Future Tense

Wikipedia’s “Constitutional Crisis” Pits Community Against Foundation

The banning of a single editor is roiling Wikipedia.

The Wikipedia globe puzzle logo, with one piece that reads "We the People" floating above.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by National Archives and Wikipedia.

Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s knowledge ecosystem.

On June 10, a Wikipedia administrator with the username Fram was banned by the Wikimedia Foundation from editing the English encyclopedia for one year. This might sound rather trivial; indeed, the foundation describes it using the rather humdrum term “office action.” But the response from the Wikipedia editing community over the past three weeks has been anything but chill. Search Wikipedia for WP:FRAM, a shortcut to the project namespace that exists behind the encyclopedia articles, and you’ll find a discussion about Fram’s ban that is now more than 470,000 words—longer than the novel A Game of Thrones.

As of Tuesday morning, at least 21 Wikipedia administrators and one bot have resigned in protest against the ban. (To be clear, the bot was decommissioned by its human operator and is not yet self-aware, but it underscores the fact that there are many unhappy Wikipedians.)

The short version of the events leading up to Fram’s ban goes something like this: Fram was a highly prolific editor of the encyclopedia with more than 200,000 total edits. He began actively editing the site in 2005 and became an administrator in 2007. Fram had a reputation within the community for obsessively enforcing editorial policies, specifically copyright violations, and at times for being uncivil toward other editors. At least 11 Wikipedia editors alleged that Fram hounded or harassed them or others on the site, according to a report by the user Smallbones for the Wikipedia-hosted community newspaper the Signpost. (The article has since been deleted by an editor concerned that it violated the site’s policy on information about living persons.) Fram received at least two email warnings from the Wikimedia Foundation’s Trust and Safety team about his behavior. On May 4, Fram wrote a post telling ArbCom—known as the Supreme Court of Wikipedia, whose members are elected by the community—to “crawl into a corner and shut up” or “collectively resign.” On June 10, the Wikimedia Foundation banned Fram from editing English Wikipedia for one year.

It’s this last point—the authority behind the ban—that has many community members riled up. A veteran Wikipedia editor told me, “It’s been tradition that our communities are by and large self-governing, except for issues around child protection, threats of suicide, threats of violence, and legal matters.” Since these four categories do not seem to apply, many Wikipedians feel that the foundation exceeded its authority. They argue that Fram’s fate should instead have been decided by ArbCom. But the Wikimedia Foundation’s Trust and Safety team noted in its statement that sometimes “local communities consistently struggle to uphold not just their own autonomous rules but the Terms of Use,” suggesting that part of the reason WMF felt the need to step in is because ArbCom had failed to act. Fram himself has suggested that his angry rhetoric toward ArbCom, which included expletives, might have spurred intervention by WMF.

Last week, BuzzFeed’s Joseph Bernstein published a highly detailed piece about the community response to Fram’s ban with the headline “The Culture War Has Finally Come for Wikipedia.” But the essay’s culture war framing seems a bit off the mark. The editorial histories of Wikipedia pages on same-sex marriage or the term “social justice warrior,” for example, show that the encyclopedia has been a cultural battleground for some time. Most conversations among Wikipedians about Fram’s ban concern issues of civility and due process, not the usual culture war flashpoints.

At a high level, there are two main themes driving the discussion of Fram’s ban. 1) How should the Wikimedia movement deal with the ongoing ugly issue of harassment? 2) To what extent is each Wikimedia community—here, the English Wikipedia editing community—self-governing? Many Wikipedians feel that the foundation’s office action represents undue interference with local community autonomy. Hence the references to Fram’s ban as causing a “constitutional crisis” and this comment from Wikipedia’s co-founder Jimmy Wales: “This is not about individual people, this is a question about our constitutional order. This is not about this specific situation, but a much more important and broader question about project governance.”

The heated community reaction to Fram’s ban no doubt stems partly from the fact that Wikipedia came before the Wikimedia Foundation, and the community has historically maintained a strong democratic ethos. Commercial sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter usually take a top-down approach to content policies, though it often seems as if they’re making up the rules as they go. But Wikipedians have historically preferred to involve themselves in defining the boundaries of incivility within their community. For example, a 2018 community request for comment on whether the specific term “fuck off” should be sanctionable found there was no “hard-and-fast rule” but rather the issue should be a “case-by-case determination.” It’s hard to imagine Twitter entrusting its users to define the circumstantial use of obscenity.

In a statement to Slate, the Wikimedia Foundation said it rarely takes direct action to enforce its terms of use, and then, “only in very particular circumstances, where there is a gap in the community’s ability to successfully address a known challenge, or for legal reasons.” It continued:

These instances, while extremely rare, allow trained Trust & Safety staff to maintain confidentiality for those needing to privately report instances of harassment, currently unavailable in on-wiki reporting systems on English Wikipedia itself, and conduct extensive investigations into allegations and patterns of user behavior. When the Wikimedia Foundation takes on a case of this nature, we evaluate it thoroughly and apply sanctions only when all other options have been exhausted.

The Wikimedia Foundation noted that since 2012, it had issued only 32 direct sanctions, and that millions of people have edited Wikipedia since its existence.

Many of the Wikipedians threatening revolt on the Wiki page are arguing that Fram’s fate should have been decided by community consensus and not centrally by office action. The concern is that if the Wikimedia Foundation runs Wikipedia as Facebook and Twitter run their so-called communities, it would kill the encyclopedia. A statement by ArbCom members reads in part: “If Fram’s ban—an unappealable sanction issued from above with no community consultation—represents the WMF’s new strategy for dealing with harassment on the English Wikipedia, it is one that is fundamentally misaligned with the Wikimedia movement’s principles of openness, consensus, and self-governance.”

But the Wikipedians who would like to turn Fram’s ban into purely a jurisdictional or procedural question are faced with a problem that lawyers sometimes call bad facts: in this case, the evidence that Fram was a problematic editor. The now-deleted article in the Signpost quotes female and male editors who alleged that Fram’s conduct made them feel unsafe. A common theme was that he “hounded” editors on the site, aggressively tracking their behavior and in some cases removing their contributions. A Wikipedian with knowledge of the matter told me that the trained staff on the Trust and Safety team would not have acted unless it was incredibly obvious that serious harassment had occurred, that it was long-lasting, and that there were concerns about maintaining the privacy of the individuals who had been targeted.

The discussion of Fram’s ban has overshadowed the question of how an internet knowledge community should handle matters of alleged harassment. Should claims be handled by paid staff like those on the WMF’s Trust and Safety team or volunteers like the members of ArbCom? Keep in mind there are practical considerations here, like the fact that in their non-Wiki lives, ArbCom members have full-time jobs or are students. The committee also takes on fewer cases than it did in earlier years.

Further, when harassment is involved, should there be an open process, a “trial” of sorts? To what extent should the privacy of the involved parties be respected? “Why would anyone ever come forward to say ‘I’m being harassed’ on this site, ever?” wrote Wikipedia user and former WMF employee Jorm. “The only thing that happens is that people get dragged before the court of public opinion and told that everything they feel and experience is invalid.” You’re not alone if the thought of crowdsourced justice makes you queasy. Surely we do not want to digitally replicate the circumstances of ancient Athens, where every legal case was decided by a jury of 500 male citizens.

Wikipedians will say that their project is not an experiment in democracy or a form of government. But theories about the rule of law, due process, or the assumed constitutional monarchy of Jimmy Wales are often employed in debates. Terms like “project governance” are often just shorthand for wikipolitics, and political opinions vary. The sentiment on the Wikipedia page devoted to discussing the Fram controversy is mostly negative toward the Wikimedia Foundation. But one user said that Wikipedians were also discussing the issue on social media and that about 90 percent of this “off-Wiki” discussion was more supportive, though the tilt likely depends on one’s social media bubble. The Wikimedia DC chapter issued a statement Sunday saying, “We believe there are circumstances where the Wikimedia Foundation should take action against individual editors who violate the Terms of Use when it is necessary to protect people of all backgrounds and gender identities.”

Opponents of Fram’s ban have predicted that it will be the death knell for Wikipedia. Indeed, the number of editors, administrators, and bureaucrats resigning in protest seems to be climbing daily, and contributors have threatened a strike on building the encyclopedia until the decision is reversed. As Wikipedia user Hammersoft recently pointed out, the 21 admin resignations in recent weeks effectively wipe out all elevations to the role of administrator for the last two years combined.* Overall, it’s a serious crisis for a community built on the ideal of gathering the sum of all human knowledge.

But the imminent destruction of the online encyclopedia has been predicted many times since 2001. Fram’s ban no doubt signifies the difficult balance between community health and self-governance on Wikipedia and other sites. Yet it remains to be seen whether the ban itself will have long-term independent notability. Fram’s ban could be either a seminal moment in the Wikimedia movement or yet another deleted entry in the internet encyclopedia’s graveyard.

Kyle Wilson contributed reporting to this article.

Correction, July 2, 2019: This article originally misidentified a Wikipedia user as a Wikipedia admin.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.