Criminals edit Wikipedia. They include a couple of the mass shooters who have terrorized many Americans recently. They also include others who have committed particularly heinous murders, convicted sex criminals, financial con artists such as insider traders and Ponzi scheme operators. There are also tax-evading billionaires – one awaiting trial, another who has already confessed and is waiting to testify at trial. And then there's those who haven’t officially entered the criminal justice system, such as some of the Russian oligarchs. I’ll call these and similar editors “black hat editors”, just to keep these distinctions clear.
First, though, you should know how I know that criminals edit Wikipedia. To show that The Signpost does not need to identify criminals by their user names or real world names, I won’t name some of the convicted criminals.
The first time I was absolutely convinced that a Wikipedia contributor was a convicted criminal, I felt it was an honor to be able to revert such a well-known ex-con. It wasn’t hard to identify him: his user name was a slight variant of his real world name and he was editing the article about himself. He’d already identified himself as the subject of the article several times. He removed a quote from the then-Chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and called the addition of the quote "vandalism". The quote was about how horrible the article subject’s crime was (guilty on 53 counts of insider trading), and how he hurt the reputation of America’s financial journalists. The article's subject had been a financial journalist whose column effectively recommended the purchase or sale of certain stocks. He’d provide this information before publication to his insider trading partners, thus giving a good hint as to whether particular stock prices would rise or fall. When he was arrested for insider trading his defense was that his actions were unethical, but not illegal. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed with his defense, setting an important precedent.
A few months later, I ran into another criminal editor. A convicted, but not-yet sentenced, Ponzi scheme operator put the most remarkable text in a hand-written confession that he sent to his wife. The confession made its way to the FBI, into the federal indictment, and into the pages of a highly reputable newspaper. In part he described himself as a "financial serial killer" and continued "I hate the fact that I am just another scumbag con artist bilking old people out of their retirement money. I have always hated those guys. How could I become one?" He'd also written an email to his investor-victims saying that all the money was misappropriated and just gone. Of course I quoted part of the note in the article about him.
Then he, or somebody impersonating him, really surprised me: Identifying himself by his real name in the edit summary, he edited the article, confirming the quote but trying to explain it away by giving his state of mind when he wrote it, claiming he was distraught and had even considered self-harm. Strange, but who else could explain his state of mind at the time? After asking a couple questions on his talk page, I was convinced that the editor was the actual Ponzi schemer.
So I've been convinced for a long time that criminals edit Wikipedia. Financial crimes like this typically cost their victims tens of millions of dollars. But are there more dangerous or serious criminals editing Wikipedia?
This section details mass shooters and murderers who have edited Wikipedia, and includes brief descriptions of their horrific acts. In some cases, this included using Wikipedia during those acts, requiring more description. The subsection after it deals with sexual predators, and their attempts to hide knowledge of their crimes by editing Wikipedia, again, requiring some description of what was being attempted to be hidden.
In early July a mass shooter horrified America killing seven people at a parade near Chicago. A reliable online newspaper published an article naming a Wikipedia editor as the shooter - or perhaps the editor was a close friend of the shooter. The on-Wiki editing evidence is a bit thin, but it’s enough to convince me unless further evidence comes to light: The editor in question made about six edits over three days a few years ago, all promoting a rap singer who has now been identified by name in the mainstream press as the suspected shooter. The edits are fairly normal promotional edits: the standard garage-band-style advertisement that most editors here have seen dozens of times. To the best of my knowledge, this style of advertising always traces back to the band members or the band’s manager.
One reason I might be easy to convince about this mass shooter is that I wrote about a different mass shooter in The Signpost three months ago. This mass shooter fired hundreds of rounds at a school in Washington, D.C. as classes let out on Friday, April 22. Only four people were wounded, though these included a child and a man who spent at least three weeks in the hospital. Police took hours to find the shooter. About 40 minutes after the shooting began, the shooter reportedly was online on a non-Wiki site uploading a video of part of the shooting and discussing the shooting. On Wikipedia he reportedly made three brief, vague edits shortly after the shooting to the article on the school, and had also made edits on Wikipedia earlier in the week to articles about mass shootings and to the school article. When the police found his hiding place, the shooter reportedly committed suicide. Wikipedia oversighters soon removed most of his edits. Since I only learned about this shooting on the day after – a day before The Signpost published – I was not able to fully verify the shooter’s name or user name and I didn’t even include the name of the school in my article. I probably could have named the school, in retrospect, but little or no other meaningful information was lost by not identifying the shooter in The Signpost.
Other mass shooters and murderers who have edited Wikipedia include:
We should remember that there are also white-collar criminals, and that corporations and their owners and managers can also commit crimes. The Wall Street Journal's article How the 1% Scrubs Its Image Online gives several examples of criminal or black-hat editing on Wikipedia. Please remember that this behavior can be very different than that shown by the murderers and sex criminals discussed above.
Because of the subject matter, this article has been difficult to write. I apologize if you have found it difficult to read. I'll just say that there are many more examples. We've got a problem with criminals and black hat editors writing on Wikipedia. The question now is what to do about it?
Perhaps the first thing we should realize is that mass shootings and the like are symptoms of a fundamentally sick society. All the major social media platforms have similar problems. There may be little that we can do on our own, but that doesn't mean that we should ignore the problem, only that we should calmly work with others and not expect quick solutions. Obsessing about the problem may actually add to the problem.
There are many different types of criminal and black-hat editors. Inevitably we will need different ways of dealing with them. It appears that the most serious type – mass shooters and murderers – have been dealt with fairly quickly by admins and by the WikiMedia Foundation.
Ordinary editors can help by privately reporting suspect editors to the WMF's Trust and Safety team at email@example.com, or, in case of emergency, firstname.lastname@example.org. Except in emergencies, you could also contact ArbCom at email@example.com. In certain cases they may be able to act more quickly.
Behaviors that might arouse your suspicion include the things that many editors would usually report anyway: threats or indications of violent behaviour. Other indications might be bragging about assault-style weapons, or an intense interest in mass shooting articles. I trust Trust and Safety and ArbCom to speedily do everything possible in these cases.
The Signpost's new policy of not identifying mass shooters can't hurt and may help.
Other situations are not so clear cut. I suggest that The Signpost continue to vigorously report about editors who have been credibly accused of crimes by very reliable sources such as The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. Like writers of Wikipedia articles, we should not have to wait for a conviction to report on possibly criminal acts, or even an indictment. It can take years before a criminal is actually convicted. All that is needed is a credible report in a very reliable source.
A major advance would be to simply have a reasonable discussion about criminal editors. Perhaps we could even come up with a policy or guideline to deal with the problem. A first step could be a blanket ban on any criminal or their representatives editing any article about themselves or the crime. By blanket ban, I mean that should they edit their page even once, they would receive an immediate, indefinite ban.
Finally we need to let criminals know via the mainstream press, that Wikipedia will not tolerate their editing anymore.