Charles Matthews: What did we learn from "Matthew Hoffman"?

This post is by Charles Matthews. Charles was a member of the English Wikipedia ArbCom from 2006 to 2008. His first guest post was On Notability. —Brianna

Some ArbCom (Arbitration Committee) cases on the English Wikipedia can reach the mainstream media: there was a recent decision on Scientology-related editing which did just that. Others are very much for insiders, and the innocuously-named Matthew Hoffman case, the topic of a recent ArbCom statement, is an example. I brought the case, a year and a half ago. This will be part retrospect, and part a meditation on “ArbCom 2009”.

What did we learn, then? The short answer is “not enough”. ArbCom 2009 has come to the view that the case should never have been accepted. I don’t think I’ll hire them as historians: the decision they have recently issued about the case is much the same as saying that in 2009 the case would not have been taken, and if taken would have been handled very differently. I’m not quarrelling with that conclusion since it is probably simply true, and it is well within ArbCom’s remit to reconsider matters and the way they were dealt with in the past. What catches my eye there is that justice was always an issue in the Hoffman case, since User:Matthew Hoffman was permanently banned by two admins on no evidence at all. That is one point, and the new statement changes nothing about it. And the other is that Wikipedia is a dynamic place. ArbCom 2009 is not ArbCom 2007 which accepted the case – only a couple of those Arbitrators are still there – and the whole context changes, particularly since ArbCom is an elected body. Elections also matter in this story, since both admins in the frame ran in the 2007 elections that could have put them on ArbCom 2008, and the case was concurrent with the election period.

The Matthew Hoffman case was brought by me because I thought the ArbCom (of which I was a member 2006-8) should look at how it could happen that two admins at the Adminstrators Noticeboard (AN) could decide on the flimsiest of grounds that the Matthew Hoffman account was a sockpuppet (of some other unspecified account), never think to ask for a CheckUser run to verify this and see what other accounts were involved, and one of them (SH as I shall call him) block the account permanently, with a misleading log entry saying “vandalism-only”. Now, in the light of the Scientology decision, the rationale on the admins’ side can be clarified this way: the class of ‘single-purpose accounts’ (SPAs) brings itself under suspicion, because an SPA edits just in one area. When (as for much Scientology-related editing) there is reason to believe that the editing of a group of SPAs is centrally organized, then worries increase. This argument was brought up in the Hoffman case, with creationism in the place of Scientology. The ArbCom of the time took little notice of this line of reasoning (rightly, in my view). It is still no crime to be an SPA, though it will in practical terms tend to tell against an editor in dispute resolution. Note the distinction, though: Hoffman was blocked by admins not trying to resolve a dispute, because the AN discussion of his case took place while he was blocked for 72 hours. That’s the key problem here with natural justice. Hoffman was locked out of responding on the site to the sockpuppet claim by a short block. (ArbCom found that while the Hoffman account was an SPA, there was no evidence at all that it was a sock. Suspicion is not evidence, but it plays a part in how matters are handled administratively on the site, so that justice is not always served.)

Someone else, before I got there, had put it to SH that the block should be reconsidered, only to be told that “sorry, it was consensus at AN”. Here’s another thing we learned, namely two admins on a noticeboard (meaning an unregulated onsite process) can decide to block someone indefinitely, on no evidence, and then fend off outside interest. That was as of 2007, and I don’t suppose the same uncritical attitude would pass muster now. It took some months for the matter to get to court, and I’ll not rehearse the whole history. The fact is that SH’s block was his personal responsibility, and was so treated by ArbCom when it took the case, which brought forth little general illumination beyond the SPA argument I have mentioned. It was shoehorned into being a case about SH; I (naturally) was recused, and this was not the inquiry I had wanted, but it was all out of my control. For more on the facts see my only extensive onsite discussion ; the matter is in the first two questions, but the joint statement in the blue box at the top of the page explains why I’m not going to cover this ground again, and indeed stopped short then.

I was outraged by the whole business: a culture of admins being unreasonable rather than responsive in this matter just created a fall guy. Let’s hope that has changed. How should it all work, in the big picture? My view: admins should be granted plenty of discretion in using their powers to defend Wikipedia’s content and mission. But admins who make poor discretionary decisions should expect to have to defend those decisions rationally when challenged; and failure to engage and make an acceptable case is a serious question mark over the admin. It’s not the mistake (we all make them), but the attitude to discussing the decisions that make up the admin workload. The admin community is in potential conflict with the small ArbCom (of about 1% of the size of the admin body) that can remove their powers. Some other Wikipedias do without an arbitration process, and so the justice mechanism is the admin body and its self-regulation; but self-regulation can be flawed, too. ArbCom can review ‘community bans’, namely bans upheld by all admins, but this kind of review now rarely causes trouble and it is unusual for a community ban appeal to succeed; this path isn’t really controversial.

The dispute that arose could certainly have been avoided by applying the maxim “thoughtful, not combative”. It was disastrous (all round) that a block discussed briefly at AN was confused with a community ban, with so much muddle. Was Hoffman a vandal, a sock, or a disruptive editor, and did anyone care which? None of the above: it was a bad block being covered up. Perfunctory discussion at AN must not be held up as deciding these matters once and for all. Why would it not have been important at least to know of what other account the Matthew Hoffman account was a sock? Why was he run off the site before being asked whether it was a real name? Those questions are pretty much rhetorical, but let’s not lose sight of natural justice. There has been strong advocacy, and much procedural argument, but let’s also hear it for the facts, evidence, and setting matters straight.

Hoffman hasn’t returned to Wikipedia. Moving on, what do we learn about ArbCom 2009? The ArbCom, as of 2009, seems to be binding itself to operate in a more tightly constrained way, by placing emphasis in its Hoffman statement on procedural rather than evidential matters. We are back to justice, but this is more like the apparatus of the television lawyer drama. In fact the ArbCom was changing as of 2008, accepting many fewer cases than before, and we are now at perhaps 25% of the caseload numerically compared to the peak period in 2006/7. These cases are generally more complex, and take several times as long to close.

The bigger picture is of admins plus ArbCom in tension on the English Wikipedia, as a shifting relationship that went through an uneasy period in 2008. We are certainly seeing some movement at the moment.

19 June, 2009 • , , ,

Comment

1

Odd, apparently what you learned was that other people were playing fast and loose with the rules to get rid of disruptive SPAs, but what everyone else learned was that you play fast and loose with the rules to get rid of people who you don’t like.

Reviewer · 20. June 2009, 01:59

2

Note to “Reviewer”. I’m well aware that others have used the case to blacken me as the party bringing it. I mentioned “strong advocacy” above. The way it goes is that those who don’t like the ArbCom’s decision (which wasn’t my decision) tend to attack my good faith. This is more convenient than looking at the facts, certainly. Supposing you actually assumed my good faith, matters would probably look different to you. If you further note that anyone calling admins to account typically gets accused of acting in some way improperly, and that this is probably still true in 2009, you will understand my choice of title. “Get rid” is emotive language, you know. WP admins should have the rights only as long as it benefits the mission, not as an entitlement. Don’t you agree?

Charles Matthews · 20. June 2009, 22:04

3

Hmm, what did we learn?

We learned that Charles Matthews is a petty, vindictive man who has no compulsions calling respected editors “dogs” and “moral pygmies”. Nor did he have any problem railroading an admin who was suffering from serious real-life medical problems at the time.

We learned that arbcom 2007 was quite willing to bend to the influence of one of their own – proposing desysopping of said admin within days, if not hours, of accepting the case. It is clear through this highly irregular process that Charles was engaged in non-transparent activism against Vanished User on the private arbitrator mailing list, though he claimed publically to be recused.

Cheers, Charles. Your value, effectiveness, and esteem as an arbitrator was abysmal. This was clearly shown by the unequivocally negative response to your re-election campaign, which I observed and participated in with a high degree of satisfaction. You have again shown yourself to be totally incapable of acknowledging any mistakes you made in your role in the Matthew Hoffman shower, despite the strong consensus that your behavior was improper. So who’s the moral pygmy again?

Chortle · 22. June 2009, 05:36

4

Now, you can’t argue both that this was a serious situation (as it was), and that looking into it was petty.

OK, first Google on the exact phrase “proverbial two men and a dog”. You are quoting out of context what I said in the Workshop about low attendance at AN (“two admins and a dog”) because there was a bystander. I explained this all to the “bystander” long ago and made my peace with him. This has been said onsite, you know. As for “moral pygmies”, that relates to the continuing disregard for natural justice of many people who look at this issue only from an admin POV. Hoffman wasn’t disruptive, but unpopular, and was lynched. I was certainly very angry about his treatment. You didn’t mention that I called AN a “kangaroo court” in my Evidence.

What you say about the ArbCom is a baseless slur. According to the recusal protocols, I went read-only on matters related to the case on the ArbCom list. (In fact I took leave for two months, for this reason and others.) You seem to think that the whole ArbCom, including the 2008 intake who had nothing to do with the background, would not have shut me up if I’d advocated on the list, and would have paid attention. That’s just broad-spectrum denigration.

Finally, the election at the end of 2008. The matter came up, and simultaneously SH made an appeal in the case, and revealed much more of his state in 2007. I had said little or nothing about the matter for a year, despite the sort of accusations you have picked up somewhere. I was more free to explain what was up. In a more recent appeal (the one the ArbCom has now reacted to) SH complained that his block log was examined in the case. Well, of course it was. There was more evidence of erratic stuff. This situation (admin in real-life crisis) is the sort of thing the ArbCom is going to get some day, and the thing turns into a tar-baby easily (as we know now). But the ArbCom cannot duck such issues, can it?

You’re wrong about this being the major issue in the election – that’s a parochial view. The 2008 election was dominated by a wish for democratic change, prompted by various 2008 issues I could go over (e.g. Orangemarlin, where I posted ArbCom statements). SH and I agreed to move on during the election, but apparently others can’t or won’t. As anons.

Charles Matthews · 22. June 2009, 20:14

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