This week, Wikipedia's highest governing body finalized its decision regarding the Gamergate encyclopedia page—the subject of a fight nearly as intense and long-running as Gamergate itself. Despite the organization's repeated insistence that it is not taking sides in the conflict, it ruled to punish five editors who were specifically targeted by a coordinated Gamergate attack.
Previously, Wikipeda's arbitration committee—a panel that resolves disputes among editors, also known as ArbCom—preliminarily decided to penalize several editors over the ongoing war for the fate of the Gamergate page. The group, which included both supporters and opponents of Gamergate, was accused of various violations of Wikipedia's code of conduct.
Much of the media coverage of the initial ruling, including Gawker's, focused on the rebuke of anti-Gamergate editors specifically, and the free encyclopedia has launched a full-scale charm offensive in the days since then. Both the arbitration committee and the Wikimedia Foundation released statements reassuring readers that Wikipedia remains committed to civility and a neutral point of view, and Jimmy Wales has been furiously retweeting messages of support from fans.
In the end, by my count, ArbCom ruled to punish six editors who could be broadly classified as "anti-Gamergate" and five who are "pro-Gamergate." Some editors were "topic-banned"—prohibited from contributing to any articles relating to Gamergate or the nebulously defined concept of "gender"; others were simply admonished; only one, an editor named Ryulong, was kicked off of Wikipedia outright.
Whether the committee knew it or not, it was expressly doing the bidding of a group of Gamergaters who plotted to take control of the Wikipedia article. A page on Gamergate's own wiki site details a campaign launched in November called "Operation Five Horsemen," which asked supporters to repeatedly report Ryulong and four other editors to administrators in hopes of halting their work on the Gamergate page. In addition to completely banning Ryulong, ArbCom topic-banned two horsemen and formally reprimanded the remaining two. Operation Five Horsemen was a resounding success.
The powers that be at Wikipedia are touting the relatively equal distribution of punishment to pro- and anti-Gamergate camps as evidence that justice was served, but the parity is precisely the problem. In an email I received yesterday from Wikimedia Foundation spokeswoman Katherine Maher about a previous post, Maher wrote:
We can confirm that in addition to a single site-wide ban, the Committee issued and endorsed nearly 150 warnings, sanctions, or topic bans to other editors from various sides of the case. We can clarify that of the eleven Committee-issued topic bans, only one was applied to an editor who identifies as female. All of the sanctioned editors have the right to appeal in the future: over the years, the Committee has approved appeals if they are found to no longer be necessary.
Some reporting portrayed this case as a referendum on Gamergate itself, or as a purge of women or feminist voices from Wikipedia. That mischaracterizes the case, the role of the volunteer Arbitration Committee, and the nature of their findings.
(The 150 figure includes a previous set of sanctions that ArbCom ruled to endorse.)
But the Gamergate dispute is not a case of two opposing but equally reasonable parties in search of a compromise. As Mark Bernstein documents thoroughly on his blog, supporters of Gamergate have fashioned Wikipedia into a weapon to be used against their targets, working to insert references to the misogynistic and long-disproven idea that indie game developer Zoe Quinn traded sex with journalists for positive coverage of one of her games, and coordinating to revive dormant Wikipedia accounts for the sole purpose of making Gamergate edits. The so-called anti-Gamergate editors have fought to make sure that the movement is represented as it actually exists—a campaign against women and feminism in gaming under the guise of an ill-defined crusade about "ethics." One side is populated by people who are working in good faith to make Wikipedia a more accurate and useful resource; the other by malicious trolls. Each was reprimanded equally.
The decision may have something to do with the arbitration committee's demographics, which reflect the overwhelmingly male skew of Wikipedia at large: as Bernstein notes, of 14 arbitrators, 11 are thought to be male; one is a woman, and the remaining two have not made their genders public.
Maher's email, and the official Wikipedia statements on Gamergate, are careful to point out that the arbitration committee has the authority to govern disputes about the conduct of Wikipedia's editors, but not about the content of the site. For that reason, Maher wrote, the committee's decision shouldn't be understood as a "referendum on Gamergate itself." In other words, the decision isn't about whose ideas are right; it's about who is best behaved.
Leaving aside the long history of punishable behavior by Gamergate supporters, that defense highlights one of Wikipedia's most fundamental flaws: aside from the purely democratic groupthink of its editors, no mechanism exists for governing the site's content. If enough web-savvy pseudoscientists decided tomorrow to use Wikipedia to espouse the merits of phrenology, or a racist campaign in support of eugenics flooded the site, there's not much Wikipedia could do about it. Good editors would work against the crazies, of course, and if ArbCom found evidence of conduct violations it could punish the interlopers that way, but there's no system in place for Wikipedia's administrators to say, Your ideas are wrong, and they're not welcome here.
Though the Ustaša were responsible for the death of some 300,000 Croatian citizens during the Holocaust, their atrocities have slowly been whitewashed from the pages of Croatian Wikipedia (though they're still visible on the English Wikipedia). Similarly, articles on Croatian Wikipedia have begun propagating bigoted rhetoric, targeting Serbs and the LGBT community. For instance, one editor changed an article on gay marriage to read "gays and marriage" because, the editor suggested, "gay marriage" is an oxymoron as it could not logically exist.
These conservative views have so thoroughly saturated the site that earlier this month, Croatian Minister of Education, Science, and Sport Zelijko Jovanovic went so far as to discourage students from using their national version of Wikipedia.
"[W]e have to point out that much of the content in the Croatian version of Wikipedia not only misleading but also clearly falsified," Jovanovic said.
Then, as now, the Wikimedia Foundation did not put its foot down against the mob, telling the Daily Dot that it "fosters Wikipedia's growth without directly controlling it," but declining to comment further.
This stubborn refusal to take a stand on anything isn't some accidental pitfall; its one of Wikipedia's most cherished tenets. Often, it's what makes the site so great: an omnipotent arbitrator might not deem delightful and informative but offbeat articles like Kentucky Meat Shower or toast sandwich worthy of publication, but the Wikipedian hive mind has, and there they are on the site. But when Wikipedia can't tell the difference between well-intentioned editors and an angry mob, it has a problem. Imagine what might happen if the Westboro Baptist Church figured out how to organize likeminded homophobes on 8chan and Reddit.
Perhaps by design, that agnosticism also allows Wales and the rest of the Wikimedia Foundation to abdicate any responsibility for the content of their site—just like Thought Catalog does when it publishes openly white supremacist and transphobic essays on one hand and pleas for tolerance and diversity on the other.
Fortunately, ArbCom's decision hasn't translated into a full-scale makeover for the Gamergate page, or for those of Gamergate targets like Zoe Quinn or Brianna Wu. But that doesn't mean supporters aren't grasping at straws to make even the tiniest of edits that would present the movement in a more positive light.
On Monday, an editor named Retartist changed an assertion that the targets of Gamergate's harassment were overwhelmingly women to include a bit of hedging: Commentators have said that the targets were women, with the hidden implication that those commenters might be wrong. Pointing to a heap of evidence in favor of the claim—which, indeed, is overwhelming—another editor quickly changed it back. This morning, Retartist returned and made the exact same edit a second time.