Tag Archives: wikipedia

How to be thorough when you patrol Wikipedia for vandalism

Wikipedia logoI’ve written several times about patrolling Wikipedia for vandalism. It a great way for new editors to get practice with simple editing tasks. It is also can be a way for skeptics to demonstrate our impartiality.

It’s important to remember that vandalism on Wikipedia, just as in the real world, is often done in sprees. This is important, because it can help you avoid overlooking some instances that might be right under your nose.

Consider a piece of Bigfoot-related nonsense I removed from the Ape Canyon article recently:

Ape Canyon edit

The edit here (at bottom) was by an anonymous user – you can see it is logged to the IP address 50.107.128.28. Looking at the contents of the edit, I found it was a made-up species name (“Gigantopithecus sapiens helena”) for the cryptid apes that were reported at Ape Canyon. But this name is completely fictional, it’s never been assigned by actual scientists. So removing it is uncontroversial.

I removed it. Now I could have just patted myself on the back and moved on, but remember this edit was logged to an IP address – i.e. an anonymous user. What if this was part of a vandalism spree?

It turns out there’s an incredibly easy way to investigate this. Simply click the IP address right there in the editing history, and Wikipedia will show you the history of edits originating anonymously from that address. In this case, this is what came up:

Wikipedia history for IP address 50.107.128.28

Cryptozoology fans will probably recognize all three of those article names. Sure enough, this anonymous user had in fact edited three different articles about Bigfoot-like cryptids. Sure enough, clicking those “hist” links revealed the other two edits were exactly the same sort of thing – insertions of fake species names for other varieties of Bigfoot.

None of these edits had any basis in reality, and none belong in an encyclopedia. Just a couple clicks later, I had removed all three. But if I hadn’t thought to look at the editing history for that IP address, I would have only been able to fix one third of the underlying problem!

So next time you’re removing a bogus Wikipedia edit, be it vandalism or nonsense, don’t stop there. Take a quick look at the editing history for the responsible source – be it a regular user or an IP address. You may have found the tip of an iceberg.

I defended Dr. Oz on Wikipedia – and you should too.

In my how-to series on becoming a Wikipedia editor, I highly recommend spending time patrolling for vandalism using a watch list. It’s good practice with the software, and it helps you build up a positive editing history.

Vandalism on Wikipedia is unfortunately constant – a side effect of their radically open editing policy. This policy allows anyone to anonymously edit most articles, logged only by IP address.

Because skeptical topics are often controversial (in some circles at least), they can spark strong responses, including sometimes vandalism. As a result, if you’re looking for vandalism to fix, skeptic-relevant articles often provide plenty of ammunition.

Indeed, over my career as a Wikipedia editor I’ve removed the word “idiot” from Australian science communicator Dr. Karl’s biography, undone claims that Indian skeptic Prabir Ghosh is a “fake doctor” and excised antisemitic slurs from the biography of Professor Michael Barkun.

Defending Everyone Equally

But I don’t reserve my vandalism patrols just for people I consider allies. I’ve also removed the word “douchebag” from the biography of Bart Sibrel (famed for being hit by Buzz Aldrin). I’ve cut out some rude edits regarding L.Ron Hubbard. I’ve even removed some creative writing on Larry King’s biography that verges into science fiction.

Because of his current fame, Dr. Oz has been a repeated target for attacks. I’ve removed an accusation that he is a bad surgeon, undone some veiled anti-Muslim sentiment from his article and removed weasel words about his training. I’ve even erased the phrase “quack doctor” from his biography!

Why Defend The Bad Guys?

Some skeptics might wonder, why bother with this? Folks like Dr. Oz are a detriment to society, don’t they deserve to take some lumps occasionally? Maybe so, but Wikipedia is absolutely the wrong venue for this.

Skeptics already get wrongly accused of many crimes on Wikipedia. This occurs in part because Wikipedia’s rules and administration are admittedly pro-science. So when we simply enforce the rules, we are perceived as having a pro-skeptic bias.

As a result, we need to do everything we can to provide evidence that we are not in fact biased. Applying the rules (such as the rules on vandalism to biographies) equally to friend and foe is a great way to accomplish this.

Removing vandalism is easy, once you know how. And it demonstrates our lack of bias clearly and unambiguously. It is also a good way to help maintain Wikipedia’s excellent record for quickly removing vandalism.

Bottom line: skeptics should not tolerate name-calling and bias on Wikipedia, whether it is for us or against us. And the editing history will back us up when we point this out.

Why do people volunteer to edit Wikipedia?

Wikipedia IconSome economists have long been a bit puzzled at the astounding success of Wikipedia. Standard economic theory wouldn’t predict that such a project would thrive without some form of remuneration for the participants.

There are other projects based on peer production that seem to fit economic theory better. For instance, contributors to open source software who are seeking jobs in the computer industry can list their contributions on their resume. But what, if anything, do people get back when they contribute time to Wikipedia?

Since I regularly encourage skeptics to contribute to Wikipedia, either on their own or through organized projects like Guerrilla Skepticism, the answer to this has interested me. Understanding motivations that work would help us understand how to motivate others.

Recently some researchers at Sciences Po, Harvard Law School, and University of Strasbourg created a series of experiments to get to the heart of this problem. What they found is pretty interesting.

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A silly BuzzFeed list teaches a lesson on Wikipedia vandalism

Wikipedia logoI try not to encourage the link-bait over at BuzzFeed (even just for fun) but one “listicle” posted last Thursday got lots of attention among the UK people I follow. It is titled “12 Spectacular Acts Of Wikipedia Vandalism” and I have to admit it contains some pretty funny stuff.  The list includes Ernest Hemingway as the author of a children’s book and the First Law of Thermodynamics reinterpreted through Fight Club.

People love to point out weird things that make it into Wikipedia. When it’s not being played for humor (as it is here) often the purpose is to call into question Wikipedia’s accuracy. But one thing that these posts often leave out – how long does vandalism like this hang around on Wikipedia? Some articles are constantly being edited, and if a piece of vandalism is removed immediately, how much damage can it do?

So just for fun, I decided to seek out each of the pieces of vandalism that BuzzFeed highlighted and find out.  Just how likely were you to stumble on one of these pieces of vandalism unaware?

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The right way and the wrong way to file skeptic complaints

Complaint Department grenade by Adam the atom , distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Complaint Department grenade by Adam the atom , distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Complaining about things is pretty central to being a skeptic. Most skeptics are good complainers by their nature.

But if you want to be an effective skeptical activist, you need to know how to target your complaints properly. A blog post complaining about something (often the first resort for many skeptics) is only immediately effective if your blog has a large following. That’s nice for those that have it, but the rest of us usually need to take our complaints to a more effective venue. I’ve written before about complaining to government regulators using Fishbarrel, for instance. Complaining to the police via a change.org petition was a crucial step in getting a notorious Twitter spammer arrested.

In online activism, complaining often involves using the specialized complaint procedures of a particular website or platform. Most of the larger, well-established sites (Facebook, YouTube and so on) have relatively robust complaint procedures. Smaller sites will have less well-thought-out procedures, or perhaps none at all. But the key is to know what’s there, what the rules are around them, and when it is appropriate to use them.

There were two stories in the news recently about complaints involving websites that caught my eye. One involved skeptical activists using complaints to target Scientology. The other involved complaints in the opposite direction – from paranormalists about skeptics on Wikipedia. Let’s take a quick look at these two cases and see what we can learn about effective complaining.

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Morning Toolbox – November 9, 2012 – Bond Friday

Morning Toolbox is a (nearly) daily digest of interesting tools and techniques that skeptics can use online.

I’ve written about and talked about TruthMarket several times over the last few weeks, I think it could be cool skeptic tool. You should check it out. They just announced Chris Mooney has joined the Board of Advisors, joining other familiar faces like Shawn Otto and Michael Shermer.

Read on for more tools and ideas for skeptics working online…

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Morning Toolbox – November 8, 2012 – Post election catch-up

Morning Toolbox is a (nearly) daily digest of interesting tools and techniques that skeptics can use online.

Have to do some catch up today due to several missed toolboxes. (Things have been busy at my day job).

Simon Perry has updated the Fishbarrel plugin for Chrome.  This is a great skeptic tool for reporting online quackery. This fixes some bugs and adds support for some new forms, and it is now easily downloadable from the Chrome store. You should uninstall your existing copy first.

Read on for more tools and ideas for skeptics working online…

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