July 30, 2015
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Diplomacy By Other Means

Gamergate’s Wikipedia tactics have soured and hardened as Gamergate slowly accepts that, to take over the Gamergate page, they’re going to need to take over Wikipedia. That’s a tall order, but it might be realistic, and given a few years of hard work, observers think it they might pull it off. But hope springs eternal and there’s a bitter rump that still hopes they can succeed right away if they can simply get rid of one or two more editors whom they think are standing athwart their road.

It seems that I’m one of those editors.

The favored tactic has been to threaten and harass the target off-wiki, trying to find a sensitive area, while hounding and baiting them on-wiki. The outside threats are often sufficient to drive volunteers away. If that doesn't work, some sign of impatience or bad temper can be trumpeted as a terrible violation of Civility, or some grumpy insistence on an issue can be proclaimed to be Battleground Behavior.

If nothing else works, Gamergate can point to the editor's persistence in the face of all this hounding and argue that they must have ulterior motives -- that no one who merely wanted to build an encyclopedia would put up with this. Yes, I know what you're thinking: who would fall for that? It actually works, sometimes.

Arbcom is determined to ignore off-wiki harassment – especially sexual harassment – unless the outside harasser can be tied to a specific, anonymous Wikipedia account beyond a shadow of a doubt. This standard can, in the nature of things, almost never be met because it typically requires an anonymous Wikipedian to confess a crime for which they could be prosecuted. The Wikimedia Foundation appears disinterested unless the Foundation is vulnerable in court or actively derided in the press.

The result is that Wikipedia and Gamergate have apparently worked together to create a system in which argument is simultaneously advanced in two places: anonymously but “civilly” on-wiki, and off-wiki, also anonymously, with the greatest venom and bile that can be achieved.

We are rapidly approaching the point where schools are not only going to need to dissuade students from relying on Wikipedia, they're going to have to warn students not to volunteer for Wikipedia as a matter of safety, just as schools used to warn kids to stay away from chat rooms and not to accept rides from strangers. I would also warn teachers, including untenured college professors, to avoid editing Wikipedia using either their own names or using a pseudonym; opponents can and will track you down, and some Wikipedia opponents will stop at no lie or invention to gain a small rhetorical advantage or simply to punish an opponent.

Wikipedia today is a dangerous and unhealthy place. It’s especially unhealthy for women, children, and anyone else who feels vulnerable, but it’s dangerous to all.

The interesting question here is how, if Wikipedia wished to fix this, they might proceed? Getting rid of anonymous editing would solve the problem, but that’s politically infeasible. Many Wikipedians would like to ban talking about Wiki outside of Wikipedia, the first rule of Fight Club. But that’s not practical: Wikipedia is not a cloistered order.

I've been wondering if an organized effort to support people who are being harassed might help, a squad which would follow targets, reassure and support them on-wiki, and that would seek to dismay and disarm their opponents. This feels a little like those campus programs that offer late-night escorts to walk from the library back to the dorms, but it also has a certain Batman superhero feel: there’s a risk you’d wind up replacing the original conflict with a battle of superheroes. But maybe that’s better: the superheroes can take a punch, that’s why they’re getting the big bucks and the colorful capes.

It’s not a good answer, but it’s all I’ve got. I’d like to hear a better one.