William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘Sock puppetry’

Johann Hari and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Wikipedia Edits

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on September 15, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Unless you follow the media, and more specifically the British media, you may be wholly unaware that there is such a person named Johann Hari, or that he has been a wunderkind columnist and correspondent, or that a lot of people find him kind of insufferable, and in that case you almost certainly don’t know that he got himself in a big heap of trouble this summer, over charges of plagiarism and meddling with Wikipedia.

Understandably, most of the criticism has been focused on the plagiarism charges. After all, that’s a crime against journalism, and by definition journalists are the ones writing about it most widely. What he did in those cases was not remotely OK, but at the moment I’m a little more animated by his improper Wikipedia activity. After all, that’s a crime against Wikipedia, and by definition The Wikipedian blogs about Wikipedia.

The matter is news again today because Hari has published a public apology in the pages of The Independent, his employer. He is sorry for everything he has done, he’s returning his prestigious Orwell Prize (which he probably was going to lose anyway) and he’s taking a sabbatical to go back to journalism school. I guess it’s a start.

About the Wikipedia controversy, Hari devotes just one full paragraph:

The other thing I did wrong was that several years ago I started to notice some things I didn’t like in the Wikipedia entry about me, so I took them out. To do that, I created a user-name that wasn’t my own. Using that user-name, I continued to edit my own Wikipedia entry and some other people’s too. I took out nasty passages about people I admire – like Polly Toynbee, George Monbiot, Deborah Orr and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. I factually corrected some other entries about other people. But in a few instances, I edited the entries of people I had clashed with in ways that were juvenile or malicious: I called one of them anti-Semitic and homophobic, and the other a drunk. I am mortified to have done this, because it breaches the most basic ethical rule: don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you. I apologise to the latter group unreservedly and totally.

Hari’s Wikipedia article contains this brief account:

Several journalists, including Cristina Odone in The Daily Telegraph and Nick Cohen in The Spectator, concluded that a Wikipedia editor, ‘David r from meth productions’, who claimed to be ‘David Rose’, were in fact made by Hari. Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Odone noted that, after she had fallen out with Hari, Rose began making misleading edits to her Wikipedia article accusing her of anti-Semitism and homophobia. Nick Cohen said that misleading edits were made to his own Wikipedia article by the same editor after he had published criticism of Hari’s work. … The Times leader writer Oliver Kamm later attributed to ‘David Rose’ a change in his Wikipedia biography that he regarded as “merely an unsubstantiated judgement” but which had been made not long after a “spat” with Hari.

I am not one who believes, as a general rule, that someone should never edit their own Wikipedia article. Indeed, I’m kind of the expert on how to do it and not bring grief to yourself. But by his own admission, Hari’s editing of his own page amounts to what Wikipedia informally calls whitewashing. Hari also did not disclose that he was behind the “David r from meth productions” account, which is also, obviously, a problem. And it’s all the worse—and by worse I just mean “embarrassing”—if you’ve read any of his surreptitiously self-serving arguments in the archives of his Talk page.

But embarrassment is the bare minimum of regret Hari should feel about his “juvenile and malicious” edits to Wikipedia articles about his media adversaries. This is the part that really gets me. Others may disagree, but I see a vast gulf between sneakily trying to make yourself look better and sneakily making others look worse. And I think there’s a big difference between being an anonymous Internet critic—although it’s a type known to take things too far—and using the veil of anonymity (or in the case of Wikipedia, pseudonymity) to smear a person’s reputation.

Calling someone a “douchebag” is rude, and you may be wrong, but that’s your opinion. Calling someone a “drunk” is a specific charge of bad behavior, about which one is either right (and maybe still an asshole) or wrong, and that’s unforgivable. I don’t know which is the case, but either reflects very poorly on his character. This is the one thing that I think no apology, leave of absence, or media training, can fix.

Update: In the comments, a reader points out that Hari’s edits are even worse than I’ve described them, and he’s right. He points to apparent sustained anonymous vindictiveness on Hari’s part, and I add that Hari’s self-support included some rather absurd sock puppetry, neither of which I was aware of at the time I first wrote this. Had I the time, I would follow this up in more detail. But the upshot remains the same: as a public figure, Hari may or may not be finished—but as a respectable one, he certainly is.

The Wikipedian Becomes Eclectic: Pending Changes on KCRW

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on June 21, 2010 at 7:54 am

On Friday afternoon, I joined a panel of guests on the nationally-syndicated KCRW talk show To the Point with Warren Olney. My co-panelists included: Andrew Lih, who may be familiar to readers of this blog either as a Wikipedia editor or as author of The Wikipedia Revolution; Wall Street Journal reporter Julia Angwin, who has written about Wikipedia’s apparent decline in active editors; and Lee Siegel, invited as a critic of Wikipedia and its processes. (Listen to the whole episode here.)

The ostensible topic was the new experiment with Pending changes, described by The Telegraph here, although these paragraphs appeared in opposite order there:

“[V]andalism” has been a particular problem for the online encyclopedia in recent years. The pages of some prominent figures, including Senator Edward Kennedy, were maliciously and falsely edited to claim that the subject of the Wikipedia page had died, when in fact they were alive and well. Many Wikipedia pages dealing with controversial topics have also been repeatedly edited by users with a vested interest in promoting a particular view about the incident or event.

The new system, known as pending changes, means that users will be able to submit changes for previously locked or protected articles. These suggested amendments will then be reviewed by senior editors before the changes go live.

It’s important to note that the new system only applies to about 2,000 articles during this trial run, and does not apply to anyone who has had an active account for more than a few days (a fairly low barrier to “autoconfirmed” status, if you ask me). I wrote about this last summer, when it was first announced and still called “flagged revisions” and at that time I thought the reaction was

roughly divisible into four quadrants: those who mourn Wikipedia’s openness vs. those who will continue to question Wikipedia’s reliability, with those who are optimistic about the change vs. those who are not.

That is probably still operative, but with the program just rolling out in the past few days, there is a related yet more specific dynamic — a disagreement not about what will happen but what has already: do Pending changes make Wikipedia more open or more closed? An unscientific survey of recent headlines at least tells us which opinion is more pervasive:

  • ReadWriteWeb: “Wikipedia to Loosen Controls Tonight”
  • Slashdot: “Wikipedia To Unlock Frequently Vandalized Pages”
  • Resource Shelf: “New “Pending Changes” System Test Begins on Wikipedia, Will Make It Easier for Users to Edit/Change Controversial Entries”
  • Motherboard.tv: “‘Pending Changes’: A Looser Wikipedia”
  • ComputerWorld: “Wikipedia confronts downside of ‘Net openness”
  • BBC: “Wikipedia unlocks divisive pages for editing”

In this summary, at least, only ComputerWorld comes at it from the “more closed” standpoint. (Did you notice that a good amount of the coverage so far has been from the British press? Yeah, so did I.) In a blog post summarizing the radio segment, Lih gave his view:

[M]y view is that the characterization of “pending changes” is relative. Julia Angwin, who I think is a great tech journalist, is of the opinion it represents an overall more closing-off of Wikipedia, and the move is an affirmation of a more conventional process that created traditional encyclopedias. On the other hand, folks like Jimmy Wales have regarded this as opening up — instead of having articles locked completely using full-protection, or to limit editing to existing registered and “aged” users by semi-protection, pending changes gives a way for anyone and everyone to participate, even if those edits are not completely viewable until later. Relative to full protection, it’s more open. Relative to the Wild West wiki way, it’s more closed.

Meanwhile on Wikipedia, a small group of dedicated programmers has been working to make it possible, the discussion has quieted down over the past few days. Wikipedia, it seems, is taking a wait-and-see approach.

As for the show itself, Lih and Angwin handled most of this material, while I was enlisted to do battle with Siegel. And this was quite an opportunity, given Siegel’s notoriety for having sock-puppeted his own blog in 2006, but in the end I kept it focused on Wikipedia. I still said he lived in a fantasy world, and then he said I lived in a fantasy world. Even so, I still should’ve stuck the knife in. And I even gave myself the opportunity, bringing up comment sections on blogs at one point. The fact of the matter is, few people are as wrong-headed about the Internet’s influence on society as Siegel, whose professional curmudgeonry seems as much personal pique as considered commentary.

So I will use the experience to remember that politeness isn’t always the best policy, and leave you with these thoughts from Denny Green: