For nearly two years I’ve enjoyed having a nice, get-right-to-the-point article on Wikipedia that describes me as an American journalist and mentions my book. Whenever I click on the article—as one does, five or 10 times a day—I am greeted by a photo of myself that was taken at a conference in Argentina 10 years ago. I’m holding a microphone and making an observation about something, forever living in 2009.
Imagine my shock one October day when I went to Wikipedia, clicked on “Noam Cohen,” and saw that my page had been deleted. In place of the article was an urgent note informing readers that the original had been expunged because it was created under false pretenses, by a sock puppet account. Wikipedia defines a sock puppet as any “online identity used for purposes of deception.” The rest of us recognize the term as referring to a trusted tool of thin-skinned politicians, athletes, and other public figures who worry that not enough people out there love them.
I let the news sink in: Someone had made up an identity to create an article about Noam Cohen. That can’t be good. I mean, even I would admit that the most likely suspect here is … me. And Wikipedia editors love nothing more than exposing people who seek special treatment within the über-democratic “encyclopedia anyone can edit,” starting with the man most identified with the project, Jimmy Wales. In the past, Wales has edited articles about himself, in one case to insist that he was the sole founder of Wikipedia, in another to remove descriptions of the pornography available on Bomis, a dotcom company he helped create in the 1990s. (I’ll save you the typing. The edits didn’t work. Wales today is prominently described as the cofounder of Wikipedia, along with Larry Sanger, and the Bomis article is replete with evidence of how pornography was central to its business model.)
Who, then, was my incognito biographer? Sadly, my parents are no longer in a position to carry out such a scheme. And my wife, brothers, and other relatives don’t care enough about my reputation to learn how to create a Wikipedia article. In the past, I figured that a professional acquaintance must have written the article. I’m not exactly a household name, but I have been writing about Wikipedia since 2006 and know lots of the site’s editors. Still, a casual friend of this sort wouldn’t have to hide their identity.
It was all quite confusing, but there were clues in the take-down note. The name of the sock puppet account that created my article, for one: Queen-Washington. The note also mentioned the account presumed to be controlling the sock puppet, slowking4, and it was signed by the administrator who took down the article, Beetstra. I contacted Beetstra, who describes himself on Wikipedia as a Dutch-born chemist living in Saudi Arabia, to ask what had happened. If I was losing my Wikipedia article, I should at least get a column out of it!
His response was almost immediate, assuring me that, while the term sock puppet was being thrown around, anyone who read the wording of the takedown notice—“Created by a banned or blocked user (Slowking4) in violation of ban or block”—would recognize that this wasn’t a case of a vain tech writer but, rather, a response to misbehavior by a specifically Wikipedian type of bad actor.
Beetstra wrote that slowking4 had repeatedly uploaded images to Wikipedia that ran up against Wikipedia’s licensing rules; as those images were discovered and taken down, that user account was blocked, and ultimately banned, from making any further contributions to Wikipedia. In due time, slowking4 would create new identities to evade the authorities. That is, slowking4’s sock puppetry had nothing do with my article, or with the hundreds of other articles that Queen-Washington had created—and that Beetstra was deleting. Slowking4 was a persistent rule-breaker and the punishment in such cases had to be comprehensive and a warning to others, Beetstra wrote in an email: “Their work should be erased, their actions made futile. They should grow tired, knowing their work will always be eradicated.”
The baby and the bathwater.
A quick Google search gave an email address for slowking4, and even a name, Jim Hayes. I wrote Hayes to ask what went down with the sock puppetry charge. “I’m basically creating accounts to get work done,” he told me in a telephone interview.
Hayes has been fighting what he sees as a guerrilla war against Wikipedia’s overly strict rules on what images can appear on the site. The question is whether Wikipedia should emphasize the placing of “free” images on the site, which can be used without restriction, instead of “fair use” images, which, though under copyright, may be reprinted in order to educate the public.
Fair use can be a vital tool for Wikipedia, Hayes said. If done correctly, it allows a relevant book cover, artwork, or famous news photograph to illustrate an article, giving Wikipedia a freer hand to illustrate the world. “If you are writing an article on a contemporary artwork, you need to have a fair use of that artwork to talk about it,” Hayes said. “I’m concerned with improving the quality of Wikipedia.”
But there is a catch. Fair use may be the law of the land, but it is not the law of the globe; and it does not apply to all kinds of websites. Wikipedia aspires to be freely distributable. Hayes says he is focused on Wikipedia and doesn’t worry if other sites downstream—foreign, noneducational, or for-profit ones, for example—can’t re-create the breadth of Wikipedia because its images are limited to fair use rather than free use.
Wikipedia has come down emphatically in favor of the free-culture side of the debate. Hayes has been told that he cannot add fair-use images to Wikipedia’s articles unless he meets a long list of conditions, including that he show he first made a serious effort to find a comparable free image and that he explain in writing why fair use applies. He says the way these requirements have been applied has grown more onerous over time. Administrators believe he is trying to make his own rules.
When blocked for this behavior, Hayes simply creates a new account, which he said he’s done 30 to 40 times so far. He hasn’t been particularly clever in naming his false identities—they often rhyme or involve Pokémon characters, for example. (The name Queen-Washington is derived from the intersecting streets beside a library in Alexandria, Virginia, where he likes to work.) Why should he be sneaky? He’s not operating a typical sock puppet, with “an ongoing mission to tilt articles in a certain direction or scrub negative information away.”
Not surprisingly, slowking4’s fronts have been caught repeatedly, antagonizing Wikipedia administrators who are tired of playing a pretty dull game of cat and mouse. Hence the across-the-board ban on slowking4’s contributions, including those to which he never added fair-use images. (The photo on my article, for example, was taken at a Wikipedia conference and released as a free image; it wasn’t Queen-Washington but another editor, Gamaliel, who added it to the page.)
Despite all the banning and sock puppeting, Hayes has been a prolific editor. By his own estimate, he has created 3,000 articles on English Wikipedia, with an emphasis on women and other underrepresented groups, and made 50,000 editing changes. His Queen-Washington sock puppet alone had created 577 articles, beginning in the summer of 2017. Many are women volleyball players. A dozen or so are writers, including Julie K. Brown, the Miami Herald reporter who broke so much news about the Jeffrey Epstein case, and the Irish novelist Caoilinn Hughes.
Beetstra agreed that Hayes has been “an asset for Wikipedia. He is performing a great deal of work.” But his inability to follow the rules, Beetstra wrote, warrants the ultimate sanction.
There has been a slight reprieve. So far, 17 of Queen-Washington’s deleted articles have been restored to the site, because Beetstra or other administrators determined that the pages had been substantially improved by other editors, even if the sock puppet account first created them. Brown’s and Hughes’ were among those rescued from the blanket ban. Mine was too.
The “Noam Cohen” page only reappeared after I emailed Beetstra, though I’d made clear that wasn’t why I was writing. “By the way, your email prompted me to have another look through your deleted article,” Beetstra wrote back, unprompted. “I have now undeleted it as it does not really fulfill the conditions of deletion.”
Funny how times have changed. Where Wikipedia was once synonymous with sloppy, inaccurate work and presumed self-promotion, today it is an unparalleled resource for internet sites and platforms. Google treats the content in the articles like gospel. So much so that when someone briefly managed to post to Wikipedia that the California Republican Party espoused Nazism, Google search results repeated that description in its “knowledge panel.”
This growing influence makes it even more important to address the gender and racial imbalance of Wikipedia. The community has been making incremental progress, raising the percentage of biographies of women on English Wikipedia from 15 percent five years ago to 18 percent today. Yet Wikipedia still promotes an unreal picture of the world, and of whose accomplishments matter. There is more about The Simpsons than any rational encyclopedia editor would assign; less about the novels of Toni Morrison.
Thus there was the news, a year ago, that Nobel Prize–winning physicist Donna Strickland didn’t even have a Wikipedia article when the award was announced. Worse than that, she’d had one before, but the community took it down because she wasn’t considered “notable” enough. Strickland and I aren’t competing for space on Wikipedia, I understand. In the digital age, you don’t need to bump me to make room for her. But the fact that I had an article and she didn’t undoubtedly represents a systemic flaw. She’s preeminent in nonlinear optics, and I’m only a WIRED columnist!
The slowking4 episode further exposes how capricious Wikipedia’s article creation and deletion process can be. Initially, 559 profiles disappeared from Wikipedia because of an administrative fight. Those deletions are under review, and 28 have been “recreated” thus far, but still: hundreds of pages once lived happily on the site, and now they’re gone.
I noticed that one of those deletions was of an article about the Puerto Rican volleyball player Noami Santos. Her first name is right next to mine, alphabetically. For now, Google links to Santos’ deleted Wikipedia page and creates an information box from the information that used to be posted there. But not for long.
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