Sockpuppeting civil servant Wikifiddles himself
Multiple personality face stealer suspended
Exclusive Web 2.0, the believers say, gives a voice to everyone and their brother. But that's only part of the story. Truth be told, the net's second coming gives a voice to everyone and their brother and all their alter egos.
In the alternate universe cultivated by an endless parade of blogs, online discussion forums, and so-called social media sites, the CEO of Whole Foods can spend seven years masquerading as an everyday stock watcher, talking up his own company - and his own haircut - while badmouthing his biggest competitor. A senior editor at The New Republic can reinvent himself as the most vocal and devoted reader of his own very column. A 24-year-old nobody can fool a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist into thinking he's a professor of theology with a pair of PhDs.
And then there's the case of Michael Baxter, a 52-year-old British civil servant and alleged closet transvestite who used a certain free online encyclopedia to reinvent himself as a rogue's gallery of wikifiddling women. Fronting multiple Wikipedia accounts with photographs of unsuspecting young women from our world, he juggled no fewer than 15 alter egos, and eventually, a handful of these virtual personalities spilled onto other sites, including Wikipedia Review - the infamous Wikipedia criticism site - and Wipipedia - a free online encyclopedia for the London SM scene. Yes, that's Wipipedia.
"This is a story not just about Wikipedia, but about social media in general," says Timothy Usher, the longtime Wikipedia and Wikipedia Review contributor who helped expose this curious tale. "it shows what people can get away with on the web that they can't in real life."
Gagged and Bound
In the spring of 2006, Londoner Chris Selwood discovered that the free encyclopedia anyone can edit was hosting photographs of his girlfriend. The photos appeared on the "user page" of a regular Wikipedia editor known only as "Taxwoman."
"A friend of my girlfriend phoned and told us," Selwood explained during a recent interview. "At the time, we didn't even know what Wikipedia was. But she said the photos were on the page of someone who seemed to be discussing - and writing articles about - bondage. It was as if my girlfriend was posting information about various paraphernalia used within the bondage scene."
Selwood - who asks that his girlfriend remain nameless, for obvious reasons - soon created his own Wikipedia account and complained to the site's help desk. When that failed, he removed the photos himself.
But like so many new editors, he was promptly reprimanded by a longtime wikifiddler, accused of undermining efforts to put the sum of all human knowledge online. "Suddenly, I was told that I was vandalizing the site and that if I did it again my account would be deleted," he says. "I tried to tell them why I'd done it, but the response was 'How do I know you're telling the truth? How do we know you're not the one who's lying?'"
After some additional back and forth, the person behind the Taxwoman account wrote him an email - from the address "firstname.lastname@example.org" - saying the photos had been taken down. And within the year, Wikipedia administrators banned the entire account. As it turns out, the person behind Taxwoman was also behind at least nine other Wikipedia accounts, including one called "Poetlister" and another called "Rachel Brown." And some of these accounts carried photos of other young women.
Then, early this month, more than two years after Chris Selwood first complained to the Wikipedia help desk, he received an email from Timothy Usher saying that a photo of his girlfriend had reappeared on the site.
After being banned from Wikipedia, the person behind the Taxwoman, Poetlister, and Rachel Brown alter egos had taken up residence on various sister projects, including Wikiquote, Wikisource, and Wikinews - all run by the not-for-profit Wikimedia Foundation. This person continued to use the Poetlister handle, while creating additional sockpuppets with names like "Cato" and "Yehudi."
But this puppetmaster continued to claim that all these identities were separate people, using a different IP address for each one. Eventually, Poetlister became a "bureaucrat" at Wikiquote - and the site's de facto head - and after a year of good behavior on the quotation site, the account was reinstated at Wikipedia by the site's Wikicourt.
Some lobbied for the reinstatement of the other banned accounts as well, including Taxwoman. An editor named "Shalom Yechiel" even fashioned a protest page where he re-posted photos of Chris Selwood's girlfriend and various other women, insisting the banned accounts had been wrongly accused.
Meanwhile, the puppetmaster had moved several of his alter egos onto Wikipedia Review - a site dedicated to discussing the backstage drama on Wikipedia itself. In many cases, Timothy Usher says, the sockpuppets would convene in their very own discussion forum, talking to nobody but themselves. "One moderator [at Wikipedia Review] has described it as kabuki theatre - or a Barbi and Ken doll game."
Taxwoman reappeared on Wikipedia Review. And she turned up on Wipipedia, continuing to use a photo of Chris Selwood's girlfriend. "So there was my girlfriend, and it looked like she had written all these things about how she likes to be tied up and raped and chloroformed," Selwood says. "What if someone reads that? I really began to fear for her safety."
Timothy Usher also told Selwood he knew who Taxwoman really was. Usher says he received a tip from someone identifying this Wikipuppetmaster as Michael Baxter, a civil servant in the Pharmacy Statistics Division of Britain's Department of Health.
Chris Selwood then phoned Mr. Baxter at the Department of Health, asking that the photos of his girlfriend be removed from the web, and later that day, the Poetlister account yanked the photo from Shalom Yechiel's protest site.
Selwood also phoned Mr. Baxter's superiors at the Department, and he was soon told that Mr. Baxter had been suspended from his job.
Michael Baxter did not respond to our requests for comment. But when we contacted the Department of Health, one employee confirmed that Mr. Baxter works for the department and explained that a woman named Linda Percival was investigating a complaint against him.
"I can confirm that the department has received a complaint about an employee which is being investigated," Linda Percival told us over email. "We will not be making further comment at this stage."
According to Chris Selwood, Baxter most likely lifted the photo of his girlfriend from the website of a London "dressing service" known as The Boudoir. His girlfriend briefly worked for the service, which dresses men as women.
As it turns out, the Wikipedia sockpuppet known as Rachel Brown used a photo of Jodie Lynn, the owner of this dressing service. Lynn told us that one of her longtime clients is Michael Baxter. When he visits her shop, this client uses the alias Rachel Brown. And Lynn has seen photos that identify the client as Michael Baxter.
"I'm a makeup artist specifically for transvestites," Lynn tells us. "He's been coming to me for quite a few years...and when he was here, he used to ask if I could send him photographs of girlfriends of mine on my web site - and that is where he seems to have stolen the majority of the photos he used on Wikipedia."
'Assume Good Faith'
And so it would seem that this British civil servant sockpuppeted for the sake of sockpuppeting - that he simply enjoyed posing as someone else. Yes, he's an extreme case. But his tale bares the flaws of the social web in general - and Wikipedia in particular.
Wikipedia is unusually fertile ground for those looking to further a very personal agenda by masquerading as someone else. It's the eighth most popular site on the net, a source of information for web surfers the world over. And all its contributors are free to hide who they really are.
At Wikipedia, the motto is "assume good faith." Anyone can easily hide themselves behind an alternate personality - or multiple personalities - but the assumption is that no one would do such a thing.
Of course, the reality is quite different.
"Wikipedia draws narcissists to itself, like moths to a flame...You make an edit, and in just a few seconds you've 'helped shaped the content' of one of the biggest websites on Earth," says Somey, one of the webmasters at Wikipedia Review, who - yes - prefers to remain anonymous. "And pretending to be multiple people is classic narcissistic thing to do." ®