Back in 2013, a 12-year-old American with an enthusiasm for the Scots language decided to contribute to the Scots Wikipedia. For seven years, they edited tens of thousands of articles with little oversight. Then, a Reddit post blew everything up.
The problem here was the teen in question is not a native Scots speaker and was a prolific contributor for a small wiki. Several Wikipedia admins and editors familiar with the situation have reached out to Gizmodo, and by all accounts, the teen was acting in good faith and meant no harm. It’s the sort of earnest and naive attempt to help that sometimes ends up doing more harm than intended.
That hasn’t stopped the backlash. Sure, you might write off this teen as lacking common sense, but the question remains: How did a single person, a teenager at that, have this much free reign for such a long period of time over what is largely considered to be a reference platform?
This instance highlights just how little the average person knows about the inner workings of Wikipedia, a platform nearly everyone uses in the digital era. A Wikimedia Foundation spokesperson told Gizmodo that it “does not edit, contribute or determine the content on Wikipedia. Rather, Wikipedia’s volunteer community determines what goes on the site.” And, while there is a system in place for community-based oversight which includes a wide range of volunteers operating within a large and ostensibly orderly hierarchy, it’s apparent that it breaks down in smaller wikis.
“Different projects have different rules on how admins, checkusers, oversighters, and bureaucrats can be chosen,” Vermont, a Wikipedia admin, told Gizmodo over email. “Nearly all projects have votes for admins and bureaucrats, where users nominate themselves and the community gives their input.”
Admins, checkusers, oversighters, and bureaucrats are just some of the types of users who ensure that there are checks and balances in place on various wiki projects. However, Scots Wikipedia has historically been too small for bureaucrats, checkusers, or oversighters. Added to that, there’s been little participation in discussions from existing administrators. When you consider that, what happened to Scots Wikipedia is less surprising.
The main recourse for community-oriented action Meta-Wiki, a wiki that serves as a place for discussing policy and how to handle situations exactly like this one. Its not quite Wikipedia’s very own Supreme Court (that would be the Arbitration Committee). Instead, its where concerned Wiki users gather in a laborious process to discuss out what, if anything, can be done to fix Wikipedia’s biggest user-created messes. The thing is that whole process can get messy.
Scots Wikipedia may be the latest, and perhaps most well-known example thus far, but multiple Wikipedia editors emailed Gizmodo to bring attention to other examples of smaller wiki projects facing similar problems.
Apart from the ongoing Scots Wikipedia problem, the most frequently mentioned Wikipedia disaster is the Croatian Wikipedia. A few years ago, the Croatian Wikipedia came under scrutiny for promoting fascism, whitewashing World War II concentration camps, as well as anti-Serbian and anti-LGBT propaganda. In one instance, an editor was found to have added a sentence in the Croatian Wikipedia’s anti-fascism article defining anti-fascism as “...development genocide of profitable knowledge, cultrocide, genetic, spiritual, moral, and creative disorder, curtailment of all basic human freedoms.” It also included a reference to a far-right source.
According to the Signpost, an internal Wikipedia newsletter, an edit war ensued but ultimately, a small group of Neo-Nazi administrators essentially now have full reign over the Croatian Wikipedia. “Many editors, including some of the dissenting admins, have left Croatian Wikipedia,” the Signpost reports. “Those who haven’t abandoned Wikipedia altogether are resigned to edit elsewhere, chiefly at Serbo-Croatian Wikipedia. Since there is no opposition left, change has become impossible without outside intervention.”
In 2018, the Balkan Insight reported that the Wikimedia Foundation ignored several requests about Croatian Wikipedia. “...the Wikimedia Foundation is not the founder of the Croatian version, nor does it accept that it is responsible for the accuracy of its articles,” the Balkan Insight reports. “It insists that it does not have any power over Croatian-language Wikipedia entries.”
“It won’t surprise anyone to learn that English, with over six million articles, is the largest Wikipedia,” one Wikipedia editor wrote in an email to Gizmodo. “But not many people would guess that Cebuano, an Austronesian language spoken in the southern Philippines, is second with over 5 million.”
The problem, according to this editor, is that all of Cebuano Wikipedia is due to the work of one man who... you guessed it, is not a native speaker. It’s a Swedish physicist named Sverker Johansson. The majority of the articles are actually the work of one of his bots.
“The Cebuano Wikipedia mostly consists of bot-generated stubs,” reads a thread on Meta-Wiki, a larger oversight forum for Wikipedia admins, on whether to shut the entire project down. “There are virtually no active users other than Lsj, his bot, a few vandals and the MediaWiki message delivery bot.”
Ultimately, the proposal to shut down the Cebuano Wikipedia was rejected. Instead, it was suggested that the Cebuano Wikipedia community decide for itself what to do about the bot-created content.
Last year, Meta-Wiki also received a request to remove all the admins of Azerbaijani Wikipedia. The community there had several complaints about admins for not swiftly acting against one admin, who had abused the block tool, introduced copyright issues, and used their admin status to push their personal opinion about a number of topics (including denying the Armenian Genocide).
Ultimately, this was one instance where the Wikimedia Foundation did get involved. After the community decided to remove the troublesome admin—though not all the admins—Wikimedia Foundation flew out a Steward, one of the several types of community overseer titles on Wikipedia, to Azerbaijan to discuss the controversy and avoid a repeat of the mistakes.
There’s a pattern here. Something goes wrong in a smaller wiki. It gets run up the chain of command of volunteer admins. Someone opens up a proposal on Meta-Wiki. People argue it out over a period of time, and then the issue is deemed resolved. Or, as in the case of Croatian Wikipedia, not.
Many of the editors and admins who reached out to Gizmodo were passionate and believe firmly that the community is fully capable of handling these large-scale issues without the Wikimedia Foundation’s help.
Others were less convinced.
“It is common for the [Wikimedia Foundation] to not weigh in on issues such as this. Community mechanisms, such as the [Request for Comment] process currently being used, are capable of managing nearly all problems that arise on projects,” says Vermont.
“I’m a Wikipedia editor with hundreds of edits and I love English Wikipedia,” one editor told Gizmodo. “But some of the other languages with smaller communities of editors give wiki a bad name. I wish Wikimedia Foundation would get a grip on this stuff.”
The issue is that the current system is largely reactive. It’s aimed at mitigating or fixing damage once it occurs, with small incremental improvements. With a large community—like the one English Wikipedia has—this might end up working pretty well as you have several people working at a given time to monitor for vandalism, biases, and other issues. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is based on participation, and numbers.
“Small wikis are where problems like these are much less likely to be noticed, and thus where they are more likely to manifest,” says Vermont. “Local administrators, being fewer in number and often ideologically similar, have more control than a project with dozens or hundreds of admins and a large, interested community for their oversight.”
Vermont also relayed an instance where they spent three months on the Somali Wikipedia, working to clean up after one malicious user who used several sock puppet. accounts to create several hundred articles that were English Wikipedia articles run through Google Translate. In another instance, they described an admin on Ethiopian Wikipedia—the only active one at the time—enforcing the government’s anti-LGBT laws on the wiki itself.
This is unseen, thankless work and given the short amount of time I’ve spent sifting through long Meta-Wiki threads, it can be emotionally draining, too. In that respect, it’s hard to see how a system run by volunteers could be anything but reactive.
As for Scots Wikipedia, there’s currently an active thread on Meta-Wiki about how to address the problem. A few Wikipedia admins and editors told Gizmodo that this could take at the minimum several months to resolve. (That said, it appears that efforts for a grassroots “edit-a-thon” is already scheduled for this weekend.) Another admin pointed me to the Small Wiki Monitoring Team as one effort being discussed to help prevent this sort of thing going forward.
One thing that can’t be prevented or taken back, however, is the internet’s rage at a teenager who meant well, and appears to be genuinely apologetic.
“Honestly, I don’t mind if you revert all of my edits, delete my articles, and ban me from the wiki for good. I’ve already found out that my “contributions” have angered countless people, and to me that’s all the devastation I can be given, after years of my thinking I was doing good,” the teen wrote in a thread. “Whether peace can by scowiki being kept like it is or extensively reformed to wipe my influence from it makes no difference to me now that I know that I’ve done no good anyway.”
Correction 8/26/20 3:45pm ET — A previous version of this story claimed the Meta-Wiki is the Supreme Court of the wiki world. That’s incorrect. We deeply regret the error and have updated the story to reflect the workings of the Meta-Wiki more accurately.