Having previously pledged to impose a “code of conduct” on all sites owned by the Wikimedia Foundation, which owns Wikipedia, staff have finally published a draft version of the document for review by contributors to Foundation-owned sites. Numerous provisions, including on “preferred pronoun” usage, immediately raised concerns among users about their implications for free speech with some harassment provisions also seen as potentially undermining efforts to rein in bad editing.
Concerns extended to an apparent pledge for staff to be directly involved in enforcing the code of conduct, a year after Foundation staff banning an administrator on Wikipedia prompted a massive editor revolt. The committee behind the code of conduct includes members who push critical race theory and the police abolition movement.
In May, the Wikimedia Foundation announced it was imposing a “universal code of conduct” on all sites owned by the Foundation, including Wikipedia. The announcement prompted immediate discontent as editors expressed concerns the Foundation was intruding on the traditionally self-governing nature of Wikipedia and related sites, which are generally run by volunteers. Such concerns previously sparked an editor revolt when staff banned an administrator for a year. The revolt forced the Foundation to back down and agree to a review that rescinded the ban. After the code of conduct announcement, some viewed the Foundation as betraying its commitment after the revolt to respect the community’s autonomy.
Some adopted a “wait and see” approach regarding the announcement until the Foundation unveiled its proposed code of conduct. Despite a delay of a few weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic, Foundation staff unveiled their proposed version of the code of conduct on Monday to allow a month for community review and comment. The draft came following consultations with the communities of various Foundation-owned sites and research by Foundation staff. Based on the comment period, the committee responsible for drafting the code of conduct will make adjustments as they deem necessary before submitting a final version to the Foundation’s Board of Trustees for approval.
At the beginning of the draft code of conduct, it is explained that the terms will apply to all contributors to Foundation-owned sites as well as any participating in or organizing events associated with them, and the staff and board members of both the Foundation and any affiliated organizations. The purpose of the code of conduct is further explained to be about “empowering as many people as possible” to use Wikipedia and other affiliated sites.
Expressing the desire for the community to be as “diverse, inclusive, and accessible as possible” with “positive, safe and healthy environments” for members, the code of conduct outlines various goals for participating on Wikipedia and affiliated sites. These include the Foundation’s refrain about sharing in “the sum of all knowledge” and participating “in a global community that will avoid bias and prejudice” among other goals. Such a commitment to the latter is apparently intended by subsequent sections of the code of conduct regarding “expected behavior” and “unacceptable behavior” as they focus on behavior of particular interest to left-wing identity politics.
Under “expected behavior” the code of conduct requires users to respect how “contributors name and describe themselves.” As one example, it cites using people’s “preferred pronouns” and chosen names. Other expected behaviors cited include “always” assuming good faith (several users suggested “always” be removed as limiting their ability to call out bad behavior), helping new users learn to contribute, and standing up for them when treated inappropriately. Some users suggested requiring use of preferred names, identities, or pronouns, would be enforced too strictly and users may be wrongly punished for mistakes. Others argued the “expected behavior” section itself imposed a “duty” no user would be able to perfectly follow.
The section on “unacceptable behavior” in the code of conduct draft includes a list of harassment provisions covering behaviors such as repeated use of slurs, threats, and sexual harassment. However, other provisions raised concerns such as its definition of “stalking” as following someone across a site “and repeatedly critiquing their work with the intent to upset or discourage them.” Multiple users objected that this phrasing would suggest anyone who noticed inappropriate editing by another user and then reviewed the user’s contributions for problems could be deemed in violation, thus threatening legitimate corrective efforts.
Other provisions raised similar concerns, such as a provision on “gaslighting” describing it as trying “to cause someone to doubt their own perceptions, senses, or understanding.” Many noted this could be desirable if someone is genuinely mistaken. Concerns about the code of conduct’s impact on sincere efforts to rein in bad editing echo concerns raised during the editor revolt, as many defended the administrator who was banned by arguing the “harassment” the Foundation claimed had occurred really involved the administrator correcting inappropriate editing.
While many provisions in both sections on behavior focused on the treatment of others, some did focus on the handling of content on Wikipedia and related sites. This included a provision on “manipulating content to favour specific interpretations of facts or points of view” and repeatedly removing content without discussion. One user, an administrator with special privileges on many Foundation-owned sites, noted the provision on “manipulating content” could include attempts to have content reflect a neutral point of view if taken literally. Many similar technical objections to the phrasing of the proposed code of conduct were raised by others as well.
Most concerning for some was the code of conduct stating it would not only be enforced by members of the community, but also the Wikimedia Foundation itself. One user stated in response: “If the [Foundation] starts throwing around bolts from the blue for violating this policy . . . there’s going to be drama. That’s not a threat, it’s just a statement of fact.” Referencing the previous year’s editor revolt, the user insisted the Foundation leave any enforcement of the code of conduct to the community itself. Another called the code of conduct a “manifesto of complete distrust, disgust and total rejection of the communities by the [Foundation].”
Although claiming the community will be mainly responsible for enforcing the code of conduct, the enforcement process will not be decided until after the code of conduct itself is finalized. Current staff actions, previously unreviewable, can now be appealed to a Case Review Committee, which is barred from reviewing certain cases under its charter and can only review actions once. Such review can include re-launching investigations that concluded without action. Following the finalization of the code of conduct and its related enforcement process, the review committee is planned to be replaced with something permanent, further pointing to a planned staff role in enforcement.
The draft code of conduct was written up over several sessions by members of a Drafting Committee specifically selected by the Foundation’s Legal team and its Trust and Safety team. While consisting of six members from the community on the various Wikipedia sites and affiliated sites to provide community representation alongside three members of the Foundation’s staff, most community members on the committee help lead community organizations affiliated with the Wikimedia Foundation. Initial sessions of the committee also included Foundation staff as part of the discussion.
Repeated use of terminology and conduct expectations typical of left-wing identity politics in the code of conduct is not a coincidence. The Drafting Committee used the “Contributor Covenant” as a guide for the code of conduct, a document that has been used in open source coding communities by left-wing activists to stifle dissent for claimed offenses. Sessions listed on the page for the committee describe the committee and staff coming “together to create a safe space” for their discussion on the code of conduct, invoking more left-wing activist rhetoric.
Additionally, some Drafting Committee members have publicly and aggressively pushed left-wing identity politics online. Rachel Wexelbaum, an associate professor at Minnesota’s St. Cloud University whose research includes “safe spaces” and “LGBTIQ” studies, has posted critical race theory rhetoric to Twitter claiming the need to “Eliminate capitalism and racism in libraries” and stating “the whole publishing industry is capitalist and racist.” Foundation Legal Counsel Jacob Rogers has shared numerous posts on Twitter advocating for “police abolition” and “prison abolition” as advanced by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Bias at the Wikimedia Foundation has long been apparent in its public actions. Most recently the Foundation endorsed the Black Lives Matter movement and stated there was “no neutral stance” on racial justice. As part of its commitment to “racial justice” the Foundation cited its planned “code of conduct” as one way it would promote “inclusivity” on the site. Though that same code of conduct as proposed seemingly encourages neutral editing, Wikipedia’s long-standing left-wing bias and history of favoring radical left movements such as Antifa and Black Lives Matter suggest the Foundation’s standards of “neutrality” extend to the sites it owns as well and with the new “code of conduct” it will likely only get worse.
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.