In a post-election 2016 world, online troll farms, misinformation campaigns, and targeted harassment are some of the more serious issues facing our digital age.
I make many statements of fact in this entire study regarding “harassment” – and specifically harassment as it is defined directly on Wikipedia as a community guideline.
My case study on harassment occurring on Wikipedia using my own personal experience is not written as “vindication” or payback.
This study is meant to highlight how peculiar groups form the editing culture on Wikipedia, and themselves violate Wikipedia’s own community guidelines and definitions for what the community considers to be harassing behavior on the encyclopedia.
While Wikipedia defines these violations as harassment, this case study identifies these behaviors specifically as “editor suppression”, the dark art of removing other editors on the sly from editing on Wikipedia.
This case study further explores how these “troll farms” can easily populate on Wikipedia and other MediaWiki platforms such as RationalWiki, Conservapedia, and a host of other wikis on the web.
Welcome to Wikipedia. You are now being targeted for suppression. Please leave or face consequences.
I was fortunate to arrive on Wikipedia in September of 2013, investigating claims of “editor suppression” being made by Rupert Sheldrake. Rupert is a controversial Cambridge biologist and author, often rebuked by mainstream scientists for his hypothesis regarding memory in nature and the “extended mind”, wearing the mantle of the official “heretic” of orthodox science proudly on his sleeve.
Rupert Sheldrake was somewhat alarmed that his Wikipedia biography was dominated by “skeptic activists”, influencers and groups epitomized by famous skeptics such as James Randi, CSCIOP and Michael Shermer, whom he has had a tit for tat with for over 30 years.
This particular Wikipedia problem Rupert talked about became close to a mainstream media event, even being covered by the BBC. His Wikipedia article became a controversy just after another controversy with Rupert Sheldrake’s TED talk. In 2013, his talk was removed from the TED channel, and eventually resolved with Chris Anderson apologizing to Rupert Sheldrake for his treatment.
I was contacted for advice about his Wikipedia problem by Rupert himself. He had no idea what to do about it. At the time, neither did I. Yet I was always fascinated by the phenomenon of “wiki wars” and always wanted to study them.
So Rupert certainly had my ear. I decided to go in and see for myself.
A crisis of personal idealism followed.
As early as 2007, I became fascinated with the progress made between Israel and Palestine, not amongst their governments, but amongst their editors on Wikipedia articles. At the time, these two ideologically opposed sets of editors were able to build shared narratives together, collaboratively. That appealed to my optimistic sensibilities. I mentioned Wikipedia’s ‘wiki wars’ as a shining example of a precursor to digital governing in my own TEDx talk, which was indirectly how Rupert and I originally met.
How did Wikipedia resolve disputes? Was it purely organic, between editors, or was there something in WikiMedia’s own architecture that steered Wikipedia editors towards a consensus? I wanted to understand the answers to those questions. All I was aware of at the time was the idealistic positive WikiMedia PR friendly story, as told in TED talks – Wikipedia seemed like a place where the most evolved of us could collaborate and arrive and consensus to build a marvelous wonder, reflecting the ideals of an open and collaborative global society.
I wanted to see for myself what would happen as someone from the outside, with good intentions, came into to edit a contentious article on Wikipedia.
I had no idea that what was to follow would collapse my Wikipedia idealism all around me, even changing my life.
I give Rupert Sheldrake’s “talk” page a gentle review.
Once there, I meet a very experienced, and very clever, Wikipedia editor named ‘Manul’. I suspected Manul, along with another Wikipedia editor IRWolfie and a ‘Barney The Barney Barney’ were acting aggressively to remove or scare away a number of editors away from Rupert Sheldrake’s biography.
Any editor that did not agree with their aggressive edits were called demeaning terms, like “woo promoters” and “Sheldrake fanboys” and sheriffed away from editing at all. To me, it looked like obvious violations of Wikipedia’s policies that govern platform harassment.
Additionally, I noted that some very non-controversial things about Rupert Sheldrake, like his basic credits as a Cambridge biologist, were removed from his article, and replaced with more defamatory credits, listing him as a ‘pseudo-scientist’, a term of ill repute. It didn’t appear to me to be a responsible biography of a living person, no matter how controversial or questionable the subject’s work.
At least, that is honestly what it looked like to me.
I assumed, naively at the time, that this topic and subject matter (skeptics, fringe science, biography) would be a benign wiki war to explore my professional curiosity in, certainly less daunting than the struggle between Palestine and Israel.
So I decided to join, and make an honest comment or two about what I believed the status of the article to be in.
I wrote that I had an issue with what I believed to be biased editorialzing, which I honestly did believe.
In response, Manul came to my talk page with an intimidating warning, looking very official with a Wikipedia banner.
Manul was claiming I made a personal attack against editors, and was close to ‘violating’ policy. This perplexed me because I didn’t address any editors directly, just mentioning over all bias in what I read in the full history.
At the time I noted Manul was operating what is known as a ‘single purpose account’ (SPA) who primarily signed on to solely edit Rupert Sheldrake’s article, some three months previous to my arrival. I found a little amusement when I discovered that Manul’s very first comment on Wikipedia also mentioned their concern with bias on the article, which is something Manul was now trying to use against me, a first step in getting a sanction against another editor.
Manul: an ‘activist’ Wikipedia editor.
Any ideology, movement, culture or subculture can have an activist presence on Wikipedia. Indeed, many controversial subjects are either controlled by antagonists or protagonists of the subject. Activist editors watch and guard a page on Wikipedia, and often they can set traps to fool or intimidate new editors from joining the article.
Manul was specifically a ‘skeptic activist’, a member of a small sub-niche community on the internet who battle the “woos” of “pseudoscience”, acting as avatars for “scientific orthodoxy” on the encyclopedia that ‘anyone can edit’, even the “woos” themselves.
Watch out for events like this.
I’ve detailed events like this so if things like this have happened to you on Wikipedia, chances are you’re targeted for editor suppression and you can make sense to what is happening to you.
Within a few days of this event, I was outed, harassed, and personally attacked on Wikipedia with clear and known intention to do harm to my reputation, so as to discourage me, and others, from editing on Wikipedia’s biography article on Rupert Sheldrake.
This included exposing, disclosing, and distributing discovery of my real name and off-wiki comments, in clear violation of Wikipedia’s own policy and slandering my name and seeding it to another group of people to intentionally rile up a ‘mob’ against me, an action that still continues some years later.
Step one: Flag waving. Trolls, sock puppets, and other aspersions.
When any editor arrives on a contentious Wikipedia article, and they are targeted for suppression, some editor on that article is going to immediately dig through that editor’s history. If it is a true suppression event, the aggressive editor will find some history from the past, link to it back on the articles talk page – and frame it in such a way as to plant suspicions about the editor.
This tactic is called ‘flag waving’. In my case, I was ‘flag waved’ as a disruptive “troll” with tactics that are in direct violation to many of Wikipedia’s policies, including privacy, harassment, stalking and editor civility. You can see these tactics directly on Wikipedia, solely initiated by Wikipedia editor Manul here, here and here.
Wikipedia’s guidelines call what Manul was doing “casting aspersions” on other editors. It is meant to protect editors from harassment. It doesn’t work.
To show how aspersions are abused on Wikipedia, I am going to show you how this claim was abused specifically by editor Manul and exploited as a form of editor suppression.
Manul’s flag-waving attempted to create this confusion by finding something from my past, dating all the way back to 2006 on Wikipedia, some eight years previous to my arrival on Rupert’s article.
Step two: Outing, doxxing, identifying.
This is in reference to the next event which Manul abused as an opportunity for suppression; a reference to something I did in my first sixty seconds of my activity on Rupert Sheldrake’s biography article on Wikipedia, when my real name was signed as my signature mistakenly.
I made this mistake because years back, I did input my real name into my account, but since I never participated in any “talk” pages after that, I had no idea it actually affected my signature and time stamp to any comment I would make on Wikipedia.
As you can see – this was made at 8:02pm UTC 8/31/ 13
Because I was unfamiliar with Wikipedia’s workings, I was not aware at the time that I could have simply asked a Wikipedia Administrator to remove my name from the edit history.
So I removed my name myself within sixty seconds of my first post. This means that my name would still be on an archived Wikipedia page, but not on the public discussion page. At this point, it simply was not easy for anyone to discover my name.
If anyone was looking at the talk page after this, this is how it would have looked, just a comment without a signature.
Additionally, by chance and in my favor, three hours later the talk page that contained my own removed signature and first comment was archived and now hidden down one more layer on Wikipedia from discovery.
My name was not easy discovery.
Additionally, if perchance discovered, no one would readily know that my name, Rome Viharo – was “the Tumbleman” account if they happened to be reading the talk page.
I should have expected all the privacy and protection Wikipedia’s editing and harassment guidelines offer, as long as there was a self-regulating community that operated according to Wikipedia’s rules and guidelines for editing, especially around anonymity and harassing behaviors, I predicted I should have nothing to worry about – with the exception of skeptic editor Manul.
Only Manul saw my deleted user name. Here is proof.
Manul was the Wikipedia account that archived this event.
As you can see, Wikipedia editor Manul was the editor who archived the talk page with my signature just three hours after I posted.
What does Wikipedia editor Manul do after the discovery of my name?
Do they ignore it, which would be common wiki etiquette as well as required directly by Wikipedia’s editing guidelines?
If I was a target for editor suppression, this unfortunate event would be the vulnerability that would be attacked first.
It quickly took the form of harassment and threatened my anonymity.
Manul broadcasts my real name on three different Wikipedia’s talk pages.
Manul re-posts and republishes my real name to my Tumbleman talk page, their own talk page, as well as the talk page on Rupert Sheldrake.
Not once but three separate times.
Now there are a number of problems with this as any responsible and experienced Wikipedia editor knows, or anyone else really with a sense of common courtesy. Wikipedia has community rules and guidelines against this.
This guideline was immediately abused by a member of this community against me, no manner of gas lighting or revenge articles about me can change this simple objective fact.
Searching for past editing histories, off-site comments, outing, stalking, harassment and personal attacks are all forbidden on Wikipedia and considered harassment on the platform, and users can be sanctioned for taking these actions. I was soon to discover that these violations not only occur, but occur with support inside of the Wikipedia community, including many of their admins.
Additionally, attempting to link offsite creative works from years previously to establish my state of mind and intentions on Wikipedia is something Wikipedia clearly forbids.
I believe I made honest, reasoned comments on the talk page for Rupert’s article. I was sincere.
I was very aware that what Manul was doing was wrong in this instance. Regardless of my unfamiliarity with Wikipedia’s community or WikiMedia software, I knew enough to know this was something I should not expect.
Wikipedia’s dispute resolution.
I just knew I had to immediately confront this behavior as obviously non-collaborative, and figure out a way to work with it.
As every other step that I took on Wikipedia up to this point, my next few actions were naive and vaguely informed of how Wikipedia works.
I searched and scoured a labyrinth of Wikipedia “notice boards” that all confusingly seemed to be able to provide some form of dispute resolution. I looked into all of the Wikipedia guidelines on editor behavior.
I just picked the best ‘dispute resolution’ forum I could find, one that made sense to me.
I immediately informed my intentions and formally addressed my presence and intentions for editing on this noticeboard, confronting Manul and rebuking their ‘charges’ I was playing a joke on Wikipedia.
(note: Wikipedia editor Manul’s original editing account name was Vzaak. After publication of this case study, Manul was able to navigate through the labyrinth of Wikipedia procedures have their editing account name changed in the actual open source archiving of all discussions and posts, from Vzaak to Manul. Since these are archived screen grabs, any address from me to “Vzaak” is the same account as I detail in this study as their current signature, Manul.)
It turns out, however, that I addressed my issue with Manul in the wrong forum.
But my purpose was still met. Manul replied in the forum, and had no choice but to accept the face value of my words.
Manul knew what they did was wrong too.
I know this because after dispute resolution, and without the instruction of any admin, Manul redacted the posts on me and my past history.
On top of that, Manul even offered me an olive branch on my Wikipedia talk page.
I was, at the time, quite pleased. I felt that I was able to deal with the issue of editor suppression on Wikipedia before I even started consensus building.
Intentional malice, evidence for suppression.
By this time, Manul had no reason to further plant this suspicion on Wikipedia about me. It was dead, or at least it should have been.
Unfortunately, this was for me an unwise assumption, a misinterpretation of Manul’s intentions.
An olive branch betrayal of trust.
While Manul acknowledged that this was private and personal information by retracting it when other users posted it to Sheldrake’s “talk page”, Manul continued to pass around this information to other “skeptic” editors, attempting to build an “army” against me.
This one action Manul took exposed me a gang of editors, including the notorious Oliver Smith/Goblin Face/ Dan Skeptic, some of whom still track and target me to this day.
Additionally, these types of behaviors from Manul and this collective of editors created a set of events in motion on Wikipedia that resulted in the sanctioning of many many editors.
From there, a corrupted narrative about me and my intentions became a digital wildfire of speculation, each Wikipedia editor adding an element for suspicion to the “biography” of “The Tumbleman”. I became, within a matter of days – a legend who was not just a sophisticated troll, I was a “true pro” in bed with PR companies, conducting a “massive worldwide social media experiment”, a “disruptive editor” with an “anti-social personality” disorder.
These narratives were very deceptive, and neither reflected by words or my behaviors on Wikipedia, which I made an intentional point to be professional, and patient.
Manul, and only Manul – is directly and intentionally responsible for the spreading of slander and harassment on Wikipedia which as affected my personal and professional life ever since.
My intentions after this happened were to react with patience and restraint.
After this, I studied Wikipedia’s policies for weeks before I began my formal consensus-building process.
This one act Manul took, targeting me in a small, petty editorial squabble on Wikipedia became a life-changing event, something no one should ever expect to happen from editing on Wikipedia in a wiki war.
Every decision I’ve made in response to this have all been 100% defensive.
After Manul outed me, I was even more challenged, and determined, to build a rational consensus in a wiki war, and this hostile environment became a perfect case study for me to test the principles of consensus building which are native to my platform, aiki.wiki, and consistent with The Five Pillars of Wikipedia.
To read about what happened in the Rupert Sheldrake wiki war, you can start here.