Wikipedia is a very popular reference source on the Internet. Therefore, activists with a specific ideological, religious, political, national or other agenda may put the goal of promoting their views above that of improving the encyclopedia. Even individuals who have never joined an activist group before may become an activist for a cause once they begin editing.
Activists can affect Wikipedia's reliability, especially if they violate Wikipedia's neutral point-of-view policy. The policy is subjective in nature, making it difficult to enforce. A lone activist, while irritating to editors who try to present material neutrally, generally cannot exercise controlling ownership over a topic unless they are an administrator with the associated "clout" that the office carries, or are an experienced contributor who has a group of supporters, or both. However, when activists band together with other like-minded editors, they can overwhelm one article and skew an entire range of articles related to their common topics of interest. Once the articles are "on message," such a group can guard them to keep them "on message."
Activists, like all editors, must understand the fundamental importance of "Five pillars". Please read them and refer to them frequently. And any editor who has a personal or financial connection with an organisation or person should comply with Wikipedia's conflict of interest guideline.
Below are guidelines for determining if an article is being unduly influenced by activists, as well as advice on how to deal with the various problems caused by violations of Wikipedia's policies.
Basic ways to spot activists
Editors operating in good faith, not seeking to promote specific views, will usually try to find some way to cooperate, collaborate, and compromise with almost all other editors. Rather than just insisting on their version of the article, good faith editors work with other editors to find ways to resolve disputes and to retain the substance of the text at issue. As general principle, an activist has a highly flexible approach to policy interpretation, ultimately driven by the sole motivator of delivering their message and obscuring or eliminating any competing messages. (Stephen Colbert once declared Wikipedia a "battlefield of information", and activists routinely use it that way.)
This flexible approach to policy interpretation depending to whether it aligns or not with the activist's views applies to all areas of policy, WP:RS and derivative guidelines in particular. Meta-analyses are the best evidence when they align to the point of view of the activist, but have severe limitations when they don't. Similarly, randomized controlled trials are the gold standard when they produce the result the activist agrees with, but are highly dubious, ghostwritten industry shills, subject to disqualifying publication bias when they don't, etc. Even if the article is of sufficient quality for Good Article or Featured Article status, activists will ignore this in favor of insisting upon adding information that supports their viewpoint.
In this section only essential techniques are covered. Consummate editors in difficult areas of Wikipedia have written at length on the more subtle aspects.
Removal of information
Removal of information contrary to what the activists know is "right" is frequently seen. Wikipedia generally prefers to use policy to determine how much of a source to include, and requires that the reliability of any source be evaluated in context. Removal may be justified by inappropriate application of policies. For example, an activist may inappropriately claim that a source is not reliable and that the removed material is WP:SYNTHESIS. They may use WP:UNDUE to remove all mention beyond appropriate weight, and may claim something is WP:FRINGE when it is not. Minority views should be presented in conformance with their overall prominence. "Wrong views" are allowed in Wikipedia articles.
Wikipedia processes like deletion and various quality assessment processes may be misused by activists. Activists may, after deleting significant content and removing many of the sources cited, nominate the article for deletion. Sometimes one editor or group of editors will remove 50% or more of an article for that goal.
Addition of poorly sourced material
Activists promoting a cause have been known to use poor quality sources. If they belong to an organized cause they may rely on publications issued by the organizations, some of which violate Wikipedia's prohibition on self-published sources. Foreign language sources, including those which would not be considered reliable or independent, are sometimes used unnecessarily in place of English-language sources. Activists may rely excessively on primary sources and use them to support original research conclusions. They may also misrepresent the contents of reliable sources.
Activists may argue that special circumstances require the use of these sources. Activists can say that the mainstream media or scientific community is biased against their cause, that their field is too specialized to be covered adequately except in their preferred sources, that the sources are needed to provide balance to other viewpoints found in more reliable sources, that movement publications are the best available sources for information about the cause, or that other editors are too ignorant to understand the issue or too biased to judge the sources adequately. They may even say that sources are unnecessary because an asserted fact is common knowledge.
Addition of well-sourced but biased material
Conversely, activists' organizations may have their own libraries and individual activists may have their own collections. This accumulation of sources, used non-neutrally, gives activists access to obscure publications which are difficult or expensive for other editors to verify.
Biographies of living people
Another sign that ideological activists might control a topic is their treatment of biographies of living people (BLP). Activists treat the BLPs of their ideological adversaries as dumping grounds for almost any kind of pejorative or impeaching information they can find. It doesn't really matter how tenuous the sources are. They could be posts from an advocacy blog hosted by a political lobbying organization, a professor's self-published slide show, or the subject's signature on some controversial petition, it's all good to go as far as they are concerned. Any attempt to remove or qualify some of the negative information or balance out the BLP in question, even a little, is met with cries of "whitewash!" and WP:NOTCENSORED by the activists on each other's talk pages and a quick call to action.
On the other hand, if someone tries to do the same thing to the BLP of someone who agrees with their ideology, however, Wikipedia's BLP-related policies suddenly become holy writ, strictly interpreted and strenuously enforced with pharisaical fervor. Normally reliable sources, such as major newspapers, suddenly become unreliable, partisan, self-published, rantings from fringe fanatics and cranks.
Activists don't want any other editors taking their articles off message. So, activists will try to drive editors they don't approve of, away. The method used to accomplish this is usually to make the other editors feel very unwelcome in the activists' articles. The activists will display consistent and continuous incivility, including personal attacks, hectoring comments, biting edit summaries, baiting, condescension, and just plain rudeness. Often the activists will revert unwelcome edits with curt or misleading edit summaries, then ignore attempts to discuss their reverts on the article talk page. The activists will especially engage in passive or aggressive incivility and hostility if they don't think they are being watched closely by Wikipedia's administrators, which may be because several of the activists are administrators themselves.
Many times the unwelcome editors will protest that their personal point of view on the topic is the same as the activists. It doesn't matter. If the editor interferes with keeping the article on message, they will be treated with the same amount of hostility as any other unwelcome editor.
One WP behavioral guideline directs us to give new editors some leeway. We understand that new editors may need some time to learn how we do things around here and what the policies and guidelines are and how they are applied. Activist editors, on the other hand, will usually be just as, if not more, rude and mean to the newbie participants as to any other unwelcome editors.
The incivility by activists usually follows the same pattern. First, the activists will revert the unwelcome edits with curt, dismissive edit summaries. Then, if the reverted editor starts a discussion about it on the talk page, the activists, if they respond, will belittle the editor's opinions in that discussion, such as by telling the editor that they appear to have little-to-no knowledge of the subject matter, that they obviously don't understand what the source is really stating, that they should read the discussion page archive before participating further, and/or that their edit added no value to the article's content. The activists may accuse the other editor, directly or indirectly, of being a sockpuppet or editing on behalf of a banned editor. Even if this is true, they have no right to object to edits that add information. In extreme cases, the activists will gang up and pile on the editor with uncivil comments either on the article talk page or on the editor's user talk page. The end goal is the same, to influence the editor into moving on, the sooner the better.
Conflicts of interest
Activism does not always involve a specific "cause." Sometimes editors act out of a personal connection, which might involve their own organizations, national or ethnic heritage, family associations, or religious affiliation, and in some cases might represent a conflict of interest (COI).
For example, an editor from Country X may edit exclusively articles pertaining to Country X, its social institutions and politicians, and may themself be personally involved in Country X. They may be an active member of Wikiproject Country X. In such cases, it is important to be aware of potential bias, but so far this does not describe a conflict of interest. If, however, their involvement reaches the point, for example, of authoring or editing articles in which they have a direct personal connection, or about persons or institutions from Country X known to them personally, there is a potential COI.
In extreme cases, such a COI may be evinced by the user uploading photographs of themself or family members - or even their place of birth - in articles that have only a remote connection. Or turning their user page into a personal website, contrary to Wikipedia guidelines.
While it is perfectly acceptable, and even expected, for editors to write and shape articles in areas of interest, they must be careful to avoid engaging in activism for those interests, especially when they have a strong personal connection. Editors must guard against engaging in activities which border on self-promotion or other forms of conflict of interest, for either themselves, members of their family, their friends or organizations with which they are affiliated.
Wikipedia's conflict of interest rules, set forth in WP:COI, lean heavily on disclosure. It is definitely better for a conflict to be disclosed than for it to be disguised and pursued on the sly. But disclosure does not "cure" a conflict of interest, it merely discloses it. Indeed, an editor may use their real name to gain an advantage over other editors.
The weakness of the Conflict of Interest policy is just that - it is weak. It's not even a policy, it is a "behavioral guideline." Editors are allowed to edit articles about themselves, their spouses and children, preferably with the COI disclosed. A COI must be disclosed, however, in cases when it involves payment for editing. Editors with a COI should not be condemned when they edit Wikipedia to correct misinformation about themselves, or to add information that improves an article. But problems arise when an editor uses their position to advance their personal or professional interests.
What can you do about it?
Are they there?
The major issue is "Are they there?" Is the topic area controlled by a group sharing a definite point of view? Is there just a coincidental overlap of editors on a topic?
Activists who've been banned may try to return to the project using sock accounts. If they are identified as socks and blocked then their contributions may all be reverted. In a dispute, activists may accuse opposing editors of being socks of a banned user, whether that is correct or not.
A clear clue is found by writing an entirely new article in the area of the topic at issue. The best is a subject that, for whatever reason, the activists have tried to keep from being mentioned or covered to any extent in the other articles in that topic. The requirement of any good faith editor on Wikipedia is to find as many reliable sources as one can to create a good article. Draft a complete, comprehensive, factual, well-sourced, and NPOV article on the subject on a page in your userspace or offline. Make sure you give appropriate weight to all sides of the issue. When the article is ready, post it in mainspace and link it, as appropriate, to the other articles in that subject area.
If any group is trying to control the topic area, they are likely to try to either remove the new article (WP:AFD), or excise all material in the article which conflicts in any manner at all with their point of view. They will generally remove the links from related articles quickly. Occasionally a group will simply add sufficient material from their own point of view to overwhelm the rest of the article.
Why this works
What may be most startling about the activists' behavior is that they will act this way knowing full well that they are entrapping themselves. Perhaps they will have even already read this essay and know that you are not hiding what you are trying to do. They will act this way anyway, because they can't help themselves. The activists have spent too much time and effort getting the topic area on message to let anything challenge the status quo they have created. Their belief that their cause is just and right is so strong that they don't feel that they are doing anything wrong. Thus, most activists will find themselves unwilling and unable to act in any other way.
Make sure that you never allow yourself to be baited by the activists into responding with incivility, edit warring, or any other violation of policy yourself. For sure it can be frustrating to spend 30 minutes adding a new paragraph with robust sourcing to an article, only to have it reverted 10 minutes later. Always act, however, with kindness, patience, forbearance, calmness, and with continual attempts to cooperate, collaborate, and compromise.
The admins and uninvolved editors who respond to your first attempts at dispute resolution, such as an RfC in which you document the activists' actions, may at first appear not to support your assertions of partisan editing in the topic area, especially if the activists' POV seems to agree with popular opinion on the topic or several of the activists are established editors with many wiki-friends. Admins may also be reluctant to take action, especially against the activists' apparent leader, because of the intimidating gang-up, pile-on response which will result from the other activists in that bloc. Don't give up, however, repeat the same process above with another article and try again. Sooner or later more editors will notice what is going on and try to do something about it.
What can Wikipedia do about it?
Currently, content disputes at Wikipedia are generally resolved by a consensus of the editors at the talk page of each respective article. The Arbitration Committee, for example, does not resolve content disputes, and Wikipedia administrators are not supposed to use their tools for resolving content disputes. Various noticeboards and wikiprojects are merely advisory in nature, and the editors at a noticeboard or wikiproject may not be representative of general Wikipedia sentiment; moreover, editors at a noticeboard or wikiproject may be reluctant to plunge in to discussion at the talk page of an article even if those editors may agree that the content is problematic. Although the editors at an article talk page can agree to dispute resolution, that requires voluntary cooperation, and why would a group of editors who are successfully controlling and biasing an article want to jeopardize their position by submitting to mediation or the like? In any event, the content issues at an article may be too frequent and/or numerous to take each one through a time-consuming dispute resolution.
Perhaps Wikipedia can do a better job of providing ways to deal with activists who glom onto an article and bias its content. One possibility would be to give a body like the Arbitration Committee (or some other representative committee) power to make binding content decisions, maybe by a supermajority vote. Thus far, consensus to do something like that has not occurred. Whether a committee like that would operate only when cases are brought before it, or rather would be able to do things more pro-actively, is an open question.
Policies and guidelines can also be strengthened to make activism harder.
Sometimes a topic is a focus of more than one faction of activists. In that case, one of the blocs is usually dominant, either because it has more editors, is better organized, its members have more time on their hands, its edits align more closely with what one would expect from a serious, respectable reference work (each faction will probably claim they are engaging in this particular behavior), or a combination of the four. The activists of all the factions can still be identified because they will all engage in the behaviors listed above. In this situation, the controlling faction of activists should be dealt with first, because it is the faction that is controlling the content of the articles. Once they have been dealt with, the other factions should get the message and cease the same behavior. If they don't, then they'll have to be dealt with in the same way.
The intrinsic futility of activist editing
To force one's POV into ostensibly neutral encyclopedia articles shows a basic faithlessness in the truth, rightness, and justice of one's cause, which, if it were really so, could be promoted without recourse to such immorality. Limited disclosure of POV on one's userpage may serve a valuable purpose in forcing the self-knowledge and self-discipline to admit that one holds it, both to oneself and to one's fellow editors, thereby guarding against activist temptations through voluntary self-control and acceptance of external discipline. Consistent with WP:USERPAGE, lengthy polemics should be avoided.
Regarding "not censored"
WP:NOTCENSORED is a focal point of perennial conflict on Wikipedia. It basically means that material which is "objectionable" to a person or group is not automatically barred from being on Wikipedia.
Other essays, policies, and guidelines
- Wikipedia:Advocacy articles
- Wikipedia:Working group on ethnic and cultural edit wars/2008 report#Definition of tag team
- Wikipedia:Disruptive editing
- Wikipedia:Conflict of Interest
- Wikipedia:Gaming the system
- Wikipedia:Raising awareness
- Meta:What is a troll?
- Wikipedia:Single-purpose account
- Wikipedia:Sock puppetry#Meatpuppets
- Wikipedia:Assume good faith
- Wikipedia:Civil POV pushing
- Wikipedia:Describing points of view
- Leaderless resistance
- Wikipedia:Tag team
- Wikipedia:Tendentious editing
- User:Moreschi/The Plague
- User:Ravpapa/Tilt and User:Ravpapa/The Politicization of Wikipedia
- Wikipedia:Arbitration/Requests/Case/Chabad movement
- Wikipedia:Arbitration/Requests/Case/Climate change
- Wikipedia:Arbitration/Requests/Case/Eastern European mailing list
- Wikipedia:Arbitration/Requests/Case/Speed of light
- Wikipedia:Arbitration/Requests/Case/Transcendental Meditation movement
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Allegations of apartheid
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Ayn Rand
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Brahma Kumaris
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/CAMERA lobbying
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Depleted uranium
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Eastern European disputes
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Falun Gong
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Free Republic
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Fringe science
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Homeopathy
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/International Churches of Christ
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Ireland article names
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/List of Republics
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Lyndon LaRouche 2
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Macedonia 2
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Macedonia
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Obama articles
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Palestine-Israel articles
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Paranormal
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Polygamy
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Prem Rawat 2
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Prem Rawat
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Railpage Australia
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Regarding The Bogdanov Affair
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Sathya Sai Baba
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Scientology
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/September 11 conspiracy theories
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Waldorf education/Review
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Waldorf education
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Waterboarding
- Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/West Bank - Judea and Samaria
- Some might consider this to be poor advice. Wikipedia is a collaboratively edited encyclopedia. If you develop an article off-line (as this essay recommends), then you miss the chance to collaborate and get feedback from other editors during article development. When you post the article into Wikipedia mainspace, it's likely to attract a flurry of editing. This is how Wikipedia works; your writing is prone to be revised mercilessly by other editors, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. If you make a habit of developing articles offline, in isolation, you are likely to view this fundamental aspect of collaborative editing as a form of persecution, which this essay reinforces.
- Wikipedia is not a soapbox (policy)
- WP:Advocacy articles
- WP:Criticisms of society may be consistent with NPOV and reliability
- WP:Don't be a fanatic
- WP:No holy wars
- WP:Quotations and neutrality