Wikipedia:The motivation of a vandal

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Think "Internet graffiti".

As more and more people discover Wikipedia, the frequency of vandalism increases. Several factors motivate a person to vandalize the site.

Types of motivation[edit]

Experiments by first-time users[edit]

The most common type of Wikipedia "vandalism" is experimental edits by curious first-time users who are intrigued by the idea of being able to edit a website. Most of these edits are silly, contain vulgar language, or just consist of random typing or repeated characters. Some may blank sections of articles in an attempt to see what happens. Many of these edits may be made by children, often by altering the article about their school. Some of these editors stop this activity with the first warning message; some eventually become useful contributors, but most leave Wikipedia after the first or second warning message, after they understand that their experiments are neither valued nor enduring.

Some, however, go on to become persistent vandals.

Attention-seeking vandalism[edit]

The most common motivation of a persistent vandal is simply a desire for attention. When certain people stumble upon Wikipedia, they immediately see the large number of selfless contributors who work tirelessly editing Wikipedia, sacrificing much of their personal time to help improve a project and a concept that is greater than themselves. They therefore realize that they have found an audience. They do not premeditate what the attack will be, but plan its location. They may choose a highly controversial article and make an offensive statement about it to draw attention from the other editors, or simply replace the day's featured article with a sentence like "hey look at me I just vandalized a page LOL".

With every warning the vandal receives for their vandalism, they feel a growing sense of self-satisfaction from the fact that their "work" has been acknowledged. This is a problem for the good editors, for by warning a vandal, they may be encouraging them to vandalize more to gain more attention.

After such a vandal has been blocked once, they may return later to vandalize again, but this time more stealthily. They still want recognition for their work, but take more care not to be blocked. They may change details in a page so that it affects the content of the page noticeably, but is not blatant vandalism. They may receive another warning, but they will not likely be immediately labeled as a vandal, which is exactly what they want.

Well-intended but overzealous or misguided edits[edit]

Some of what is labeled as "vandalism" is in fact something more benign: "extremism" or "excess zeal". A person may read an article, see or imagine a glaring omission or flaw, and "fix" it. This often leads to long and protracted "edit wars", although in many cases, the "extremist" is the only editor who approves of their edit(s). The possibility exists that it is the previous editors who are "extreme", but this is unlikely for popular topics or articles with many editors.

Authoritarian vandalism[edit]

Some may delete pages, sections, or phrases under color of the authority of some part of wiki policy and procedure, but with an underlying effect of subverting the overall mission of Wikipedia, such as biting newbies. This effect may be deliberate, unconscious, or both. Such persons may or may not be administrators, and may have extensive expert knowledge in subject areas in which they have very sharply formed opinions which they think do not affect their objectivity. In one subset of such cases, they may relentlessly subject other editors to very high standards of compliance with WP policy, as viewed from their own POV, with the effect of blocking dialogue on areas of contention. Such editors may have a highly refined sense of what they can and cannot get away with and utilize it to improperly wield authority. Motivation may be the twisted mentality of wielding power over WP, or to promote a POV agenda. In either case, a characteristic of this type is evasion of classification as vandalism per se due to the cover provided by policy. A possible method for identifying such individuals might be a higher ratio of deletions to additions, which, while not conclusive, raises a red flag.

Other motivations of vandalism[edit]

While most vandalism is done for attention, there are other possible motivations for vandalism:

  • Some vandalize in an attempt to create humor (in other words, for fun). This may involve adding humorous nonsense to an article within its encyclopedic context, or creating blatant nonsense pages. If they wished to perform this act in good faith, they could edit other wikis. But some of them claim that vandalizing something that was made to be vandalized is not fun, so they keep vandalizing Wikipedia.
  • Some vandals may have a personal grudge against or resentment toward certain users (often notably a group of them), the subjects of certain articles (e.g. George W. Bush), or against Wikipedia as a whole. These vandals should be taken more seriously, as they are motivated by a desire to harm others, and may be more persistent and/or engage in more serious types of vandalism than pettier vandals.
  • Some vandals claim to be motivated by a desire to expose, through vandalism, what they perceive to be flaws in Wikipedia's design or implementation. A vandal motivated by such a goal might, for example, add false but plausible-sounding information to an article. Individuals who believe that Wikipedia and other open-source knowledge bases are of poor quality in comparison with closed-source encyclopedias (e.g. Britannica, World Book) may then return months later to see if articles vandalized in this way remain uncorrected, and present this as proof that Wikipedia is flawed. Some individuals vandalize Wikipedia in this fashion purely out of spite for the ideal.
  • Some vandals change the content of articles so that they coincide with their personal beliefs, whether political,[1] religious, or social.[2] Similarly, nationalism (or anti-nationalism) may motivate certain edits. After making these edits, the vandal may feel that they "put one over" on the people who oppose their ideals. Even after the edits are reverted, the vandal may still feel satisfied that they have made their beliefs known to whoever may have viewed the article.
  • Another possible motivation for some vandals is that their judgment has been impaired, either by a chemical cause (e.g. alcohol, or other drugs) or by serious emotional and/or mental problems.

Emotional investment in long-term vandalism[edit]

Regardless of their original motivation and modus operandi, a small number of persistent vandals end up seeing the Wikipedia community's anti-vandal measures as a "war" that they are determined to "win"; they start to make a considerable emotional investment in their vandalism activities.

Despite the community's attempts to deny them personal attention, Wikipedia's anti-vandalism process starts to act as a positive reinforcer, providing them with something to react against to keep their battle going. The vandal begins to see their vandalism activity as part of themselves, something precious, to be defended by any means possible. They may regard the attention being given to their efforts as a form of celebrity, to be preserved and expanded further, or even regard their vandalism as their mark on posterity.

Most intractable long-term vandals fall into this category, and their vandalism activities from this point on tend to follow a well-established pattern. They begin to devote considerable effort and ingenuity to their attacks, regardless of the personal cost to them in time and effort expended, spending hours each day logged into Wikipedia, using multiple sockpuppet accounts and diverse vandalism methods (and in a few cases, elaborate technical measures to facilitate these) to prosecute their "war" on Wikipedia.

To this end, the long-term vandal will devote themselves obsessively to studying Wikipedia's internal structures, both social and technical. Some long-term vandals become fixated on particular Wikipedia administrators, seeing them as their personal enemies, and exhibit stalker-like behavior towards their chosen subjects of attention. Often, the vandalism is deliberately directed at particular individuals to provoke a personalized, rather than dispassionate, response.

At this point, the long-term vandal is no longer fully in control of their own behavior. Although they may continue to see themselves as ironically detached provocateurs or freedom fighters against an oppressive power clique, they are now locked into a self-reinforcing obsessional crusade against Wikipedia that they are determined not to "lose", and the vandalism process begins to dominate their life, taking up all their spare time.

This process may persist for months, or, in some cases, for years. Eventually, they tire of their obsession with Wikipedia and cease their activities, although this may involve several cycles of temporary cessations and revivals of their activities before they stop completely. However, a few of these vandals may continue to persist in their activities until they no longer have the means to do so, whether due to changes in their own life circumstances or sufficient action from the anti-vandalism team that manages to prevent them from further acts of vandalism.

Fortunately, such vandals are rare.


Some vandals may "turn over a new leaf" and decide to start contributing positively, now receiving positive reinforcement from the users who used to revert their edits. This motivates some vandals to stop making destructive edits and focus their attention on improving Wikipedia. While this doesn't always work, some people's craving for attention through vandalism can be diverted to more constructive purposes if they can be mentored by an editor who is prepared to assist them in becoming constructive editors. Sadly, most vandals do not wish to proceed to this stage and simply continue to vandalize. In the end, nothing can be done about such people, besides reverting them, warning them, and eventually blocking them.

A number of people who are now very active Wikipedians (including some administrators) started off as vandals.[citation needed]

Former Wikipedians[edit]

Some vandals have a surprisingly deep understanding of Wikipedia's processes, language, and the capabilities and limitations of its blocking system, and may write complex bots that escape any automatic detection, logging in and setting all headers the way ordinary browsers do. All of this is time-consuming to learn just for the planned vandalism action, and raises suspicions that the vandal has previously been a Wikipedia contributor. In some rare cases, this person could be a former administrator who has gone "rogue" for reasons of their own. The reasons people choose to leave and attack their former community are not always clear, but they may result from unexpected and deep disagreements on Wikipedia content or operation rules, or even events that led to the person harboring a grudge against their target. Inappropriate resolving of discussions by the force of majority or even by administrative power may create this group of people. For instance, current practices of merging of the criticism articles and sections create more friction and may cause some editors to leave as contributors and come back as vandals. They can sometimes be distinguished from the previously discussed "long-term emotional investors" by being "experienced" from the start; vandals that start as just vandals need time to accumulate the knowledge. However, dynamic addresses and multiple accounts make this method of detection difficult.

Part of this problem seems to be coming from the treating of, in various conflicts, experienced Wikipedians in the same way as random trolls or vandals are treated. For instance, it is recommended not to talk too much to/about a troll as this "feeds" them. Differently, refusal to talk with contributors that have been initially fair may turn a Wikipedia friend into a Wikipedia enemy, especially when socially sensitive (for instance, religious, national independence, political, or similar) topics are involved.

Another part may result from Wikipedians trying to post self-promotional material. Due to massive spam abuse, Wikipedia is extremely hostile to spam or anything that may look even remotely similar and makes no exceptions, even for non-profit groups with noble goals. Yet some people may think that long years of contribution, number of committed good articles, and pictures gives them a right to post something on the boundary of notability when they really need this. However, Wikipedia as a system sees no difference between long-term contributors and those who edit for the first time in their lives just to post the spam. The preferred attitude is "give as much as you can, then go away". Some people may unfortunately not go away as far as the followers of this rule would prefer. While it may be difficult to tune the rules, some explanatory work is definitely needed to prevent such misunderstandings.

Knowledge makes an ex-Wikipedian a particularly dangerous attacker, making it easy for them to abuse places within Wikipedia that are prone to vandalism.

While there is no big reason to defend these people, it may be important to note that this undesired transformation may be prevented by using more discussion and less force during dispute resolution. The only positive feature of this group is that they seldom vandalize for long, causing strong, unexpected, but usually transient attacks.

Response to vandalism[edit]

As real world vandalism is often difficult to clean up or repair, many Wikipedia vandals are under the impression their edits are hard and time-consuming to repair or will cause a noticeable effect on the quality of the site. However, they are usually unaware that the process of reverting an edit can sometimes be accomplished with one mouse click; although long-term vandalism may be annoying, the act of reverting a single edit—or even multiple edits—is not time consuming or difficult, and the effort is distributed among literally thousands of editors. In this case, boredom is Wikipedia's secret weapon, and the application of a routine of reverting, blocking, and ignoring the editor in question is usually effective in the long term.

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  • Buckels, E. E.; Trapnell, P. D.; Paulhus, D. L. (2014). "Trolls just want to have fun". Personality and Individual Differences. 67: 97. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2014.01.016.