Help:Wikipedia: The Missing Manual/Collaborating with Other Editors/Handling Incivility and Personal Attacks
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In an ideal world, Wikipedia editors would discuss only content and would post only well reasoned, informative comments. They would assume, unless faced with overwhelming evidence, that other editors were also editing and commenting in good faith. Personal attacks would never occur.
Unfortunately it's not an ideal world. Bad things do happen to good people. This chapter shows you helpful ways to respond to incivility and personal attacks directed against you or other editors. It also discusses what you should do if you slip up and use uncivil words, or worse, attack someone personally.
- 1 Enforcing Norms of Conduct
- 2 Dealing with Incivility and Personal Attacks
- 2.1 Initial Responses
- 2.1.1 Don't respond until you can respond unemotionally
- 2.1.2 Don't attack back
- 2.1.3 Decide if you even need to respond
- 2.1.4 Don't comment about problematical behavior on article talk pages
- 2.1.5 If you respond, be factual, not emotional
- 2.1.6 Your response should depend on the editor
- 2.1.7 Don't argue about warnings
- 2.1.8 Read other editors' essays about civility
- 2.2 Explore Less Formal Solutions
- 2.3 Use Formal Processes
- 2.1 Initial Responses
- 3 When You Get Irritated (or Worse)
Enforcing Norms of Conduct
This chapter lays out some step-by-step processes for dealing with problematical editors. First, you need an understanding of Wikipedia's rules regarding its editors' behavior, and how those are enforced. With that understanding, you'll find it easier to understand the step-by-step process.
Wikipedia's rules for behavior center around two policies and a guideline. Experienced editors often mention the trio all in one breath: "WP:CIVIL, WP:NPA, WP:AGF", or even just CIVIL, NPA, AGF. In order of seriousness of implications of violation,
- Wikipedia:No personal attacks policy (shortcut: WP:NPA). Do not make personal attacks anywhere in Wikipedia. Comment on content, not on the contributor. Personal attacks damage the community and deter users. Nobody likes abuse.
- Wikipedia:Civility policy (shortcut: WP:CIVIL). Being rude, insensitive, or petty makes people upset and prevents Wikipedia from working well. Be careful to avoid offending people unintentionally. For example, an edit summary of "Making content compliant with [[WP:NPOV]]" is less likely to upset an editor than "Removing garbage and biased personal opinions."
- Wikipedia:Assume good faith guideline (shortcut: WP:AGF). Unless there's strong evidence to the contrary, assume that people who work on the project are trying to help it, not hurt it.
Of the three, violations of NPA are considered the most serious, by far. Extreme or repeated violations will lead to an editor being blocked (prevented from editing) for a while, in the hopes that he comes to his senses. The administrator doing the blocking decides how long the blocked period lasts. If the editor doesn't mend his ways, he'll be blocked indefinitely.
Violations of CIVIL but not of NPA can lead to blocking, but an editor must truly persist in uncivil behavior to get banned or blocked indefinitely. Some editors, nevertheless, have succeeded at this dubious accomplishment.
Violations of AGF, on the other hand, don't lead to blocking. The purpose of the AGF guideline is to remind editors that underlying almost all incivility and, occasionally, personal attacks, is a lack of respect for other editors. It's the incivility and personal attacks—the consequences of failing to assume good faith—that get an editor into trouble.
Enforcing the Rules
The entire Wikipedia community bears the responsibility of enforcing policies and guidelines. If you see incivility or personal attacks against another editor, you ought to help out, just as other editors should help out if they see incivility and personal attacks directed at you.
Normal editors can issue warnings, but they can't prevent a problem editor from continuing to post to Wikipedia. That's where administrators come in. Administrators are editors who have special authority, chosen by a rough consensus of editors. They can block editors from further edits, as a preventive measure against further abusive editing.
Actions by the community
When one editor attacks another, they may think that any response by the attacked editor is defensiveness. A third editor entering the discussion can be quite a shock, particularly a third editor who civilly points out exactly what was done wrong and issues a warning.
Warnings serve a very important role in Wikipedia, in that they point out problems. As warnings accumulate on an editor's talk page, they provide the basis for more severe warnings and, when all else fails, a block on the account. If you see a problem and post a warning, you're not only informing an editor about problems with his edits, but you're also building a case against that editor. Hopefully, the case will end quickly with the editor seeing reason, but, if not, it may end with the editor getting removed from Wikipedia.
Interestingly, standard user warnings found on the page Wikipedia:Template messages/User talk namespace (shortcut: WP:WARN) (see Figure 11-2) do not include any warnings about incivility (as of this writing). Presumably, either warnings for AGF or warnings for NPA cover incivility.
As with vandalism and spam warnings (see the section about vandalism and spam warnings), you need to look at prior warnings to determine what level of warning to issue. Sometimes you shouldn't issue a warning at all; for example, when a level 4 warning has already been issued, and there's yet another personal attack. (In this case, you'd post at WP:AN/I, as discussed in the section about AN/I.)
Should you remove personal attacks against other editors? The general answer is that personal attacks on article talk pages, where the posting has at least some relevance to the topic, should be left as is. But Wikipedia's NPA policy specifies that serious personal attacks—those that reveal an editor's personal information or "go beyond the level of mere invective"—should be deleted. Any attack that threatens an individual, the project, or the general community should be removed immediately. (For more on editing comments of other editors on talk pages, and other pages within Wikipedia where discussions occur, see the section about editing comments.)
Actions by administrators
Many editors think of Wikipedia administrators as judges: They analyze the facts, weigh the arguments, and mete out punishments (blocking people from editing, or at least harshly threatening the miscreants). But that's not the role of administrators. Administrators mostly do administrative tasks involving egregious cases of vandalism, deleting pages, protecting pages involved in edit wars, and so on. Furthermore, as the Wikipedia blocking policy (shortcut: WP:BP) says, blocks are for preventing damage to pages, not punishing users afterwards.
The difference may be difficult to grasp, but it's important. It's why warnings are so critical to fighting vandals and dealing with poor behavior. As well as giving an editor a chance to change his behavior, warnings—if ignored—demonstrate that the editor is unlikely to change his behavior in the future, and a block is the next step to protecting the project. Blocks typically start out being for short durations, and only escalate in length if an editor continues to show that he can't restrain himself from repeating problematic behavior.
Wikipedia has only a small number of administrators—roughly a thousand—who are unpaid volunteers like all Wikipedia editors. Their number has not increased as quickly as Wikipedia has grown (see Figure 11-3), making their limited time a valuable resource that Wikipedia needs to protect. That's why, in the processes described next, there's so much emphasis on ways that editors can solve problems themselves, or get the assistance of other editors, rather than asking administrators for help.
Dealing with Incivility and Personal Attacks
The processes described in this section may seem like bureaucracy run amok, but in fact they're an efficient, logical way to escalate a matter until it's solved, whether that's because an editor changes his ways, quits Wikipedia, or gets blocked.
If you're the subject of a personal attack or significant incivility, both you and the other editor determine what will succeed in stopping recurrences of the problems. If you fan the flames by attacking back, that's a violation of rules in its own right, and will probably get you your own warnings. In that case, the matter may not get resolved until it goes to the highest level of community decision-making in English Wikipedia—the Arbitration Committee (see the section about the Arbitration Committee). If both you and the other editor are reasonable people (and you'll certainly encounter editors who aren't), you may be able to solve the problem by simply talking it out on user talk pages.
What happens after your first response depends on what kind of person you're dealing with. So circumstances decide which of the following measures to choose. You're certainly not required to use them all.
Personal attacks almost always occur on your own user talk page or on an article talk page. There may be some obvious lead-in (you and another editor have reverted each other's edits in a content dispute, for example) or the attack may come out the blue (from someone whose edit you've reverted as part of vandal-fighting, for example). Regardless, there it is, staring you in the face. It may be a graphic insult, or a passive-aggressive jab. The first thing you should do is nothing. That's right. Don't respond at all until your emotional reaction has passed. Then you can consider your options.
Don't respond until you can respond unemotionally
The standard human response to an attack is hardwired into your brain—fight or flight. When you're in danger, your emotions tell you to act immediately. Your emotional system is much faster than your logical system. Quick decisions are emotionally driven, not the product of rational thinking. So before your typing fingers fly into action, say to yourself: Those are just words on a computer screen. I don't have to do anything right now. I have all the time I need, to think this through and do the right thing. I don't need to do the first thing that comes to mind.
Wikipedia doesn't operate at real-world speeds. Take a break, come back in an hour or a day, work on something else, breathe deeply, have a nice cup of tea—there isn't any rush.
Don't attack back
In the real world, responding to an attack is considered standing up for yourself. In Wikipedia, editors who attack back are considered part of the problem. Attacking an editor whom you think attacked you turns Wikipedia into a personal battleground, which is against policy. As WP:NOT puts it: "If a user acts uncivilly, uncalmly, uncooperatively, insultingly, harassingly, or intimidatingly toward you, this does not give you an excuse to do the same in retaliation."
Your goal in dealing with this type of problem is to get the other editor to change their behavior, and if they don't, have them removed from Wikipedia. If you succeed in the first, or are efficient in doing the second, that's what standing up for yourself in Wikipedia is all about.
Decide if you even need to respond
An editor who resorts to uncivil comments and personal attacks loses credibility at Wikipedia. If the editor's arguments were sound and logical, why would he need to get personal and emotional? You can gain credibility, assuming that what occurred wasn't a clear and convincing personal attack, if you simply ignore it. An editor may just be having a bad day. Don't reinforce snarky behavior by responding to it.
How you ignore incivility depends on where it occurs. If it's a posting on your user talk page, you can delete it or archive it (see the section about archiving user talk). If it's a posting on an article talk page, you can see whether someone else responds to it (with a comment or a warning), or if another editor ignores it and discusses the non-personal aspects of the posting.
If you're not sure whether or not to respond, wait a full day or so, and see whether anything else happens.
Don't comment about problematical behavior on article talk pages
As discussed in Chapter 8, Communicating with Your Fellow Editors (see the section about what not to post on article talk pages), article talk pages are for discussing articles, not editors or their behavior. That said, if you've decided to post a warning or request that the editor be blocked (see the section about notifying administrators), it's helpful to leave a note to that effect on an article talk page. That way, other editors know the problematical posting is being dealt with. A comment like this is appropriate:
This violates [[WP:NPA]]; I've posted a warning at [[User talk:Name of problem editor]]. ~~~~
I've reported this violation of [[WP:NPA]] at [[WP:AN/I]]; repeat problem. ~~~~
If you respond, be factual, not emotional
If you respond at all, stick to the facts. If particular wording wasn't in accordance with a Wikipedia policy, that's a fact. If you speculate on the editor's motives for writing something, that's your opinion. The guideline Wikipedia:Etiquette (shortcut: WP:EQ) stresses that text on a screen may comes across as rude, when you can't hear the voice or see the facial expressions of a person sitting in front of you. An ironic joke may come across as a full-on insult. Again, assume good faith. Don't assume someone's out to get you. Similarly, be sure your own writing is brief, clear, and to the point. Avoid saying things that someone could take the wrong way.
Your goal isn't to hammer the other editor into submission (which rarely works, anyway), it's to get them to realize that their actions have consequences. If the other editor has improved articles and shown reason in other edits, that's all the more reason to assume good faith. You're not helping Wikipedia by making things unnecessarily unpleasant and driving them away.
Your response should depend on the editor
The correct approach to warning an editor about behavioral violations is somewhat similar to warnings about vandalism, as discussed in the section about vandalism warnings. Start by looking at the warnings that others have posted on the user talk page, if any. Then take a look at the user talk page's history—the user may have deleted warnings. Next, take a look at the User contributions page: Is this a regular contributor or someone with very few edits? (It's harder to tell with anonymous IP accounts; just look at the last week or two of postings.)
Here are some types of editors you might encounter, and the appropriate responses:
- An anonymous IP editor with no other postings. If you get a single drive-by attack, it's best to just drop the matter. Your warning probably isn't going to do any good. If the posting is part of an ongoing series, post something at Wikipedia:Administrators' noticeboard/Incidents (shortcut: WP:AN/I).
- Relatively new editor, lots of warnings. Post a standard warning template from the WP:WARN page, following the procedure laid out in Chapter 7, Dealing with Vandalism and Spam (see the section about posting warnings). If the editor has already hit level 4, and then attacked you, take the matter to WP:AN/I rather than posting a warning.
- Regular editor, lots of contributions, very few problems. Depending on how egregious the attacking post was, tailor your posting from nothing at all to a measured response. Reasonable wording is, "Maybe I'm misunderstanding your post, but it seemed to me that saying I need to repeat the third grade crossed the boundary of [[WP:CIVIL]]."
Don't argue about warnings
If you post a warning and the other editor comments that it's not justified, don't argue. If what the other editor says seems to have merit, it's fine to reconsider your warning (and, if you change your mind, do a strike-through, as described in the section about striking your comments). If the other editor says your warning is uncivil, or amounts to a personal attack, or violates AGF, ignore it. Those allegations are considered wikilawyering, and it doesn't impress administrators. Ultimately, the matter comes down to the future behavior of the other editor, future warnings they get, and what administrators decide when they read the edits that caused the warnings. You've made your contribution to reducing future problems by posting a warning, and that's what counts.
Read other editors' essays about civility
If you're still struggling with some of the underlying concepts of the advice above, reading a couple of these essays may help:
- Wikipedia:Avoid personal remarks (shortcut: WP:APR)
- Wikipedia:No angry mastodons (shortcut: WP:NAM)
- Wikipedia:Staying cool when the editing gets hot (shortcut: WP:COOL)
Explore Less Formal Solutions
Most of the time, incivility or a personal attack is a one-time occurrence. But if it's repeated, and you think you need help dealing with it, you have a number of informal options. Use one or more of these options before turning to the formal process for dealing with problem editors.
You'll find instructions at the top of the main page of each option listed in this section. Read them. Other editors appreciate it when you read and follow instructions for asking for help.
Wikipedia:Editor assistance (shortcut: WP:EA) is an informal way of getting one-to-one advice, feedback, and counseling from another, more experienced, editor. You can actually get advice in two ways: Post something on the Requests page, or contact one of the listed editors on the primary page (Figure 11-4).
You may think that asking another editor for assistance is an intrusion on their time. It is, in some sense, but for many editors, offering advice to a sane, reasonable person can be a welcome change of pace from what they normally do, particularly if they're administrators.
Wikipedia:Wikiquette alerts (shortcut: WP:WQA) is "where users can report impolite, uncivil or other difficult communications with editors, to seek perspective, advice, informal mediation, or a referral to a more appropriate forum." If you post here, you may get advice from just one editor, or from several.
You can certainly try "Editor assistance" first, then "Wikiquette alerts," though the two actually overlap. Just don't post in both places simultaneously. That's forum shopping, and most editors consider it bad form. If you're debating which to choose, know that EA is faster, but WQA has more activist editors who do things like post warnings themselves.
The Wikipedia:Mediation Cabal (shortcut: WP:MEDCAB) provides informal mediation for disputes on Wikipedia. (See Figure 11-5.) It never hurts for you to offer the other editor this option. It's a demonstration that you're trying to assume good faith; just don't expect instant agreement. (The catch-22 here is that if you and the other editor are both willing to go into mediation, most of the time you'd be able to work out a reasonable solution without needing mediation.)
People use this type of informal mediation more frequently for content disputes, as discussed in Chapter 10, Resolving Content Disputes (see the section about informal mediation for content disputes). If a mediator suggests that both you and the other editor agree to do (or not to do) certain things in the future, don't protest that the other editor is at fault, not you. If what the mediator proposed isn't onerous, and getting the other editor to agree hinges on whether you agree, then agree. You won't help yourself by arguing. Your goal is to get the other editor to change their ways, not to have a mediator declare who's at fault.
Wikipedia:Administrators' noticeboard/Incidents (shortcut: WP:AN/I) is for only serious, repeat attacks where the editor has received clear warnings and is ignoring them (Figure 11-6). You go here if an editor has engaged in a personal attack after receiving a level 4 warning, or if you've posted a warning and then a higher level of warning, and the editor persists in violating the NPA policy. (You could, in theory, continue to escalate your warnings, but two is enough.)
If you're unsure that the problem is serious enough for AN/I, don't go there—the page gets enough traffic as is. If you do post to the noticeboard, be sure to include a succinct description of the problem, together with roughly a half-dozen diffs (see the section about diffs) showing problem edits.
Use Formal Processes
If the problem continues, and you've exhausted your informal options, Wikipedia has two formal processes for dealing with problem editors: a Request for Comments regarding user conduct; and binding decisions by the Arbitration Committee, the highest level of community decision-making within the English Wikipedia.
Both of these processes are time-consuming: Each can take several months to play out, and the evidence presented and arguments made can be voluminous. Fortunately, only a small percentage of disputes are so entangled that they go to arbitration; RfCs are much more common.
User conduct RfCs
The cases opened at Requests for comments – User conduct (shortcut: WP:RFCC) require that at least two editors have contacted the editor whose conduct is being questioned, on that editor's user talk page or the talk pages involved in the dispute, and tried but failed to resolve the problem. The two (or more) editors certifying the dispute must be among those who attempted to resolve the matter. Filing an RfC is not a step to be taken lightly or in haste. Informal ways of resolving disputes (like talking it out) are preferable, but if they don't work, then an RfC provides the last chance for an editor to come to his senses.
There are aspects of a court case to an RfC, although it's by no means a legal matter. Editors present evidence (diffs), make statements, and endorse viewpoints. If you're doing a user conduct RfC against another editor, be clear and succinct, and present compelling details about who said what, when, and where. Figure 11-7 shows a table of contents for a typical RfC user conduct case.
Editors named in an RfC are expected to respond to it. If the matter goes to the Arbitration Committee (see the section about the Arbitration Committee), failure to respond is a factor that arbitrators take into consideration. Within an RfC case, though, there's no way to compel an editor to comment, and no penalty for failing to do so. But as in real life, failure to respond tends to be seen as an admission that the editor has no good explanation or defense for their actions.
An RfC will not result in any enforcement action by administrators. The ideal outcome is that the involved editors, in view of comments by others that are posted in the RfC, find a way to agree to what they will and won't do in the future. An RfC may even result in apologies offered for past behavior. So even if an RfC shows an overwhelming consensus of opinion by uninvolved editors who comment in the RfC, resolution depends on the problem editors accepting that such a consensus is valid, and that they need to change. If an RfC doesn't result in voluntary changes, the final step (if the problem continues) is the Arbitration Committee.
The Arbitration Committee
A Request for Arbitration (shortcut: WP:RFAR) is the last step of dispute resolution on Wikipedia. The Arbitration Committee (see Figure 11-8) makes binding decisions. In most ArbCom cases, at least one editor gets banned from editing Wikipedia for at least a year, and rulings against multiple editors are common.
The Arbitration Committee consists of volunteer editors. Committee members are appointed by Jimmy Wales, who owned Wikipedia before giving it to the Wikimedia Foundation, which he created. The appointments are based on the results of advisory elections held annually, where registered editors at Wikipedia express support and opposition to the candidates. Wales does not consider himself bound by the results of the elections, but he's generally appointed arbitrators from among the candidates with the highest percentage of positive votes.
Except for a few cases involving serious problem actions by one or more administrators, the Arbitration Committee requires that cases must first have gone through the RfC process. The Request for Arbitration policy states that "The Committee considers community input from the RFC process both in determining whether to accept a case and also in formulating its decisions."
The likelihood that you'll ever be involved in a case before the Arbitration Committee is small, unless you're an active editor of articles whose basic subjects are controversial. In 2006 the committee handled 116 cases. This book doesn't cover the intricate details of filing and arguing a case. For now, know that this final resort is there for extreme cases. If editors don't voluntarily agree to behave properly, and if their behavior is not so egregious that an administrator blocks them, then the Arbitration Committee process is the final step that the Wikipedia community can take to prevent an editor from disrupting Wikipedia.
When You Get Irritated (or Worse)
This chapter is primarily for situations where you're the target of incivility or personal attacks. But, sadly, you may be the one committing—or thinking about committing—mayhem against another editor. You know you shouldn't, but sometimes telling yourself that you shouldn't do something isn't enough. If it's not, this section can help.
If You Haven't Yet Posted Something You'll Regret
If you're just thinking about posting something snippy, subtly insulting, or otherwise critical of another editor, take yourself promptly to one or more of the following pages:
- Wikipedia:Truce (shortcut: WP:TRUCE).
- Wikipedia:A nice cup of tea and a sit down (shortcut: WP:TEA).
- Or take a look at some of the essays mentioned earlier in the chapter: WP:COOL, WP:NAM, and WP:APR.
If You Have Posted Something You Realize You Shouldn't Have
Say you've indulged in a little biting criticism of another edit. And, quite possibly, the editor deserved to be criticized. Nevertheless, you've committed a violation of Wikipedia policy, and (as good as it may have felt when you were doing it) done nothing to further the goal of building the world's best online encyclopedia.
First, rest assured that you won't get booted off Wikipedia for a single mistake, or even for a couple. You will get into trouble by ignoring justified warnings and continuing your behavior. As discussed earlier in the chapter, Wikipedia administrators don't block editors to punish them, they block editors to prevent future problems.
Second, do what you can to mitigate the damage. As a minimum, do the following:
- For anything relatively recent (say, in the past week), go back and strikethrough inappropriate wording. To change text from normal to strikethrough, use a pair of tags: Put a <s> at the beginning and a </s> at the end. If you replace inappropriate words with neutral words, underline the added text using <u> at the beginning and </u> at the end. Make sure your edit summary includes something like my prior comments, so other editors understand that you're not editing someone else's words, which isn't allowed.
- Post an apology on the user talk page of the editor who you attacked. If you can't bring yourself to actually say I apologize, then say something like I have realized that my postings were a violation of [[WP:CIVIL]], and I'll do my best not to do that again.
Third, try really, really hard not to do it again. In the future, when you're irritated (or worse), get up and walk away from the computer, or at least switch to doing something else. And if you decide you can't tolerate whatever's pushing your emotional buttons on a particular page or area, go to a different page. Wikipedia is a huge project (as this book should make clear), with an amazing variety of things to do, and whatever you do, you should enjoy doing it.