How To Edit Wikipedia, Part II: Patrol for vandalism

This is the second in a series of articles aimed at first-time editors of Wikipedia, but also contains tips useful to anyone who spends time on that site. Please be sure to read Part I, here. Come back the same time next week for the next article in this series.

In the first part of this series, you set up your account on Wikipedia, and began to add articles to your watch list. You should be comfortable with looking at the watch list regularly, and recognizing the types of editing activity that typically occurs across the articles you have chosen to watch.

In this second part, you will begin to use your watch list as a practical tool to find places where you can pitch in and help. We will continue slowly building up your level of activity over time, and before you know it you’ll be making very significant edits to Wikipedia.

As I explained in the first part, the reason for this slow build is give other editors a chance to develop trust in you. Or even if they aren’t aware of you, by the time they notice your edits you will have a significant history built up.  That will help them understand that you are not a vandal but someone genuinely interested in improving the quality of information on Wikipedia.

This week, we start to create that edit history.

Vandalism Patrol

One key thing I had you do in Part I is build up a watch list of articles on topics about which you have some knowledge.  You should have gotten used to visiting your watch list to see the latest edits on these articles.

Now you are ready for to take some action. The first step I recommend is to look for vandalism.

Wikipedia is a victim of its own brilliance here. By making editing very open, and even allowing anonymous editing, they’ve encouraged the rapid growth of the project. But those same policies also make vandalism trivially easy. And so it is fairly common.

Reverting obvious vandalism is always uncontroversial on Wikipedia, so you are quite unlikely to be criticized. And this grunt work of monitoring and reverting is always appreciated. But how do you find vandalism?  That’s where your watch list comes in.

Right now I have about 800 articles on my watch list, and I find that several times each week I can find at least one piece of vandalism to repair.

Here’s a portion of my watch list recently:

You may recognize this screen shot from the previous article.

Patrolling for vandalism amounts to browsing your watch list periodically, hovering over the diff links and evaluating what you see.  In the case above, it appears a user named Ravensfire was repairing a broken link in a footnote (the <ref> tag creates footnotes). That is probably a legitimate edit, nothing to see here.

Aside from the actual edit contents, there are clues in the history itself, illustrated by this fragment showing a recent edit to Brian Cox’s biography, along with my correction of it:

(Eagle-eyed viewers will notice this display is a bit different than the watch list above. That’s because this came from the history of the article, more on that later.).

There’s alot to see here, click the image for a larger version. Basically you are seeing two edits in a history. The one at the bottom is an anonymous vandal, the one at top is my correction of the vandalism. (Experienced editors often call this a revert or reversion of an edit). An experienced editor could look at these two lines and see many clues about the relative strengths of the two edits and editors as indicated by the arrows.  The vandal is an anonymous IP, has no talk page, and left no edit summary. All fo these are bad signs. My edit shows I have an account, a user page and a talk page, and I left an edit summary explaining my work. An experienced editor could glance at this and see what was going on made sense.

But of course, we can’t declare something vandalism based on just circumstantial clues.  When I first saw this anonymous edit, I had to look at it. Here’s the pop-up I got when I hovered on the diff link for the edit shown above:

This is clearly vandalism, and has a spelling error to boot. It needs to go.

Sometimes vandalism is not quite so easy to spot. Some vandals will attempt to quietly change a fact, for instance changing someone’s home town. (Why? Nobody knows.) To be a diligent editor, you really should double-check these things before you remove them. Perhaps what you think is vandalism is actually an editor correcting an error, or even correcting an earlier vandalism?

If you chose your watch list articles carefully, hopefully you’ll know some good ways to double check the fact. Do be careful simply using a search engine to check facts being changed in Wikipedia. Because Wikipedia freely licenses its content for all to use, copies of that content, both pure and edited, are everywhere. If you aren’t careful about this phenomenon, you might end up inadvertently fact-checking Wikipedia against Wikipedia.

So now that you’ve pegged something as vandalism, what do you do?

Making A Repair

First, if you have found the suspected vandalism in your watch list, click the hist link that you see next to the diff link.  That will take you into the history log of that article. This looks much like a watch list, with a few differences. One is that instead of diff you will see prev to compare each edit with previous. More importantly, the list itself shows only edits on that one article.

The reason you need to do your vandalism repair from the article history is so you can see the context of the vandalism. For one thing, I’ve found many times that when I go to repair vandalism someone has already beat me to it.  Plus you might see there is more to the vandalism than just the one edit you noticed.

Once you’ve found your target in the history, and determined there isn’t any other vandalism around it that needs to be repaired at the same time, simply click the undo link you see to the right of the vandalism edit.  You will be put into the same screen you would see if you try to edit the article.  Scroll down to the bottom and you’ll see something like this:

An Edit Summary is where you leave a comment about what you are doing, for the benefit of other editors. Clicking undo has pre-filled this particular edit summary with some technical information on the edit you are fixing.

But an personal comment is not a bad idea.  You can just type “vandalism” at the end of the edit summary and hit the save button. But add more if you think it merits an explanation. If you wish, you can use the other buttons to preview what the article as a whole will look like, and to see what the exact changes are. I usually check the This is a minor edit box when reverting vandalism, since clearly you aren’t doing much work.

Once you’re happy that you’ve got it, don’t forget to click the Save Page button.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Slowly Build Your History

Go slow for now. I know Wikipedia makes a big deal of saying “Be Bold!” but at this point in your journey I think you are better off ignoring that. If you are ever unsure whether something is vandalism, leave it alone.  If you examine the article history and find the same editor made six edits in a row, and you are not sure which ones to undo which ones to leave alone, then leave them all alone. You don’t want to get into trouble at this point in your journey. If you really feel something needs attention and you don’t feel comfortable doing it, call it to the attention of another editor. But for your part, be patient and slow.

As you get very proficient at fixing these types of things, you will get more confident and quick at it.  And you’ll learn some tricks.  For instance, you’ll notice that certain biographies (like Brian Cox) seem to attract the attention of vandals.  I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Larry King’s birthday changed to make him 200+ years old, for instance.

And most importantly, by the time you are ready to attempt bigger things you will have built up a long history.  See those links in your watch list that are labelled contribs? If you hover on one of those (or click it) you will see the history contributions of that editor. Other editors will often use this on your account to see what you’ve been up to.  You can look at your own contribution list by clicking My contributions at the top right of any Wikipedia page.

What you to be there is a nice long list of uncontroversial, positive edits. These will create trust in other editors that you are acting in Wikipedia’s best interests.

Conclusion

I know we are proceeding slowly.  But by doing so you will both build up your own experience and confidence, as well as a substantial history of good work. Down the road, that substantial history of vandalism repair will vouch for you with other editors. That is a thing to be desired, and will come in quite handy when we try something more challenging down the road.

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About Tim Farley
Focused on online misinformation, Tim Farley is a software engineer, computer security expert and scientific skeptic who created the site What's The Harm. He is a Past Fellow of the James Randi Educational Foundation.

7 Responses to How To Edit Wikipedia, Part II: Patrol for vandalism

  1. Pingback: How To Edit Wikipedia Part I: Set up your account « Skeptical Software Tools

  2. sgerbic says:

    I Await the third installment!

  3. Pingback: Content Roundup: February 2012 has a Leap Day « Skeptical Software Tools

  4. I wonder how many people in the opposition are doing things like this? And by that I mean the Anti-science people, not the vandals.

  5. Tim:
    I don’t get the pop-up action when I hover over the “diff” or “prev” links — I have to click to take me to the page in question. Something wrong with my FireFox or Safari settings? Only available in Chrome? Preferences somewhere in Wikipedia perhaps?

  6. Pingback: #TAM2012 You Are The Future Speech – Links and Tips « Skeptical Software Tools

  7. Pingback: What is your excuse for not editing Wikipedia? | Young Australian Skeptics

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