FAQ: Gamergate arbitration case on Wikipedia
by Molly White on
On 29 January, the English Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee closed the Gamergate arbitration case: a case that dealt with user conduct on the “Gamergate controversy” article and related articles. The Gamergate case received an unusual amount of interest in the media and elsewhere, and was subject to misconceptions and inaccurate reporting. The Arbitration Committee released a statement about the case, as did the Wikimedia Foundation on their blog.
I’ve been contacted quite a lot by friends, strangers on the internet who are interested in the issues, and reporters, many of whom have asked me to answer often similar questions. I’ve decided to put together an FAQ about my involvement, the Arbitration Committee in general, and the case, as these were the subject of much confusion in the recent weeks. This is not a statement by the Arbitration Committee, just my personal responses and opinions. If you feel I’m missing something, definitely leave a comment or contact me.
- Arbitration Committee
- Gamergate case
I’m Molly White, and I edit Wikipedia under the username GorillaWarfare. I’m a computer science student attending Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. I’ve been editing Wikipedia for over eight years, actively for five of these.
I’m a member of the Arbitration Committee on the English Wikipedia. I was one of the arbitrators who was active on the Gamergate case, so I helped to run the case and draft the proposed decision, and I voted on the final outcome of the case.
I was not one of the users against whom a sanction was proposed; a number of people seemed to be under this impression.
The Arbitration Committee is a group of fifteen1 editors who handle user conduct disputes, appeals from blocked and banned users, requests for removal of users’ administrative tools, issues that require private hearing, and access to checkuser and oversight tools.
Arbitrators are elected annually by the editing community of the English Wikipedia. Most arbitrators serve two-year terms, and the elections are staggered to avoid the entire Committee turning over at once. Members of the Arbitration Committee are usually experienced administrators.
No. Members of the Arbitration Committee are volunteer editors, and I think it’s worth emphasizing that this is something we do in our spare time.
Some of us, such as myself, are quite open about our identities, whereas some of us prefer to remain quite pseudonymous. This makes it somewhat hard to make broad statements about the demographics of the Committee.
I’m currently the only woman on the Committee.
When Wikipedia editors feel that they have exhausted Wikipedia’s many other dispute resolution processes, they can file a request to the Arbitration Committee asking us to hear the case. We then vote on whether to accept the case, or whether to refer the involved parties to other dispute resolution venues.
In the past five years or so, the Arbitration Committee has heard between eleven and sixteen cases a year. These can cover a very wide range of issues, but broadly deal with users who are unable to settle content disputes, poor editor conduct in internal policy discussions, or misuse of administrator tools.
Although there are fifteen members on the Arbitration Committee, not all of us choose to be active on each case. The list of active arbitrators on the Gamergate case was somewhat confusing, as the case opened before the outgoing 2014 arbitrators left, so some members left and some joined while the case was still open. Ten members of the current committee were active on the Gamergate case, and four outgoing arbitrators remained active through the end of the case.
There was a list of twenty-seven users who were named as “involved parties” in the case. These are the users who were considered to be involved in the dispute, and whose actions were primarily being discussed during the case. Some of them were sanctioned, some were not.
The final decision also endorsed many sanctions and warnings that had already been imposed by the community, and the editors subject to these were not all listed as involved parties.
A number of uninvolved editors also participated in the case by submitting statements, evidence, workshop suggestions, and comments.
One of the principles in the decision states this well when it says “Wikipedia is a reference work, not a battlefield.” This is referring to a section of policy titled “Wikipedia is not a battleground.” Editors were treating the “Gamergate controversy” article and related articles as battlegrounds, not as pages of a reference work. They used the articles and their discussion pages as venues to harass and insult each other, they violated the policies that attempt to protect people’s privacy, and they warred over changes to articles, often in an attempt to push for their viewpoints to be represented.
- On 10 November, 2014, a user filed a request that the Arbitration Committee hear a case on user conduct surrounding the "Gamergate controversy" article. People who had been involved in the disputes were listed as involved parties, and they and other members of the editing community were invited to contribute statements. Members of the Arbitration Committee began reviewing the statements to decide whether we should hear the case, or refer it to other community dispute resolution processes.
- By 25 November, 2014, seven arbitrators had voted to accept the case, three had voted to oppose, and one had recused. This constituted a majority of active arbitrators, so the case was opened on 27 November, 2014. Three arbitrators (Roger Davies, Beeblebrox, and David Fuchs) were chosen by the Committee to be the "drafting arbitrators," meaning that they spearheaded drafting the proposed decision.
- Once the case was opened, editors were invited to submit public and private evidence. Editors submit public evidence by submitting comments and links to edits that parties have made to Wikipedia pages, though some other types of evidence are also admissible. Editors submit private evidence, which is evidence that for various reasons (privacy, legal concerns, etc.) cannot be submitted publicly, to the Arbitration Committee by email. Editors had approximately a month to submit evidence, and discuss the evidence that others had submitted.
- Editors were also invited to participate in the workshop stage, which also began when the case opened. Editors participate on the workshop page to propose and discuss principles, findings, and remedies that they felt should be included in the proposed decision. This continued through the same time period.
- Throughout this time, the arbitrators reviewed and discussed (both privately and on-wiki) the evidence and suggestions from the workshop. The drafting arbitrators began drafting the proposed decision on a private wiki, and worked together and with other arbitrators to do so.
- Meanwhile, the new year arrived, and the new Arbitration Committee became active. Six of us remained on the Committee, and one was re-elected. We were joined by eight new arbitrators, one of whom had served previously. Four outgoing arbitrators chose to remain active on the case. Six of the seven of us who remained on or were re-elected to the Committee were active, and four of the eight new arbitrators decided to join the case.
- On 19 January, 2015, one of the drafting arbitrators posted the draft of the proposed decision to the public proposed decision page. Its original state was substantially different from the final result: arbitrators voted on proposals, proposed new ones, made minor tweaks or added evidence to existing proposals, and, if they had support from other arbitrators, changed existing proposals entirely.
- This proposal and voting period lasted until 29 January, 2015, when a majority of arbitrators voted to close the case. At this point, the decision was in this state, which is very different from the original.
- On 29 January, 2015, an arbitration clerk posted the final decision to the main case page and a number of other places.
The final decision included:
- Authorization of discretionary sanctions for "all edits about, and all pages related to, (a) GamerGate, (b) any gender-related dispute or controversy, (c) people associated with (a) or (b), all broadly construed." Discretionary sanctions are a system that the Arbitration Committee can authorize for topic areas that are particularly contentious. Once authorized, administrators can impose harsh sanctions, such as topic bans or blocks, on editors who are being disruptive in that topic area.
- Conversion of around forty existing community sanctions and around one hundred community warnings and notifications to this system of discretionary sanctions
- Topic bans preventing eleven users "from making any edit about, and from editing any page relating to, (a) Gamergate, (b) any gender-related dispute or controversy, (c) people associated with (a) or (b), all broadly construed"
- A site ban that indefinitely banned one user from the entire English Wikipedia
- Admonishments and warnings against four users, advising them to better conduct themselves
- Specific restrictions preventing one user from making more than one revert on any page within a 48-hour period, and preventing them from editing administrative or conduct noticeboards
The sanctions affected approximately 150 people.
No. The users who were sanctioned had varied opinions on the issues. The Arbitration Committee rules only on user conduct, which many outside observers have been missing. We do not, have not, and cannot make rulings on the content of articles or the validity of users’ ideologies. The scope of responsibility assigned to the Arbitration Committee by the community only allows us to make judgments on user conduct. Some observers seem to have expected the Arbitration Committee to make a decision based on arbitrators’ personal opinions of the conflict itself, and to make a decision based on opinions that aligned with their own.
I’m going to repost a response I made to this question on-wiki:
I initially recused because I was concerned that people would, as they are currently doing, perceive comments I’ve made about feminism and GamerGate elsewhere as indicative of a conflict of interest in this case. I thought about it quite a lot, and realized that it’s silly to feel obligated to recuse because I have opinions on feminism, and did not choose to hide them. It’s easy to make arguments for my recusal, or that of any other arbitrator’s, on many cases—maybe I should have recused on Interactions at GGTF because I am a woman, a feminist, and I believe that the gender gap is an issue; maybe I should have recused on DangerousPanda or Kafziel or Nightscream or any other case involving sysop conduct because I’m a sysop; maybe I should have recused on Media Viewer RfC because I’m a software developer, or because I’ve contributed to MediaWiki, or because I personally prefer the old way of viewing images; maybe I should have recused on American politics because I’m an American, and have opinions (which I’ve also publicly stated) on political and social issues in the U.S. The point is that it’s a judgment call for each arbitrator each time, and arguments can be made for or against recusal on just about any case, but without a significant conflict of interest, I choose to remain active.
Although I recused from the case when we voted on whether to accept it, I was moved to “active” quite shortly after the case opened, and was active for the duration.
I personally feel that the Gamergate case was unique in that the issues were already receiving a lot of attention in the media and elsewhere, and because it involved substantial harassment of parties off-wiki. Other arbitrators might have different opinions of this.
Off-wiki harassment is exceptionally difficult for the Arbitration Committee to address for a number of reasons. First, it requires us to link Wikipedia editors to off-wiki identities, and if the user themselves has not made this connection on Wikipedia, we have to consider the “outing” policy. It’s also susceptible to joe-jobbing—it would be easy for someone to create an account elsewhere, claim to be a certain Wikipedia editor, and begin acting poorly in the hopes that the Arbitration Committee would issue sanctions. Secondly, our ability to sanction is limited to Wikipedia. If someone was, for example, harassing another editor on Twitter, we would need to somehow link that Twitter account to a Wikipedia editor, and even then, we would only be able to limit that user’s participation in Wikipedia—the Arbitration Committee obviously has no jurisdiction over sites like Twitter.
People had highly varying opinions on how the Arbitration Committee should have handled this. Some felt that we should only consider behavior that occurred on-wiki. Some felt that we should consider harassment of Wikipedians off-wiki as extenuating circumstances that excused what they perceived to be poor behavior on-wiki in reaction to that harassment. Some felt that we should be severely sanctioning Wikipedia editors who they believed to involved in off-wiki harassment, even if the Wikipedians had not linked these accounts on-wiki.
I think much of the criticism also stemmed from the misconception that the Arbitration Committee was going to produce a decision on the content of the “Gamergate controversy” article or related articles, or that the Committee was going to sanction editors based on specific ideologies. It’s important to note that the Arbitration policy, created by the editing community, explicitly states, “The Committee does not rule on content, but may propose means by which community resolution of a content dispute can be facilitated.” We only address user conduct, and we have to carefully weigh the evidence that is available to us so that we reach a decision that allows the editing community to function as well as possible.
1. Although there are fifteen users on the Arbitration Committee at a time, some of the Committee turned over during the course of this case.