Behind the Wikipedia wars: what happened when Bradley Manning became Chelsea

Abigail Brady, who edits the site as Morwen, explains the polite notes and not-votes behind the scenes.

Shortly after Chelsea Manning's statement regarding her transition was made public, the Wikipedia page for Bradley Manning was redirected. The article now consistently refers to Chelsea by her chosen name and pronoun, showing more understanding of the issues at hand than many more traditional news sources. But the move wasn't without friction. A glance at the articles talk page, where editors discuss changes, shows an argument in full flow. "This PC-driven move lowers wikipedia's credibility even further", writes one opposing the change."A person's gender identity is their choice to make," says another, supporting the move.

Abigail Brady, who is on the site under the name Morwen, was the admin who first made the move. I spoke to her about Manning, wikipedia, and edit wars in general.

How long have you been a Wikipedia editor? What drew you to the site?

I recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of my first registered edit to Wikipedia. I started an article about the old East German Parliament, oddly enough – this was back when Wikipedia was rapidly ascending in the search rankings for lots of hits, and it was often hard to find good factual stuff on other sites. Adding things to Wikipedia that I knew about – and there was a lot of UK geography and politics that was not covered at all – was a massively exciting task. I got made an admin pretty quickly – it was a much less paranoid process back then.

Have you had experiences beforehand which prepared you for a debate this ferocious?

To some extent yes. I have stayed out of trans issues on Wikipedia for ages, but you should see the arguments we had about Star Trek ranks!

Do you get involved with trans issues on the site more generally, or is it just for this case?

My memory is a bit fuzzy, but, for example, I started the article on April Ashley, and took a relatively hard line against people mucking around with it and other such articles. I think I can claim some credit for the current "use identity" thing being the style guide. More recently, I was involved in a dispute other whether the article "cisgender" should exist.

Was your first thought upon reading Chelsea's statement to move the page? How much time passed between you finding out and you making the edit?

There's an essay on the site called WP:RECENT which cautions about being too quick to update. We are, after all, building an encyclopaedia not a news source. But as I read the statement I saw how completely unambiguous it was. There had been discussions about this before, which I was aware of but did not participate in (in fact, it was an FAQ on the talk page before yesterday). So I posted on the talk page, saw that someone else was making the same suggestion that I did, held off for a little while and a small consensus emerged, and then pressed the button. I thought I was giving it plenty of time, given how clear that release was!

Is there a culture on the site of trying to be the first to update pieces with news? Did that motivate you?

There is a bit of a friendly rivalry about being the first to update, but it's not taken too seriously, and I'd never consider putting stuff in there against my editorial judgement, such as it is, just to claim credit. I created the articles about the 7/7 bombings back in the day and, bizarrely, got a radio interview off it (I predicted twitter's role in grassroots news gathering!). I'm fairly inactive now but also took a role updating the article about the Leveson report, when that came out, and dealing with the page about a Baron McAlpine. So I came out of the woodwork, because I don't mind stepping on the landmines. Mixed metaphor there, sorry.

What's Wikipedia's policy on people transitioning? Who sets that policy?

Wikipedia's policy according to MOS:IDENTITY, and long-established practice, is to use preferred name and pronouns for the entirety of a life. I like that policy. Policies emerge through a kind of consensus-building process which would probably horrify you if you looked at it in too much detail, but generally seem to end up pretty well.

What happened immediately after you made the move?

Someone reverted it back, pretty quickly. But I left them a polite note, asking if they'd actually read the reference I'd given, and it turns out they hadn't, and they apologised. So I put it back. I've made it a policy never to actively get involved in an "edit war", after several annoying experiences in the past. So I've stayed off the page proper since then, and confined myself to talk.

After that short squabble, discussion moved to the talk page. How did that go?

Someone said I never should have done the move in the first place. We have a policy of "being bold", but they said this didn't apply here and I should have done a "requested move" first, which is a consensus-gathering approach. (Wikipedia policies are great in the same way standards are – there's one for every occasion and line of argument). So now we are having a "not vote", as we call it, where people say whether they support or oppose the move (that is, the move back), and outline their reasoning.

It seems the page is full of the professionally outraged. Do you think they really are aiming at making the best encyclopaedia possible?

I honestly don't know. Many of them are raising the same old points, over and over again, like they are novel. Yes, there's a background of transphobia to a lot of this, but I think a lot is people driving by and insisting on having their opinion on the raging topic of the day. Someone has come forward already and volunteered to look at the argument and try and determine some kind of consensus from it (hah), and they're going to have their work cut out for them, but they're supposed to look at the actual debate, rather than just weigh the number of randoms who have expressed their opinions, bigoted or not.

The page firstly got "semi-protected", then "protected". What does that mean? Will it end?

Protected means that technically nobody can edit the page apart from an admin. However, that doesn't mean admins are allowed to edit freely, they are only allowed to make clearly good edits (like typos) or ones that have requested and consented to by general users on the talk page. Semi-protection is when we lock down new accounts and people who aren't logged in from editing. Both things are done as a temporary measure while things cool down – and the few incidents where the "temporary" becomes basically permanent are considered regrettable. The traditional description of admin powers on Wikipedia is that it is a janitorial function. It doesn't give you any authority in itself, it just shows that the community has trusted you a bit more to use the software responsibly. Obviously, there's an extent to which that is an ambition rather than an absolute description of reality, and the admins do have certain amount of de facto power, but people who misuse it can and have been removed.

Chelsea Manning's Wikipedia page.

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

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.