Wikipedia:Content authoritarianism

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One of the unfortunate growing trends on Wikipedia is something called "Content Authoritarianism". This is not a designation of "movements" (Deletionism, Inclusionism, Mergism, Anti-Cruft, etc.) but more of a pattern of edits performed by editors who take their beliefs on "how Wikipedia should be" a little too far.

It is important to note that while "Content Authoritarianism" can be used to describe an editor's actions, "Content Authoritarian", "Content Nazi" and any other similar terms should never be used to describe an editor. In addition to being a personal attack, it assumes bad faith. Content Authoritarianism, however infuriating it may be, is almost invariably motivated by a genuine (if misguided) resolve to improve the quality of Wikipedia content, even if that editor is assuming bad faith themselves.

What is Content Authoritarianism?[edit]

Content Authoritarianism is an aggressive, rigid, and uncompromising adherence to (and unilateral enforcement of) not just Wikipedia policy, but a particular interpretation of Wikipedia guidelines as well. This is not limited to any one particular interpretation of guidelines, but rather the execution thereof. Many users disagree on how guidelines (and to some extent policy) should be applied to Wikipedia articles, but it is only Content Authoritarianism when those interpretations are executed with little or no regard for the other editors involved with the article. This may or may not cause harm to the quality or completeness of the article, but it will invariably cause irritation and polarized discordance amongst the article editors, which can lead to counter-productive situations such as edit wars.

Content Authoritarianism is so named because of the usage of the word "Authoritarianism" when applied to an individual, specifically a person (or persons), "who seeks to dominate those within his/her sphere of influence and has little regard for building consensus." It is the latter part of the definition – "little regard for building consensus" – to which Content Authoritarianism is most concerned with.

WikiLawyering is similar to Content Authoritarianism, and it is common for there to be overlap between the two. The key difference is that WikiLawyering is a means to an end, whereas Content Authoritarianism is a more generalized term encompassing means, motive, and the end itself.

Identifying Content Authoritarianism[edit]

Content Authoritarianism is by nature a somewhat subjective designation. Identifying an editor's actions as such should not be taken lightly, and if possible should be done by means of discussion with other editors.

"The Enforcer"[edit]

Perhaps the most obvious evidence of Content Authoritarianism is when an editor acts as the "enforcer of Wikipedia guidelines and policy." This is most evident when the editor repeatedly cites policy and guideline documents as justification for their edits whenever an objection or discussion of the matter is raised, usually in an attempt to declare the discussion "closed". While a majority of policy implementations are rigid and non-negotiable, "The Enforcer" comes into play when differing interpretations of guideline and policy documents, however slight, are discounted by the offending editor as "wrongheaded", "incorrect", "counter to policy", etc., regardless of the number of other editors who hold to this "contrary" interpretation.

Wielding Policy as a Weapon[edit]

Somewhat related to "The Enforcer" is the practice of using policy (and to a lesser extent, guideline) documents as a response to everything. Rather than explaining their issues with article content in detail, editors engaging in Content Authoritarianism will post links to policy documents as reasoning why their edits are justified, with little or no additional text to back up the argument. This is done in an effort to indicate not only that the editor's view on and use of the policy is the correct one, but that there can be no other possible interpretations of the document. Almost every policy document is clear in what it sets out to cover, but the secondary effects of those policies are often unclear and disputed. (WP:NOT being a good example) Unless you are presented with a majority of agreeing opinions or a clear direction from some form of Wikipedia leadership, do not assume that an editor's interpretation of policy is correct just because they say so.

Being Excessively "Bold"[edit]

"Boldness" is perfectly acceptable in Wikipedia, but it cannot be used as carte blanche justification to drastically alter a topic, with no consideration given to other editors' objections. Editors engaging in Content Authoritarianism will often cite WP:BOLD when their edits are challenged, but will carefully overlook the guideline's clear instructions to, "list your objections one by one in the talk page, reasonably quoting the disputed phrases, explaining your reasoning and providing solid references," for topics that are likely to be disputed. Additionally, reverts or counter-edits may be quickly reverted with no real discussion on the matter, save additional citations of WP:BOLD, etc.

Treating Guidelines as Policy[edit]

Another highly likely indicator of Content Authoritarianism is the implication that guidelines should be adhered to as rigid standards. It is key to remember that the reason why some documents are guidelines and not policy is because they are intended to be somewhat flexible and allow for exceptions. The list of guidelines clearly states at the top of the page, "[u]nlike policies, guidelines are usually more flexible and more likely to have exceptions[.]" Basically, whereas policy is non-negotiable, guidelines are not. They should still be used for guidance at the very least, but they do not need to be rigidly applied to every single article on Wikipedia.

Ignoring Overwhelming Opposition[edit]

Wikipedia is a community effort. There are no chief editors, and except in special circumstances no one editor has the "final say" on what will or will not be included. If one editor is making numerous changes that a majority of other editors object to strongly, more often than not that editor is in the wrong. There are, of course, exceptions, such as clear violations of policy, but if an editor is making drastic revisions to an article and is either ignoring any objections or responding almost exclusively with arguments like, "unencyclopedic," "clearly cruft," "doesn't belong," "not useful," etc. then you are dealing with a clear case of Content Authoritarianism.

Drastic Rewriting of an Article with No Related Experience[edit]

A hallmark of the worst examples of Content Authoritarianism are editors who decide to significantly or completely rewrite an article concerning a subject that they have little or no experience in. Oftentimes this is a self-identified "cruft removal", with the editor in question considering their unfamiliarity with the subject equivalent to being a "neutral outside party," thus making them more qualified to determine the content of the article. This is counter to logic and reason, to say the least. An editor's unfamiliarity with a topic means they are more likely to delete vital information, present content in a confusing manner, or otherwise disrupt the article. While a lack of experience with a subject should never prevent an editor from contributing to an article, they should never do any extensive rewriting of an article without considering the opinions of other editors who are more familiar with the article's topic.

User Talk Filled with Complaints[edit]

In the heat of an argument it is often difficult to objectively evaluate whether an editor is engaging in Content Authoritarianism or simply holds a differing viewpoint on a particular subject. A good way to determine this with relative certainty is to examine the editor's Talk Page. More often than not an editor who is bringing Content Authoritarianism into one of "your" articles is also doing so to numerous other articles. If you find a Talk Page filled with comments like, "why'd you delete this?" "please stop undoing my changes," etc. then you are almost certainly witnessing Content Authoritarianism in action.

"Loopholing"[edit]

"Loopholing" is when an editor tries to achieve a specific and objectionable goal, otherwise unattainable by normal means, by doing something that fundamentally accomplishes the same thing. This is oftentimes due to obstacles presented by policy, such as the three-revert rule, and is also discussed as part of WikiLawyering. A good example of this would be a situation where, after nominating an article for deletion and having the nomination result in a consensus of "Keep", the editor effectively deletes the article anyway by merging it into a sub-section of another, keeping only a few sentences and discarding the bulk of the content. This example is not meant to indicate that this type of behavior is specific to any one goal; "loopholing" can be used to retain disputed information as easily as it can be used to remove it.

Misidentifying Content Authoritarianism[edit]

One of the things which typifies Content Authoritarianism is a large amount of controversy and even outrage amongst article editors. However, just because the actions of an editor lead to such a situation does not make those actions Content Authoritarianism. Before labeling an editor as inflicting Content Authoritarianism on an article, stop and re-evaluate the situation as objectively as possible. Here are a few types of behavior which, if not considered carefully, can be misidentified as Content Authoritarianism.

Ensuring Compliance with Policy[edit]

Policy on Wikipedia is non-negotiable. Certain editors are aggressive in ensuring that articles comply with policy, particularly matters of verifiability. An article may go from a page and a half long to a half page after an editor is done making it "policy compliant," but remember that with Wikipedia the information is never lost, just absent from the current revision. Start snooping around for outside sources for the information; once you have them re-add the deleted information, this time with citations. This should keep most information safe from "policy compliance" edits; if information has outside sources to back it up it is more often than not acceptable content for a Wikipedia article.

Nominating Multiple Articles for Deletion[edit]

Just because an editor nominates several articles for deletion doesn't mean they are engaging in Content Authoritarianism. If anything, using the AfD process ensures that such is not the case, as AfD is a community process. So long as good arguments are raised in support of each article they should survive, though it is distinctly possible that at least one of them will be recommended to be merged with another article. Remember, with AfD it is not the quantity of arguments for or against deletion, but rather the quality of those arguments that matter.

Dealing with Content Authoritarianism[edit]

Know the Rules[edit]

The most dangerous uses of Content Authoritarianism come from editors who know the policies and guidelines of Wikipedia in excruciating detail. As such these editors know exactly how far to push but still stop just short of the line, leaving you free to sail over the edge and right into a user ban. It is vital to know exactly where that line is before attempting to counteract the effects of Content Authoritarianism, lest you wind up unable to contribute while an article is undesirably altered or worse, deleted.

Strength in Numbers[edit]

The most aggressive editors invoking Content Authoritarianism will show no hesitation in engaging in edit wars. In these situations there is very little one editor can do to avoid this without allowing the opposing editor to proceed with their edits unchallenged. For that reason it is wise to inform other editors of developing instances of Content Authoritarianism, and more importantly ask them to clearly and in no uncertain terms express their objections (not yours) with the opposing editor's intended course of action. If it is made clear that you are not alone in your strong objections to the opposing editor they are much more likely to discuss the matter with you.

Should the absolute worst happen and an edit war does ensue there is minimal shame in asking for assistance in the form of another revert from a third party, especially because the opposing editor in such a situation is likely to do the very same thing. This should not be viewed as a desirable solution; any instances of such "edit war tag-teaming" are a sure indication that outside assistance, such as Mediation or even Arbitration, is necessary.

Mediation[edit]

One of the largest obstacles to stopping Content Authoritarianism is the "tunnel vision" which occurs whenever editors get into a disagreement. It is all but impossible in many cases to look at an argument objectively after you have been in the middle of it for several days. It was precisely for that reason that Wikipedia established Requests for Comment, The Mediation Cabal, and Requests for Mediation. If you feel as though you are going over exactly the same arguments over and over again or that your efforts are getting you nowhere it may be worth asking for third-party, neutral input from any of the mediation resources. While it may be obvious to you that an editor is clearly engaging in Content Authoritarianism it may not be apparent at all to them. (Conversely, the same may be true for you) Getting third-party input may provide a diffusing and more importantly sobering insight into the situation at hand, stopping the dispute dead in its tracks.

Arbitration[edit]

If all else fails you may want to send in a formal request to the Arbitration Committee. The Committee only deals with the most serious of cases, but if an editor is being sufficiently disruptive to the Wikipedia community then they will have no choice but to act. Due to the length of the process, as well as the amount of time one must invest in it, this should only be considered when absolutely necessary, such as situations where an editor is causing problems on more than a dozen separate articles.

See Also[edit]