RationalWiki parodist owns up to creating Conservapedia “hit list” article

Last Friday Ken Layne of the Wonkette political satire blog broke a story about an article on Andrew Schlafly’s Conservapedia wiki called “Senate Democrats from States with Republican Governors”, which was interpreted by Ken and others as a “helpful list of Senate Democrats to assassinate, so Republican governors can appoint GOP replacements”. Although Conservapedia quickly withdrew the article claiming it was created by a vandal or parodist, the story had legs, and when I published an article speculating that Conservapedia’s subsequent outage was connected to the article, it was picked up by PZ Myers and others, and, through referrals, has become by far the most popular article this blog has ever had, with over 4,000 page impressions to date.

And now, as the fuss dies down, a certain longtime RationalWiki user, Stile4aly, has come clean. A regular RationalWiki user since May, 2007, Stile4aly is unrepentant. “I’m glad it lasted as long as it did as it clearly exposed CP’s willingness to accept implied threats against liberals.” But in the same sentence he describes it as “pretty subtle parody”. This sounds like trying to have it both ways.

It does not reflect well on RationalWiki that the site owners turn a blind eye to this. Many of Conservapedia’s articles, particularly those on homosexuality, atheism, and Barack Obama, genuinely reflect Schlafly’s fringe views (including his obsessive belief that Obama is secretly a Muslim), but if there are people going in and deliberately inserting the most outrageous material they can, Schlafly and his adminstrators like TK can always say, with some justice, that his site has been compromised by vandals. In this case, despite my initial feelings about the matter, TK was right and I was wrong.

I am frustrated by this culture of vandalism and parody. My history on Wikipedia where we have successfully overwhelmed all attempts to cause such harm has given me a keen appreciation of the advantages of open editing, but on a much smaller wiki which is apparently already subject to quite heavy infiltration by people who mean no good, how am I to persuade the Conservapedians, as I have been trying to do, that open editing is a viable direction to take? I believe that the Conservapedians could be persuaded that permitting open editing, within their site policies, as Wikipedia already does, would improve their encyclopedia and earn it a reputation for quality. I have tried to show them good evidence gathered by Aaron Swartz suggesting that edits from one-time, casual editors have played a major part in building Wikipedia’s high quality content. But they are unlikely to appreciate the strength of this argument when faced with deliberate and organized attempts to embarrass them by planting parodic content.

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Conservapedia site crashes after posting an embarrassing “hit list”. This blogger adds 2+2, gets 5.

UPDATE: My speculation was incorrect. TK does think the editor was a parodist, particularly because of the choice of username, and the user has been blocked. The site really did have a normal early Wikipedia-style crash, and TK says that QWest will again be blocked when Conservapedia sorts out its systems issues. How many Conservapedia editors are real?

A few days ago the political satirist Wonkette noticed a very odd article on Conservapedia. It said:

The Constitution provides that if a senator is unable to complete his or her term then the governor of the state will appoint a replacement Senator. Below is a list of Senate Democrats from States with Republican Governors. Currently the Democrats hold a 58 seat majority in the Senate. If these Senators were unable to complete their terms and were replaced by qualified Republicans by their Republican governors, the Republican Party would regain a commanding majority in the Senate sufficient to prevent Barack Hussein Obama from socializing medicine, nationalizing the financial and auto industries, and creating a socialist wealth redistribution scheme.

There followed a list of about 14 Democratic Senators. Wonkette remarked on the peculiar wording, calling it a “Helpful List of Senate Democrats To Assassinate, So Republican Governors Can Appoint GOP Replacements”.

A few days after that the article was replaced with a message from an administrator called “TK”:

This “Article” Was The Work Of An Internet Parodist/Vandal

Conservapedia in no way sanctioned it, and cannot, because of the wiki format, completely stop the work of political terrorists, who are intent upon, dedicated to, mocking our conservative, Christian-friendly encyclopedia

Thank you.

–₮KAdmin/Talk Here 16:34, 24 January 2009 (EST)

Here, TK states outright that the article was created by an internet parodist or vandal.

Well sure, wikis are prone to unwanted text, often malicious, and creating spoof articles has even become a minor sport. But was this such a case? I decided to find out, so I looked at the history of the article. I found that the article had actually been created by a user called QWest, an established user who has contributed much content to Conservapedia. He alerted Conservapedia to Obama’s “My Muslim faith” gaffe, he contributed “Abstinence only sex education doesn’t work” to “Liberal Myths About Education”, he added items about the bacterial flagellum, consciousness, symbiosis and the bat to “Counterexamples to evolution”. He repeatedly tried to add Barack Obama to a list of prominent Muslims in the “Islam” article. He started the “Obama and socialism” section in the article on Barack Obama.

Now to some people, these may sound like crazy things to do, and so accordingly they may suspect that QWest was a parodist. I’m really not so sure. In fact, knowing the site, I’m pretty secure in the opinion that QWest is a real person and those are his real opinions. Site founder Andrew Schlafly himself believes Obama is covertly a Muslim, and the article on Obama still says that he “may be the first Muslim President”. The additions to “Counterexamples to evolution” are mostly absurd, but seem to be based on typical creationist misconceptions about evolution. And most people on the religious right still cling to the belief that abstinence-only education works.

I also noticed that TK had neither blocked QWest from editing, nor approached him on the wiki to communicate with him about his creation of inappropriate content.

I left a message on TK’s user talk page, informing him of his apparent error in blaming the creation of the article on a vandal or parodist, and outlined my findings about QWest’s history of good faith editing.

Shortly afterwards, the Conservapedia website started showing the following error message to all visitors, and refused to display any articles.

MediaWiki internal error.

Original exception: exception ‘DBQueryError’ with message ‘A database error has occurred Query: SELECT page_id,page_namespace,page_title,page_restrictions, page_counter,page_is_redirect,page_is_new,page_random,page_touched, page_latest,page_len FROM `page` WHERE page_namespace = ‘0’ AND page_title = ‘Main_Page’ LIMIT 1 Function: Article::pageData Error: 1033 Table ‘./conserv8_media/page’ was created with a different version of MySQL and cannot be read (localhost) ‘ in /home/conserv8/public_html/includes/db/Database.php:606

As I write this, the Conservapedia site is back up, but not for editing. It appears to be redirecting to http://www.conservativeencyclopedia.com, which is running the wki from a locked copy of the Conservapedia database dated 19 January, 2009, shortly before the “hit list” article appeared. The most recent edit on the site is 22:13 GMT, or 17:13 EST.

At first I thought they had simply messed up a planned dbms upgrade, but there seems a little too much coincidence here.