Yes, a key idea in Wikipedia is that anyone can edit anything. This is the idealized version of the encyclopedia, but the reality is that people come in and vandalize entries. Today I am going to talk to you about why and how entries are protected from vandalism.
Why Do Entries Get Vandalized?
I have observed a variety of reasons an entry gets vandalized. This is something more than a simple mistake in editing or incorrect information. Vandalism is deliberate and disruptive editing. It might be done because of trolling, an action that is intended to stir the pot. Someone wants to cause problems, so they make an edit to get a reaction. Other times it’s people who are bored and realize they can vandalize an entry. Occasionally, it is someone trying to make the point to another person or group of people.
When I did my thesis about the Paul Revere entry, I discovered that a troll had added content to stir the pot and the result was a week long back and forth trying to resolve a problem that really didn’t exist. A vandal might not be an anonymous user, but most of the time they are. They will get their IP address banned. This is the number your computer is automatically assigned when online. It’s what is used to track your visit. When you don’t have an account, this is what is used to ban you from editing Wikipedia.
How Are Entries Protected?
Back to that example from my thesis research. The Paul Revere entry was protected from most of the possible vandalism that could have happened. The original troll was someone with an account. They were able to get around the protection and edit the entry. That is the basic level of protection: only people with confirmed and used accounts can make an edit. There are different levels that include things like not being able to create a page or not being able to upload something to a page (an image, video, etc). These are designed to prevent the most common type of vandalism for each specific entry.
For the instance of my research, the protection, or lock, had been added to the entry months before. When I asked editors about it, one told me that some history entries get it by default because they are prone to vandalism. When the reactions started to the original edit, the Troll’s edit, only registered editors could come. You needed to make at least 5 edits with your account to be able to bypass the protection. It slows down reactive editing for new people, especially once the public got wind of what was happening and the entry editing was politicized between Sarah Palin supporters and her detractors. The reactions were put on the Talk page, where people could engage in conversation. It is a case where that protection did exactly what it was designed to do.
Side note, the event that brought the troll to the entry was that Palin had misspoken about the intent of Revere’s ride. The troll wanted to poke at the Wikipedia policy for verified sources, suggesting that Palin could thus be used as a source. Technically, he was right that it was possible for that to have happened, but it was far more nuanced than that.
In many cases, the protection doesn’t get added to an entry until after an incident. In many cases, vandalism is obvious, but in other cases it can be subtle. Case in point:
There are probably more, but these two are my favorites. The Seigenthaler case was one of the first tests of Wikipedia and resulted in a number of policies and protections put in place. The way editors handle biographies of living people is rooted in what happened. I love the Amelia Bedelia one because it lasted for years before someone caught it and, from what I recall, because of Iggy Azalea. I know, so very weird. The point is that they are not always obvious or caught quickly. Yet, you can’t just protect every entry without destroying what makes Wikipedia so brilliant: anyone can edit it.
How To Spot Protection
You can typically spot a protected entry. If you look in the upper right corner of the entry you will see a lock symbol. If you see that, and it will most often be silver/grey, then you are seeing that basic level of protection. You will also notice that there is no option to edit an entry. It’s pretty easy to identify if you know the signs.
Tell me in the comments: have you ever vandalized a Wikipedia entry? Don’t worry! I won’t turn you in.