Following recent ArbCom findings exonerating Grant Shapps the BBC has apologised over its lacklustre coverage. Furthermore, the Witchfinder can exclusively reveal that Shapps has now written to Wikipedia’s UK chapter, the charity Wikimedia United Kingdom (WMUK), formally demanding disclosure of documents and expressing concerns about the charity’s political involvement. At the same time, a number of other powerful institutions are expressing frustration over legitimate concerns about bias, harassment and ineptitude at the encylopaedia.
The BBC, which spent a whole day on Grant Shapps’ alleged editing of Wikipedia, was curiously less forthcoming on apologising – leaving Shapps with legitimate complaint. It is a foolish move for an institution whose very existence is under threat to alienate its few allies. Shapps, now the Minister of State for International Development, is one of the minority of Conservatives who does not favour the BBC’s abolition.
Mr Shapps is also not the only public figure with grievances about the online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia. He finds himself in company with left-wing journalist David Auerbach, right-wing media organisation Breitbart and the enormous consumer movement known as #GamerGate – one of whose forums KotakuInAction alone now boasts over 40,000 members and whose key figures like SargonOfAkkad have hundreds of thousands of followers.
The ArbCom investigation into Richard Symonds’ ill-fated allegations about Grant Shapps revealed that multiple WMUK employees had been involved. Materials seen by the Witchfinder General reveal that Shapps has written to D’Arcy Myers the Chief Executive and made a formal data protection request for disclosure of the documents. Mr Shapps, like many members of the Wikipedia community and a number of media organisations, would like to know all about WMUK’s contacts with the Guardian.
WMUK claimed during the ArbCom case that, to quote the charity’s current chairman Michael Maggs, “Wikimedia Checkuser activities are not in any way related to an employee’s professional duties”. However Shapps points out that some of Richard Symonds’ activities using CheckUser were found by ArbCom to have occurred within UK working hours (see the timeline of events in the findings of fact section). He also points out that Symonds used his WMUK email address and that another staff member issued a press release for the charity.
In short, it appears that the lines between WMUK as a body and the outside activities of individual staff became seriously blurred to the point of invisibility. If any civil wrongs occurred Shapps could argue WMUK is liable. Obvious points for Shapps to explore would be libel and breaches of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA).
The disclosure request is itself a carefully constructed tangle of thorns for WMUK. British data protection law is highly technical and it is possible WMUK could argue an exemption. Unfortunately for WMUK if it does not give full and credible disclosure observers are likely to draw highly adverse inferences.
Worse, whilst Shapps makes no overt legal threats he does refer in passing to CPR 31.16, a completely different set of rules far stronger than the DPA with legal costs risks later on should WMUK not respond adequately to the letter. The mistreated MP could make an application for pre-action disclosure, allowing him to see the documents by court order and then decide whether there is evidence to take the costs risks of a lawsuit under UK law.
Like the Wikipedia community Grant Shapps also seems concerned that despite the appalling wrong-doing found by ArbCom and the express loss of trust there seems to have been no obvious management action. WMUK watchers note that Richard Symonds appears still to be employed there. Even the most dull-witted of managers and executives must realise that Mr Symonds’ position is untenable. He will always now be a weak point for the charity, a discredited individual whose every action will be the subject of intense, damaging scrutiny.
Involvement in politics is a dangerous and technical area for UK charities, with complex rules and a potential loss of charitable status (with severe tax consequences) if wrong decisions are made. WMUK has had difficulties in the past with obtaining charitable status and would be wise to fear doing anything that could jeopardise it. UK and European charitable law is to some extent similar and the irresponsible conduct of WMUK could lead to chapters across Europe having difficulties.
At the same time Wikipedia as a whole has faced severe criticisms from a wide variety of other organisations. Some articles on the encyclopaedia have been seized by an extreme left wing cabal of so-called ‘Social Justice Warriors’ (SJWs).
Wikipedia policy, as explained by David Auerbach of Slate, does not require it to directly check facts. Instead it requires that any contested assertions be verifiable from ‘reliable sources’ in accordance with its policy, WP:VERIFY. This generally means large reputable publishers such as newspapers and news sites.
In order to help their cause, the SJWs have taken to declaring journalists who disagree with them as unreliable or ‘fringe’. This means their views cannot be used in articles and targets include Auerbach and Breitbart. This is obviously unjust – Auerbach is a well respected journalist. Your author has dealt personally with Breitbart and found them very professional. Whilst Breitbart is as right-wing as the Guardian is left, journalists such as Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos have been rigorous in requesting documents and checking facts.
From Wikipedia’s perspective, if it is seen to attack journalists then said journalists have an incentive to scrutinise the project. The treatment of Auerbach is clearly unjust – indeed when Keller tried to raise the matter on the Wikipedia BLPN (Biographies of Living Persons Noticeboard) a respected administrator commented, “[…] It seems certain sources have been called “fringe” in order to exclude them from the article. Which in my opinion is incorrect, but then that whole article is a true clusterf*ck anyway. […] here it is being wielded as a weapon of sorts. Auerbachkeller, I would recommend bringing this to the Administrator’s noticeboard where it will get more attention from experienced editors, and perhaps actioned in some way […]”
Keller, who had a legitimate grievance, does not seem yet to have progressed his grievance but then the bureaucracy of Wikipedia can be daunting to outsiders. It is a shame it has not been progressed by administrators on his behalf.
Similar, sinister strategies have been deployed in relation to Breitbart, which was recently the subject of a discussion at the Reliable Sources Noticeboard. Only 14 people participated, one of whom was subsequently blocked entirely from Wikipedia. Most of those who contributed were GamerGate partisans on one side or another – representing a tiny and highly polarised section of the community. The decision seems ripe for revisiting.
Finally the nascent consumer action group GamerGate is the subject of an astonishingly biased article on the encylopaedia that essentially alleges it exists solely to harass women – a laughable claim as many of its key figures are women, such as women’s rights activist and adult actress Mercedes Carrera (NSFW), Libertarian Writer June (Shoe0nHead) and Professor Christina Hoff Sommers.
Those concerned about Wikipedia are not short of ammunition – as revealed elsewhere there are serious conflicts of interest on the site such as Naomi Campbell’s article being edited by her PR firm. These obviously commercial activities could lend support for those who might want Wikipedia stripped of its charitable status.
Together, the growing number of persons offended by Wikipedia could devastate the project. This would be regrettable. Imagine for a moment Jimmy Wales’ (hypothetical) nightmare future –
- Breitbart, Slate and other media organisations doing regular exposé pieces on Wikipedia, administrators, functionaries and trustees. These organisations could easily unmask editors and shed light on the sometimes contentious donors who fund Wikipedia and Wales’ other charitable endeavours.
- At the same time picture political forces moving to strip Wikipedia of charitable status and have its leading lights declared persona non-grata in some non-US states.
- GamerGate would doubtless be delighted to help out Breitbart (a key media defender) and Shapps (who has occasionally made comments the movement approves of). According to Capital New York, GamerGate cost Gawker seven figures in advertising when it organised a boycott campaign. This disciplined, measured and lawful protest systematically stripped controversial website Gawker.com of advertisers.
- It would be easy for members of GamerGate and supporters to identify key Wikipedia donors and supporters and task thousands of people with writing to them. Likewise, they could easily organise lawful peaceful protests outside national chapters. If a fraction of KotakuInAction’s 40,000 members decided to run protests on Wikipedia talk pages the project could quickly be overwhelmed.
- Whilst your author and public figures such as Grant Shapps and Auerbach have so far adopted a measured approach it is also the case that there a small number of more extreme characters online albeit by no means representative of GamerGate as a whole.
- It is not so hard to imagine someone taking an open source wiki-bot and repurposing it for vandalism. If it were programmed to rapidly shift IP addresses and create multiple accounts thousands of pages could be altered in a short space of time. This is of course nothing your author or the other reputable persons mentioned in this article would condone.
A large organisation like Wikipedia is hard to take down, nevertheless a concerted effort could have a dramatic impact on revenues and reputation, at a time when the number of editors is said to be falling and publications like the New York Times already ask, “Can Wikipedia Survive?”. Jimmy Wales himself has a quasi-celebrity status he would not wish tarnished.
However so far those aggrieved with Wikipedia have in fact adopted a measured approach and attempted to reach out. Shapps has written a very moderate letter to WMUK. Breitbart and Auerbach have authored a handful of articles. GamerGate has a subsection, the Great Work dedicated to improving relations and ensuring members comply with Wikipedia rules. [* Ethics note – your author is a moderator of /r/TheGGGreatWork/]. The Great Work has complied with all requests from Jimmy Wales in regards to the advice it gives to members.
Opportunities for Jimmy Wales and the Wikipedia Trustees
It would behove the higher echelons of Wikipedia to offer an olive branch. Wales is treated by Wikipedians as their ‘constitutional monarch’. He could get in touch urgently with WMUK and invite them to recognise the enormous risks posed by Richard Symonds’ continued presence in the organisation.
Wales could comment on the desirability of a … wider section of the Wikipedia community reviewing Auerbach and Breitbart as reliable sources. Wales has already commented on the possible desirability of rewriting the GamerGate article. He could ask ArbCom or some uninvolved administrators to look at the actions of editors and those administrators currently involved in that ongoing dispute.
Finally your author notes that in the past Mr Wales has found difficulty establishing communications with the GamerGate movement and in particular regrets that private emails he sent to another supporter were leaked. I and the other members of the Great Work welcome his engagement. Mr Wales is welcome to contact me and I give a public undertaking to keep any correspondence confidential.