Wikipedia-harassment-wikimedia-foundation

4/8/2019 Wikipedia Isn’t Officially a Social Network. But the Harassment Can Get Ugly. – The New York Times
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/08/us/wikipedia-harassment-wikimedia-foundation.html 1/5
By Julia Jacobs
April 8, 2019
In Wikipedia’s 18 years of existence, it has become a fixture in our lives: It ascends to the top of
Google’s search results and provides answers to the questions we ask Alexa and Siri.
For Wikipedia’s editing community, the website is even more. It is a kind of social network where
users debate the minutiae of history and modern life, climb the editorial hierarchy and even meet
friends and romantic partners.
It is also a place where editors can experience relentless harassment. In 2016, Pax Ahimsa
Gethen, a trans male Wikipedian, was persistently hit with personal attacks over several months.
Mx. Gethen, 49, who uses the pronouns “they” and “them,” said the anonymous harasser posted
that they were “insufferable” and “unloved,” that they belonged in an internment camp and that
they should kill themself.
Mx. Gethen said the user also publicly posted their deadname, the name they used before
transitioning.
“It was devastating to me because of the personal nature of it,” Mx. Gethen said.
Unlike at social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, the people who handle reports of
harassment on Wikipedia are largely unpaid volunteers.
In response to complaints about pervasive harassment, the Wikimedia Foundation, the San
Francisco‑based nonprofit that operates Wikipedia and supports its community of volunteers, has
promised new strategies to curb abuse. In recent months, the foundation has rolled out a more
sophisticated blocking tool that it hopes can better control the harassment plaguing some users.
Sydney Poore, a community health strategist with the foundation, said that when the free
encyclopedia was established in 2001, it initially attracted lots of editors who were “tech‑oriented”
men. That led to a culture that was not always accepting of outside opinions, said Ms. Poore, who
has edited Wikipedia for 13 years.
“We’re making strong efforts to reverse that,” she said, “but it doesn’t happen overnight.”
Wikipedia Isn’t Officially a
Social Network. But the
Harassment Can Get Ugly.
4/8/2019 Wikipedia Isn’t Officially a Social Network. But the Harassment Can Get Ugly. – The New York Times
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/08/us/wikipedia-harassment-wikimedia-foundation.html 2/5
A ‘barrier’ to gender equity
A few informed clicks on any Wikipedia article can reveal the lengthy discussions that shape a
published narrative. According to interviews with Wikipedians around the world, those digital
back rooms are where harassment often begins. A spirited debate over a detail in an article can
spiral into one user spewing personal attacks against another.
“If you out yourself as a feminist or L.G.B.T., you will tend to be more targeted,” said Natacha
Rault, a Wikipedia editor who lives in Geneva and founded a project that aims to reduce the
gender gap on the website.
On French‑language Wikipedia, where Ms. Rault does much of her editing, discussions about
gender can often spark vitriol. Ms. Rault said there were six months of heated debate about
whether to label the article on Britain’s leader, Theresa May, with the feminine version of “prime
minister” (première ministre), rather than the masculine one (premier ministre).
Another controversy has been simmering over the article “femme,” the French word for woman,
Ms. Rault said. At issue is whether the first paragraph should refer to gender in addition to
biological sex, and whether transgender women should be included in the definition of woman.
This debate devolved into an “edit war,” a heated back‑and‑forth in which Wikipedians
continuously edit an article to overwrite the other side’s changes and reflect the language they
want.
“Sometimes it can be so aggressive that you give up and run away from the article,” she said.
The idea that cisgender women and transgender editors could be repelled from Wikipedia by
online abuse is of serious concern to the Wikimedia Foundation.
On its website, the foundation lists pervasive harassment as a barrier to gender equity.
Sometimes, the harassment is explicitly sexual: According to anonymous interviews described by
the foundation, users have had pornography posted on their personal Wikipedia userpage and
emailed to them. Camelia Boban, an editor on Italian‑language Wikipedia, said another user once
publicly used language to suggest she was a prostitute.
Studies on Wikipedia’s contributor base from several years ago estimated that fewer than 20
percent of editors were women. This research backed up an existing awareness in the Wikipedia
community that female editors were seriously underrepresented, galvanizing activists who set
out to recruit more women to write and edit articles.
4/8/2019 Wikipedia Isn’t Officially a Social Network. But the Harassment Can Get Ugly. – The New York Times
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/08/us/wikipedia-harassment-wikimedia-foundation.html 3/5
Groups like Art+Feminism were established to increase the representation of women and
nonbinary individuals on Wikipedia. Its organizers held sessions in which experienced editors
taught aspiring ones the ways of Wikipedia, explaining how to navigate a website where editors
sometimes appear to be communicating in code.
Wikipedians also began to discuss the “content gender gap,” which includes an imbalance in the
gender distribution of biographies on the site. The latest analysis, released this month, said about
18 percent of 1.6 million biographies on the English‑language Wikipedia were of women. That is up
from about 15 percent in 2014, partially because of activists trying to move the needle.
The perils for L.G.B.T. editors
Claudia Lo, a foundation researcher on a team that is building anti‑harassment tools, said there
was a pattern of harassment on Wikipedia stemming from debates over L.G.B.T. issues. When a
celebrity comes out as transgender — notably, Chelsea Manning in 2013 and Caitlyn Jenner in
2015 — Wikipedians have extensively debated whether the individual’s self‑declared pronouns
should be used.
Articles about transgender or nonbinary individuals are often subject to vandals who revert their
pronouns back to their gender assigned at birth. But Wikipedia’s guidelines make clear that
editors should use the gender that the subject of the article most recently stated in a dependable
source.
Based on the latest analysis, released this month, about 18 percent of 1.6 million
biographies on the English‑language Wikipedia were of women.
Danielle Scruggs for The New York Times
4/8/2019 Wikipedia Isn’t Officially a Social Network. But the Harassment Can Get Ugly. – The New York Times
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/08/us/wikipedia-harassment-wikimedia-foundation.html 4/5
In countries where it is more dangerous for L.G.B.T. individuals to be open about their identities,
harassment on Wikipedia can be particularly virulent. Once, an administrator on a Wikipedia
page blocked an editor simply because their username suggested that the editor could be gay,
said Rachel Wexelbaum, a Wikipedian who works to improve L.G.B.T. content on the website.
Eventually, she said, Wikimedia’s Trust and Safety Team got involved, and the administrator was
blocked for those actions.
In some spaces, the environment for L.G.B.T. users has improved. Amir Sarabadani, a 25‑year‑old
Iranian software developer with Wikimedia Foundation’s chapter in Germany, said that in his 12
years of editing Persian‑language Wikipedia, users were often hostile while editing articles
related to homosexuality.
About six years ago, Mr. Sarabadani started talking openly about being gay in conversations with
other Wikipedians. He said other editors often accused him of having a “homosexual agenda,” and
anonymous users posted lewd images of male genitals on his userpage.
But Mr. Sarabadani, who left Tehran for Berlin two years ago, said he thinks his work as an
administrator on Persian‑language Wikipedia has made the community of editors there less
tolerant of abuse.
“It was easy to say things and get away with that,” he said. “Now if someone says something
homophobic, they’ll get blocked for several months.”
Identifying and punishing harassers
On English‑language Wikipedia, one of roughly 300 languages with its own site, users are asked
to report conflicts with one another on online notice boards, where they are expected to post links
to abuse so an administrator can decide whether to take action.
That method problematically forces complaints into the public sphere, said Ms. Lo, the foundation
researcher.
“If you’re being harassed,” Ms. Lo said, “the last thing you want to do is tell your harasser that
you’re about to tell on them.”
In some cases, situations are dealt with by Wikimedia Foundation staffers or via private emails
with volunteer administrators, she said.
If a volunteer administrator finds the allegations of abuse credible, the user can be banned from
editing anywhere on the site. Administrators for some Wikipedias, such as the English‑language
site, can also declare a “topic ban,” a socially enforced tool in which other editors are responsible
for making sure the guilty user is not involved in editing articles that mention prohibited subjects.
Violating a topic ban can result in a sitewide ban.
4/8/2019 Wikipedia Isn’t Officially a Social Network. But the Harassment Can Get Ugly. – The New York Times
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/08/us/wikipedia-harassment-wikimedia-foundation.html 5/5
The new tool, which the foundation calls “partial blocks,” allows administrators to restrict users
from editing particular pages on which they have proved to be a problem. Those developing the
tool hope it will be used more liberally to block editors from specific topics without entirely
banning users who are productive in other areas of the site.
“The idea is to provide volunteer administrators with a more targeted, more nuanced ability to
respond to conflicts,” Ms. Lo said.
Partial blocks are active on five Wikipedias, including those in Italian and Arabic, and foundation
staffers expect it to be introduced to English‑language Wikipedia this year. The foundation is also
in the early stages of a private reporting system where users could report harassment, Ms. Lo
said.
But there are limits to how effective institutional change can be in curbing harassment on
Wikipedia. In the case of Mx. Gethen, their harasser kept posting from different IP addresses,
making it difficult for a blocking tool to be effective.
Although the abuser no longer haunts their internet presence, Mx. Gethen said the sometimes
hostile culture on Wikipedia has reduced their editing on the site.
“I’m not getting paid for this,” they said. “Why should I volunteer my time to be abused?”
Follow Julia Jacobs on Twitter: @juliarebeccaj.
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