AfD demonstrators in Geretsried, Germany, in March 2016: "Close the borders".
On 18 December, the ten-member German Wikipedia ArbCom (widely known as "the SG" for Schiedsgericht, or "arbitration court", in German; Google translation) suffered its eighth resignation since September, leaving only four arbitrators—fewer than the quorum of five for making case judgments. There is no provision for by-elections, and the next election is not due until May 2017; former arbitrators are unable to undo their resignation.
The Signpost learned that the resignations followed a Skype audio meeting of the SG in which one member, MAGISTER, announced in the context of a broader casual conversation that he was an active state functionary of the German far-right party Alternative für Deutschland ("AfD"). Founded in February 2013, the party already has members of state parliaments, and is expected to do well in next November's federal election. Sebastian Wallroth, the most recent to resign, told the community that:
||The political views of Wikipedians play no role [in their volunteer work], as long as the rules of the community are respected. However, the SG is one of the most important bodies in the German-speaking community. The AfD is xenophobic, exclusionary, and discriminatory against people on the basis of gender, skin colour, origin and sexual orientation. It stands for historical denial, distortion of scientific findings, and for nationalist art and culture. Magister may have other views on these individual matters, but through his membership of a governing body he represents the fundamental principles of the AfD. I cannot dismiss this or take it lightly.
In May 2016, MAGISTER was elected to his fourth one-year term since 2011. Notably, he did not disclose his political affiliation to voters; he received the most votes of all candidates, with 144 supports and only 22 opposes, in an election marked by low turnout. It was not until 13 December that he publicly confirmed (Google Translate) that he is an AfD functionary, at the same time stating that although he publicly represents the positions of the party, he does not bring his political involvement to Wikipedia.
The SG continued to function with seven arbitrators, and the twice-yearly elections for half of the members were duly held in November. The Signpost has been told that the six new members were apprised of MAGISTER's affiliation at their first meeting, in early December. Rumours soon began to circulate, and on 10 December, JosFritz leaked MAGISTER's affiliation on his talkpage (Google Translate); an admin then blocked JosFritz for three days for "repeated infringements of WP:ANON", extended to a month by another admin, but rescinded after appeal. The next day, another editor was indefinitely blocked for statements in relation to the AfD affiliation. By this stage, the news had spread widely in the German-language community.
On 13 December, arbitrator AnnaS. aus I. resigned, followed by four more a day later (Miraki, Gnom, Ghilt, Helfmann). The seriousness of the situation was brought home by Sebastian Wallroth's resignation on 19 December, denying the SG the quorum it needs. Wallroth claimed that MAGISTER: "is willing to resign only if someone proves that the AfD is under surveillance by the Verfassungsschutz [a federal intelligence agency for the protection of the German constitution]."
This resignation has left just Magister and three other arbitrators: Ali1610, Freddy2001, and Man77. The German Wikipedia now has no supreme body for the resolution of behavioural conflict and policy violation.
The SG meltdown involves a complicated set of circumstances, and raises questions on several levels. Should candidates for elected office disclose their real-life political activities, especially where they might be seen as controversial? One of the arbitrators who resigned, Gnom, told the Signpost:
||Reading the community discussions, I find it interesting that many Wikipedians apparently feel that collaboratively writing an encyclopaedia is entirely unpolitical. While it should be, it probably isn't, because there are political forces opposed to the ideals of reason, science, and tolerance.
One of the remaining arbitrators, Man77, told the Signpost he found Magister collegial as a fellow arbitrator: "... I really enjoyed having him in the SG, not knowing about his political affiliation [for the first 18 months]. I do not share that proximity to right-wing populism at all, but for me his political affiliation is not sufficient reason to assume I cannot work in a committee with him any more. ... There is no proof so far that Magister shares the extreme political beliefs that some prominent AfD members represent." Man77 also hinted at the highly politicised dynamics on the SG during the crisis:
||In our SG internal debates I truly was kind of shocked how others reacted to him. Putting pressure on another SG member was something I had not seen before and this is something that (in my view) is incongruous in the SG.
Remaining arbitrators Ali1610 and Freddy2001 did not respond to our emails.
Reaction and analysis
There is no doubting the strong emotional reaction on the German Wikipedia. One editor wrote of those criticising MAGISTER: "Can you still look in the mirror without puking?" Another wrote a thread entitled: "Farewell to neutrality". The Kurier talkpage contains extended and voluble discourse, and the matter has prompted significant coverage in German-language news outlets.
What now? The rules did not envisage this kind of scenario, and there is a question-mark over the community's ability to come up with a short-term solution. While the SG's caseload has diminished over the years, arbitration involves high elected office and is symbolically powerful. Is the MAGISTER issue simply a cultural embarrassment for community members who do not want the outside world to see them as associated with the far right—particularly given the history of political extremism in the German-speaking world in the first half of the 20th century? Is that embarrassment worsened by having elected MAGISTER to office multiple times without being told of his affiliations? Immigration has become a flashpoint in much of Europe, and the use of a truck on 20 December to mow down visitors to Berlin's Christmas market—for which Islamic State has claimed responsibility—is likely to play into the narratives of politicians who trade off community fears of "the other". Are German-speaking Wikimedians concerned that their fundraising efforts might be damaged? One member of the German Wikipedia community told the Signpost, on condition of anonymity, that "the site could easily function in the short term without the SG. The greatest damage concerns the external image of Wikipedia among German-speakers, and the cultural confidence within the editing community."
Perhaps these issues will be played out, whether implicitly or explicitly, until at least the SG election in May. Or perhaps Gnom's optimism will somehow prevail: "I don't know what will happen now in terms of dispute resolution on the German Wikipedia. I suppose there will be a vote of some kind so we can appoint a new SG in some way or another." An opinion survey (Google translation) on whether one or more of the remaining arbitrators should resign has produced an overwhelming vote against holding of the survey in the first place. The community is working on options to change the SG rules to enable by-elections or some other means to reinstate a functional SG—here (Google translation) and here (Google translation)—but the few supporters thus far in each suggest that these attempts could be going nowhere.
Editorial note: two corrections have been made to translated text after publication.