Wikipedia’s War on #GamerGate Set the Site’s Tone for the Trump Era

Turkish officials say Wikipedia failed to remove content deemed to be false from its pages that linked Turkey with terror groups
AFP/Lionel Bonaventure

Five years ago Wikipedia got sucked into the controversy over GamerGate, the anti-corruption movement in gaming. The narrative found on Wikipedia, like many others about GamerGate, is a lie. Editors, including this author, worked hard to give the movement a fair treatment and got several biased opponents banned only to be cast by the media in a fake news storm as “throwaway accounts” forcing out honest editors over provoked incivility. Wikipedia’s treatment of GamerGate foreshadows the site’s treatment of many political issues during the Donald Trump presidency.

GamerGate’s opponents, including actual throwaway accounts, soon regained the advantage and pushed heavier restrictions on Wikipedia similar to the Internet-wide censorship wave following GamerGate and the election of Donald Trump. While the movement once had a chance at fair coverage, its article remains, years later, one of the most biased on the online encyclopedia.

More than five years have passed since August 2014 when regular gamers criticizing corruption in the gaming press were smeared by the same as misogynist harassers. Members of the GamerGate movement that emerged during this period identified unethical practices in gaming media, achieved reforms, and uncovered corrupt activity elsewhere in the gaming industry. Efforts to suppress GamerGate helped lay the groundwork for our current censorious online environment. Gamergate was just as messy and disastrous to Wikipedia as it has been to many other mainstream websites.

In January 2015, fighting over the GamerGate article saw a watershed moment. Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee or ArbCom, often likened to a Supreme Court, passed judgment against numerous editors. Dozens of editors sympathetic to GamerGate had already been banned based on technicalities and trivial claims of policy violations, with progressive Wikipedia critics doxing some and the dox briefly shared by indie game developer Zoe Quinn, a central figure in the corruption scandal that sparked GamerGate. This time GamerGate opponents were banned and it sparked a fake news bonanza as outlets such as the Guardian seized on blog posts by Wikipedia editor Mark Bernstein falsely claiming “feminists” were being “purged” from the site.

Viral deception from the mainstream media blamed the misconduct of editors ostensibly keeping the GamerGate article neutral on GamerGate supporters using “throwaway accounts” to provoke them. This information pollution prompted unprecedented refutations from the Committee and the Wikimedia Foundation that owns Wikipedia debunking certain details. Even with the narrative partly discredited, key falsehoods survived in places such as ThinkProgress. The so-called “Operation Five Horsemen” media wrongly blamed was an external GamerGate effort to gather evidence against five editors jokingly termed the “Five Horsemen of Wikibias” by a pro-GamerGate editor. Due to lack of familiarity with Wikipedia’s standards, the evidence gathered was essentially useless.

In reality, this author requested ArbCom’s involvement over editors pushing an aggressive anti-GamerGate agenda, particularly trying to censor well-sourced mention of GamerGate supporters being harassed or women in the movement existing and administrators who enforce the site’s policies failing to properly address this misconduct. The evidence used was mostly gathered by established editors including this author who had difficulties with these “horsemen” treated as martyrs by left-wing press. I myself was banned from “gender-related disputes” same as several “horsemen” editors. Bernstein seemingly rationalizes this inconsistency in his narrative by claiming my account was a “throwaway” as well despite having a more extensive editing history than him.

Hardly stewards of neutrality against an army of harassers, the “five horsemen” included editors with a history of crooked behavior. One member of the group, “NorthBySouthBaranof,” allegedly an employee of a Federal land agency, has edited articles to be sympathetic towards the government, such as an article on the Bundy StandoffJay Herlihy or “Tarc” is a troll who previously faked being a Black Republican to get away with offensive behavior. Tellingly, he derisively compared female GamerGate supporters to Black Republicans.

One “horseman” received hundreds of dollars from anti-GamerGate activists as he attacked prominent figures involved in the controversy such as Slate writer David Auerbach and 8chan founder Frederick Brennan. He was later found to have made biased edits on behalf of anti-GamerGate activists. This editor early on pushed the false narrative about the Wikipedia dispute by proposing a mass-ban of editors he claimed were only there to push a pro-GamerGate agenda, making outrageously false and easily refuted allegations against established editors.

Concerns about the GamerGate article’s neutrality were not limited to sympathizers as many editors and administrators criticized the article. Even Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales saw issues, inviting GamerGate supporters to draft their preferred version of the article, going so far as stating allegations of journalistic collusion were “largely and obviously true” following the leak of the GameJournoPros mailing list. Media later praised Wales turning on GamerGate after he attacked them for “harassment” over a subsequently deleted page on a for-profit wiki site founded by Wales. The page simply listed questionable conduct by editors during the GamerGate dispute.

Effective at slanting the article, the “horsemen” and other editors frequently forced out sources not meeting their approval. Such efforts to exclude unfavorable sourcing also affect the article on Anita Sarkeesian, which makes no mention of criticism despite ample sourcing that meets Wikipedia’s standards. Unofficial GamerGate sites were added to spam lists to block them and edits mentioning a Medium post by gay GamerGate supporter J.W. Caine were deleted to where even most administrators could not review them.

The “horsemen” were protected by administrators using advanced privileges to prevent them from being sanctioned for their misdeeds during the GamerGate dispute, while suppressing their opponents. These administrators were sometimes involved in the dispute itself, breaching rules meant to keep administrators from abusing their authority. However, these administrators had protectors on ArbCom who guaranteed none faced consequences and weakened sanctions for “horsemen” editors. These ArbCom protectors, often openly biased against GamerGate, included significant individuals such as the great-granddaughter of children’s novelist E. B. White and the one-time lawyer of late Comic Book legend Stan Lee.

This made the setback from the ArbCom case temporary as these administrators protected “horsemen” who could still edit about GamerGate and other anti-GamerGate partisans such as Bernstein, who became heavily involved in the dispute. Of those banned, “NorthBySouthBaranof” exploited exemptions and administrator inattention to stay involved. “Ryulong”, the only “horseman” banned from Wikipedia entirely, pushed the fight on similar sites. Herlihy was later banned for doxing a moderate anti-GamerGate administrator trying to keep GamerGate articles neutral. Some administrators protecting the “horsemen” did not fare well being removed or threatened with removal from their positions over subsequent misconduct.

One factor shifting the balance of power was a restriction imposed on GamerGate-related articles preventing editors without 500 edits and 30 days of editing history from contributing. Designed to prevent pro-Gamergate accounts from criticizing the article’s bias, single-purpose anti-GamerGate throwaway accounts easily circumvented this restriction to push the page to greater extremes. Whether dedicated anti-GamerGate activists, anti-GamerGate editors evading bans, or pro-GamerGate editors trolling Wikipedia, these editors rank among the page’s ten biggest contributors and showed up elsewhere to support allies or harass opponents. The “500/30” restriction soon expanded beyond GamerGate as pro-Palestinian editors got it placed on articles about the Israeli-Arab conflict to restrain pro-Israeli editors, leading eventually to its wider adoption as “extended confirmed” protection.

By the end of 2015, GamerGate and other feminism-related disputes made “harassment” a major topic of ArbCom elections. Due to aggressive campaigning by activist editors, the Committee was stacked with members promising crackdowns on “harassment” on Wikipedia, including anti-GamerGate administrator “Gamaliel” or Robert Fernandez. Their first act was banning this author for “harassment” after I reported an administrator violating conflict of interest policies. I was already under a lengthy suspension for removing defamatory attacks against Quinn’s ex-boyfriend, despite citing the same exemptions Bushmann was given, and criticizing a prospective admin candidate.

A year out the false narrative about Wikipedia’s GamerGate dispute continued being pushed prominently by people such as the head of a controversial paid editing firm. Some GamerGate opponents faltered in 2016, Fernandez most notably. Getting into a raucous fight over a “small hands” joke about then-candidate Donald Trump, he resigned from ArbCom and several other positions. It was later blamed on “GamerGate extortion” because a pro-GamerGate blogger spoke to Fernandez’s employer for a piece. Fernandez quickly undermined himself by threatening Auerbach’s job after Auerbach inquired about false claims Fernandez had resigned from a D.C.-based Wikimedia organization over the controversy.

Unimpeded, GamerGate opponents continued making gains into the next year. Fernandez, despite his fall from grace, received a Foundation grant to be the public representative of a major Wikipedia conference. Brad Wardell, a game developer sympathetic to GamerGate, was smeared by an anti-GamerGate Wikipedia administrator who later became a producer for the game Fallout 76 by Bethesda Studios. A major attempt to fix Wikipedia’s GamerGate article was shot down for not insisting GamerGate was about harassment and editors trashed an article this author wrote on radical feminist group The Fine Young Capitalists, whose all-women game design competition spurred the creation of GamerGate mascot Vivian James.

Early in 2017, “NorthBySouthBaranof” was officially allowed to edit about GamerGate and gender-related controversies again, despite admitting to violating his ban as he was appealing it with edits about controversial Women’s March organizer Linda Sarsour. From that point forward, the situation on GamerGate-related articles drastically worsened. While GamerGate opponents faced some difficulties, such as Bernstein being banned from the site, the GamerGate article now pushes the demonstrably false claim that the blog post sparking off the controversy claimed Quinn exchanged sex for coverage and an article on “video game controversies” now only includes GamerGate as an example of “far-right” associations in gaming.

GamerGate may no longer get fair and honest coverage on Wikipedia due to a confluence of biased editing and dishonest media reporting, but the heavily slanted article and the site’s general left-wing bias has not prevented feminism-induced controversies. Media continue condemning Wikipedia’s “gender gap” and “toxicity” aided by analysis from tools developed by the Wikimedia Foundation. This has pushed the Foundation to take controversial and unprecedented action, sparking revolts not unlike GamerGate and subjecting editors to the same kind of smear campaign they ran against it.

Understanding GamerGate’s treatment on Wikipedia provides a clearer perspective on why Conservatives are routinely smeared and silenced by the online encyclopedia. The GamerGate article acted as a blueprint for how topics would be treated throughout the Trump administration, such as the site’s slant against Donald Trump on all articles related to the Ukraine controversy.

T. D. Adler edited Wikipedia as The Devil’s Advocate. He was banned after privately reporting conflict of interest editing by one of the site’s administrators. Due to previous witch-hunts led by mainstream Wikipedians against their critics, Adler writes under an alias.

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