No ” Diff ” About It: Wikipedia’s Civility, Edit Wars, and the Lack of Duty of Care

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Wikipedia, savior of students and trivial pursuit masters across the globe, has recently come under fire for the actions taken by its Arbitration committee, better known as Arbcom, in a long, vicious edit war over the GamerGate Controversy page. Mark Bernstein, one of the founding fathers of hypertext (the system of text having hyperlinks to other pieces of text), is credited with writing a series of scathing and informative exposés.

In a conversation with Bernstein, we discussed his viewpoints on the arbitration process and duty of care, a concept that he brings up consistently in his posts. His first post, Infamous, was born from his shock over how the GamerGate edit war was being handled by Arbcom. Edit war is the process where two opposing sides of an issue use the Wikipedia article on said issue as a battleground. This may involve repeated edits to make the article more inline with their views on the issue, along with giving lengthy paragraphs on the talk pages (a place where editors talk about the edits they are making). What is crucial in the GamerGate edit wars is that these battles surround real people who are still affected by GamerGate.

“There are billions of words on the talk pages. The talk page grows by thousands of pages daily,” Berstein remarks, “And what’s not being highlighted is that due to Wikipedia’s deeply anti-intellectual stance; verifiability, not truth, is held to the highest standard; if you can produce a footnote, it justifies your doing.” Footnotes in edit wars are pulled from anywhere, including blogs and image captures of tweets, and compared to academic or reputable media sources; this causes a huge mess for Arbcom as they process and asses each individual “Diff” or problem with edits, an issue within itself.

“Arbcom focuses on individual Diffs/edits but not on the content. It is as if you don’t need to know what is being discussed in the arbitration process. You can’t successfully understand discourse without the context,” says Bernstein. In this case, the context truly being missed is that real, live people are being used in the battles.

“I, like lots of people, expected a statement of regret to the victims [who are used as battlegrounds], but no token gesture was given – this is singularly unfortunate,” he goes on to say that when the victims’ stories are used as battlegrounds, the message transmitted is that victims need to play nicer with the boys.

Public Relations 101 teaches us that when your actions are criticized in full force from the public and the media, you do damage control even if you don’t agree. You make reparations, you ask for forgiveness, you promise to do better because the stakeholders deserve better.  Wikipedia instead ignores the actual crux of the issue: those who have had their lives negatively transformed by GamerGate continue to experience violence and harassment through the telling of their stories through Wikipedia.

Currently, the Brianna Wu (one of the real, alive victims of GamerGate) section of the GamerGate Controversy page is edited to have her experiences of harassment in the past tense; this is a falsehood, meant to imply that she is no longer experiencing such tactics. Regularly, on the Zoe Quinn (another of the real, living victims) section, the words “commentators have said” are used to shed doubt to the factual and recorded experiences of the victims.

Wikipedia was created as a means of going against the academic barriers of knowledge, making huge steps to validate the knowledge of those who were not writing textbooks or the owners of degrees from prestigious institutions. Yet, somewhere in this quest for knowledge the ethics that come from knowledge-gathering and sharing in the academic world was lost. Somewhere, giving editing power to anonymous beings to take a jab at highly-paid editorial staff in private media, Wikipedia lost the duty of care, a judgement faced by all media creators and sharers.  Wikipedia, a monolith who successfully broke down the academic barriers to knowledge with the chant, “*points to group of non-academics* What about them!” has imploded inward thinking of themselves.  To this I ask, “what about them?” What about the victims, what about the twisting of knowledge, what about your refusal to see the greater context?

I can feel Bernstein sigh as he says, “It is just so predictably damning. Even handedness would be too high of a goal at this point.”

Photo credit: Fencing Challenge International de Paris via photopin (license).

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