Martin Barillas: Wikipedia Blocks Users in Response to Edwin Black ArticleHistorians in the News
[Martin Barillas is senior correspondent for the Cutting Edge News.]
Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia created by anonymous editors, has reacted to disclosures in The Cutting Edge News that three of its editors were jointly seeking to water down or delete the history of IBM's involvement in the Holocaust. One editor has been banned and a second has been openly challenged for being “annoying” and revising an entry on IBM despite the open appearance of pushing a personal “point of view.”
A group of mainly anonymous administrators has “indefinitely blocked” the combative contributor operating under the moniker “Fred the Oyster” from further contributions after an investigation concluded that he was the same individual as one previously banned for uncivil and threatening activity. “Fred the Oyster” was one of three Wikipedians, openly bolstered by an IBM archival official who offered to be “helpful,” that took the lead in revising IBM's history page as well as the article devoted to the book IBM and the Holocaust authored by Edwin Black.
The word “Holocaust” was completely erased from the IBM entry as was the name of the book. Numerous attempts were made to insert IBM's 2001 press release as the sole statement on the subject.
“Fred the Oyster” was “indefinitely blocked” by the adminstrators, which means his IP address is refused admission to Wikipedia edit pages. The block occured after Black openly objected to the Wikipedia article devoted to his biography being marked with two prominent labels: “American Jew” and “Weasel.” To that, “Fred the Oyster” responded on a public Discussion Page, “I wonder what colour an American Jewish weasel is, and are they similar to a circumcised ferret?”
Wikipedia administrators who police such remarks took a closer look at “Fred the Oyster's track record.” They decided that the remark crossed the line. More than that, they compared his history of postings with that of another previously offensive, banned editor contributing under the pseudonym “Webhamster.”
Webhamster had been blocked earlier in the face of complaints of “blackmail” and “a long track record of... let's just say incivility.” The earlier consensus among adminstrators late last year, as one phrased it, was to: “Eternally remove WebHamster from Wikipedia.” The indefinite ban cited “his long, dark history of incivility, warnings, blocks, and the rest.” However, numerous blocked contributors at Wikipedia routinely adopt a substitute anonymous identity, sometimes called a “sockpuppet” and use a different IP address. They then continue to push and and even endorse their prior conduct. Such “sockpuppetry” is rampant on Wikipedia, which is known for thousands of text reversion wars, disputes, and editorial conflicts. When these co-called “sockpuppets” are discovered through careful analysis of IP addresses and contribution history, the new identity is also blocked. Under this policy, “Fred the Oyster” was exposed as the “reincarnation” of “Webhamster” and indefinitely blocked from further posting on Wikipedia.
“Blaxthos” was next to receive a review. Shortly after “Fred the Oyster” was exposed and blocked, Wikipedians took a hard look at the editor operating under the name “Blaxthos.” The charge to revise the entries regarding IBM's role in the Holocaust was led by the user known as “Blaxthos,” who compared the notion to “a fringe,” with the word “fringe” hyperlinked to a picture of the man in the moon. After “Blaxthos” continually rejected substantiating information from other editors, another editor openly challenged him for what Wikipedia terms “Civil POV Pushing,” that is, pushing a “point of view” even though not crossing the line of abusive conduct. Under Wikipedia's group-enforced strictures, editors must not push their own personal agendas. An Australian editor now living in Switzerland posted this notice: “Blaxthos obviously has a very strong POV [Point of View] and a lot of their behaviour (carrying on about reliability of sources etc.) appears to be well characterised as 'WP:Civil POV pushing' (which is both intensely annoying and very difficult to deal with). Remember, this is not about the book; the 'facts' are undisputed (even by IBM).”
“Blaxthos” has a history of involvement in Wikipedia conflicts which have escalated to the administrative review level. This latest challenge, accusing “Blaxthos” of “annoying” POV pushing was linked to a page of official explanations. That official page explained the problem and the conduct in detail:
“Wikipedia, and specifically the dispute resolution process, has a difficult time dealing with civil POV pushers. These are editors who are superficially polite while exhibiting some or all of the following behaviors:
- They often edit primarily or entirely on one topic or theme.
- They attempt to water down language, unreasonably exclude, marginalize or push views beyond the requirements of WP:NPOV, or give undue weight to fringe theories ...
- They revert war [incessantly revert revisions] over such edits.
- They frivolously request citations for obvious or well known information.
- They argue endlessly about the neutral-point-of-view policy and particularly try to undermine the undue weight clause. They try to add information that is (at best) peripherally relevant on the grounds that 'it is verifiable, so it should be in.'
- They argue for the inclusion of material of dubious reliability; for example, using commentary from partisan think tanks rather than from the scientific literature.
- They may use sockpuppets ...
- They hang around forever wearing down more serious editors and become expert in an odd kind of way on their niche POV.
- They often make a series of silly and time wasting requests for comment, mediation or arbitration again to try to wear down the serious editors ...
“The problem is compounded because it often takes the form of long-term behavior that cannot accurately be summarized in a few diffs [visible revision comparisons]. As such, the committee has difficulty dealing with “civil” POV pushers—editors who repeatedly disregard Wikipedia's content policies but are civil, or not-quite-uncivil-enough to merit sanctions ... These users are generally very knowledgeable about the subject and committed to Wikipedia's policies on sourcing and appropriate weight. Unfortunately, they tend to burn out. Usually they burn out in one of two ways:
- The impatient ones tend to become angry as a result of the seemingly never-ending problems these articles cause, become uncivil, and be sanctioned by the arbcom for incivility.
- The patient ones tend to go more quietly. They become disillusioned by the never-ending problems and the lack of support from the Wikipedia community, and stop editing on these topics or quit the site entirely.”
The Wikipedia explanation page concluded that such objectionable conduct creates “an untenable situation.”
Wikipedia's challenge to “Blaxthos” for pushing a point of view on the IBM history entry came after related complaints that he was attempting to subtly change the article title on “IBM and the Holocaust” to “IBM and the Holocaust (book),” claiming the parenthetical in the article name was necessary to avoid misleading readers into thinking the book was actually about IBM's role in the Holocaust. In truth, the book is completely to that topic, but "Blaxthos" argued otherwise. A concensus of anonymous editors rejected his thinking and arguments. By custom, all Wikipedia articles about books retain the original title of the book without comment or modification, a group of editors independently insisted. After a vigrous online debate featuring tenacious objections by “Blaxthos,” the original article name for the book IBM and the Holocaust was restored. Reports suggest that the article is now being slowly restored to its original factual character. As of this writing, the original accurate Synopsis was removed.
At press time, “Blaxthos's” edits regarding the Holocaust on the “IBM History” page were also being challenged on the basis of a “conflict of interest.”
What's more, several posters have asserted as one did that the “'facts' are undisputed (even by IBM).” At press time, in the fast moving, minute-to-minute world of Wikipedia, editors have suggested new phrasing which in part reads, “IBM's punch card machines were used by Germany to keep track of people who were to be subjected to the Holocaust. Only after Jews were identified—a massive and complex task that Hitler wanted done immediately—could they be targeted for efficient asset confiscation, ghettoization, deportation, enslaved labor and, ultimately, annihilation. It was a cross-tabulation and organizational challenge so monumental, it called for a computer. Of course, in the 1930s, no computer existed. But IBM's Hollerith punch card technology did exist. IBM and its German subsidiary custom-designed complex solutions, one by one, anticipating the Reich's needs. They did not merely sell the machines and walk away. Instead, IBM leased these machines for high fees and became the sole source of the billions of punch cards Hitler needed.”
The Dutch user known as “Andries,” originally one of the main advocates of inserting an IBM press release and deleting the word “Holocaust,” revised his view and has now commented, “I think your proposed text is quite okay.”
Black himself remarked, “Holocaust history has been partially vindicated for the moment, perhaps a brief moment. But it would be better if all the players, from 'Blaxthos' on, would be obligated to study up on a topic before they try to rewrite history, especially Holocaust history.”