Wikipedia:Administrators' guide/Dealing with disputes
- 1 Overview
- 2 Definition of uninvolved
- 3 Assess the situation
- 4 Remind them of the goals
- 5 Be a Dispute Resolution teacher
- 6 Dealing with entrenched views
- 7 How to intervene in content disputes
- 8 Binary decisions
- 9 Things to avoid
- 10 Tips
- 11 Practice
- 12 See also
Wikipedia is a busy place with millions of articles already, and thousands of new articles being added (or attempted) every day, with a net gain of thousands of new articles each week. As in any dynamic endeavor, there are bound to be occasional disputes; on Wikipedia, the vast majority are minor or brief, and the participants are well able to deal with the issues on their own.
This page is designed to address a different kind of dispute: those that are long-running or widespread, which the participants do not appear able to resolve in a way that is satisfactory to the participants while adhering to Wikipedia's policies.
In some of these disputes, the presence and/or intervention of an uninvolved administrator may help to de-escalate a dispute.
Administrator intervention in complex disputes is an art, not a science. It requires a calm demeanor in the face of bitter attacks, an excellent knowledge of the wikiprocess, a good sense of judgment, and a light touch. When at all possible, administrator intervention should aim to guide the participants towards resolving their own disputes rather than imposing the administrator's view of "what the article should be."
The goal is to produce an article that complies with Wikipedia's policies, and reflects positively on the project.
Definition of uninvolved
An uninvolved administrator is one who has no significant prior editorial involvement in the issue, or extensive "history" with its major parties. See also WP:UNINVOLVED
Exception: If there is any doubt about whether or not you are uninvolved, but for some reason you think that you, as an admin, are the best person available (perhaps if the participants have invited you to intervene), it is best to openly declare your intentions on the article talkpage, and get a formal "signoff" from the participants.
"Hi, I have been invited to be an administrator to intervene in this dispute. I am willing to do this, and I will do my best to stay neutral and fair. However, I should state up front that I was involved in a dispute with one of the participants (name) over (article) at some time in the past (dates). Anyone that wishes to review that matter can check here (diffs). If all of the major participants are still willing to accept me as an intermediary here though, please indicate your acceptance below."
Then, if the major participants agree, you can continue. However, if any major participant refuses, then graciously withdraw from the situation and encourage them to try another admin, or another step in Dispute Resolution.
Assess the situation
Assuming that your "uninvolved" status is not in question, start with assessing the situation. These do not have to be followed in order, but they are a good place to start. Check on:
- Sources. Are editors basing their arguments on sources, or their own opinions?
- Wikipedia runs on reliable sources. If an editor has no solid sources to back up their edits, instruct them to find sources. If they keep adding unsourced information, or they keep trying to add information that is based on obviously unreliable or biased sources, warn the participants on their user talkpages, and block if they continue. Note that while the talk page guidelines allow greater latitude for speculation on article talk pages, lengthy argumentation or debate not directly connected to concrete improvements to the article can have a corrosive effect. If such debate is occurring on the talk pages, steer the participants back to specific reliable sources and concrete, specific improvements to the article.
- Biography. Is the article a biography of a living person or is the material in dispute related to a living person?
- Under the Biographies of Living Persons policy, Wikipedia takes a "First, do no harm" stance with biographical material. If there are remotely credible allegations that the material under dispute is libelous, defamatory, poorly sourced, invasive of privacy or written so as to bring its subject into disrepute, remove it immediately and, if necessary, protect the page to prevent its reappearance. Such actions do not constitute "involvement" in the dispute; rather, you are acting to protect the biography's subject from potentially false and unfair attacks or privacy invasions. Instruct involved editors to discuss the material, its sourcing and its suitability on the article's talk page.
- Incivility. Are the participants communicating in a civil manner, both at talkpages and in edit summaries?
- If they are being repeatedly rude to other editors, emphasize the importance of civility not only as a "rule", but as the most effective way to edit in a collaborative environment. If editors continue to engage in incivility and personal attacks, warn and block as necessary.
- Talking. Check if editors who are making controversial edits, are also adequately explaining them.
- If not, immediately advise them that if they make a controversial edit, that they must also be able to explain themselves on the article talkpage (or elsewhere). If they don't, warn and block. (note: If an article is not in dispute, detailed discussion may not be required. But if there are edit wars and angst, explanation and/or discussion should be required in addition to edits.) See more on this at #Get them talking, below.
- Edit-warring? Is there an active revert war going on?
- If so, protect the page for a time to bring in some breathing room. If the revert war involves material about living persons, protect the page on a version without the material in dispute.
Caution: If another administrator or mediator is already engaged with the particular dispute, be careful about proceeding with any radical actions unless you discuss things with them first. If you do take emergency action (such as page protection) during their absence, be sure to keep them apprised of what you've done, and be prepared to reverse yourself immediately once they return, so as not to undermine them.
You may also wish to check if the article is in an ArbCom category at Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Admin enforcement requested. If so, check to ensure that all the participants are aware that they are in an "increased supervision" area. You may wish to post a banner on the talkpage of an affected article, or, if there's already a banner there that no one is paying attention to, create a new section on the talkpage. Feel free to quote the ArbCom wording at them, chapter and verse.
Assess the participants
In complex disputes, there are often megabytes of discussion in talkpage archives and article history. Do not feel that you have to read everything in order to intervene. To start with, your time will be better spent getting a snapshot of the last few days of a dispute, and identifying who are the major participants.
- Scan the editing history of the article itself.
- Get a general sense of which editors have been the most involved in creating the bulk of the article's content, and which ones have been most active in editing it over the last 50 edits, and/or over the last week or month.
- Scan edit summaries, to learn who is leaving calm and articulate summaries, and which editors are leaving blank or abusive summaries
- Pay particular attention to which editors are doing reverts, and who they are reverting. These will often be the "key participants".
- You may wish to look at what is being reverted, but in complex NPOV disputes, especially if you are coming in as a completely uninvolved admin, this may look like an indecipherable wall of text. You probably won't know which sources are good ones or bad ones, which wording has consensus, what is neutral and what isn't, and which views are majority views or minority views. So don't worry about trying to understand that yet (it may not even be needed). Instead, concentrate on identifying the key editors involved.
- Scan the editing history of the talkpage. Again, to start, don't worry so much about what is being said, but get a sense of who is saying it, especially within the last week or month.
- Scan what is being said on the talkpage, to get a sense of how the main participants are speaking:
- Are the main editors involved in editing the article, the same ones as the editors on the talkpage?
- Identify which editors are being civil, which ones are using personal attacks or incivility
- Identify which editors are arguing from sources ("The article should say X because the following scholars say X"), and which are arguing from personal knowledge ("The article should say Y because of course that's the truth, I know it's the truth, and you all are idiots for not realizing it")
Check the participants' background
Once you have a sense of who the key participants are, you may wish to check their background, to get a sense of whether you are dealing with established good-conduct editors, or SPAs with a history of disruption.
- Check their contribs.
- How long have they been on Wikipedia?
- Do they work on articles in multiple subject areas, or just one?
- Where do they seem to spend the majority of their on-wiki time? You may also wish to check with Soxred's tool, though be aware that it will only give you an overall summary, and not just their last 30 days or so (which is where the problems may be).
- Do they have a mix of article and talkpage edits, or do they lean towards one over the other?
- A contrib list with nothing but talkpage edits, and no article edits, may be an indication of an editor who spends all their time doing nothing but jumping from dispute to dispute
- A talk page with no contributions (eg: replies) from the user, but lots of canned messages from bots (such as User:DPL bot) and occasional messages from other people may indicate that a user does not know about Wikipedia communication methods. Be very careful to assume good faith; even if the user has received multiple warnings for edit-warring or BLP violations
- Look at their userpage, scan through it to get a sense of their personality
- An empty or "boilerplate" userpage is sometimes an indicator of a sockpuppet or meatpuppet account, though many new and some established good-faith editors have empty userpages.
- Look at their userboxes, if any. Especially in the case of ethnic disputes, you might want to scan for nationalist or antagonistic userboxes
- Check the block logs of all involved
- Check if any of the editors' names are listed at Wikipedia:Editing restrictions
- If so, this is usually another good place to start, i.e., post a clear message at the article talkpage, example: "I see that the following participants are under ArbCom editing restrictions from (case), specifically (list out the restrictions, chapter and verse). Please be aware that one of my jobs as an uninvolved administrator will be to determine whether or not any of those restrictions have been violated (and/or whether other editors may need to be added to the list of editors under restrictions).
- If the above still doesn't give you a well-rounded picture of the participant:
- Check their user talkpage. Scan section headers, see what kinds of messages are being posted. Is the page humming along with article work? Or is there a history of warnings and cautions?
- Note: Even if a page looks "clean", check the talkpage's history. Disruptive editors will often delete warnings from their talkpage
- Scan the talkpage history for messages from other administrators. These may be an excellent indicator of an editor's reputation within the community
- If you see a name you know in the history, of another editor or admin that you trust, you may wish to contact that person privately and ask them for a reference, get their opinion of the character of the editor. Of course take opinions with a grain of salt, but an outside reference may give you useful insight on which communication style is most useful with that editor. Do they like people being direct, or do they prefer extremely tactful language? Is this an editor who has a good history of working constructively through disputes, or is there a path of failed mediations behind them? All of this information can be of assistance to you in sorting out the dispute.
All of this is to help you get an idea about the participants, so you don't get blindsided later. But remember that you're still supposed to assume good faith, and even more importantly, set a good example of what "assuming good faith" looks like! So even if you find yourself forming an opinion that one of the participants might not be entirely honest, still work hard to treat everyone with good faith. Very often, even seemingly disruptive people will tend to behave themselves, if you treat them with respect.
Be wary of snap judgments
Keep in mind that the editors who may look the most disruptive, may not actually be the problem. In some complex disputes, a normally good editor may have been goaded into a state of incoherence by a wikistalker, or by harassment from a Tag team of agenda-driven editors. So don't make snap judgments on what you see—just gather the information to get a sense of the history of the participants. Keep an open mind.
Remind them of the goals
Sometimes when editors are in the heat of an argument, they forget what our main goal is, which is to create an encyclopedia. Battling editors will often completely lose sight of the actual article text, and go off on some tangent about each other's political leanings or education, or they'll veer off into a debate about some tangential aspect of history or geography or military command structure, or they'll complain bitterly about who said what to whom a year ago. Try to bring them back to focus on the article.
This message can be as short and sweet as, "All right, can we please get back to discussing the article, instead of tangential subjects?" or the ever-handy "Can we please stick to discussing content and not contributors?"
Or, you may wish to post something more detailed, and tailored to the situation and participants. Example:
Ultimately, try to remind everyone that the goal is not to promote the interests of a group or a religion or a nation, but to have a positive effect on Wikipedia, and create an article that is in adherence with Wikipedia policies.
Be a Dispute Resolution teacher
Often the best way that an administrator can intervene, is by educating the participants about how Wikipedia dispute resolution processes work. Yes, we have a page at WP:DR, but often these systems are daunting for editors that haven't tried them before. So an admin may wish to "walk the participants through" things that they can try.
Get them talking
Before anything else is tried, it is essential that all participants who are editing the article in a controversial way, are also adequately explaining what it is that they are doing.
Actual discussion at the talkpage may not always be essential. If editors are working together properly, simply making notes in edit summaries may be all that's needed. See WP:WIARM. But in the case of a "stuck" dispute, and especially in the case of edit wars, talkpage discussion is strongly recommended.
Be cautious though of restricting editors to talkpages in ways which may hamper editing efforts on the article. Remember, your task as an intervening administrator, is to facilitate editing of the page. A common mistake made by some admins is to protect the article and insist on consensus discussions at the talkpage, which turn into endless discussions while the article remains stagnant.
Most Wikipedia articles that are in a state of "healthy" editing, perhaps even a Bold, revert, discuss cycle, will have editors making steadily successive "tweaks" to the article, circling in towards consensus. So if you prevent editing of the page, you may be blocking an essential part of the consensus process.
However, if editors have fallen into a rut where all they are doing is reverting each other without actually trying to improve each other's text, then page protection or editing restrictions may be in order. There is a subtle, but very important distinction. When in doubt, the best advice is, do not restrict. See also: Wikipedia talk:Disruptive editing#Blocking consensus.
Focus what they're talking about
Encourage the participants to:
- Discuss content, instead of each other
- Discuss actual changes to the article, rather than going off on a side-tangent
- Make arguments source-based, instead of idea-based. Instead of "It's obvious that," phrase things as, "According to this source, which says, ..."
- Stick to sources which actually discuss the topic of the article. If an article is about Albanian lampshades, and the source mentions neither Albania nor lampshades, encourage them to find a different source for their argument.
- Encourage them to use good sources. Especially sources which have been recommended by other reliable sources.
- Discuss one thing at a time. A common problem is when participants will start discussing several different issues at once, in a long series of bullet points, and then responding to each other with an equally long list of bullet points. Tell them to break this down into different threads discussing each point, which will make it easier for other participants to follow along
Explain the Wikipedia consensus process
You may find it useful to tutor the participants on how Wikipedia makes decisions on article content. It will often be very non-intuitive to newcomers, and they'll have an expectation that a "single decision" must be made on what gets included in an article. Guide them to the realization that an article is not going to be "one way or the other", but that it can include both viewpoints, which will make it a stronger article.
Explain about the normal Wikipedia:Consensus cycles, or in really bad cases the WP:BRD cycle. Try to get them away from reverting, and move them towards changing. Away from deleting other people's text, and instead adding to it.
Explain that no "authority" is going to come in and make a decision on how the article should be. That it's up to them to "work things out".
Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime. One suggestion that you can offer as an admin, is that the participants learn about and experiment with different dispute resolution techniques for themselves, rather than requiring outside intervention. For example, they might try:
- Appointing one of themselves as an informal mediator
- Appointing informal advocates for either side, who must work together amicably.
- Running a straw poll (though monitor this carefully, and explain it's not a vote!)
Tutor them on other steps
- If there's a controversial section of the article that is raising tension, suggest temporarily moving it to talk for discussion. Getting a hotly disputed section of text off the "live" page can reduce tension.
- Has an RfC yet been filed on the article? Or even within the last 6 months? If not, encourage the participants to do so.
- If they're still resistant, lay it out for them. Don't file the RfC yourself, but you may wish to show them exact text of how to file one.
- Point out the dispute resolution noticeboards. For example, if the participants are engaged in a dispute about whether or not a source is reliable, encourage them to start a thread at the Wikipedia:Reliable sources/Noticeboard.
- Ask the participants if they have requested comments from other WikiProjects or article talkpages (note this does not mean requesting comments just from users who they know will agree with them)
- Suggest some places where a public notice may be a good idea, to bring in other experienced viewpoints
- Ask the participants if they have tried mediation?
- Tutor them on what mediation is for, link them to WP:MEDCAB, and/or WP:RFM
- You may need to clear up common misconceptions about mediation. For example, explain to them that:
- Mediation is not binding
- Mediation is a strictly voluntary process
- The mediator will not be empowered to "make a decision"
- The only goal of mediation, will be to provide a structured environment in which the participants may be able to come up with a mutually agreeable compromise. The participants, all of them, will still be the ones with the power.
- Some of them may wish to go straight to arbitration, so you may need to clear up some misconceptions there, too.
- Explain that Arbitration is for user conduct disputes, and never for making decisions on article content
- Point out that arbitration will usually not be accepted unless all other steps in dispute resolution have been tried first
Dealing with entrenched views
Sometimes no matter how much advice you give, how much you persuade or cajole or threaten, some editors are just going to be entrenched in their positions. They may still be civil, they may review sources in good faith, they may be established editors with thousands of good contributions to their name, but on some certain topic, they may just be completely inflexible, to the point where they are actively blocking consensus, and/or causing additions to articles that are a violation of Wikipedia's policies on neutrality. This problem might be from one editor on an article, or multiple editors, or there may be an off-wiki Tag team that is sweeping through multiple articles, pushing their particular agenda.
These situations are often noticed in topics of nationalism or religious belief, though can be found in other areas such as those of pseudoscience, supernatural phenomena, or anywhere that works of popular fiction may have imposed a false idea of reality onto some field.
It is important to remember that most often the editors pushing these theories are not acting in bad faith. They often strongly believe that they are doing what is best for Wikipedia, and best for the world. They may feel that they have a duty to "the Truth". Or, they may be deeply embarrassed by some perceived blot in their country's past, and their unconscious reaction is to want to remove or diminish mention of it from the encyclopedia. Again, they may not be acting in bad faith, they may just have a natural, perhaps unconscious bias towards removing negative information about something that they feel strongly about.
Symptoms of these editors:
- Rejection as "unreliable" of any source which does not agree with their world view. Or, rejection as "minority/fringe theory" or "trivia"
- Inability to propose compromises
- Seemingly unprovoked incivility and personal attacks at those with opposing views, often with labels attached: "Of course you think differently, you're an atheist/Communist/Christian/etc."
- Misinterpretation or mining of sources. The biased editor can look straight at a history book that says, "1,000 were killed" and interpret it as anything from "There were some minor skirmishes" to "There was rampant genocide by the corrupt regime", and still feel in all good faith that they are reporting things neutrally.
One way to deal with the problem of entrenched views, is to ask all editors in a dispute to suggest at least one compromise that is different from their current position. If they are able to do so, it may help break the logjam and get discussion moving again. However, if an editor appears completely incapable of suggesting any kind of reasonable compromise, then this may be clear evidence of blocking the consensus process. So it may be time for you, as an administrator, to take action. Warn the editor first, but then if they still won't budge, you can remove them from the discussion (such as by a temporary talkpage ban) so that the other editors who are capable of compromise, can move forward to try and craft a consensus solution.
How to intervene in content disputes
If all the user conduct appears to be "clean", but there is still a problem, you may have to wade in and look at the content yourself to judge whether neutrality could be served better.
Sometimes it's clear right away that the situation involves editing that is so obviously tendentious that it must be addressed immediately. For example, if it seems obvious even to a layperson that a given subject has two notable viewpoints, A and B, but one editor insists on introducing a wording that overtly implies A is right and B is wrong, then "patient consensus-building" is not the answer. Similarly, if a view is clearly that of a tiny minority, but an editor persists on ascribing undue acceptance, prominence, or correctness to it, then intervention may be appropriate. In such blatantly obvious cases, an administrator may choose to address the culprit directly, remind them about WP:NPOV, and if the editor doesn't comply, remove them from the article (or if necessary, from Wikipedia). Such editors can and should be blocked for violating Wikipedia's core policy of neutrality.
Removing such editors will de-escalate the dispute, avoid revert wars, and probably decrease incivility as well. However, it must be done with care, because it does involve the administrator making an overt content judgment, so should only be done in obvious cases.
Living persons disputes
Some of the most difficult and contentious disputes involve material about living persons. However, these are precisely the articles where administrative intervention is most important. Often, the subjects of articles can become involved in protesting material they feel is false, invasive of privacy, unfair or unbalanced. From a legal, moral, ethical and public opinion standpoint, Wikipedia has a clear mandate to be responsible, restrained and absolutely accurate in its biographical treatment of living persons. Administrators are often called upon to investigate violations of this mandate.
First, do no harm. This is the prime directive of the encyclopedia's BLP policy. If you find that an article is embroiled in a revert war over contentious material which would tend to bring a person into disrepute (for example, John Doe was arrested for soliciting a prostitute), assume that the material is false and remove it, unless there are clearly reliable sources provided which support the material. Do not simply assume that the source is reliable – examine it for yourself. If there is any question in your mind about the source's credibility, remove the material.
If it becomes necessary to protect the page in question in order to stop an edit war over living persons issues, always protect the page on a version without the contentious material. This is not a final judgment on the material; rather, it is a temporary measure to prevent potentially harmful edits from remaining publicly visible while their suitability is determined.
Instruct involved editors to discuss the contentious material on the article's Talk page. Request outside opinions through the biographies of living persons noticeboard, which is monitored by many editors and admins who are familiar with BLP issues.
It is important to remember that article subjects who are aggrieved by potential BLP violations on their biographies are generally not experienced Wikipedia editors, and they may be unfamiliar with our general conduct policies. They are often extremely angry at the fact that material they believe to be defamatory or privacy-invading is posted on the world's 10th-most-popular Web site. Exercise patience and restraint with them, and do not block them for minor violations (such as threatening a libel lawsuit over potentially defamatory material.) Instead, refer them to the OTRS system by giving them this e-mail address: info-en-qwikimedia.org.
Other kinds of content disputes
For non-blatant cases, there is no one certain method that works in all situations. The primary thing to keep in mind, is usually to get the editors away from discussing their opinions, and instead to discuss things based on "what the sources say".
Beyond that, what works for one administrator and their personality style, may not work for another. The following are suggestions only:
Option: Refer them to Dispute resolution
In many cases, the best route in complex content disputes, is to just refer the editors to some other stage of Dispute Resolution, especially a relevant noticeboard or mediation. A Request for Comment may also be useful, on either the article, or on one or more of the editors involved. In many cases, the best antidote to POV-pushing is the involvement of numerous experienced outside editors.
Option: Restrict certain editors from participating
Sometimes the reason that consensus cannot be reached, is because one or more editors are actively blocking it, or acting in other ways to disrupt the discussion, such as by introducing discredited sources, or stubbornly sticking to their view and refusing to compromise. You may wish to contact some of these editors, and tell them to "take a break". Tell them to avoid editing an article for a few weeks, or avoid participating at that article's talkpage for a time. This may change the equation at the talkpage, and allow the other editors to find and implement a compromise.
Option: Make an administrative decision on content
In some situations, you may choose to get the different sides to lay things out for you.
- Get them to focus on one small portion of the article at a time. Preferably one sentence.
- Having them throw 20 bullet points at once at you, can be overwhelming. Get them to drill down to a specific sentence, or phrase, or word
- If it seems too subtle a point, get them to choose something more blatant
- Have them quote sources at you. Not just list the book, but actually transcribe a paragraph or two.
- Have them use only sources, which are recommended by other sources
- Anyone can write a book and get it published. But having a book that gets good reviews by respected sources, that's a source of value
If you do the above, and read the sources for yourself, be careful to maintain a demeanor of "reviewing their evidence". You won't be "offering your administrator opinion", you will be "judging the strength of their arguments".
- If both sides have strong sources, and good arguments, you may wish to suggest compromise wording that incorporates both sides.
- If one side immediately rejects it, you don't necessarily have to react. Let it sit awhile (a day or two). See what other editors say. Give it time to "percolate" before you speak again.
- When in doubt of what to say, don't say anything. Let them do the talking, while you do the listening. Ask questions, make them do the legwork to find the answers.
- If you feel that a consensus has formed, though a minority of editors are still blocking it, you have the authority to make a formal "declaration" of consensus. You may wish to formally close a discussion as though you were closing an AfD. Choose your wording carefully, as it will probably be "diffed" in the future.
- But remember that where at all possible, you still want them to figure out how to deal with the article.
- Take the long view. Even if it may seem a long debate, keep in mind that you may be teaching these editors valuable dispute-resolution skills, which could be useful on many other articles (so that those articles won't need administrator intervention!)
Note: When using the "review it yourself" method, be cautious about experienced POV warriors. Some editors can quote multiple sources, but they may be cherry-picking or "quote-mining" or flat out misquoting sources. They also may have selectively chosen sources which give undue weight to a particular viewpoint, or emphasize a certain fringe view.
If certain editors are still violating WP:NPOV such that you feel a block or other article restriction may be necessary, but it's not blatant, you may choose to post about it at WP:AN with your suggested course of action, and get the opinion of one or more other uninvolved administrators, before proceeding with more drastic measures. You may also choose to post at the reliable source noticeboard to get other opinions on the quality of sources, and whether they are being used properly.
Sometimes a dispute boils down to an "either/or" choice, where neutrality appears to take a backseat to technical limitations. For example, an article might have an infobox which can incorporate only one name for a birth city, and there may be a dispute as to which version of the city's name should be in the box. Or there might be a similar issue about which category to put the article into.
The first thing to check on these, is the sources. If there's a clear "common" usage in major English-language sources, use that.
In other cases, where sources use both methods, the general advice on these kinds of "either/or" decisions to keep the peace, is to say "Neither". If there's a massive dispute about an infobox, just don't include an infobox on that article. If a category is controversial, leave it off.
Certain place name disputes have found creative solutions in the past. The most often-cited success story is that of Gdansk/Danzig, where an elaborate system was devised to determine which name to use in a given article, and a template placed on the talkpage to remind editors of what was decided: Template:Gdansk-Vote-Notice. Encourage disputants to come up with a similarly creative solution. In most cases (such as a dispute about listing a birthplace), the consensus has been to list the name of the location as it was at the time that the individual was born, and then include a parenthetical next to it to indicate the area's current name, i.e., "Vladislav was born in what was then known as Leningrad (today called St. Petersburg)."
Another solution with binary disputes is dealt with via footnotes, to indicate that there are multiple ways of naming or describing something.
Things to avoid
- Don't lose your cool. If you attempt to resolve thorny disputes, you will be the target of baiting, incivility, and potentially personal attacks. Some editors are understandably angry at "being told what to do"; others may believe that if they draw you into a personal argument you will be "involved" and unable to neutrally intervene. Don't take the bait. Responding in kind is never helpful, and one of your roles is to model appropriate behavior. You are never compelled to respond to insults or incivility. If you find yourself getting angry, go work on something else for awhile.
- Don't issue blocks without warning. It is extremely rare that a problem is so urgent, that a user needs to be blocked without "a warning shot across the bow." Most people, if they know a block is imminent, will voluntarily moderate their own behavior. And even if an editor is doing things in a rapid-fire manner, such as changing templates or moving articles, a quick talkpage message, "Hey, hold up!" may be just as effective as a block, as it will post the "new message" banner to the editor. Never use blocks as punishment, use them as a last resort. The best way to offer a warning is to politely explain the problematic behavior, to clearly state what may happen if they do not change, and further, for you to explain how they can contribute better if they do change their behavior. See WP:BLOCK#Education and warnings. Where possible, try to end on a positive note.
- Don't issue blocks unevenly. If two people have been yelling at each other and you only block one, the other one should probably at least get a warning at their talkpage. On the other hand, don't feel compelled to block multiple editors when only one is acting problematically; treating apples and oranges identically is uneven as well.
- Don't lose your neutrality. Do everything possible to avoid any perception that you are agreeing with one side or the other. Because as soon as you do, the other side may stop listening to you. Don't give up their perception of your neutrality -- it's a precious thing, that once lost, is near impossible to regain.
- Avoid issuing opinions on content, except in blatant cases. Stick to the user conduct. As soon as you become involved in the content wars, you become more of a participant. If you do feel it necessary to issue an opinion on content, keep it very very well-grounded in policy and consensus. Link policies, give diffs to proof of consensus. Portray yourself as a judge of existing consensus, not as someone who is enforcing your own opinion over everyone else's.
- Don't pounce on new editors. Be careful about censuring a new editor who wanders into the dispute unaware. Even if an article is under strict ArbCom restrictions, always give the new editor the benefit of the doubt. Follow WP:BITE, explain things first, and WP:AGF.
- Don't encourage admin-dependency. Do not foster any sense that administrator intervention is "needed" in disputes. Where at all possible, editors are supposed to deal with their own disagreements. As of 2011, there are over 3 million articles on Wikipedia, with several thousand new ones being added every week. But there are only about 750 active administrators, most of whom are busy with other things than complex dispute resolution. So choose your battles wisely.
- Advice from other admins who have been on the front lines
- When wading into a dispute, stay excruciatingly civil. Many in the dispute will be looking to you as an authority figure, so it is essential that you set an excellent example of behavior.
- In general, never issue a block unless you have first tried warnings at both the infringing editor's user talkpage, as well as the location of where the attacks are taking place.
- When issuing a warning to the article talkpage, don't single out individual editors. Make a general appeal for calm, link the appropriate policies, and be very ambivalent about who exactly you are referring to (even if it's obvious). Referring to all editors equally can help calm the situation.
- Try to avoid using the word "you" in your posts. Referring to everything in the third person can help reduce tension. Referring to everything in the first person plural ("we"), can reduce tension even more, if you're careful not to presume too much.
- Most disputes cannot be adequately resolved until the editors are civil to one another, so that's a good place to start. However, be aware that just because someone is uncivil, does not mean they are wrong about the article. There may be a gang or tag team situation.
- Be even-handed about issuing warnings. If you warn one editor, but not others who have been equally as disruptive, this can exacerbate problems.
- However, you don't need to use the same wording with all editors. With two editors in a dispute, one that has a history of disputes might warrant a strong warning such as, "You've been warned about this before, please cease this or you could be looking at another block," while the other editor might warrant, "This isn't like you at all. Please review WP:CIVIL, and try to scale things back a notch?"
- Look for places where the whole framing of the issue is polarizing the dispute. Some issues can be rectified simply by a minor change to a title or section structure
- If the participants attack you, don't take it personally. There are complex psychological factors at play in a dispute, especially towards a mediator or perceived authority figure. Anger from the participants may have nothing to do with anything that you actually did, so don't react defensively, just take it in stride, and keep your eye on the goal: High quality articles.
- If you feel yourself getting angry, let the article sit for awhile, and go work on something else.
- Disputes generally don't need hour-by-hour guidance -- checking in every day or two may be all that's needed.
- Sometimes it is helpful to ask one side to describe what they think are the best or most reasonable points by the other side.
- Remember that your goal is not to shoo people away from a disputed article, but to help restore the article to a state of "healthy" editing, where editors flow through, adding to and improving the article in a steady stream of constructive changes.
- Be wary of "admin shopping". Sometimes if you take action against an account, they will immediately accuse you of being partisan and challenge your "uninvolved" status. They may do this because they have had success in the past with this kind of tactic, and intimidating all admins away from them, or at least intimidating away any admins who don't agree with them. If you are sure of your neutral status though, don't be afraid to stand your ground. Getting a second opinion from another admin can also be an effective defense against this. See WP:UNINVOLVED
If you'd like to get your feet wet on a POV dispute, where things may have died down a bit, check Category:NPOV disputes. There are articles there which have been tagged for over a year, and could benefit from a spotcheck. If there's still discussion ongoing at the talkpage, you may wish to participate. Otherwise, you may wish to post a note at talk, asking if there is still a dispute. If it's not clear which part of the article is disputed, and no one replies, just remove the tag. If it's clear, but no one replies within a few days, you may wish to either fix it yourself, or simply delete the problematic section, remove the tag, and go on to the next article in the category.
Other good places to find disputes are at Requests for comment, WP:ANI, Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Admin enforcement requested, one of the Dispute resolution noticeboards, or check a site such as Wikirage, which maintains a list of the pages being reverted most rapidly on any given day. The top few articles there may simply be articles that have higher traffic than usual because they have been listed on the Main Page, but others may be embroiled in a war that could benefit from admin intervention.