It didn’t take long for the vandals to force their way in.
Hannah was eating a bowl of Mini-Wheats in the kitchen when she got the breaking-news alert on her phone. The words made her jump from her chair.
She shouted at her dad and darted upstairs to her bedroom. Then she opened her laptop, found her Wikipedia watchlist and clicked on one of her most frequented pages: Mike Babcock.
“Honestly, it’s kind of like a race,” said the criminology student who had logged on as her alter ego, HickoryOughtShirt?4. “It’s not supposed to be but that’s how I view it. It’s a race to be the first one to edit it.”
The Toronto Maple Leafs’ decision to fire their head coach in the middle of an ugly road trip sent shockwaves through the hockey world. It’s the type of news that picks up steam quickly. Most hockey fans go online to sites like Twitter or Reddit to share their thoughts, opinions and GIFs.
But a few have their fun another way — by anonymously falsifying information on Wikipedia, the world’s largest online encyclopedia.
“I already saw a ton of vandalism that I immediately reverted, it happens so quickly,” Hannah said about that Wednesday afternoon.
The first unwanted article edit came in at 4:48 p.m., when an unregistered user changed Babcock’s occupation to “Unemployed Loser” just 18 minutes after the Leafs announced his ousting on Twitter. Vandalizing Wikipedia articles has become common in the sports world, where a screenshot of even a short-lived edit to an article can go viral on social media.
According to hockey fans who used Wikipedia to vent, Babcock coached a joke of a team and loves to sit his star players so he can play fourth liners; he served fries as the head coach of the McDonald’s Morons; his current team is Robidas Island; he’s a dictator, eats a lot and is the worst coach in Leafs history.
Those are just the PG-13 comments.
Hannah, who chose to hide her identity because “women are perceived differently” in the hockey community, has seen it first hand. She has been overseeing Wikipedia hockey pages in an administrator’s capacity for two years and has amassed over 61,000 edits. She’s part of a small team of volunteers who dedicate countless hours to protecting facts on a site that sees 18 billion views per month and lets anyone edit articles without even logging in. That makes watching out for “vandals” — how the Wiki community describes the falsehood-spreaders — a top priority.
When it comes to anything about the Maple Leafs, the vandals come in waves. “I try not to take it too personally, but it is really frustrating,” she said.
The night before the firing, shortly after the Leafs lost to the Golden Knights, someone vented his or her frustrations with the team’s six-game losing skid by changing Babcock’s page to read “formerly served as head coach of the Leafs.”
It turned out to be an accurate prediction, but HickoryOughtShirt?4 was on the spot to clean it up in the wee hours of the morning. She usually is.
“Mike Babcock was one of the first pages I edited when I added that he was very passionate about depression and mental health issues in November 2017. So ever since I’ve been following that page because there’s been a lot of vandalism,” Hannah said, adding former Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner and Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara to that list.
She was there when the Leafs lost to the Bruins in Game 7 back in April and multiple users mocked Babcock’s coaching strategy, while another listed his job status as vacant and his previous employer as the Bruins. She was there when someone called Gardiner a “Game 7 choker” after he signed with the Carolina Hurricanes in September. And she was certainly there last week, when Babcock’s profile was barraged with edits from unregistered users, known as IPs because their username defaults to their IP address.
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In the span of two and a half hours following his dismissal, 73 edits were made on Babcock’s Wikipedia page, including 26 by IPs. At 7:02 p.m., an administrator made the page semi-protected, meaning only registered users could edit the page for three days. The same thing happened to Gardiner’s article after a different Game 7 loss last year.
Cleaning up the mess can be frustrating for admins like Hannah, especially on those relentless nights when major news breaks. “Some of them are funny, honestly,” she admitted, though it’s unclear how she felt about the person who subtly changed the word “duties” to “doodies” near the bottom of Babcock’s article.
“No matter how you look at it, no matter how frustrating it may be to deal with the vandalism, it can be funny,” said Anne, an administrator from Southern Ontario known as ‘Risker’ who has been editing on Wikipedia for 15 years and like Hannah prefers to conceal her identity. “The first time it happens it’s funny. The subsequent times though? No, no, no.”
Every day, the 500 or so active Wikipedia administrators like HickoryOughtShirt?4 and Risker spend free time fact checking, adding missing information, writing new articles and combating vandalism for Wikipedia. However, the site has nearly 6 million articles in the English-language edition alone, and maintaining them would be impossible for the admins without the help of other visitors lending the odd helping hand when they see something that needs an edit.
Hannah, who spends about five hours a day editing, is grateful to those users. That was how she started when she signed up for a Wikipedia event in her first year at York University.
“I think I liked it from the very first moment. I’m a nerd,” Hannah said. “The idea of verifying information to Wikipedia, I just think that’s so much fun. And it really bothers me when people question its validity.”
She’s a corrector in real life, too. If someone had the story wrong at a dinner party, Hannah might chime in. Or when her professor told the class that Wikipedia wasn’t reliable, she raised her hand to inform him that everything gets verified under strict guidelines. He called her ‘Wikipedia’ for the rest of the semester.
Hannah takes pride in her growing edit total and has recently found an interest in creating new articles for historical women, who she feels are underrepresented on Wikipedia. Even the never-ending quest to fight vandals brings her a sense of gratification.
“I feel like if I was in that person’s shoes being vandalized, I would be very upset,” she said. “I don’t really have a responsibility to do it, but I feel like it’s my duty to protect people.”
On Wednesday, Nov. 20, Babcock needed Hannah’s protection; Gardiner needed it before him. With the way the Leafs are playing now, it might be a while before Hannah takes on a swarm of vandals again.
But when the time comes, you can bet HickoryOughtShirt?4 will be logged on and ready to go.