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Opinion

Public response to the editors of Settler Colonial Studies

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By Tamzin
The Signpost strives to publish a variety of opinion pieces, essays and letters representing a diversity of perspectives; the following letter is a response to a paper written by Tamzin, a Wikipedia editor. On one hand, it concerns specific claims made in an academic paper; on the other hand, it relates strongly to the public interest and the mission of Wikimedia projects, which the Signpost exists to foment.
While we as Wikipedia editors accept that our work is mostly anonymous, and while we lack the prestige and imprimatur of academic institutions, in the name of our project's stability and continued reliability, it is important to stand up for ourselves from time to time. J

Tamzin Hadasa Kelly (they/xe/any; Mx.)
wikimedian@tamz.in
3 June 2024

Dr. Janne Lahti et al., editors
Settler Colonial Studies

To the editors:

I write in response to "Wikipedia's Indian problem: settler colonial erasure of native American knowledge and history on the world's largest encyclopedia", an article by Dr. Kyle Keeler published on 24 May 2024. I believe that this article contains multiple factual errors, as well as an undisclosed conflict of interest.

But before we get to that, I'd like to tell a story.

In February of 2023, a user named Insitemobile came to Wikipedia's administrators' noticeboard for incidents, to report an Indigenous editor named Yuchitown for reverting his edits. His report, titled "Spam, Vandalism and Bullying By Native Tribes", contained the claim that Yuchitown had a conflict of interest regarding the Saponi and Sappony because the Yuchi historically fought the Saponi.[1] Wikipedians broadly recognize that attempting to disqualify an editor's opinions on the basis of inherent or quasi-inherent attributes (race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc.) is hateful conduct, and administrators routinely block[2] editors who make such claims. Yet, while administrators did call out Insitemobile as disruptive, none called out the racism in his comments. He was blocked for a week, which became a month when he called his opponents "wikinazis". He then switched to editing without an account, writing to Yuchitown, "I have some advice, be careful online with oppressing other groups of people and especially be careful what IT people you offend and call an OP because this site and country is not safe. people can drive around and use any ip and stalk etc". A second administrator blocked the IP subnet.[3] But the Insitemobile account remained under a merely temporary block. Ten hours later, I noticed this and converted his block to indefinite. I added, "[In my opinion], where threats are involved, that's 'indefinite as in infinite'."

I do not mention this anecdote to claim credit for some act of heroism. I did what any administrator should have done; it took me only a few minutes. I mention it for a few reasons:

Firstly, it was a good introduction to the challenges of systemic racism that editors face in the Indigenous topic area. I do not believe that either of the two administrators who under-reacted harbor any racism against Indigenous people. Assuming good faith is a core principle on Wikipedia, and I assume that the first administrator simply overlooked the racist argument of disqualifying based on tribe membership (which arose several paragraphs into a long post) and that the second didn't realize that the first had only blocked temporarily. But such oversights are often good indicators of where systemic biases lie. If an editor had tried to disqualify someone's views because they were a woman or Black or gay or Muslim, it would not have taken 30 hours and an intervening threat of violence for someone to block the account indefinitely.

Secondly, this incident is how I got to know CorbieVreccan and Indigenous girl. I exchanged emails with both of them about their experiences in the topic area and their sense of administrators not stepping in to keep Indigenous editors safe. I was left with very favorable impressions of both of them. That remains the case with Indigenous girl.

Thirdly, this provides a good illustration of what Wikipedia administrators do and don't do. They[4] do determine whether editors are acting in compliance with our policies and guidelines, especially as pertains to user conduct. They do not decide who is right or wrong in a dispute. I made, absolutely, the right call in blocking Insitemobile, but I couldn't tell you who is right in the underlying dispute as to how Wikipedia should characterize the recognition of the Sappony. I am not a subject-matter expert. Even if I did have a personal opinion on the matter, it would not have influenced my decision. My action was based on the racism and death threats, no more, no less. This distinction is important to keep in mind as one considers the narrative that Dr. Keeler has presented.

I do not wish to delegitimize the core message of Dr. Keeler's piece. Members of WikiProject Indigenous peoples of North America (IPNA) have often been mistreated by Wikipedians who are racist, clueless, or somewhere in between. There was great potential in this article to uncover the nuances of how the Wikipedia community has interacted with CorbieVreccan, Indigenous girl, and other members of IPNA. Dr. Keeler, however, squandered that opportunity in two ways: First, he failed to disclose his personal involvement in the matters his article discusses and his past conflict with me. In addition to the ethical implications of these omissions, Dr. Keeler's lack of necessary distance led him to his second critical mistake: not interviewing all of the people he wrote about. By presenting a narrative based only on his own recollection of events and those of, apparently, those with similar perspectives, he perpetrated many easily avoided errors and misrepresentations. This is a shame: What could have been a compelling investigation into systemic racism on Wikipedia instead becomes, in essence, one ex-Wikipedian's grudge piece against people he feels wronged him and his allies, facts be damned.

Part one: Conflict of interest

This part I will address to Dr. Keeler: I would like to start off with an apology. When I took administrative action against your account[5] some time ago, I was hasty. I don't think you were behaving particularly well in the dispute in question, but I had gotten in over my head and tried to quell the unrest with blunt instruments rather than defusing tensions. I am, genuinely, sorry about that.

To the editors, however, I do feel that Dr. Keeler has done you a great disservice about failing to disclose this past interaction. The article that you published mentions me in three contexts, none of them flattering, and none of them accurate (as we will see in the next section). It is hard to believe that this is a coincidence given his and my background.

For the public version of this letter, I am not going to name the account or give much information about it, because I respect that Dr. Keeler may have good-faith reasons for keeping it private. But the evidence is all pretty clear-cut, down to similar phrasing used on Wikipedia and in a published paper. So instead I will summarize the relevant facts: Dr. Keeler had a somewhat active Wikipedia account; he was involved in the overarching conflict described in the article, although not the specific disputes; I took administrative action against him once as described above (not about an Indigenous topic); he at least twice cited himself in a manner that exceeded what's allowed by policy;[6] and he retired from editing while in good standing. If there is any part of that that Dr. Keeler disputes, he is welcome to let me know. The private version of this letter will go into more detail.

Dr. Keeler's article discloses no conflicts of interest. I submit that the failure to disclose both the general involvement in content disputes about Indigenous topics on Wikipedia, and the specific conflict with me in a different setting, violates your journal's policies. Per Taylor & Francis, "Examples of non-financial conflicts of interests [include] ... personal, political, religious, ideological, academic and intellectual competing interests which are perceived to be relevant to the published content." Certainly a dispute with someone mentioned in an article is a competing personal interest, and being part of the group of editors discussed in an article is a competing ideological interest. T&F considers the non-disclosure of competing interests a form of authorial misconduct. As we are about to see, this misconduct harmed not only the subjects of this article you published, but also your readers.

Part two: Factual errors

I have neither the expertise nor the time and energy to fact-check everything in Dr. Keeler's article, at least not for free. But I know well the parts that I was involved in, so I will go over those. I suppose it is possible that I was just unlucky and everything else in the article is accurate, but, per Crichton and Gell–Mann, I feel obliged to assume that this rate of errors is pervasive throughout.

Freoh

In July Freoh was blocked by Tamzin, an administrator, 'for persistent disruption ... after warnings by three admins across two massive [Administrator's Noticeboard] threads' and edits that 'consist almost entirely of stirring drama.' Freoh's history at administrator's noticeboards, and the narrative constructed there by settler nationalists, follow the strategies utilized to remove editors who settler nationalists disagree with. Content disputes were turned into conduct disputes, Freoh was accused of pushing a specific point of view and righting great wrongs, settler nationalists suggested banning Freoh, and administrators did so. Freoh's suggested content was never added, the pages Freoh sought to edit read as they did before Freoh intervened, and Freoh was erased from Wikipedia.

The term "block" on Wikipedia usually refers to what most other sites would call a ban. My action against Freoh, however, was only a partial block, making him unable to edit some behind-the-scenes parts of the encyclopedia, but still able to edit all articles and their discussion pages. I did this specifically because I felt Freoh was a productive content contributor and needed to focus on encyclopedic work rather than drama. Furthermore, Freoh was not editing about Indigenous topics when I blocked him. I blocked him for editing another user's comments[7] to remove what he saw as an unacceptable insult against the French. A good illustration of constantly stirring drama, less so of being a martyr in the fight against settler colonialism, what with France being perhaps the most overtly colonialist country in the world.

Freoh was not banned. Freoh was not blocked sitewide. Freoh was not erased. Freoh simply chose to stop editing[8] at that point, cut off from drama venues.

Pingnova

PingNova [sic] continued to ignore Native and allied editors, and they reached out to Tamzin for help. Tamzin accused CorbieVreccan of mistreating PingNova [sic], explaining that 'This could land at [Administrator's Noticeboard] with a lot of recriminations.' The message was clear: if Native editors did not allow PingNova [sic] to edit articles related to Native topics they would be taken to the Administrators' noticeboard and removed from digital space.

Let's quote a bit more context of what I said:

To be clear, I did ask [Pingnova], before posting this, if they would agree to some kind of mentorship / 'on-the-job learning', and they did. What I've seen so far here is that they made some good-faith changes, and you [CorbieVreccan] came down fairly hard on them, and they've taken umbrage at that, and now we're in a cycle heading in a bad direction. This could land at [the administrators' noticeboard for incidents] with a lot of recriminations. Or we could defuse tensions and try to get some quality content out of this. I'd really like to see both Pingnova and you step up to the plate on that.

There is, of course, no threat to "remove" anyone here. One informal role of an administrator is to ease tensions before they land at our infamously drama-prone user-conduct noticeboards (i.e., to avoid removing anyone from the community), which is why I intervened in hopes of getting Pingnova good advice on the particulars of editing in the Indigenous American topic area, which is Wikipedia's standard practice for well-meaning new editors who are making some mistakes. By Dr. Keeler's article's own description of it, nothing that Pingnova wrote was hateful or otherwise would have disqualified them from continuing to write in the topic area with some guidance, and so that is what I sought. After Indigenous girl graciously agreed to make herself available to answer questions from Pingnova, I withdrew from the discussion:

The rest, from here, is up to [Pingnova]. They can heed your critique, or not. I just wanted to make sure they were getting a fair chance to sink or swim. I hope that makes sense. All the best.

CorbieVreccan

One day later, Tamzin opened a public case against CorbieVreccan at the Administrator's Noticeboard, accusing them of 'meatpuppetry,' or when an editor recruits acquaintances offline to support them in a debate on Wikipedia.

That's a very brief summary of the controversy at the heart of this paper—one that omits almost every important detail. It does not even name the other editor involved, Mark Ironie, a fellow administrator and long-time offline associate of Corbie's. It is important to understand here that abuse of multiple accounts is one of the cardinal sins of Wikipedia: We cannot have a collaborative, consensus-based community if we don't know how many people we're really talking to.

One of my volunteer roles at the time[9] was to investigate multiple-account abuse. I was spurred into investigating longstanding rumors of multiple-account abuse by Corbie on August 26, when Pingnova pointed out an action of Corbie's that I recognized as violating a different administrative policy.[10] After my initial private report led to Mark and Corbie being ordered to disclose their shared IP, on 11 September 2023—six days after the "This could land" comment, not one—I explained to the community, in painstaking detail, how almost all of Mark's substantive participation since 2020 was to back up Corbie, including demanding sanctions of those Corbie opposed and even blocking someone who opposed Corbie in an "edit war". For a paper ostensibly about tactics used on Wikipedia to manipulate disputes, one would think that Dr. Keeler would have been more interested in these details. Mark and Corbie's peers, including fellow IPNA member ARoseWolf, certainly were.

CorbieVreccan explained that the issue had been resolved privately by administrators some days earlier.

This argument was rejected by every single person to hear it, including the same group of administrators (our Arbitration Committee) who Corbie claimed had resolved the matter. Nor would it matter if they had: Honest participation in consensus-building is a bedrock aspect of running a collaborative project, and no entity can give someone permission to manipulate the community.

Indigenous girl was also placed under scrutiny for working with CorbieVreccan.

This bit is true, and it's the bit I most wish weren't. Indigenous girl is an amazing editor and got dragged into this (not by me) even though no clear evidence was ever presented against her. She absolutely deserved better.

For what it's worth, we remained on good terms throughout the dispute, even as we clashed on-wiki, and had a long, very cathartic debrief phone call after the dust settled. I wish her nothing but the best, on-wiki and off-.

Native and allied editors pointed out the suspect timing, given the proximity to Tamzin's disagreements with CorbieVreccan about PingNova's [sic] editing.

Explained above. If Dr. Keeler does not believe my explanation for why my investigation of Corbie began the same day as Pingnova, he should say that, not cite speculation that I already publicly responded to. Furthermore, combined with the "One day later" error, the sentence before it about how "The message was clear", and the omission of the resolution of the Pingnova matter, this sentence gives the implication that I reported Corbie for failing to reconcile with Pingnova. This is demonstrably false: The public record establishes that I had submitted my private evidence against Corbie 10 days before the reconciliation attempt and 16 days before the administrators' noticeboard thread.

CorbieVreccan and Indigenous girl were brought before Wikipedia publicly for refusing to allow non-Native editors to add colonial viewpoints to Native pages

They were not, and nothing Dr. Keeler writes up to this point supports this statement.

Just a note here about Corbie. At one point in the dispute about Pingnova, Corbie said

[Pingnova] added in a quote from a Pretendian as a giant pull-quote up top and argued with Indigenous people about it. When some of us tried to engage with them here and on talk, they were either incivil or refused to respond. They have whitesplained to Indigenous people, insisting they know these topics better. They have pinged non-Natives into discussions instead of Indigenous editors.

Corbie often spoke in this way, blending "we/us" with "Indigenous" in a way that didn't quite say "I'm Indigenous" but sure implied it. (They are not Indigenous, by their own admission on their personal blog, although they do claim some amount of Native American heritage.) Dr. Keeler's way of describing Corbie—here on the side of "Native pages" and against "non-Native editors", earlier lumped ambiguously among "Native and allied editors"—perpetuates that long-term blurring of lines.

If that seems unfair to CorbieVreccan, if it seems to go against what I said earlier about assuming good faith, please understand how profoundly disruptive an editor Corbie has been on Wikipedia. Much of this evidence was presented to the Arbitration Committee, but Dr. Keeler omits it. In addition to the massive, long-term breach of trust that allowed them and another (also non-Indigenous, to my knowledge) administrator to manufacture consensus about Indigenous topics, they used Wikipedia to promote their personal agenda for almost two decades. They promoted an obscure religious movement that they and Mark are prominent figures in, and advocated against the legitimacy of rival pagan movements. They promoted a personal friend's questionable claims of having married Jim Morrison. They fought to deny that queer rights activist Marsha P. Johnson was anything other than a gay man.[11]

Summation

This is the kind of added depth that Dr. Keeler's article could have had if he had interviewed a more diverse group of editors. He could have avoided easy errors, put forward a more complex narrative that better advanced the too-small field of Wikipedia research, and offset his own biases as a participant in the overarching dispute and a critic of mine.

He could have also strengthened his own arguments about racism. For instance, Gwillhickers has responded to the article with a horrific comment about, among other things, how all civil liberties are thanks to settlers and how Indigenous people who resisted colonization were genocidal. A quote like that would have made for a much more concrete example of racism and colonialism on Wikipedia than much of what is actually in the article. And it would have sent a clear message back to the Wikipedia community that Gwillhickers is someone who is incapable of editing neutrally about Indigenous topics, who is himself on a crusade to "right great wrongs", who should be as unwelcome to edit about that topic as CorbieVreccan is to serve as an administrator.

If I were to write a Wikipedia article about Dr. Keeler, every fact in the article would have to be verifiable in reliable sources. And I would pull my hair out making sure that they all were, because I take my role seriously, even if I don't get paid to do it, even if it doesn't require any degree. I would subject myself to the most rigorous fact-checking I could, and my peers would do the same to me. I would also be held to a pre-review requirement because of my conflict of interest with Dr. Keeler. To create the article at all, I would need to convince an independent editor that it fully complies with all of our policies, including verifiability and neutral point of view, and to make any subsequent nontrivial changes I would have to go through a similar process.

I imagine you all consider Wikipedia a less reliable source than your own journal. Wikipedia itself does not consider itself a reliable source. Why is it, then, that I would be held to a higher standard when writing about Dr. Keeler than he was held to when writing about me?

I request corrections of the numerous errors highlighted above, an acknowledgment of Dr. Keeler's conflict of interest, and an acknowledgment that Wikipedians who were criticized in the article were not given the chance to comment. I reiterate that I have not fact-checked those parts of his article not about me; I suggest consulting with a disinterested experienced Wikipedian for expert feedback.

Thank you for considering this request,

Tamzin Hadasa Kelly
Volunteer editor and retired administrator
Wikipedia

Notes

  1. ^ I am not an expert on Indigenous history. I do not know if the underlying historical claim there is actually true.
  2. ^ Wikipedia uses the word "block" for what most sites call banning. On Wikipedia, "ban" refers to a small subset of blocks that are imposed through certain formal processes.
  3. ^ When people edit Wikipedia without signing into an account, their edits are tied to their IP address. With the more modern "IPv6" form of IP addresses, an individual end-user will usually not have access to just a single IP, but rather a "subnet" of about 18 quintillion IPs, so this is what Wikipedia administrators block.
  4. ^ I am no longer a Wikipedia administrator. I resigned in February 2024 after the suicide of a friend who had been the victim of brutal personal attacks from administrators and other experienced editors—an event that predated his death by several years, and which was by no means its sole cause, but which I know for a fact was a major trauma in his life. His death caused me to reconsider the way editors treat one another in our back-room processes, and led me to decide I did not want to be part of those processes. I elaborate on this in the audio essay "On the backrooms".
  5. ^ I am being vague as possible for privacy reasons. There are perhaps 3,000 people whose accounts I took action against in some manner when I was an administrator.
  6. ^ In short, editors may cite their own publications if a reasonable independent editor would do so, which was not the case here.
  7. ^ Allowed only to remedy serious policy violations or for technical fixes.
  8. ^ At the time the article was submitted, Freoh had made no edits since the partial block. He has since made some, including a successful appeal to have the block's scope relaxed and an unsuccessful one to have it lifted in full.
  9. ^ I resigned at the same time that I resigned as an administrator.
  10. ^ Corbie has been the primary editor of the Two-spirit article, but also locked the page down to changes by less experienced users, citing a special policy that may not be used by administrators who are editorially involved in a page.
  11. ^ Much of Corbie's work regarding Johnson was devoted to resisting the ahistorical narrative that Johnson was transgender. To that extent, at least, I agree with Corbie: Johnson never called themself transgender, and arguments in favor of that term are based on people's own personal interpretation of what Johnson might have felt, a form of research forbidden under Wikipedia policy. However, in these same debates, Corbie resorted to the same kind of arguments in the opposite direction, applying their own personal analysis of why Johnson really didn't feel like anything other than a man, despite Johnson having variously referred to themself as a man, woman, transvestite, and transsexual, all in the same interview, even. Corbie even omitted well-sourced information about Johnson's use of hormone replacement therapy, based on their own analysis of Johnson's breast size.


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Depends on the journal typically, I'm not that shocked that a small and subjective field like this has drek like this. Usually these types of articles are written by one or two writers. Traumnovelle (talk) 03:45, 10 June 2024 (UTC)[reply]
Axem Titanium The article Grievance studies affair might be interesting to read. Their findings suggested that many journals are willing to accept expressions of grievance politics as a form of academic study. Obviously it's not definitive without replication, but it's something to keep in mind when critically reading academic publications about identity. Thebiguglyalien (talk) 14:40, 11 June 2024 (UTC)[reply]
Oops, misspelled @Freoh: so re-pinging. Clayoquot (talk | contribs) 03:06, 10 June 2024 (UTC)[reply]





       

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