The Wikipedia bots that are engaged in spats that never end
Posted on 22nd September 2016
Is. Isn’t. Is. Isn’t. Is. Isn’t. It’s annoying enough when kids get stuck in this kind of loop. But certain bots on Wikipedia have been at it for years, endlessly making and unmaking each other’s edits in spats that never end.
Wikipedia editors sometimes use bots to help them keep on top of changes that users have made to the online encyclopedia. But when two editors task different bots with making incompatible edits, each bot will keep finding that its work has been undone.
“We were surprised to see that they actually revert each other – and are persistent in reverting each other,” says Taha Yasseri at the Oxford Internet Institute in the UK.
The trouble is that this pattern of behaviour can be hard to spot. Weeks or months might pass between reversions – in which a line added to an article is then deleted, say – because the bots are designed to crawl the entire website and revisit the same pages only periodically.
Yasseri and his colleagues analysed a billion edits by users on Wikipedia between 2001 and 2010, including 4.7 million reversions made by 5 million human editors and 2000 bots. Despite the number of human users and bots decreasing since 2001, the volume of revisions they make has been on the up.
For example, links between versions of Wikipedia articles in different languages are frequently created and modified.
But some involve flip-flopping between disputed terms. “We had bots which have been crawling around and changing all the references to ‘Palestine’ to ‘Palestine territory’,” says Yasseri. “Or bots going around and changing all the references to ‘Persian Gulf’ to ‘Arabian Gulf’.” Other bots would then change them back again.
This activity is messy and wasteful, and the bots behave as unpredictably and inefficiently as we do, says Yasseri.
The team also found differences between bots based on the language they worked in: German bots made far fewer repetitive reversions than others, for example. This could be because bots tend to reflect cultural differences in the people who make them, says Yasseri.
It’s not the first time that bots have got into spats. Bots built to book tables at restaurants in San Francisco, California, compete with one another to make or cancel reservations. Some have even become embroiled in Twitter arguments over issues such as childhood vaccination.
Dr. Taha Yasseri
Prof. Luciano Floridi