My Secret Life As A Wikipedia Troll

I have a confession to make to all of you: In my past life, I was a Wikipedia troll. Yes I know, this all probably comes as a bit of a shock, but please let me explain.

In our recent class discussion on trolling, we mostly focused on major social media and message board platforms—Twitter, Reddit, 4Chan, those sort of sites. But there’s a trolling epidemic that’s been festering right under our noses for years, and it’s been happening on Wikipedia.com.

Okay, so this might mot be the most groundbreaking of revelations. Depending on your age, you probably had plenty of middle and high school teachers warn you to never use Wikipedia as a credible source in any sort of research. I probably got the “Anyone can write anything!” speech a few dozen times throughout my time in the public school system, and the warning is still alive and well on the Internet today.

Many of the common arguments made against trusting Wikipedia articles rely on a number of good points: you should never rely on anonymous or semi-anonymous sources of information, Wikipedia contributors often have their own agendas they want to push, an overwhelming majority of the contributors are young white men, and so forth.

And then there’s the more blatant issue of trolling. Standing by their promise of being a truly open and collaborative platform, the website allows for anyone to edit articles, and doesn’t even require a registered account. (In 2006, Wikipedia began locking some of their more controversial articles in order to prevent rampant vandalism, but the vast majority of pages are still open for all.) Unfortunately, in practice this system is frequently abused by clever pranksters and their not-so-clever troll counterparts. For years, I fell into the latter category.

Unfortunately, I can’t share with you all of the exact edits I have made over the years. As part of my research for this post, I attempted to track down my old Wikipedia edit history in order to get an accurate account of my trolling tendencies. But after scrolling through extensive article edit history logs dating back to 2011, I am still unable to find the Metuchen Board of Education IP address that empowered years and years of online vandalism.

With that being said, I’m pretty sure that my targets included the pages for Australia, Scandinavia, Henry Clay, cicadas, Vasco de Gama, and the NBA. Many of these edits were pretty minor and went unnoticed by the excellent Wikipedia moderation team for hours and in some cases even days. In each case, the article was reverted to its pre-troll state, and my school IP address was banned for a period of time. The first time I did this in my freshman year, the ban was only for a few hours, but with each new ban the duration of my lockout increased exponentially. I’m pretty sure I was banned for a whole two years between sophomore and senior year, but I was able to get banned one more time before I graduated.

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Not one of my edits, but a good example of your average Wikipedia vandalism case.

And I didn’t stop at just the articles. Many of my initial edits were too discrete to be spotted by the platform’s network of anti-vandalism bots, so most of my early bans came from a human Wikipedia administrator. The encyclopedia has a very active and in-depth online community, and there are plenty of rules and regulations on how one can become an administrator. Each of the site’s 1,274 administrators also has their own editable user page (see below), so back in my trolling days I took it upon myself to “blank” the pages of moderators who had previously banned me.

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Wikipedia admins take their user pages very seriously! Plenty of community badges and awards to display.

I never really felt all that bad about my online trolling habits, mostly because they were never really directed at anyone in particular (well, aside from blanking admins, but that damage can easily be rolled back with the click of a button). I was never spewing hate at an individual,  instead choosing to spread misinformation and dumb jokes that would be deleted within the day. I’m not trying to excuse my actions, but I do think that there are many different shades of online trolling. We often use it as a blanket phrase, but perhaps we shouldn’t. I’ve also trolled in online gaming before, convincing my teammates in Halo to take the passenger seat in my car before then driving us both off of a cliff. Sure, that’s annoying and pretty childish, but with the current troubling state of the online world I don’t think  those two descriptors are the first that come to mind when people hear the word “troll.”

I’m not proud to say it, but my days of Wikipedia trolling didn’t end when I left high school. A few months ago, my roommates and I vandalized the article for the Italian song “Funiculi Funicula” in order to add a reference to its inclusion in an old Spiderman video game. The edit remained live for 15 hours until it was reverted by an unregistered Wikipedia user, meaning it was probably just another regular Wikipedia user who saw the vandalism and wanted to get rid of it. I can’t say for certain that I will never vandalize the site again at some point in the future. But if and when I do, I’ll be putting a lot more thought into the vast and intricate network of bots, admins, and trolls that have turned Wikipedia into the unique vandalism battleground site that it is today.

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Funiculi Funicula is a great song, both the original recording and the Spiderman 2 cover.

 

9 comments

  1. I can’t see the small text in all of your images, but I can imagine…This is all good info to be aware of because I definitely reference Wikipedia once in awhile and didn’t realize how long an fake edit could go unnoticed! Even so, it’s pretty incredible to think of the coverage the Wiki administrator team manages. I looked on the administrator’s list (http://bit.ly/2lhiz2q) and there seems to be about 550 active administrators. When you actually think of all the wiki pages and how many pages that 550-person group has to cover, it’s no wonder some fake changes slip by.

  2. I really liked this post! It is great to see that Wikipedia scans their site so fast that most of these “trolls” cant revel in their greatness for longer than a few hours. Even though I knew Wikipedia was not the most reliable source, I would still use it for some research papers in high school. I wish I could have seen one of these funny edits on a page, but I guess the digital bots delete them too fast. Thank you for exposing your true identity as a troll.. we will not think of you differently.

  3. Really interesting post. I actually disagree that WP shouldn’t be trusted. It’s actually pretty reliable (and I’ve done research on it). Actually, I’m more struck by the fact that you are proud that your vandalism lasted for hours. I think that’s actually a pretty stunning pretty good vandalism defense rate on WP part. Incidentally, I’ve been blocked from WP before too, but for different reasons.

  4. I think most of us are at least somewhat aware of someone in our lives who has done some amount of trolling. I’d be more interested in the motivation behind your trolling. Why exactly did you do what you did? Was it some type of pleasure/humor derived from editing the Internet? Or was it about finding it funny to inconvenience/annoy Wikipedia editors? Just curious.

  5. To follow up on Danny’s point, I believe we all have trolled. In fact, I think it would be really interesting to have an anonymous survey within our class about 1) Whether or not you have trolled at one point in your life and 2) What type of troll you were if it was a yes to the previous question. Never really thought about wikipedia as a troll medium, and I thought your experience there was interesting. On the other hand, is there such thing as positive trolling? Or is that just being a fan of someone/something?

  6. As someone who can easily spend hours on Wikipedia stumbling through random pages on any given day (seriously, come to think of it, I might be on Wikipedia more often than social media). I don’t see any serious “crime” in what you’re doing, I’ve certainly come across articles where someone snuck in a random “troll” sentence, laughed, and carried on. But I will say, knowing that “troll” lines such as that can sneak through the editors, does give me more pause to sometimes trust the validity of a significant Wikipedia article. If “troll” comments can sneak past editors, what’s the system for ensuring that more insidious edits don’t make it through?

  7. I really enjoyed this post a lot. To take a different approach than other comments, I think Wikipedia “trolling” is extremely funny and mostly harmless but I understand the concerns of being misinformed because someone played a funny joke. You make a good point that not all trolling is bad and some of it is just joking around without intent to cause anybody harm, although you may be slightly inconveniencing someone. I never changed a Wikipedia page myself but a friend of mine once changed the page of the Montreal Canadiens to Canada’s Olympic Diving Team after constantly embellishing penalties in the NHL playoffs a couple of years ago. Also, not sure if you’re a Pats fan or not (I’m not) but in the first half of the Super Bowl someone changed Grady Jarrett’s page to be “Tom Brady’s Daddy” after his 3rd sack. Thanks for sharing that Halo memory too, your article actually made me laugh out loud at that point.

  8. This makes me think about the information we read every day online, which sometimes we take for granted without considering that someone could be “trolling” us. Even though Wikipedia did not seem to be the most reliable source of information is still used it for many projects in high school. Just like now a days I still use the information that I find on social media platforms which might not be 100% accurate. Makes me reflect on the fact that we should filter the information that we receive from the internet and from social media, and do not believe anything you read on the screen.

  9. Interesting, before reading this post I never even considering thinking of “lite trolling” and how that could influence the information I am being exposed to online. I, in fact, used Wikipedia quite a bit back in high school if I wanted to find out some basic background information on a topic being discussed in class. Now that I think about, even the most minute details listed on the Wikipedia pages I read could have been inaccurate, and seeing as I never really attempt to read a specific Wiki page more than once, I would continue the rest of my life believing what I read.

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