The real crime and most serious mistake in Wikipedia’s infamous draft decision on GamerGate was not that it sanctions every GamerGate target, nor that it gave no thought to the consequences that may have been suffered by the handful of editors who sought to preserve Wikipedia from the coordinated and systematic attack.
Worse than this, the draft decision shows no care for the victims of GamerGate harassment and no concern for the use of Wikipedia as a weapons platform against them.
How It’s Done
GamerGate seeks to drive women out of computing by choosing some targets, harassing them until they go into hiding, and warning the remaining women (and the declining number of women pursuing computer science degrees) that they might be next. Methods for achieving this include:
- anonymous threats of assault, rape, and murder.
- anonymous messages to employers seeking to have the victim demoted or dismissed.
- publicizing the target’s sexual history, both as an end in itself and as a way to make the target less attractive to prospective employers.
At an early date, GamerGate identified Wikipedia, “the encyclopedia anyone can edit,” as ideal for their purposes. It’s conspicuous. Google loves it: for most everyday people, Google will make Wikipedia its first or second hit. No one admits it, but reporters use Wikipedia as a crib all the time. It’s anonymous, and it’s rich enough to make that anonymity stick.
Note to Google folk: it’s time to think seriously about turning Wikipedia’s page rank down, at least until it finds a way to prevent this stuff. That might help Wikipedia too, by making it less attractive for use as a weapons platform.
The problem for GamerGate is that Wikipedia has rules against inserting libels into people’s pages. When GamerGate started to add stuff about female developers’ sex lives to various Wikipedia pages, experienced editors removed it. That led in turn to plan B:
- Try to put the sexy story into the article.
- After it's removed, argue on the talk page – repeating the sexy stories there.
- When people object, argue that some weblog or student newspaper or political columnist somewhere alluded to that sexy story, so it's got to be there.
- When people object, argue about the wording. Can we say “they fucked?” How about “blow job?” How about “exchanged sexual favors?”
- When people object to that, try it again on against a different woman
- A couple of weeks later, repeat step 1 again.
To make this stick, you need three separate editors working together.
- the PROVOCATEUR inserts the sexy information and argues for it. Often, this account appears to be new and claims to be a naif, an innocent who simply wants to expand the encyclopedia and happens to be well-versed in WikiLaw.
- the PALS cheer on the provocateur, repeating and ringing changes on the provocateur’s arguments. If someone reverts the Provocateur, the Pal reinstates the change. Absent an edit war, you only need one Pal, though it helps to have at least two. In an edit war, it’s important to have plenty of Pals, and to coordinate offsite to make sure there's always a couple of Pals on call.
- the BOSS rarely or never edits articles, but is extremely active on the talk page, citing policy to support the Provocateur and encourage the Pals. It helps a lot if the Boss is an administrator. It is useful for the Boss to know when and where the Provocateur will be launching a weapon, but it is essential to hide this: the Provocateur and the Pals can write openly on 8chan if they like, but the Boss must never appear. The Boss dominates the talk page and the complaints (see below) but, not editing the article and always citing policy to the same end, protects the team.
- the whole team launches constant COMPLAINTS against their opponents in order to remove opposition. Here’s where the Boss is most critical. Pals are expendable, and the Provocateur can be sacrificed at need – even if he’s banned, he can start a new account and become a Pal, or borrow someone else’s disused account and return as a new Provocateur. From the beginning, a major GamerGate goal was to get rid of five specific editors — a goal which the draft decision granted them wholesale.
You need this complexity to evade Wikipedia rules developed to protect against cultists and cranks. These rules work adequately against casual vandals and isolated zealots; GamerGate turned into a debacle because here the cultists and cranks were just sophisticated enough to work the levers, though too short of resources (and seeking too awful a result) to escape detection.
What Wikipedia Should Have Done
The key issue here has always been clear: Wikipedia systematically is being used to publicize the sexual history of women in computing in order to drive them out of the field. This is central: whether or not someone said something intemperate on December 13 is not.
- First, the draft decision ought to have acknowledged this fact and deplored it. It did not.
- Second, the draft decision should have resolved to redress the damage already done and to prevent further damage. This may be difficult. It may take time. Steps are needed to begin to address the damage; the draft decision proposed none.
- Third, those composing the draft decision ought to have read the entire record — all the talk pages, all the procedural arguments — and should have consulted experts. They should know everything there is to know about the affair, and they should demonstrate that knowledge. Doing less opens the door to infamy and ridicule. (Infamy and Ridicule have now walked through the door and are enjoying a nice gin and tonic in the living room; I don’t really know how Wikipedia can get them to leave at this point.)
- Fourth, consulting experts would have been prudent. If you don’t want to be accused of banning all the feminists, for example, I know at least a dozen professors who would have been happy to point out that banning all the feminists en bloc might not be the best idea.
- Fifth, a formal and thorough apology could have worked wonders. Clearly Wikipedia failed here: it should not have been used for months as a weapon against women in computing. This should have been stopped, and stopped quickly. Even if we don’t know how to stop it, apologizing for what has been done and expressing determination to fix it would reassure everyone that Wikipedia is not actually supporting the effort to drive women out of computing by publicizing their purported sexual histories.
It now looks like some of the worst elements of the infamous draft proposal won’t pass. It’s possible that almost nothing of consequence will pass.
That doesn’t matter. If you start with an infamous document and delete some paragraphs, are you likely to end up with a good result? Is doing nothing of consequence a good response?
Wikipedia should have cared for and about its victims, about people who did nothing worse than gain employment in the computer industry.
Wikipedia should have shown its care. Having been used shamefully, and not having a clear and immediate path toward a remedy, Wikipedia should be filled with care and contrition.
Wikipedia has lost an opportunity, our respect, and our trust. It may have permanently damaged the open Web because it just didn’t seem to care.
Instead, Wikipedia’s ArbCom took a superficial look at the evidence, found a few largely-technical rule infractions, and carelessly tried to give GamerGate the keys by banning all their targeted critics. Now, they propose to merely sanction some of the defenders (as well as one GamerGate Provocateur and maybe a Pal) and they want everyone to cheer.
Doing less harm isn’t good enough; it’s time for Wikipedia to care, to show its care, and to take care of its victims and of the volunteers who have worked to save it.