February 16, 2015

The Risky Wiki

Wikipedia was intended to be the encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Lots of school classes explore Wikipedia, discuss its strengths and fallibilities, and encourage students to contribute. This is no longer a good idea.

Contributing to Wikipedia may now be dangerous. If you cross the wrong people, you may be subjected to harassment and abuse, on wiki and off, until you yield. Anonymous mobs may berate and threaten you. They may ridicule you on Twitter. They may set up web pages to highlight your sexual habits, real or imaginary. They may contact your family, your friends, your classmates, your teachers.

You can’t know what these people will care about. One group cares passionately about sexy and violent computer games. There’s another gang that’s absolutely rabid on various points of medieval history in the Balkans. Several intelligence services are thought to be active on Wikipedia, and plenty of PR agencies represent corporate and personal interests of wealthy, powerful, and sometimes ruthless people.

Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee recently added special sanctions that extend from GamerGate, broadly construed, to “gender-related disputes and controversies” and to people involved in such disputes. That means, for example, that the page for the forthcoming movie adaptation of 50 Shades Of Gray may well be under GamerGate sanctions. So, probably, is the page on Criticism of Wikipedia. You may not know when you’re in a dangerous neighborhood of Wikipedia until it’s too late.

If you cross these people, you’re on your own. They understand the intricacies of WikiLawyering; you don’t. They have plenty of pals ready to rush to their aid; you don’t. They have offshore accounts beyond the reach of the police; you have your neighborhood ISP and your school board. They have friends in High Places and in Wikipedia’s dark corners.

Wikipedia is unlikely to help you. If you're harassed off-wiki, Wikipedia will urge you to contact the police if you think you're in danger and will otherwise wash its hands of you. If you’re defamed on-wiki, Wikipedia will adopt studious neutrality — and since the gang can call up the rest of the gang at need, that being what gangs do – Wikipedia’s thumb will be on their side of the scale.

Recommendations: elementary school and high school students should treat Wikipedia as a dangerous place, exactly as they treat Internet chat rooms. Students should be warned to avoid contributing to the encyclopedia and, if they do contribute, to prepare for harassment that may well spill over into email and even physical encounters. College students may have more latitude, but even then, they should understand that any significant editing about their favorite game, YouTube personality, or historical event might bring the Army of Mordor down upon them.