Wikipedia, the world’s largest work of reference and its sixth-largest Web site, is founded on the earnest and admirable idea that even on the most polarizing issues, well-meaning people can come together and reach some consensus on objective truth.
There is, after all, a Wikipedia page for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The page on global warming has, for 13 years, been going strong. But in a paralyzing battle that has shaken the site’s notorious bureaucracy and frustrated the very principles on which Wikipedia was built, pro- and anti-Gamergate editors hijacked the Wikipedia page on that topic — and spent months vandalizing, weaponizing and name-calling over it.
Okay, sure: Gamergate is old news by now. And the esoteric, backroom battles of a bunch of Wiki-editing nerds are not exactly the stuff of action films. But when Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee (basically the site’s Supreme Court), issued a final ruling on Gamergate on Wednesday, they weren’t merely slapping the wrists of the bickering few still obsessed with “ethics in video games”; rather, the decision was a highly visible test of whether the Web site that millions of people turn to for facts can actually present facts in a fair and neutral way.
Let’s step back, for a hot second, and consider what Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee was actually deciding here. They were not, to be perfectly clear, ruling on the issues of Gamergate or the content of the Gamergate Wikipedia page. Rather, “ArbCom” — as Wikipedians call it! — is charged with judging the behavior of the site editors. Think of them like referees at a particularly brutal soccer game: They can dish out red cards and penalties to individual players, but they don’t actually decide which side should win.
There were many, many penalties to be considered at this particular game. Anti-Gamergaters claimed that their sworn enemies were “weaponizing Wikipedia” to promote a misogynist agenda and slander women in the gaming industry. Pro-Gamergaters identified five feminist Wikipedia editors whom they accused of bias and wanted driven off the site. Both sides alleged that organized factions plotted how to manipulate Wikipedia off-site, and then dove into the encyclopedia to carry out their ideological campaigns.
These accusations should sound fairly familiar because they’re issues Wikipedia faces with some regularity. On a site anybody can edit, how do you keep pranksters, libelists, PR firms and motivated ideologues from dropping in and mucking everything up? More pressingly, perhaps, how do you get all these different people to agree on one version of a controversial story?
“For Wikipedia to represent the sum of all knowledge, it has to be a place where people can collaborate and disagree constructively even on difficult topics,” the Wikimedia Foundation’s Katherine Maher said in a statement on the case. “It has to be a place that is welcoming for all voices.”
To that end, ArbCom dolled out a whole pile of penalties in the Gamergate case. One longtime anti-Gamergate editor, who had been sanctioned for other rule-breaking in the past, was banned from the site indefinitely. (“Wikipedia is bull****,” he wrote on Twitter, as pro-GGers celebrated his fall.) Meanwhile, several other editors from both sides of the debate were banned from editing articles related to Gamergate or gender, and several more were kindly asked to “better conduct themselves” in the future.
As for the Gamergate article itself — which serves, via its top rank on Google, as the Internet’s final record on the topic — ArbCom asked “knowledgeable and non-conflicted users” to review it “for adherence to Wikipedia policies.” Per Wikipedia policy, articles can’t slander or skew the lives of living people, and must draw their facts from “reliable sources.”
But soft asks like this are cheap, of course, and reliability is relative. Before the decision had even been finalized, Wikipedians had created a page for it — based entirely on a flawed story in the Guardian.
Meanwhile, opponents of the ArbCom decision accused the group of failing to support women more aggressively, an issue that goes straight to Wikipedia’s lengthy struggle against systemic bias: Per the site’s own admission, the average Wikipedian is Western, well-educated and white-collar, and nine of every 10 editors are men.
Solving that problem was, of course, not ArbCom’s explicit mandate. And members of the group are hopeful that by censuring some of the worst, most biased offenders, they’ll inch the Gamergate page — and all of Wikipedia — closer to objective truth.
But given all the ongoing drama, one wonders if there can ever be such a thing. Perhaps consensus doesn’t always work. Maybe even very well-meaning people can’t transcend their own inherent, unvoiced biases to the point of absolute objectivity.
Maybe human knowledge has its limits, even when it’s summed.