The Affective Labor of Wikipedia: GamerGate, Harassment, and Peer Production.

The Wikipedia Arbitration Committee (ArbCom) just completed the process of sanctioning a number of editors over edits to the Gamergate controversy page. This has been a controversial decision, with many parties issuing statements, including the Wikimedia Foundation, two of the editors who were brought before the ArbCom, and in an unusual instance, the ArbCom itself. Mark Bernstein wrote a series of blog posts reacting to the case that have been widely read. Bernstein’s post that begins by claiming that the “The infamous draft decision of Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee (ArbCom) on Gamergate is worse than a crime. It’s a blunder that threatens to disgrace the internet” has been cited in articles on Gawker, The Guardian, and others. I want to take a step back from that heated rhetoric, try to give some context for the situation. This incident is part of two related culture wars. Not only is it part of a larger anti-feminist war that contains many theaters, including GamerGate, the War on Women, hacked celebrity nudes, rape culture, and revenge porn, this incident is also part of a separate but frequently related conflict between two opposing visions of collaboration online.

The 260,000+ words of the ArbCom case pit two competing modes of collaboration against each other. GamerGate, and those that organize and collaborate on Reddit, 4chan, and other anonymous or pseudonymous message boards operate under a different social contract than those that aspire to the kind of peer-production theorized by Yochai Benkler. When Bernstein claims that “this is the end of the Wiki Way,” I understand that as: this is a clash of online civilizations, and it is unclear if peer production (e.g. the Wiki Way) can hold off the anonymous horde.

Benkler held Wikipedia up as one of the key models of peer production in The Wealth of Networks (2006), writing:

This combination of an explicit statement of common purpose, transparency, and the ability of participants to identify each other’s actions and counteract them—that is, edit out “bad” or “faithless” definitions—seems to have succeeded in keeping this community from devolving into inefficacy or worse […] What is perhaps surprising is that this success occurs not in a tightly knit community with many social relations to reinforce the sense of common purpose and the social norms embodying it, but in a large and geographically dispersed group of otherwise unrelated participants. It suggests that even in a group of this size, social norms coupled with a facility to allow any participant to edit out purposeful or mistaken deviations in contravention of the social norms, and a robust platform for largely unmediated conversation, keep the group on track. (Benkler, 73-74)

Benkler’s utopian vision of simpatico collaboration, controlled through social and technical mechanisms, is quite different from the model of collaboration that GamerGate and the pro-GamerGate editors are working under. As we wrote in Collaborative Futures (2010), the then nascent phenomenon of Anonymous provided a very different model for online collaboration. We wrote of Anonymous:

Is this a possible collaborative future? If so, it is a terrifying one in which anonymity and structurelessness permits total absolution of social responsibility, terrorizing of innocent outsiders, and harassment of those who provide public feedback, criticism and indeed even speak of the group (“You do not talk about anonymous”). It is a P2P, collaborative, digitized “Lord of the Flies” wherein boys’ games devolve into violence for fun. In the perpetual techno-utopian dialectic, this is the feared dystopian future we hope will be avoided, as we aim for the utopia that we can never actually arrive at.” (Hyde et al, 5)

Both sides are battling back and forth across that techno-utopian dialectic.

A vocal minority has used the openness of Wikipedia to inject their views into the article, and block the efforts of long time experienced editors from protecting the neutrality of the page. What that looks like in practice is best summed up by the last edit made to the page before it was fully protected on December 26th. The user Loganmac edited the page to say the Gamergate controversy is a “debate about ethics in video game journalism” and inserts other phrases casting doubt on the existence of harassment.  The user TheRedPenOfDoom reverted those edits to their previous state, which said Gamergate controversy was a “debate about sexism in video game culture.” This is the same #GamerGate back and forth but the stakes are high here, as they are fighting over the lede on the Wikipedia article, a page which is the number one search result for the search term.

Many of this vocal minority are new user accounts, single purpose accounts, or IP editors. They are not interested in Wikipedia per se, other than to try to control the message on that page. Loganmac is an editor who made only 36 edits periodically between 2008 and 2013, only to return to the site in September 2014 to work exclusively on the Gamergate controversy page, and other GameGate related pages for which he has made 768 edits, whereas TheRedPenOfDoom is a very experienced editor who has made over 100,000 edits over a similar period. Both of these editors were initially content banned, but given their asymmetrical investments in Wikipedia, one would be punished much more than the other.

Mark Bernstein valorized these editors as Feminists, though others have questioned that characterization. Sarah Stierch wrote “I don’t even know who got the idea that any of the contributing editors are feminist, per se. […] It appears to be just a bunch of people editing the Wikipedia article to protect it from being a hot mess of 4chan.” The word is barely used in the ArbCom decision. The reality is that the people calling these editors Feminists are the pro-GamerGate faction organizing on Reddit and 4chan; Feminist becomes an othering proxy for the enemy.

What is clear is that the pro-GamerGate side have engaged in repeated online and offline harassment, orchestrated offsite. This harassment includes the doxing of Ryulong and other off site harassment, which is prohibited from inclusion on wiki, but which was submitted via email, but not discussed in the proceeding.

In calling the situation an edit war, the user Protonk noted that these are editors who have “cracked under the constant provocation and lost their temper.”  That is one of the main concerns of many neutral Wikipedians. DD2K wrote “by sanctioning long-time editors who have had to deal with deplorable, egregious off-site(and many times on-site) harassment, while letting one of the main coordinators of that harassment go unmentioned, tells regular editors(volunteers themselves) and admins that protecting the project from BLP violations coordinated from off-site will not only get you sanctioned, but the perpetrators will be rewarded with no sanction.”

The pro-GamerGate contingent operate under the cover of plausible deniability, amidst a community of support. When the anti-GamerGate contingent point this out, the pro-GamerGate partisans not only claim that they are not the ones who have harassed the users, but accuse the anti-GamerGate contingent of slander. It is, of course, difficult and/or impossible to make a direct correlation between the anonymous accounts on 4chan and 8chan and the Wikipedia accounts, there is strong evidence of collusion and harassment. This slipperiness is core to the strategy of the anonymous horde.

The disciplinary structure of ArbCom is meant to only adjudicate processes on wiki. It is neither meant to assess content, nor off wiki processes. As such they are not weighing on the substance of the Gamergate Controversy page, but rather are passing judgment on the way in which individual editors acted on that page. The are also refusing to consider the way in which pro-GamerGate editors acted off wiki (e.g. on Reddit, 4chan or 8chan) or IRL. At one point they dismiss the IRL harassment saying that “we don’t have the resources or the mandate to deal with serious and systemic off-wiki harassment issues. You really need to take them to the WMF and/or law enforcement.” This is a failure of the system, if it cannot even consider this kind of harassment for its own on-wiki arbitration, given that we know that law enforcement has proven to be unable to.

What’s frustrating is that Wikipedia’s ArbCom is structured to act in the letter of the law but maybe not the spirit, and as such, is ripe for abuse by the kind of process we’ve seen take place. The principles on which Wikipedia is founded assumes everyone is acting in good faith, and seems unprepared for the Men’s Rights Activism spawned from Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan. It’s an example of what Astra Taylor says, that “‘open’ in no way means ‘equal’.”

Despite all of this, peer-production seems to manage to persevere. The Guardian initially incorrectly said that with the anti-GamerGate editors banned it left the article open to the hordes. In fact, following Wikipedia protocols, the page was locked so only administrators could edit it, while others were free to edit a draft article. After a month that draft was moved into the article space, and the diff shows that the process really did improve the neutrality of the article. At that point the article’s level of protection was dropped somewhat, though is still protected. Despite the renewed flurry of activity on the article, the article remains effectively the same. The edit war continues, but at a much more modest pace, as seen here in this edit, and its reversion.

This perseverance comes at an emotional cost, measured in stress and fear: stress felt by the editors who are willing to log the hours reverting the trolls who attempt to insert clauses that cast doubt and skew the content towards the pro-GamerGate position; and fear and anxiety that the anonymous horde might chose them as their target next to dox, intimidate IRL and harass on wiki. What Benkler did not or could not foresee was the emotional cost of constantly having to ‘edit out “bad” or “faithless” definitions.’ These kinds of harassment, while of a different scale, are of the same category as the harassment they mete out against Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, et al. This is a kind of affective labor: the labor of being afraid.

Michael Mandiberg

Michael Mandiberg is an interdisciplinary artist who created Print Wikipedia, edited The Social Media Reader (NYU Press), founded the New York Arts Practicum, and co-founded the Art+Feminism Wikipedia Editathons. Mandiberg is professor of media culture at the College of Staten Island, CUNY and Doctoral Faculty at The Graduate Center, CUNY.