Phantoms of fear and loathing

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… what the Internet and its cult of anonymity do is to provide a blanket sort of immunity for anybody who wants to say anything about anybody else, and it would be difficult in this sense to think of a more morally deformed exploitation of the concept of free speech.

― Richard Bernstein, New York Times, 27 August 2008.

Why write about Wikipedia again? Because I had more feedback on my last post than on any ten others in the past year… and all of it anonymous. Only one of these already anonymous interlocutors wrote publicly. The rest contacted me ‘below the line’.

It was like being admonished by phantoms. Not really what I’d call stalking, but a backdrop of disembodied voices, with the more menacing ones almost drowning out some other, more nuanced tones.
Most of what the ‘ghosts’ had to say was just pure bile. No problem. I won’t repeat it here. But some of it seemed genuinely outraged. Shame these ghosts weren’t prepared to say what they had to say publicly.

I was surprised, too, that some of the messages reaching me were broadly supportive, but fearful of repercussions if its authors’ identities became known. That last consideration should be ringing alarm bells for anyone who cares about Wikipedia, or is concerned about its toxic culture.

I considered letting the whole thing pass, but then I began to wonder how many times that’s already happened to other people. So I’m going to stage a Socratic dialogue.

Ghost of humility: Just who the hell do you think you are? You think you’re special. You’re not special.

Me: Got it. I’m not special.

Ghost of abnegation: You do not have any rights at Wikipedia. Nobody does.

Me: Sure. Except for administrators. Who have the right to bully, harass, block, and vandalise as they see fit. That must be a real ego boosting gig for people who get their kicks from that sort of thing. My suspicion is they are predominantly white boys (of all ages) who feel disempowered in their lives. That doesn’t strike me as a sound basis for supposedly guarding knowledge.

Ghost of Shoah present: People of Jewish descent could be traumatised by your uncalled-for reference to the murderers of their people. [I likened some administrators to the Gestapo, and called them the Wikistapo.]

Me: It seems to me that most people in America are in imminent danger of being traumatised, offended, or shocked by something. Get over it. Americans are doing a pretty good job of being unmoved by almost daily lynchings of black people, economic injustices, rapes, drone strikes that kill hundreds of completely innocent people somewhere else, and the never ending destruction, murder, and mayhem caused by America’s ongoing imperial wars all over the world.

The American president is the only leader in the Western world with an explicit mandate to order the assassination of anyone anywhere in the world. Let that sink in for a few moments. The USA gives itself the right to murder anyone anywhere in the world. But using a metaphor is offensive.

Ghost of Shoah past: You were grossly offensive in comparing people with the Gestapo, who are associated with the world’s most evil regime ever. The [Wikipedia] admins are nothing like that. They volunteer their time to do a fantastic job of contributing to the Wikipedia mission.

Me: Sure, I used a strong metaphor for actions that have only a virtual effect in a virtual space. But if you behave like a secret police – by policing under pseudonyms – and have the power to censor, block, or mess with people in other ways – why should you not be held up to equally harsh virtual scrutiny. I didn’t really hang anyone for war crimes.

Was my metaphor too strong? Let’s have a look at the word Gestapo. It’s a contraction of Geheime Staatspolizei, literally ‘Secret State Police’. Has there ever been a clearer terminology for what is done today by people like Homeland Security, the NSA, GCHQ, DGSI, etc, etc? Is it likely to be clearer to refer to the Wikistapo as Jello Biafra’s suede and denim secret police? I think not.

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I’m also using a taxonomy first proposed by Hannah Arendt, who saw in real Nazi war criminals the psychology of banal bureaucrats unable to conceptualise their terrifying ethical deficit and lack of empathy. Even the Wikipedia administrators agree that this is what they are: bureaucrats. Ethical deficit and lack of empathy are characteristics I am happy to attribute to them collectively, granting that there are always exceptions to their Lord of the Flies pack mentality. But I guess it’s a stretch for a Wikipedia-‘educated’ person to understand what the hell I’m talking about. You’d actually have to know some history and politics. On that note, Arendt was vilified for her rationality in rejecting a preferred but puerile interpretation of Nazi war criminals as generically ‘evil’, which of course explains nothing at all about their behaviour (or the terminology of vilification).

There’s a second part to that interlocution: the ‘fantastic job’ of contributing to the ‘Wikipedia mission’.

What ‘mission’ is that? The clearest statement I can find about it is the Wikimedia Foundation (parent of Wikipedia) mission statement:

The mission of the Wikimedia Foundation is to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under a free license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally.

In collaboration with a network of chapters, the Foundation provides the essential infrastructure and an organizational framework for the support and development of multilingual wiki projects and other endeavours which serve this mission. The Foundation will make and keep useful information from its projects available on the Internet free of charge, in perpetuity.

The distinction between an encyclopaedic function of presenting relatively incontrovertible facts, as knowledge, and ‘educating’ people might seem minor to some, but is pretty significant. It can be the difference between pedagogy and propaganda. And for a completely closed, self-regulating environment like Wikipedia, that distinction becomes unwholesome pretty quickly if its administrators have arbitrary powers to bully, censor, block, and generally act like a lynch mob, no matter what justifications are used.

I’m pretty sure the language of all secret police anywhere in the world is always about executing the law in the name of justice and the people even as the screaming starts.

Consider the following. By its own figures, Around 600 administrators patrol around 30,000 Wikipedia editors. I think the number of active editors is a little overstated, but even so, that’s one secret policeman for every 50 editors. In 2008 there were 288 cops to every 100,000 people in the USA. Call it 300 in 100,000, and that’s three for every 1000. There must be an awful lot of criminality going on at Wikipedia to need more Five-Oh than a country already being described as a police state by many of its own citizens. Or just a lot of Gestapo types looking to do Gestapo type things. Which is why I call them Wikistapo.

I also have some serious reservations about an apparently open project with its hands out every few months for donations to fund the jet-setting lifestyles of a narrow elite of appointees, but that, as the interlocutor calling itself ‘With Held’ said, is another issue.

Ghost of Godwin’s nincompoop amanuensis: I call Godwin’s law!

Me: And so …? What’s your fucking point? Godwin’s so called law (which might actually be a ‘law’ only because it was created by Wikipedia as a law) starts with ‘As an online discussion grows longer …’. I led with my terminology outright. As far as I know, the ‘law’ makes no statement of censure or automatic invalidation for comparisons to, or otherwise mentioning anything related to the NSDAP.

Ghost of quietism: You could have just calmly sent a clear question.

Me: That’s the pass where senior cops tell black or Hispanic ghetto residents they shouldn’t protest after yet another police murder of an innocent black or Hispanic bystander.

It is true that my personal experience of Wikipedia influenced what I wrote last week. But that personal experience included, one more time in a decades long series of occasions, being ‘virtually’ jostled, pushed, and insulted by a series of automated policies, unhelpful suggestions to go read this or that policy page, and to follow this or that procedure, from which I was actually blocked in the first place. You know, the automated telephone help system in which you get shunted from one queue to another until the system hangs up on you after an hour or so.

Having designed this clusterfuck of a system, including the templated advice to use the contact method I did actually end up using, why would anyone there acting as an administrator expect zen-like ‘calm’ or sheep-like ‘reasonableness’? Is it a defining feature of sociopathy to respond to sociopathy with indifference?

One of them suggested to me you don’t respond to getting cold soup in a restaurant by calling the waiter a Nazi. It’s not like the metaphor really works. It would be more like standing in line at a soup kitchen and being jostled or harassed by baton-wielding cops. And I didn’t really call anyone a Nazi. I used the term Gestapo. The difference may be lost in an appreciation of history coloured only by stereotypes, but it exists nonetheless.

Intimidated ghost: I would comment but I worked hard to be an administrator and I’ve seen what happens when you disagree with the inner circle.

Me: That’s just really sad. But pretty much what I expect.

Ghost of Wikikittens: You should be working from the inside to fix problems instead of making them public.

Me: Really? Is that what I should be doing? I must have forgotten to drink that cool aid.

Chilled out Hipster ghost: What’s it to you anyway, dude. Just walk away.

Me: I never walked away from a bully in my life. Besides, just as American politics intrudes into my daily life by the reach of the empire, so Wikipedia intrudes on me as the bête noire of rationality and reality; a stick wielded by just about everyone too lazy to think or look past a single source for quick ‘answers’. And maybe that’s by design, too.

While that intrusion continues to dog my steps professionally and publicly, I’m unlikely to ‘just walk away’ … dude.

Bookie ghost: You picked a fight and you lost.

Me: Yup. In retrospect it reminds me of the scene where Michael York’s Brian Roberts grabs at the placards held by nonplussed Brownshirts and yells terms of endearment at them … until they overcome their initial reticence to respond to a clearly crazy foreigner by doing the only thing they really know how to do.

Incredulous ghost: This has never happened to me.

Me: Well good for you. But your experience isn’t a reason to invalidate other people’s experiences. Thousands of white people in the USA aren’t shot on their streets by their own police, or serving life sentences in gaols for minor offences, but thousands of black people are. Entitled young white guys aren’t routinely sexually assaulted, but millions of women are. Get the picture?

Stentorian ghost: You could have raised these issues in the appropriate forums. Instead you chose to be disruptive.

Me: First, what did I disrupt? No public pages were involved at all, and without one of the admins making it a matter to be considered by all admins, it would have been a non-event altogether. As it played out, it became an event only because Wikipedia admins believe that questioning them or their function is illicit.

Secondly, I used to try following the maze of buraucratic processes. It’s pretty futile. You get the same response no matter how obedient and humble you are. And Wikipedia’s functionaries are fully aware of what goes on. These issues are even debated internally, albeit coyly. I highly recommend Tom Simonite’s insights in the MIT Technology Review (22 October 2013). In my estimation he took it easy on Wikipedia, but he distilled some of the problems pretty elegantly. Then work your way through Wikipedia’s own treatment of the same issues, maybe starting with a Wikipedia essay on retaining editors, but extending to the actual studies conducted in 2011 and 2013.

My views are coloured by experiences I’ve had as an observer and editor since about 2002, but most particularly since 2011, when I witnessed a gang of astrologers, backed by a couple of administrators, turn the astrology page into an advertisement for divination services, and when I saw the entire history of the Soviet Union being turned into a long and hectoring propaganda message by two or three anti-‘reds-under-the-bed’ zealots, again assisted by a few admins. Both pustules on the face of knowledge and rationality ended up being relatively short lived, but there was that window in time in which anyone reading these pages could have formed the view that informed people on Earth regularly act on paid astrologers’ advice, and were menaced by some bizarre, monstrous, and evil empire straight out of the pages of a Cold War propaganda comic book. All because a handful of administrators were so woefully ignorant, and so incapable of interpreting rules, that a bunch of trolls talked them into accepting their ‘lawyering’ as ‘reasonable’ and representing the ‘community consensus’.

After that I became an ‘irregular’ editor, often not even logging in, just to correct typos, grammar, and add a couple of citations to articles as I researched my own essays on parallel topics. Even then I was a passive witness to administrator activities that suggested deep ignorance, wilful stupidity, towering arrogance, spite, malice, and the Lord of the Flies lynch mob mentality I see as a highly visible part of the Wikistapo culture.

If it can be agreed that an embarrassingly ugly side has been exposed in American public political sentiment by the Trump campaign, I would venture that this sentiment has found a disproportionate expression in the pack mentality of the people I call Wikistapo, no matter that they probably all say they abhor Trump.

When it is proposed to me that such people and processes are necessary to ‘administer’ or ‘guard’ knowledge I know that knowledge is already dead. And the ‘education’ Wikimedia talks about is actually more like propaganda to suit a particular point of view.

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In Wikipedia’s pages this isn’t some crassly obvious North Korean variant, but rather the more subtle one of a distinctly Americano-centric ideology displacing the importance and rôle of non-American ideas, people, and events. It is a cultural imperialism that doesn’t always falsify information outright, but which achieves similar aims by shifting emphasis and blotting out alternate information.

Ask yourself, for instance, why the most prominent coverage of women in Wikipedia pages is of porn stars and celebrities. Not of artists, leaders, and scientists. Tell me again how Wikipedia’s culture does not reflect the ingrained misogyny of the Republican base.

It should not be ignored that a large number of Wikipedia pages carry notices that references are needed to back up the claims made in them; the pages remain, though, as flights of fantasy, betraying an unhealthy pathology of willing something to be true when the evidence is admittedly absent.

This entire ideological process is similar to the one Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky described in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. That’s why I likened Wikipedia to Fox News: it caters to jingoism and bigotry in far less obvious but much more pervasive ways.

And here ends my Socratic dialogue.

In this miniature fracas it is somewhat embarrassing to have to say to people who expect a fundamentalist, literalist correlation between metaphors and concrete manifestations that they need to grow up a bit. Something that never occurs for some people.

With all of this now said quite plainly, and publicly, under my name, I hope those of you inclined to hide behind pseudonyms and fake email accounts will stop fulminating. I’m not likely to change my mind or hide away. Maybe more importantly, you should know that you do damage to Wikipedia’s cause rather than helping out by proving me right in my assertions every time you act like a lynch mob.

To everyone else, by all means, tell me your stories. But you’d be better off telling them in public yourselves. I’m not out to reform Wikipedia. Or to destroy it. It seems to me that its guardians are doing a fine job of demolition all by themselves.

I’m just passing through the landscape of my world, writing about topics that grab my attention as I move on. And not by anyone’s leave.

 

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