Wikipedia Bots Are Having Editing Wars That Can Last For Years


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer



One of the most infamous Wikipedia wars took place in 2013, when human editors on the site wrote more than 40,000 words over two months arguing whether the film Star Trek Into Darkness should have a capital “i” or not.



But it appears it’s not just humans involved in petty squabbles on the online encyclopedia. A study in PLOS ONE has highlighted how bots, used to perform trivial edits on articles, can have “arguments” that last for years.

Led by the University of Oxford and the Alan Turing Institute in the UK, the study looked at 13 different language editions of Wikipedia over 10 years, from 2001 to 2010. Thousands of bots made edits during this time, developed to perform menial tasks including checking spelling and undoing vandalism.

Occasionally, however, it appears that bots can get in a spat with each other over a particular edit, leading them to continuously revert the edits of another bot. As there are so many pages, it takes the bots a while to crawl back to the edited page, so the arguments can last for months or even years.

Some bots, for example, would consistently change “Palestine” to “Palestine Territory” and back, while others argued over “Persian Gulf” and “Arabian Gulf”. Some of the pages most contested concerned Pervez Musharraf (former president of Pakistan), Uzbekistan, Estonia, Belarus, the Arabic language, Niels Bohr, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.


“This has implications not only for how we design artificial agents but also for how we study them,” lead author Dr Milena Tsvetkova, from the Oxford Internet Institute, said in a statement. “We need more research into the sociology of bots.”

Bots make up just 0.1 percent of editors in Wikipedia, but they are useful. On the English Wikipedia, for example, there are 41,512,395 pages and counting to maintain, with 2,065 bots approved to edit and change these articles.

The researchers found that the most spats occurred on the Portuguese edition of Wikipedia, with an average of 185 bot-bot revisions per bot. German Wikipedia had the least, with just 24, while English Wikipedia had 105.

The reason is likely down to the spelling and grammar nuances of each language. But while interesting, it also poses a problem for artificial intelligence in the future, particularly with things like self-driving cars.


“The findings show that even the same technology leads to different outcomes depending on the cultural environment,” said co-author Dr Taha Yasseri, also from the Oxford Internet Institute, in the statement. “An automated vehicle will drive differently on a German autobahn to how it will through the Tuscan hills of Italy.”

The bot interactions died down in 2013, when Wikipedia made changes to its inter-language links. But this turbulent period in the site’s history shows we’ve still got much to learn about our artificial counterparts.

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