Wikipedia’s constitutional crisis may have come to an end.
The Wikimedia Foundation agreed that the English-language Arbitration Committee would have full power to review the one-year ban against administrator Fram. Three months later ArbCom unbanned Fram and removed his admin status while allowing him to apply for its reinstatement. The RfA failed and Fram withdrew. The details of the Fram case are covered in this month’s Special report. This article explores how we can address the underlying issues of the case moving forward.
At first glance, Wikipedia’s multilevel decision making process has shown that the en:Wiki community can protect its independence from the WMF, can make nuanced decisions about admin incivility and harassment, and protect editors against harassment once they file a complaint.
But on closer inspection, none of that was accomplished. The process was agonizingly slow, confused, and just ugly. The community did not come up with a method to minimize harassment in everyday practice. The difficulty of giving accused harassers enough information to defend themselves while protecting their accusers against potential further harassment was underlined. And any cooperation between the WMF and ArbCom or the community to prevent harassment was trashed as the WMF was routinely derided as the cause of the whole affair.
We believe that three issues must be addressed simultaneously before the constitutional crisis is resolved:
- How to protect editors against harassment? If we can’t protect our editors, we’ll lose our best and brightest. Wikipedia may become the playground of trolls.
- Can we find a reasonable method for accused harassers to defend themselves while still preserving the accuser’s ability to file a complaint without further harassment? and
- Can we cooperate using all the tools of the community, ArbCom, and the WMF to prevent harassment before it happens and deal effectively with it after a complaint is made? If we treat the WMF as the enemy, we’ll be losing many of the tools that can minimize harassment.
— The Signpost
A proposal that ignores one of the issues will ultimately fail on all three counts.
ArbCom will soon start a request for comment on these and similar issues. The Signpost asked over a dozen well-respected editors how we can move forward rather than dwelling on the wounds of the recent past. Perhaps because the wounds are still fresh only 6 agreed to comment using their usernames. Another allowed their comments to be used without their username. All responses were edited for length.
Our movement has more or less relied on an unwritten division of power between the Foundation, the affiliates, and the communities. Our communities are generally self governing, except in a few clearly defined cases... Individual communities of course can and should be held to account if they are not meeting movement norms by the movement as a whole.
As our movement grows and brings in new people we need to move from an unwritten to a written division of power (ie a movement charter or constitution). Thankfully this has been proposed in our 2030 strategy process.
With respect to the decisions of ArbCom, when the case was handed over I made it clear at the time that I will stand 100% behind whatever decision ArbCom makes and that is still my position.
— Doc James (in his volunteer capacity, not in his position as a WMF trustee)
Levivich wrote, "The project will not succeed if we ignore or outsource maintenance of the pillars. Each of us can see harassment when it happens on-wiki; each of us has an obligation to not tolerate it. If bystanders spoke up more often, victims wouldn’t need to report."
Levivich's proposal appears to be very difficult to implement. He is suggesting a complete change in Wikipedia’s culture. Perhaps this is the only way forward.
Wikipedia needs to improve the sometimes hostile and toxic environment for article creators and editors, both new and old. People who edit WP need to understand that encouragement of good faith new editors is equally as important as quality control …. There are guidelines and policies on WP that need to be respected, but these requirements can be handled with grace and cooperation, not the kneejerk I Don't Like It reactions too often seen.
One editor who preferred that his username not be used was skeptical that progress could be made "because one person's harassment is another's defending the encyclopedia." It would be easy to swamp ArbCom, “but if it were possible to filter out … misguided claims of harassment, a complainant might email ArbCom. The remedy might be to separate the people involved along the lines of ‘if the edits need attention, let someone else deal with it’…. There might be volunteer mentors who would act as intermediaries.”
I don't expect easy answers to the harassment and fair process conversations…. our open forms of dispute resolution seem particularly unsuited to addressing long-term poor behaviour that is countered with positive contributions...
Ultimately this is something that the community needs to decide on, and the Foundation needs to respect and support -- not take over.
While I am not happy with how the community interacts with Foundation staff (insults, personal attacks, and the like), this is ultimately a problem of the Foundation's own creation.
Guy felt the WMF was to blame. His suggestions included:
The mechanics for (reporting harassment) do exist, in that people could and should inform the arbitration committee or functionaries mailing list confidentially if they are concerned about their safety. However in practice, I do recall situations where the committee has been slow to respond or act.
Regarding providing a adequate means of defense for the accused, the general principle in the workplace is that the origin of a complaint must be known to a person as a default to allow dispute resolution or management to take place. This should be the case on WP unless a complainant can make a case to the committee that there is a compelling reason otherwise.
There are some areas of agreement in all these views. Everybody recognizes that there's a problem with harassment or with the WMF's approach to it. Some respondents believe that we have a system in place to deal with harassment, but perhaps it can be improved. Others think that for Wikipedia's approach to harassment to change, our editors' attitudes must change. Nobody praised the WMF's approach to the problem. The RfC to be run by ArbCom will be interesting.
As always, your opinion, politely expressed in the Comments section below, is appreciated.