Hacktivists and trolls on Wikipedia

On: October 8, 2010
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About Stefania Bercu
I'm a Sociology graduate from Bucharest, currently located in Amsterdam and doing a masters in New Media.


In the past few years, a lot of research efforts have been directed towards topics that gravitate around Wikipedia, be it trying to determine the motivations of users to contribute with their own content, the proper use of Wikipedia in academia etc, but according to Pnina Shachaf and Noriko Hara in a recent number of Journal for Information Science, nobody had yet addressed by April, 2010 the issue of Wikipedia trolls. Therefore, they conducted their own research in this field, trying to determine the behaviours, ideologies and motivations of Wiipedia trolls. They also tried to detemine wether Wiki trolls differ from hackers  or if they engage in „acts of hacktivism”- hacking to send a political  message or one of social justice.  The two researchers resented their findings in JIS, in an article called Beyond Vandalism: Wikipedia trolls. In conceptualizing their subject matter, they decided upon a few definitions of the „internet troll”, such as „a normal person that does insane things online”  or „trolling is a game about identity deception, albeit one that is played without the conent of most players” .

Shachaf and Hara’s research  was based on interviews conducted with eight sysops (system administrators) from the Hebrew Wikipedia and four study cases on Wikipedia trolls. The study showed that trolls and hackers share a lot of motivation for their behaviour: the desire to have fun, thrill, and excitement; ease of execution; intangible offences  and their interest in revenge. The difference that separates trolls form hackers, they found, is that hackers display some sort of genius, whereas trolls just use a weakness of the system in childish ways, more often than not The study also found that trolls arenot united enough to share an ideology. Their motivations usually have to do with freedom of expression and acting against Wikipedia bureauc­racy, but their efforts have never been coordinated towards a more powerful, joined attack on Wikipedia. It is difficult to analyze the behaviour of just four Wiki-trolls and try to reach conclusions about a widespread online phenomenon based on their trolling activity and their way of going about „creating chaos” in the Wikipedia community and the writers warn about the limitations of their research.

What I found particulary interesting in the article was the distinction that the authors did between hackers motivations and Wikipedia trolls motivations, in that trolls lack financial motivation. Their argument is that Wikipedia is a free Encyclopedia and it doesn’t charge users for its content. I think that this may be a backwards way of thinking at it when searching for financial gratification that might explain acts of vandalism on Wikipedia. In answering the third question of their research (are trolls Hacktivists?), Scachaf and Hara quote one of the interviewed sysops „we did not observe attempts to coordi­nate efforts to attack Wikipedia; I am not aware that such coalitions were ever formed”. I imediately remembered the section on  the Colbert Report back in 2007, when Stephen Colbert reported that Microsoft had hired people to go on Wikipedia and change the entryes related to the companies or its products to more favorable ones (see video below). Colbert concluded that reality (or what the majority decides upon being real) is a commodity and he urged viewers to go online, in sign of protest, and change the entry for Wikipedia to say the exact words „Reality is a commodity”. The viewers did just that and the page was temporalily blocked due to vandalism.  So it seems that in this example we are faced with both acts of hacktivism and the pursuing of financial gain by deforming reality on Wikipedia. This is what I meant about looking at the matter of financial gratification in a different way. With numbers of Wikipedia contributers dropping, there are rumors that Wikipedia will have to resort to offering some form of retribution for content in the near future.

Also, my first ever Wikipedia entry:http://ro.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ceasul_Apocalipsei (Romanian speaking skills might prove helpful in reading this)

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