Early Monday morning, the Wikipedia pages for a slew of celebrities, writers, and political figures were replaced by full-page spreads of black and white swastikas on a bright red background. The vandalism was reversed within minutes of being noticed by users (and Ann Colter).
Wikipedia is certainly no stranger to vandalism on some of its more controversial pages, but this incident highlighted one of the lesser-known weaknesses in the platform’s airtight content moderation policies. Instead of targeting the content on any particular Wikipedia page, the vandal behind this blitz targeted a particular article template used by more than 50,000 different Wikipedia pages, including those for Jennifer Lopez, Joe Biden, and Discworld author Terry Pratchett.
Wow – go to Wikipedia now! Looks like it's been hacked. pic.twitter.com/wVKCriERjD
— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) August 16, 2021
According to an ongoing discussion by a handful of Wikipedia admins on one of the site’s public forums, the template’s since been fixed and the vandal in question — who first joined the site about ten days ago — has been put on an indefinite ban. One admin noted that by targeting these article templates directly, the user was able to bypass the typical protections put on certain Wikipedia pages to protect them from vandals in the first place.
When it comes to protecting the words and pictures on a page, Wikipedia’s army of admins is pretty swift when it comes to taking action. But the need to protect templates has apparently been a blind spot for moderators. According to one admin in the form, after placing protections onto a separate oft-used template, a Wikipedia user revoked those protections not long after on the grounds that the template wasn’t popular enough to merit that particular safeguard. But in light of this latest attack, many admins are changing their tune.
“I didn’t realise templates used on tens of thousands of pages weren’t template-protected as a matter of course,” one of them commented. “Something that can vandalise 53,000 pages at once seems like a big gap in security.”
According to the ongoing thread, admins have stepped in to protect templates that are used on tens of thousands of pages. Another admin noted that while the “vast majority” of templates are protected once they’re gained enough steam, evidently, some of them managed to slip through. “A template that has at least 1000 transclusions must be template-protected at least,” one of them commented. “We can’t afford yet another incident like this.”
A spokesperson for the Wikimedia Foundation told Gizmodo that the “particularly vile action” is “unacceptable,” and “violates a number of Wikipedia’s policies.”
“Volunteer administrators have already fixed the vandalism, blocked the account responsible, and will further evaluate the situation to see if additional recourse is needed,” she said. “Over the years, a number of tools and processes have been developed to quickly spot and revert vandalism on the site. Most vandalism on Wikipedia is corrected within five minutes, as we saw today.”