Chelsea Manning gets put back in the closet by Wikipedia

Admins reverted last week's move, arguing that it lacked consensus.

The Wikipedia page for Wikileaks leaker Chelsea Manning has been reverted back to its original location under the headline "Bradley Manning", following continued protest from a collection of editors on the site after last week's redirection.

Last week we reported on what went on behind the scenes on the site, but since then, a panel of administers decided to revert the move, arguing that there was "a clear absence of consensus for the page to be moved".

The admins are keen to stress that the reversion is not, technically, moving the page back to "Bradley Manning" so much as it is undoing the move from "Bradley Manning". The difference is ostensibly that the former would require consensus that Bradley Manning is a better title than Chelsea Manning, while the latter merely requires a lack of consensus that Chelsea Manning is a better title than Bradley Manning. In addition, the article itself still refers to Manning as "Chelsea" and uses the female pronoun.

That distinction hasn't gone down particularly well in the wider world, where fact that a group of people held a vote on whether or not to call a trans woman by her preferred name, and then lost that vote, is seen as yet more evidence of a painful lack of diversity of experience amongst active Wikipedia editors. In 2010, a survey found that 13 per cent of contributors worldwide were female (another 0.6 per cent gave their gender as "other"). A second survey in 2011 found that fewer than 1 per cent of editors in self-identified as trans, but this may well be skewed by a number of trans editors identifying as male or female for the purposes of the survey.

Sue Gardner, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, the charity which runs Wikipedia, wrote (in her capacity as a Wikipedia editor) comparing the reversion to the collective ability of editors to defer to the experts when Pluto was declared to be not a planet. In that case, there were few if any saying that "common sense" dictates that Pluto should be called a planet until every other media organisation started calling it a dwarf planet.

Gardner writes:

The same is true for transgender issues. A number of editors have made truly ignorant comments over the past week or so, comparing Chelsea Manning to someone who woke up one morning believing herself to be a dog, a cat, a Vulcan, Jesus Christ, a golden retriever, a genius, a black person, a Martian, a dolphin, Minnie Mouse, a broomstick or a banana. In saying those things, they revealed themselves to be people who’ve never thought seriously about trans issues — who have never read a single first-person account of growing up transgendered, or a scholarly study or medical text, or maybe even the Wikipedia article itself. That in itself is perfectly okay: different things are interesting to different people, and I for one know nothing about trigonometry or antisemitism in the 19th century or how a planet is determined to actually be a planet. But I don’t deny that there is stuff on those topics worth knowing, nor do I mock the knowledge of others, nor accuse them of bias and POV-pushing.

One of the most uncomfortable views held by many in the Wikipedia community is the idea that people who actually are trans not only have no greater expertise in discussing trans issues, but are actually "biased" as a result. Indeed, private correspondence I received after previous pieces on the issue even resulted in one editor attempting to out two others as trans in order to discredit them (thankfully, both the editors concerned were already out, making the emailer not just a transphobe, but a stupid transphobe).

The panel of admins set a 30 day hold on the page, but after that there is the chance that it will be moved for good if the total mass of sources – including sources published before Manning's name change – reflects her new name. In the meantime, however, the article has been referred to the site's Arbitration Committee, which acts as a sort of Supreme Court for Wikipedia. That's no magic bullet: even if "ArbCom" does decide to take the case, it will be a month before they report back. But it's the best chance yet for Wikipedia's editing community to take some time for the introspection it apparently needs.

The top of the "Bradley Manning" talk page on Wikipedia. Photograph: Wikipedia

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide