, left the site over its treatment of the page for whistleblower Chelsea Manning, which was kept under Manning’s old name, of Bradley Manning, for months after she came out as transgender.
There’s a crossover between the two conflicts. One of the five editors banned from editing articles on gender had previously been an active edit-warrior in the debate over whether or not to move Manning’s page – but arguing against the move. He “was a major anti-Chelsea editor who then came out as false flagging,” Brady explains. In other words, he was arguing against moving the page in an emphatically hostile manner, in order to discredit the people genuinely holding that view.
“I think what this shows is how poisonous Wikipedia politics has become,” Brady says. “It’s a game of provocation chicken, both sides try to work as close to the ill-defined edge of acceptable behaviour to provoke the other into crossing it.
“All the arbcom does is play its part, it never looks at its role in creating that climate. And the wider Wikipedia community isn’t going to fix it because most of them are exactly the sort of toxic people who weren’t driven out.”
The byzantine internal processes of Wikipedia are incomprehensible for many, but they serve to shape the content on the site, the seventh biggest on the internet. Its reportedly unpleasant internal culture and unwelcoming atmosphere for new editors has long been blamed for an overwhelmingly masculine make-up – just one in ten editors are thought to be female – which in turn contributes to which topics get featured on the site.
As the Wikipedia article on Wikipedia’s systemic bias explains, “research suggests that the gender gap has a detrimental effect on content coverage: articles with particular interest to women tend to be shorter, even when controlling for variables that affect article length. Women typically perceive Wikipedia to be of lower quality than men do.”
Updated on 28 January 2015: ArbCom issues statement
In the wake of the proposed decision, ArbCom released a statement reaffirming its intention to ensure that “the editing experience is civil”.
“Our preliminary decision found that many contributors were in violation of English Wikipedia policies on user conduct,” the unsigned statement reads. “The proposed decision imposes broad sanctions against a wide range of individuals, however this decision is subject to change, and proposed sanctions have not taken effect. These sanctions are intended to allow the restoration of normal editing processes to the topic area and facilitate constructive contributions. Our investigation and findings do not pass judgment on the content or quality of the articles in question.
“An accurate characterisation of the Arbitration Committee’s preliminary decision is as follows. The committee found that editors on various sides of the discussion violated community policies and guidelines on conduct. The committee’s preliminary decision currently includes broad recommendations for, and endorsements of, community sanctions and topic bans for editors on various sides of the dispute.”
In a rare move, the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit which oversees Wikipedia as well as affiliated sites such as Wiktionary and Wikisource, also released a statement on the issue.
Philippe Beaudette, Wikimedia’s director for community advocacy, said that the committee’s decision “is not a statement on who is right or wrong regarding the Gamergate controversy article. It is not a referendum on whether Wikipedia supports or rejects feminists. The committee’s mandate is to uphold a civil, constructive atmosphere that furthers Wikipedia’s mission. At the Wikimedia Foundation, we support that objective and are taking active steps to create and maintain a civil atmosphere for editors of all backgrounds. We ask all our editors to do the same.”
- This article was amended on 28 January 2015. An earlier version gave the impression that the bans had been finalised, and a quotation suggested that no pro-gamergate editors had been banned from the site, and that no feminist editors remained active.
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