The last few weeks I have been investigating disruption on Wikipedia and Wikiversity. This has a peripheral relationship to cold fusion. I’ll get to that.
For years, I was active on Wikiversity, supporting that community to build deep resources on sometimes-controversial subjects. Wikiversity, like all the WMF wikis, has a neutrality policy, but Wikipedia enforces it by, in theory, excluding the expression of points of view by users; rather, Wikipedia depends on “reliable sources,” with editors merely reporting what is in them, with emphasis on the “mainstream view.”
Wikiversity, instead, allows users to create resources and express opinions, and handles neutrality by attribution and framing. It is thus closer to a university library, including lecture notes of seminars and student work, which can be “primary source,” and can include opinion and unsourced analysis.
Some years back, I supported the creation of a Wikiversity resource on Parapsychology, because there were scientists and others interested in the topic. I designed this to be neutral, and created a subpage for a young user who wanted to create his own list of sources on the topic, this was Ben Steigmann, who had gotten into trouble on Wikipedia and was blocked there. The user happily worked on his resource, and was not, in the least, disruptive on Wikiversity. However, the resource was attacked, a number of times. These attacks were always handled, it is not difficult on Wikiversity, if a resource has been created with care.
(I should add that I’m highly skeptical of many claims called “parapsychological,” but, then again, so are at least some parapsychologists. Parapsychology is a field of investigation, not a body of belief.)
However, a few weeks ago I got an email from Steigmann that his resource had been deleted. I had not been paying attention to Wikiversity for some time, so I looked. He had been accused of abusive sock puppetry on Wikipedia, that referred to the Wikiversity resource, and claimed that Wikipedians could do nothing about it. Like any red-blooded male Wikipedia admin, one, who had been directly challenged, not only blocked a pile of socks on Wikipedia as being Steigmann (“Blastikus”), all without any actual checkuser confirmation of those socks, but went to Wikiversity and requested custodian action against Steignman, and a deletion discussion was opened.
(Wikiversity calls administrators “custodians.”)
A user appeared on Wikiversity, (“Sci-fi”) with no other activity anywhere (this is called a Single Purpose Account SPA, and if the purpose is to attack a target, I call it an “attack SPA”). While one Wikiversity custodian actually blocked that SPA, for personal attacks, another demanded that he unblock, and when he wouldn’t, actually unblocked the fellow himself (which is called “wheel-warring,” and admins on Wikipedia can lose their tools for doing that).
Then that same admin, who had created the deletion discussion in response to a request for custodian action from that Wikipedia admin, closed the discussion (which is a bit improper as the nominator) and blocked Steigmann. And that is where it stood until I intervened.
At first I assumed that Steigmann had been up to mischief and reprimanded him, by email, for it. No. All those abusive socks were not him. He had done a little socking, the kind that, in the old days on Wikipedia, nobody would have noticed. But it had been noticed, by someone stalking Steigmann. That person, “Michael skater,” had filed a Sock Puppet investigation on Blastikus.
And when little was being done, he then created an army of sock puppets pretending to be Steigmann. In fact, the Michael skater request was quite obviously disruptive, but his action with the sock puppets diverted attention from that. It worked.
Once I had a theory of what had happened, I went to the overall WikiMedia Foundation coordinating wiki, “meta,” and requested that a steward look at the accounts. “Steward” is the highest level of WMF functionary, and they can see private user information, which privilege is called “checkuser.” Ordinary site checkusers can only see local activity, but stewards can see this cross-wiki, and can even see raw account registrations anywhere in the system of 600 or so wikis.
Bingo. Impersonation socks. Michael skater had created them, and was also “Sci-fi-” the SPA who showed up to argue against Steigmann.
In that checkuser discussion, another SPA, “LadyDragoner” showed up, and also on Wikiversity, bombarding their “friendly custodian” with requests to deal with this horrible Abd monster. He tooka few actions, one of which was to block a user who informed me on my talk page he was sending me an email, and who was promptly “outed” (real life identity revealed) by one of these socks. The custodian’s response to that was to block the user outed and leave the offending sock army alone, and it was growing. The custodian then filed a checkuser request, desperate to keep Steigmann involved so that he wouldn’t be so terribly wrong. It was a cockamamie theory. Steigmann does some harmless socking on Wikipedia, not disruptive, a handful of edits (which he acknowledged), and then he files a checkuser request on himself? To get himself and a resource he worked on for years attacked? Really?
No. not involved. So that custodian finally unblocked Steigmann and apologized. However, he didn’t undelete the resource; it was necessary for me to create an undeletion request. He could simply have undeleted, because the basis for deletion had become completely moot (and a custodian can undo their own action without fuss.). But he didn’t. More socks showed up to scream. Various users removed their comments or tagged them. The resource was undeleted.
And I started a study of “SPA disruption” on Wikiversity, and they really started screaming, and threatened to bury Wikiversity in sock puppets. Charming. Stewards started undertaking enforcement actions on their own.
I filed another checkuser request for many of these.
All the same user. So who was this? Steigmann had long had enemies, that was obvious. Two of the original accounts tagged only had edits on Wikimedia Commons (where images for free use are hosted.) So I filed an admin request there. It was immediately actioned (I have a good relationship with many Commons admins), and an image of John Fuerst was deleted. This then caused a flap on RationalWiki, which links images from Commons; that flap was reported to me and I looked at it.
By this time, I had also been informed of a probable sock master, and all the pieces atarted to fit together. Interest in debunking pseudoscience, check. Interest in John Fuerst, check. Many other connections started to become visible to me. User uploads Fuerst image to Commons and then adds it to RationalWiki, check. And, something I could do then that I can’t do now: I could read deleted edits, as I had sysop privileges on RationalWiki, first time it was actually useful. The user had accidentally edited by IP, which was quickly concealed by an admin. Looking at Wikipedia editing, that IP had followed up on an article created by an identified sock puppet of the user called “Anglo Pyramidologist” (AP), see the Wikipedia Sock Puppet Investigation page.
And when I started to document AP on the meta wiki, toward creating possible global ban or long-term abuse process, then they attacked in force there, as well. “Force” simply means “a pile of sock puppets,” using hysterically reactive names (the hysterical socks) or names often following AP themes. That documentation was on a user page, not linked from anywhere, only visible to someone tracking my contributions. Many of these accounts were claiming to be independent, not connected as I was so disruptively claiming. (They claimed I had a vendetta against Anglo Pyramidologist, about whom I had known nothing shortly before.) So, another checkuser request. By this time it’s getting boring. All the same user, who routinely lies.
Demolished on meta, but famous for never letting go, the next event was not surprising. An article on me was written on RationalWiki.
This is where it gets more interesting. I had been a RationalWiki sysop since 2012. Because that community is so toxic, I mostly did nothing. Back in 2012, I worked on the cold fusion article there, and ran straight into David Gerard, who, at that time, was beginning to take control of RationalWiki. David Gerard is a long-time Wikipedia figure. He used to be a checkuser until his privileges were taken away, apparently for revealing private data. He mostly avoided serious conflict on Wikipedia, but on RationalWiki users may show more of their true colors, because gross incivility is often allowed. RationalWiki is how the “anti-pseudoscience” “anti-psychic,” etc., faction on Wikipedia can show how they actually think.
When I looked at the Wikipedia Sock Puppet Investigation page for Anglo Pyramidologist, I recognized certain names. Accounts which had attacked people I knew were there.
David Gerard had tried to remove my sysop privileges on RationalWiki, back in 2012, and had failed, because other moderators intervened. However, as someone highly technically competent, he became more and more central to RW operations.
This, then, brings me to a technique that had been used by the faction on Wikipedia. A user is identified as an enemy. An “attack dog,” a user willing to be grossly uncivil, is sent to disrupt that user’s activities. When the user responds as is common, then one of the factional administrators, now having cover, blocks the person. Sometimes the user does not respond, but the excuse is still used.
How it was done with me was that the attacker started revert warring with users on the cold fusion article. (I was not revert warring, just one revert in the sequence). Then he went to Requests for Page Protection to get the page protected to stop the revert warring (and complaining about me). Then he went back to the article, knowing it would take a few minutes for action, at least, and changed the article massively. And it worked. The page was protected into that version (which nobody in later process supported, not even him, it was so bad.) And then, when I began discussions on how to deal with this, a factional administrator showed up and banned both of us from editing the article or talk page. Too much talking, too much “disruption.” (But it was working, actual consensus was being found, the administrator ignored that, and instead changed the article under protection according to his own ideas.)
Eventually, I took this to the Arbitration Commitee, and he lost his tools. However, not specifically for that event, exactly, but for blocking me in the middle of the case raised over his right to ban me and to enforce the ban personally. Since he was a very popular administrator, ArbComm wanted a scapegoat, and with that entire faction (it’s a large one on Wikipedia) screaming for me to be banned, they picked me. Long story, it went on for more years before I was fully banned. By the same people.
(And this is a common Wikipedia problem. Taking an administrator to the Arbitration Committee is often wiki-suicide. They often shoot the messenger, who, not being an administrator, will be considered an outsider.)
That technique still works on RationalWiki. Most users don’t want to take the time to understand what is going on. If Abd is in conflict with many users, he must be the problem. In fact, this was almost entirely one user, but, then, one user with many accounts and supported by David Gerard, as became obvious.
More on that later.