Late last summer, the internet was suddenly abuzz with the controversy known as Gamergate. The crux of the heated public debate was sexism in video game culture, but it quickly spiraled into dangerous territory. While the public was being inundated with news and Twitter wars and stories of women being harassed, a subsequent storm was brewing in plain sight on one of the world’s most popular websites.
Disturbing content was being plastered on the Wikipedia biography pages for female game developers, critics, and their spouses. Media and gaming culture critic Anita Sarkeesian was called a “lying whore,” and game developer Zoe Quinn was labeled a prostitute. Fellow developer Brianna Wu’s page claimed she gave her husband AIDS because she was raped by her father who first infected her. The bio page for her science fiction artist husband, Frank Wu, reflected the same thing.
Records of the libelous remarks have since been removed from the site, but they were seemingly added by anonymous Wikipedia accounts, many of which only showed up after Gamergate first made headlines. To get the situation under control, Wikipedia community members quickly asked for other editors to pitch in and help bring on the site’s notice board. Little did they know they would soon be sucked into their own controversy, one that revealed how the site’s commitment to neutrality would trump harassment concerns for Wikipedia editors being threatened on and off its pages.
“I came into this and I had no idea who Zoe Quinn was or what a social justice warrior was six months ago,” said Travis Mason-Bushman, who has been editing Wikipedia for 10 years under the name NorthbySouthBaronof. He became part of a group of “feminist” Wikipedia editors, later dubbed the Five Horsemen, who were eventually banned for seeking to fight off harassment on the Gamergate-related pages by Wikipedia’s high court, called the Arbitration Committee.
“All I know is people are putting in lies and attacking this person’s bio page,” Mason-Bushman said of the notice. “I looked and I said, ‘Well, wow, that’s not right,’– along with others — ‘this is not what the project is about. We’re not here to be a weapon of slander, libel and character assassination. We’re going to treat people as people. We’re not going to source blogs; we’re going to use solid sources.’”
Only one of the editors who was sanctioned, TaraInDC, openly identifies as female and actively edits feminism and women’s biographies. The majority of the other main editors involved — NorthbySouthBaronof, TheRedPenOfDoom, Tarc and Ryulong — are longtime Wikipedia editors aiming to return normalcy and factual accuracy to the Gamergate pages. Their identities remain anonymous.
The Five Horsemen were editors dedicated to removing any edits that didn’t mesh with Wikipedia’s policies and didn’t come from reputable sources, according to Wikipedia editor and writer Mark Bernstein who first blogged about the problem in January. The editors, he said, were part of targeted attack from Gamergate supporters.
“They basically tried to use the bullshit sourcing [like] Breitbart that Anita [Sarkeesian] lied, that maybe she sent the death threats to herself that they are professional victims,” said Mason-Bushman, who lives in Alaska and works for the federal government.
Soon Wikipedia was another of Gamergate’s online battlegrounds. Supporters often characterize it as a movement for improving “ethics in gaming journalism” after claiming game developer Quinn’s former boyfriend publicly accused her of cheating on him with a gaming writer to advance her career. But the movement has also been linked to a misogynistic agenda that includes violent threats against female journalists, game developers and media critics.
Quinn, Wu and Sarkeesian were at the center of the debate, flooded with graphic death and rape threats online and forced to cancel public appearances as a result. The controversy, which has been kept alive on Twitter and community chat boards such as 8chan and Reddit, then spread to the women’s Wikipedia’s pages.
“I don’t want [anyone] calling people a slut on the world’s most read website,” Mason-Bushman said. Wikipedia is the sixth most-read site worldwide, according to Alexa, but is undoubtedly the world’s top reference site. “It’s the power of it and the danger of it. All it takes is for that to be on the page for 20 minutes.”
Soon after he started editing Gamergate articles, Mason-Bushman was harassed, both on and off Wikipedia.
He was doxxed on Pastebin, where his personal email, social media accounts and other contact information were published. Hateful messages and death threats in the name of Gamergate filled his Twitter mentions, both on his personal account and on the professional account he manages for a government agency. The attacks even happened on Wikipedia talk pages that editors use to communicate with one another and the community about articles.
In the end, he made over 400 edits to Gamergate-related articles, and sent more than 2,300 responses on the talk pages, according to findings from Wikipedia’s “high court” or Arbitration Committee, an impartial panel made up of more than a dozen elected volunteer editors.
“This is the kind of thing Gamergate does. They’ve done it on Twitter. They essentially used the encyclopedia as a weapon of character assassination,” Mason-Bushman said.
Wikipedia was at a crossroads, with volunteer editors fighting incessantly and suffering harassment on and off the site, but the community’s structure, which prizes anonymity and neutrality above all else, didn’t allow for a top-down condemnation of abusive behavior.
“I haven’t seen one note of sympathy about the harassment from anyone in ArbCom, which says, ‘We don’t care about what happens off Wikipedia,’” Mason-Bushman said.
The lack of empathy and support he referred to comes in large part from the Arbitration Committee’s, or ArbCom’s, limited role.
“We do not evaluate the neutrality of articles. We are not entirely removed from it, in that we sanction users who are disruptively pushing their points of view, but we leave it to the rest of the editing community to ensure that articles are neutral,” said Molly White, who sits on the Arbitration Committee with 13 others. “When we remove editors from topic areas, as we are doing in the Gamergate case, we are doing so because they have shown themselves to be unable to work with the rest of the community in reaching consensus on article content.”
The Gamergate controversy’s main article and bio pages, originally created in September 2014, were sent to Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee, or ArbCom, for review in November because the editors weren’t able to reach a consensus on changes to the articles.
“Editors were treating the ‘Gamergate controversy’ article and related articles as battlegrounds, not as pages of a reference work,” White said. “They used the articles and their discussion pages as venues to harass and insult each other, they violated the policies that attempt to protect people’s privacy, and they warred over changes to articles, often in an attempt to push for their viewpoints to be represented.”
Twenty-seven users were named as being involved in the dispute; some were longtime community members and others were “throwaway” or single purpose accounts only used to edit Gamergate articles. Overall, 71 individual accounts made edits to the Gamergate page.
“When Wikipedia editors feel that they have exhausted Wikipedia’s many other dispute resolution processes, they can file a request to the Arbitration Committee asking us to hear the case. We then vote on whether to accept the case, or whether to refer the involved parties to other dispute resolution venues,” White said.
In the end, two users got a warning, six were sanctioned for the first time in this topic area, five that were already under community bans for the topic area were banned, and about a dozen more users were banned from contributing to articles on Gamergate, gender-related controversies or any individuals related to the issues. White said “many more blocks, restrictions, warnings, etc., than we named in our decision,” were doled out, and quantifying how many people are involved in cases can be difficult.
The Five Horsemen, except TaraInDC, were found guilty and sanctioned for edit warring or using the site as a battleground — engaging in an intense back and forth, reverting edits that were made — along with five other editors.
Such unresolvable disputes happen frequently on Wikipedia; ArbCom hears about 11 to 16 similar cases a year involving poor conduct, violating editors’ right to privacy, and misuse of administrator tools. The committee reviews a body of evidence including examples of edits made, chats on the talk pages and statements from involved parties. Those found in violation of Wikipedia’s policies can be punished with admonishments, topic bans, and site bans for varying or indefinite lengths of time. Sanctioned editors can appeal their punishments to ArbCom.
ArbCom’s job is to evaluate and moderate editors’ behavior, reprimanding those who break civility rules or disrupt the editing process to the point where a consensus on changes can’t be made, White emphasized. “The Arbitration Committee rules only on user conduct, which is a fact that outside observers have been missing. We do not, have not, and cannot make rulings on the content of articles or the validity of users’ ideologies.”
But understandably, Mason-Bushman and other editors weren’t pleased with the decision. “What the ArbCom has done through actions is say they do not care. They do not care about people or about the editors. That ‘We don’t care about what happens off Wikipedia.’”
High-profile controversies like the one over the Gamergate pages are common, reflecting a collective conscience in real world debates. That’s especially true for gender issues: There was similar debate in 2013 over the Wikipedia page for Chelsea Manning, the Army soldier who leaked classified national security documents to Wikileaks, after she indicated that she wanted to live her life as a woman and petitioned the Army to undergo hormone therapy. Editors battled over whether to use her birth name, Bradley Manning, and many who were presumably insensitive and transphobic were banned from editing articles relating to gender issues.
But that limited approach, editors said, could be part of the problem.
CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos
Wikipedia is mostly edited by male volunteers, and has struggled with diversity and harassment issues for years. Women make up just 13 percent of Wikipedia’s English-language editors, according to a recent study. The typical Wikipedian is a man between 15 and 49, formally educated, from a developed country, and isn’t likely to hold a blue collar or working-class job. “The gender bias tends to be around female articles based on the fact that there are so many male editors,” said Amy Senger, Wikipedian and writer in Los Angeles, who has written about the site’s inherent gender slant. She says ArbCom’s decision is evidence of “a systemic bias,” and that “the people who are more vocal and combative tend to prevail in disputes” sent to ArbCom.
That implicit gender bias has also affected content in that there are more articles about notable men in history, and that biographical pages for notable women are frequently created as a supplement or as a link from a man’s page, according to a recent study conducted by German and Swiss researchers out of the Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences and University of Koblenz-Landau.
The cycle can be self-perpetuating. Wikipedia has been losing editors for years, fighting to attract and retain more volunteers to maintain it’s 4.7 million articles, as well as bring on more women, said William Beutler, a Wikipedia editor who runs a consulting firm that links businesses and individuals with Wikipedians to produce more thorough content. The site has pushed for more racial diversity, as well, which will hopefully improve content in cultural and historical articles related to African-Americans.
And with the site having almost nine men volunteer edit for every woman, there’s a history of hostility that can come with that and be off-putting for potential volunteers.
“The fact that I have to go to my volunteer ‘job’ and fear that I’m going to get yelled at by somebody and get called a nasty name,” said Sarah Stierch, a media editor, culture/museum consultant in Napa Valley, California, who has been editing Wikipedia for 10 years and formerly worked for the Wikimedia Foundation. “You shouldn’t have to worry about what happens in your personal life … There is no reason why anybody, regardless of gender or political beliefs, should have to go onto a website about sharing knowledge and writing an encyclopedia — which is pretty damn geeky — and get harassed while doing it. It’s absurd.”
Getting trolled or harassed “doesn’t happen to every single [editor], but when you become more deeply involved [in Wikipedia], you have to have friends. It’s a political mess,” Stierch said.
Wikipedia was built on the belief that chronicling human knowledge, even the most contentious and controversial topics, can be done through mutual collaboration between anonymous strangers. And the results will be a neutral and reputably sourced annotation of living history.
But despite its noble intentions, the world’s top online reference resource found itself caught in the middle of Gamergate and banned editors from editing pages related to the controversy because of what was deemed ‘poor behavior’ that went against the site’s policies.
“‘We have to remain neutral.’ It’s a fantasy of Wikipedia to be a neutral utopia of encyclopedic knowledge. And it fails because nothing is neutral in the real world. But people believe in this ethos of neutrality,” Stierch said.
This is precisely why ArbCom failed in the dispute involving the Five Horseman. “Gamergate is famously word-of-mouth; it’s born out of social media. It’s one voice on the internet versus another voice on the internet,” Stierch said. Unlike another highly controversial issue, reproductive rights and the pro-life or pro-choice debate, where there’s research, countless legitimate media articles and court decisions, such as Roe v. Wade, that add validity to the reproductive rights debate, Gamergate could easily be skewed by the niche publications and throwaway accounts.
The encyclopedia is linked to the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation but the two operate virtually independent of one another. And when it comes to quelling harassment or other gender or discriminatory issues, Wikipedians feel the foundation hasn’t done enough. “They’re the hospital administrator and the lunatics are running the asylum,” Stierch said.
Wikipedia is managed strictly by the community connected by a love of knowledge and anonymity and the philosophy that the site can remain neutral without a heavy top-down approach.
“That’s sort of this really amazing cop-out that exists, to say, ‘These are our community guidelines; it’s community regulated,’” said Caroline Sinders, a UX designer, video game creator, and artist in New York City, who has been studying the Wikipedia and Gamergate controversies. “But if [Wikipedia is] interested in creating a living document of the human experience that is open sourced, when do you step in if it’s a lie?”
To answer that question, projects like Wikipedia may have to find a way to balance the greater good with its “anyone can edit” philosophy, and to speak up against disruptive and malicious behavior. An encouraging development came just this week, as the Wikimedia Foundation allocated $250,000 to the Inspire Campaign, which will seek to diversify the site’s stable of editors.
“[Wikipedia] is one of the greatest things people have ever done and its incredibly vulnerable to slander” and abuse, Mason-Bushman said. “The project needs to be much more aggressive against organized abuse campaigns, take a firm stand and say, ‘No, you may not use our page to harass.’… It’s not a question of neutrality, it’s a question of basic human decency.”
The fight over the Gamergate pages caught the attention of scientist, writer and Wikipedia editor Mark Bernstein. From his perspective, the Five Horsemen seemed to suffer the brunt of the punishments just for doing their jobs. So Bernstein wrote about it on his blog.
“Wikipedia claims to be disinterested in truth, preferring to adhere to a consensus of reliable sources. In practice, no one is responsible and everyone is: anyone can correct Wikipedia, but no one accepts responsibility,” Bernstein said via email.
Bernstein’s blog posts highlighted an organized attack on Wikipedia in the name of Gamergate, which were picked up by the Guardian, ThinkProgress and others. According to a Wiki page called “Operation 5 Horsemen,” Gamergate supporters identified editors who had taken an interest in reverting certain changes in the main Gamergate article and biography pages for harassment victims Quinn, Wu and Sarkeesian.
“When I wrote about ‘feminists’ being banned, I was literally reaching for a rubric that describes the common position of the ‘Five Horsemen’ and their supporters: The belief that women may pursue a career in computer science or software development if they feel like it, without being threatened with assault, rape, or murder and without endless public discussion of their sexual history,” Bernstein said. “This is a very weak definition of ‘feminist,’ but it’s one to which the sanctioned editors subscribe, and to which Gamergate’s supporters do not.”
In fact, the way the Five Horsemen got attention for this banning is also revealing, as one observer pointed out. It was a male feminist, Bernstein, who managed to bring awareness to these issues.
“It’s interesting how a male feminist had to write a blog about it before anybody realized that there are these problems on Wikipedia — these challenges with neutrality” and gender bias, said Stierch, who has been a Wikipedia volunteer editor and worked for the Wikimedia Foundation.
Stacey Mason, a computer science fellow and doctoral student at the University of California, has been researching the Gamergate movement and how actors communicate via message boards and other media in her personal time. “I think that there is a bit of a hive mind happening with Gamergate that’s really dangerous because it’s very easy to issue blame onto other anonymous parts of the mob … It’s very easy to say, ‘I’m not doing that particular thing, the person next to me is doing it and I don’t stand with them,’” she said. “But of course, they’re all sort of tied together under this blanket of Gamergate … It’s really easy to take credit for victories and put off blame. I think that’s true with a lot of anonymous communities.”
“Whatever Gamergate thinks it’s about, there is definitely a core portion of it that seems to be attacking women and minorities … But standing next to these trolls that are harassing women and doxxing people and swatting people, to carry those two things under the same banner, of course, the one with a legitimate complaint is not going to be taken seriously. You can’t have your movement endorsing this stuff either silently or explicitly,” Mason said.
But beyond those concerns and what happened with Wikipedia, Mason said, “It’s important to recognize that the undercurrents of this did not start with Gamergate, and they are not going to end with Gamergate. “There are a lot of issues swirling around this,” she said.
As for Mason-Bushman, he hasn’t dropped out of the Wikipedia community, even though he’s thought about it.
“A lot of people would say, ‘Fuck this! Why am I bothering?’ But I haven’t gotten one-one thousandth of what Zoe and Brianna have gotten and they’re still fighting,” he said. “I’ll go down fighting.”
But Mason-Bushman’s experience with, as he called them, Gamergate vandals, was an eye-opening one that showed him how quickly things can spiral out of control. “It’s disturbing to see how sociopathic people are … it’s literally sociopathy, mindless, senseless. It’s not about ethics in videogame journalism,” he said. “We’re developing a culture that is saying, ‘We don’t care about people.’ I refuse to believe that’s what our world is going to become. I refuse to believe that the sociopaths are going to win, that people aren’t going to say ‘no.’”