Wikipedia ‘Supreme Court’ Suspends Member for Breaking Site’s ‘Code of Silence’

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The Wikipedia Arbitration Committee, likened to a “Supreme Court” for the site, suspended the privileges of member “Beeblebrox” for six months over claimed misconduct in the first such suspension in Wikipedia’s history. Among the alleged incidents, some concerned a now-former administrator with whom Beeblebrox had feuded. The same former administrator last month confessed to impersonating a Spanish indie singer and previously editing Wikipedia with an account banned for undisclosed paid editing, a common practice on the online encyclopedia.

Another incident used as the basis for the suspension, according to Beeblebrox, involved him confirming information the Committee possessed that an editor’s ban from all Wikipedia-affiliated sites was due to false suspicions the editor was involved with a news report criticizing the site. The report noted the editor was banned from the Italian Wikipedia by a NATO agency employee over a dispute about a NATO critic’s negatively-slanted encyclopedia article.

News of Beeblebrox’s suspension was posted to the Arbitration Committee’s noticeboard last month. In the post announcing the suspension, the Committee stated he had “repeatedly failed to [p]reserve in appropriate confidence the contents of private correspondence sent to the Committee and the Committee’s internal discussions and deliberations by making disclosures on off-wiki forums.” The mention of “off-wiki forums” refers to Wikipedia criticism site Wikipediocracy, where Beeblebrox is a member (Disclosure: this author is also a member of the site). A private warning was previously issued in September 2021 by the Committee over his conduct in disputes outside the English Wikipedia, including Wikipediocracy.

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales ( Jamie McCarthy /Getty)

In addition to temporarily suspending his participation in the Committee, where his term was set to expire at the end of this year regardless, Beeblebrox’s access to high-level “checkuser” and “oversight” privileges that handle information deemed too sensitive even for regular admins was also revoked and he was barred from Committee mailing lists and the “functionary” mailing list for users with high-level privileges. The term of the suspension was six months with him only being able to subsequently regain those privileges, which he was not accused of abusing, upon applying to the Committee for reinstatement or being re-elected as a Committee member in community elections. The Committee emphasized this was a “suspension” and not a “removal” even if there is no difference in effect.

Discussion of Beeblebrox’s suspension on Wikipedia has been heated, particularly given the lack of transparency in the process. One concern expressed was that two of the incidents allegedly informing the Committee’s decision on the suspension concerned the “Lourdes” account. Earlier last month, the user behind the “Lourdes” admin account was brought before the Committee by Beeblebrox for comments pressuring editors to vote for an administrator candidate due to prior assistance “Lourdes” gave those editors in an administrative capacity. As the Committee looked to accept the case, “Lourdes” admitted to having previously edited as “Wifione” on the site.

Wifione was an admin who was banned by the Arbitration Committee in 2015 based on evidence of undisclosed paid editing in support of the Indian Institute of Planning and Management, a controversial private business school that has since been shut down. Paid editing is permitted with conditions on Wikipedia provided it is disclosed. The Committee also found Wifione had used multiple accounts in these paid editing efforts, which included unfavorable editing of a rival institution. Upon this confession, Committee members expressed shock and the “Lourdes” account was promptly banned. Part of their surprise was that “Lourdes” had previously identified, falsely the user now admitted, as Spanish indie singer Lourdes Hernandez a.k.a. Russian Red, a claim editors and Committee members had treated credibly.

In a discussion of the “Lourdes” account’s confession on Wikipediocracy, admin Tamzin Hadasa Kelly criticized the impersonation as an abusive sockpuppet account had issued threats to Hernandez on Wikipedia on the presumption “Lourdes” was the singer. Kelly had alerted “Lourdes” to the threat at the time via Wikipedia’s e-mail function, falsely believing this e-mail constituted warning the actual singer and feeling the threats were credible. In the e-mail, Kelly stated the Wikimedia Foundation that owns Wikipedia had launched an investigation into the account that made the threat. Kelly permitted disclosure of these comments, made in a members-only section of the Wikipediocracy discussion forums.

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Editors misrepresenting their identities are not unusual, but the most severe cases rarely involve high-level admins. The most notable case involved Ryan Jordan, an administrator who went by “Essjay” on the site and was revealed in 2007 to have deceived editors about his identity. Jordan had claimed on Wikipedia that he possessed a doctorate in theology, a claim repeated by the New Yorker . In reality, he had not even graduated from his community college, but invoked his “Ph. D” in disputes, such as suggesting use of Catholocism for Dummies as a source on religious rites. Wikipedia Review, a precursor to Wikipediocracy, helped expose Essjay at the time. Even after being exposed Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales appointed him to the Committee, in addition to hiring him at the for-profit Wikia site, now Fandom, though Jordan resigned shortly after the story was picked up by the media.

At the Wikipedia discussion about the suspension, Beeblebrox described the incidents behind the suspension and prior warning in 2021. The most recent disclosure on Wikipediocracy triggered the suspension discussion with Beeblebrox stating he only noted “the very existence of a particular discussion, and the result of that discussion.” That discussion allegedly concerned the “Lourdes” account. He did not consider it to be a serious issue, stating “I couldn’t think of a good reason we wouldn’t want people to know the information I had revealed.” He nonetheless had Wikipediocracy moderators remove the post when other Committee members expressed greater concern, accusing him of breaching a “code of silence” with “omerta” mentioned during the subsequent discussion of his disclosures, a reference to the Sicilian mafia.

The other disclosure concerned editor “Gitz6666” on the Italian Wikipedia who had been banned from all Wikipedia-affiliated sites. The incident involved editors maligning sociologist Alessandro Orsini, a critic of NATO and its involvement in Ukraine. Gitz was banned from the Italian Wikipedia over the dispute by an administrator who works for a NATO agency. Following a news report in Italian media about the dispute, Gitz was banned from all Wikimedia Foundation-owned sites citing the controversial “Universal Code of Conduct” the Foundation approved in 2021.

Gitz created a Wikipediocracy thread about the matter stating that he did not understand the reason for the wider ban, as he only e-mailed information showing the admin who banned him had disclosed on the Italian Wikipedia that he worked for NATO. Based on information about the ban privately disclosed to the Committee, Beeblebrox commented in the thread to confirm suspicions the wider ban was due to false claims Gitz was responsible for the news report, which included the outlet contacting the admin who banned Gitz from the Italian Wikipedia. After learning this information, Gitz successfully appealed the wider ban. Beeblebrox stated of the incident that “I don’t care that I bent the rules a little to help out with it” stating Gitz’s ban was “Kafkaesque” in nature.

The warning Beeblebrox received privately from the rest of the Committee in 2021 that was used as part of the basis for his suspension reputedly involved three allegations. One was him mentioning the then-presumed identity of the “Lourdes” account on Wikipediocracy in a thread concerning an ongoing Committee case where the account was participating. The “Lourdes” account started a discussion at the time in response stating “I don’t appreciate my name being discussed by an active ArbCom member on external forums during a case” prompting considerable criticism of Beeblebrox’s conduct and he consequently apologized.

Another incident shortly before the warning was issued involved Beeblebrox making several harsh comments in a Wikipediocracy thread about Ashley van Haeften, known as “Fæ” on Foundation-owned sites. Van Haeften had suggested on Wikipedia-affiliated image repository Wikimedia Commons that they allow a “tip jar” on profile pages where people could donate to specific contributors, which some criticized as creating conflicts of interest. Beeblebrox mockingly suggested calling it “OnlyFæ” in the Commons discussion, referencing OnlyFans, a site mainly used by people publishing sexual content for money. His comments prompted outcry from Commons members, leading to a report about his conduct that was closed with a note that Beeblebrox was reported to the Wikimedia Foundation.

On Wikipediocracy, Beeblebrox alleged van Haeften had once tried to get an official sanction banning Beeblebrox from LGBT events, stating van Haeften had “tried to weaponize the group against me for personal reasons, once again playing the victim and the bully at the same time.” Van Haeften has been a long-time subject of criticism on Wikipediocracy and was formerly a chairman of the Wikimedia UK chapter organization, which represents British contributors to Foundation-owned sites.

Van Haeften resigned as Wikimedia UK chair in 2012 when he was banned from Wikipedia by the Arbitration Committee after attempting to get the Foundation to intervene in a Committee case against him over abusing multiple accounts. He successfully appealed his ban the next year with several restrictions, including one barring edits about human sexuality. That restriction was lifted in 2016, but reinstated in 2019 after he added “transphobic” content to transgender activist Jessica Yaniv’s article to “prove” it was an attack page. He was banned from Wikipedia again for violating that restriction. In a later appeal he managed to get another editor briefly banned as well for using his username instead of his preferred pronouns.

The last allegation against Beeblebrox that served as the basis for his 2021 warning concerned a comment he mistakenly posted to the mailing list for users with high-level privileges. In the comment he states he criticized one of the users on the list, though it was a comment he had intended to make in the Committee mailing list and he promptly apologized for the mistake.

Many editors and administrators, including former members of the Arbitration Committee, expressed support for Beeblebrox’s suspension and trusted the Committee’s version of events. Others were critical of the action, particularly the use of the Gitz case against him. Editor “Only in death” stated that taking issue with Beeblebrox informing Gitz of the reasons for his ban was “anti-every single value that underpins fairness in the countries” where most Wikipedia editors live. Other editors echoed his criticism. Several editors also raised concerns about the private nature of the previous warning in 2021 and argued it should have been an official public warning instead.

Controversy regarding the secrecy of the Committee and its actions towards Beeblebrox over breaching that secrecy represent a common complaint about high-level policy enforcement on Wikipedia. This author was banned from Wikipedia in a process the Committee itself acknowledged breached binding community policy that required informing editors of allegations against them and allowing them to respond, prompting community outcry. In 2019, the Foundation banned Wikipedia admin “Fram” over alleged incivility without disclosing the full extent of the evidence against him. This sparked an editor revolt where administrators overturned Foundation actions against Fram and editors retired en masse before Fram was unbanned, though without restoring his admin privileges.

Leaving aside multiple resignations under controversial circumstances, Beeblebrox is the first and only Committee member formally forced off Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee over alleged misconduct. In 2012, Committee member “Elen of the Roads” faced possible suspension in a public Committee vote, but it failed to gain the required majority. The vote came after Elen privately shared with other editors a fellow member’s posts to the Committee mailing list that threatened to aggressively pressure any running for re-election to the Committee who opposed a ban for Eric Corbett, then a prolific content creator on the site who was known for bouts of incivility.

Such leaks are often taken very seriously by members of the Committee, which was previously the subject of a more massive leak in 2011. That leak showed the frank discussions and communications of its members. Among the most notorious messages leaked was an e-mail one Committee member sent to an editor who abusively used multiple accounts on Wikipedia and affiliated sites, some impersonating other people. In that e-mail, the Committee member threatened to contact the individual’s employers and family if he did not publicly disclose all of his accounts, among other demands.

Beeblebrox’s suspension is not the first controversy involving Wikipediocracy members serving on the Arbitration Committee either. Admin Will Nicholes, who edits as “28bytes” on Wikipedia, was overwhelmingly elected to the Arbitration Committee in 2013, but resigned before taking office after it was revealed he used the “Mason” account on Wikipediocracy. Other editors, including Committee members, argued he misled voters by claiming he “read” Wikipediocracy while omitting he had regularly posted there and contributed two blog posts. He also admitted writing Wikipedia’s article on the homebrew Atari game “Duck Attack” without disclosing he created the game. Prior to his Wikipediocracy membership being revealed, Nicholes had acted as an “uninvolved” admin against editors and an article he criticized on Wikipediocracy.

Committee members have sometimes even been the subject of Committee cases. Molly White, who edits as “GorillaWarfare” on Wikipedia, was found to have abused her administrator privileges by unilaterally imposing a temporary ban on an editor after another administrator ruled against action. Though no action was taken against White as the Committee conveniently took the unusual step of granting amnesty in advance to all parties.

Robert Fernandez, who edits as “Gamaliel” on Wikipedia, was merely “admonished” and banned from interacting with another editor in a different case about him engaging in degrading mockery towards Donald Trump then accusing critics of being involved with the GamerGate anti-corruption movement in gaming, which many leftists have smeared as a harassment campaign, including on Wikipedia. Fernandez resigned from the Committee during the case and was claimed to have resigned from the Wikimedia DC chapter organization, as well. When Fernandez remained at Wikimedia DC, journalist and Wikipedia critic David Auerbach inquired about the discrepancy to the Committee. Around this time Fernandez tried to get Auerbach’s employers to fire him. No action was taken against Fernandez.

Another case of high-level intrigue earlier this year saw co-founder Wales lose all his advanced privileges on English Wikipedia, except for a largely ceremonial “founder” role he has on the site, after he falsely accused a former member of the Committee of being involved in a paid editing scam. While Wales resigned his admin privileges of his own volition under pressure, a community petition also had him removed from reviewing appeals of Committee decisions. He remains a member of the Wikimedia Foundation board.

(Disclosure: The author has previously been involved in disputes on Wikipedia with some parties referenced in this article)

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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