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This is a linkpost for https://www.tracingwoodgrains.com/p/reliable-sources-how-wikipedia-admin, posted in full here given its relevance to this community. Gerard has been one of the longest-standing malicious critics of the rationalist and EA communities and has done remarkable amounts of work to shape their public images behind the scenes.

Note: I am closer to this story than to many of my others. As always, I write aiming to provide a thorough and honest picture, but this should be read as the view of a close onlooker who has known about much within this story for years and has strong opinions about the matter, not a disinterested observer coming across something foreign and new. If you’re curious about the backstory, I encourage you to read my companion article after this one.

Introduction: Reliable Sources

Wikipedia administrator David Gerard cares a great deal about Reliable Sources. For the past half-decade, he has torn through the website with dozens of daily edits—upwards of fifty thousand, all told—aimed at slashing and burning lines on the site that reference sources deemed unreliable by Wikipedia. He has stepped into dozens of official discussions determining which sources the site should allow people to use, opining on which are Reliable and which are not. He cares so much about Reliable Sources, in fact, that he goes out of his way to provide interviews to journalists who may write about topics he’s passionate about, then returns to the site to ensure someone adds just the right quotes from those sources to Wikipedia articles about those topics and to protect those additions from all who might question them.

While by Wikipedia’s nature, nobody can precisely claim to speak or act on behalf of the site as a whole, Gerard comes about as close as anyone really could. He’s been a volunteer Wikipedia administrator since 2004, has edited the site more than 200,000 times, and even served off and on as the site’s UK spokesman. Few people have had more of a hand than him in shaping the site, and few have a more encyclopedic understanding of its rules, written and unwritten.

Reliable sources, a ban on original research, and an aspiration towards a neutral point of view have long been at the heart of Wikipedia’s approach. Have an argument, editors say? Back it up with a citation. Articles should cover “all majority and significant minority views” from Reliable Sources (WP:RS) on the topic “fairly, proportionately, and, as far as possible, without editorial bias” (WP:NPOV). The site has a color-coding system for frequently discussed sources: green for reliable, yellow for unclear, red for unreliable, and dark red for “deprecated” sources that can only be used in exceptional situations.

The minutiae of Wikipedia administration, as with the inner workings of any bureaucracy, is an inherently dry subject. On the site as a whole, users sometimes edit pages directly with terse comments, other times engage in elaborate arguments on “Talk” pages to settle disputes about what should be added. Each edit is added to a permanent history page. To understand any given decision, onlookers must trawl through page after page of archives and discussions replete with tidily packaged references to one policy or another. Where most see boredom behind the scenes and are simply glad for mostly functional overviews of topics they know nothing about, though, a few see opportunity. Those who master the bureaucracy in behind-the-scenes janitorial battles, after all, define the public’s first impressions of whatever they care about.

Since 2017, when Wikipedia made the decision to ban citations to the Daily Mail due to “poor fact-checking, sensationalism, and flat-out fabrication,” editors have waged an intense, quiet war over which sources to ban, which to give strict scrutiny to, and which to crown as Reliable. Based on the site’s policy, it’s easy to understand why: while editors with a stake in the frame of an article have to acquiese to determined opponents bearing Reliable Sources—or at least must have long, grinding disputes about what should be emphasized and why—if they can whip a consensus to declare the sources opponents would use unreliable, they can win edit wars before they happen. This extends well beyond simple factual coverage: cite an opinion or even a movie review from one of those sources, and Gerard or other editors sweep in to remove it as having undue weight.

The battle over the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative online newspaper that alternates between tabloid-style sensationalism and serious, in-depth investigative journalism provides a good example of how this works in practice: in three sparse discussions (one, two, three), a dozen or so editors opined, for example, that it “doesn’t particularly have a reputation for journalistic credibility,” with one citing two Snopes articles in support but most presenting bare opinions. As a result of those sparse discussions, Wikipedia editors treat the site as generally unreliable. Every citation to it is presumed suspect, and rather than spending time and effort haggling over each, editors are broadly free to remove them en masse after cursory examination. In practice, this means Gerard scanning through dozens of articles in the span of a few minutes, tearing out all information cited to the Free Beacon as presumptively unreliable.

Some of Gerard’s recent Free Beacon–focused edits.

In Gerard’s frame, and in Wikipedia’s, if something is not cited by a Reliable Source, it may as well not exist. As Gerard puts it: “if it's in [a Reliable Source][1] use the [Reliable Source], and if it's not in [a Reliable Source] then the real world didn't care.”

Gerard’s Standards for Reliable Sources

Unsurprisingly, Gerard’s slash-and-burn, no-questions-asked policy has led to more than a few conflicts on Wikipedia. Editors who object to his indiscriminate removals have raised the issue multiple times to Wikipedia administrators, on talk pages, and elsewhere around the site. Each time, Gerard defends the approach of indiscriminately removing everything from Unreliable Sources, generally carrying on with removals as the disputes carry on. Each time, the arguments peter out with nothing in particular changing. In one case, another Wikipedia administrator, Sandstein, pushed to ban a user for repeatedly criticizing Gerard’s judgment on the matter.

In other words, whatever Wikipedia’s written policy, the practical day-to-day reality is that Gerard will remove Unreliable Sources en masse with terse explanations and with little consideration for actual content, digging in with elaborate justification when pressed. Given that, it’s worth examining the reliability battles Gerard picks.

Most interesting to me is the case of Huffington Post. See, in addition to volunteering as a Wikipedia administrator, Gerard is the system administrator and owner of the Twitter account for RationalWiki, a left-liberal wiki focused on directing snark and critique towards groups and concepts the authors dislike, from effective altruists to right-wingers to woo. Gerard has edited RationalWiki upwards of 30,000 times. He updated the site’s harshly critical article on the Huffington Post occasionally, one time adding one of its most scathing critiques: “The truth is not in them.”

Gerard on HuffPo, RationalWiki

When it came time to comment about them on Wikipedia, though, he was rather more enthusiastic, calling the site “a perfectly normal [news organization] on this level” and raising an eyebrow when people wanted to rate its politics section as less than reliable.[2]

As of today, Wikipedia treats the Huffington Post as wholly reliable for non-politics content and unclear for political content.

During discussions of PinkNews, an LGBT-focused news outlet, the user gnu57 provided several examples of journalistic misconduct:

  • The site defamed lesbian Scottish politician Joanna Cherry, falsely claiming she was being investigated for homophobia, retracting only after Cherry pursued legal options against them.
  • The site falsely claimed the Israeli health minister had called coronavirus a “divine punishment for homosexuality.”
  • The site made salacious, misleading claims about Bill O’Reilly.
  • The site has a history of tabloid-esque sensationalism, clickbait, and photoshops about celebrities

Gerard, examining the outlet when it came up for comment, lauded it as highly reliable, emphasizing that “claims of journalistic malfeasance on their part didn't check out at all when we looked into them and discovered they'd actually handled them in an exemplary fashion.” Later, he pushed successfully for it to be treated as a fully reliable source despite a note from the discussion that caution should be used.

Wikipedia currently treats PinkNews as a Reliable Source.

He regularly makes similar nudges around sites like The Daily Beast (“Generally reliable - not perfect, but a normal news source, editorial processes, etc - no reason not to use it as a source") and Teen Vogue (“Their news coverage is solid - surprising for a fashion magazine, but it's like the surprise when Buzzfeed News turned out to be a good solid RS too”), as well as supporting the removal of any notes of partisanship from Vox.

What of the sources he is less favorably inclined towards? Unsurprisingly, he dismisses far-right websites like Taki’s Magazine (“Terrible source that shouldn't be used for anything, except limited primary source use.”) and Unz (“There is no way in which using this source is good for Wikipedia.”) in a virtually unanimous chorus with other editors. It’s more fruitful to examine his approach to more moderate or “heterodox” websites.

He would prefer to see Quillette, Claire Lehmann’s longform magazine focused on science and cultural critique and the home of, among other things, the best-researched article I know of on gender differences in chess, banned from the site entirely: “unreliable, editorially incompetent, repeatedly caught publishing false information, conspiracy theories and hoaxes, [undue weight] for opinions.”

What about The Free Press, created by former New York Times editor Bari Weiss to cover investigative stories and provide commentary she felt was being stifled at the Times? To ask is to know the answer: “It was created not to be "reliable" in any Wikipedia sense, but to feed the opinions of the sort of conspiracy theorist who uses large words spelt correctly. If TheFP ran that the sky was blue, I'd see if I could find an actually-reliable source and cite that instead.”

While he has not yet succeeded in getting either source formally deprecated, Wikipedia considers both unreliable and he prioritizes removing citations to them in his edits.

His treatment of the libertarian flagship publication Reason Magazine (which, despite him, remains a Reliable Source even on Wikipedia) stands out the most: based solely on tendentious readings of issues from nearly fifty years ago, he warns people to “apply extreme caution,” saying he “wouldn't use it at all except where unavoidable.”

In each instance, he is backed up by a vocal contingent of equally opinionated like-minded editors, who go by pseudonyms such as Aquillion, XOR’Easter, or NorthBySouthBaranof. This is the sort of coordination that requires no conspiracy, no backroom dealing—though, as in any group, I’m sure some discussions go on—just the natural outgrowth of common traits within the set of people whose Special Interest is arguing about sources deep in the bowels of an online encyclopedia.

Wikipedia’s job is to repeat what Reliable Sources say. David Gerard’s mission is to determine what Reliable Sources are, using any arguments at his disposal that instrumentally favor sources he finds agreeable. The debate, to be clear, is not between tabloids and the New York Times, a battle the Times cleanly wins. In Gerard’s world, scientists and academics who publish in Quillette or Reason are to have even their opinions discarded entirely, while to cast any doubt on the reliability of the word of Huffington “the truth is not in them” Post and PinkNews is absurd.

From there, it’s simple: Wikipedia editors dutifully etch onto the page, with a neutral point of view, that Huffington Post writers think this, PinkNews editors think that, and experienced Harvard professors who make the mistake of writing for The Free Press think nothing fit for an encyclopedia.

As I mentioned to Substack’s Chris Best recently, I am not a blind cynic about institutions or a blind supporter of those who sing the counter-melody. Whatever the faults of, say, the New York Times, and there are many, its resources and will to remain as the paper of record remain unmatched. Outlets like The Free Press and Quillette are at their best when they act as competition and correction mechanisms for these institutions, covering areas legacy outlets overlook, and they cannot hope to compete in scope or depth. Giving the Times more weight than The Free Press makes perfect sense for an encyclopedia, but what actually goes on at Wikipedia is something else entirely.

All of that, though, leaves one question unanswered: How did Gerard get into a spot like that in the first place?

Who Is David Gerard?

What drives Gerard in all of this? In truth, I expected I would find an unsympathetic backstory, but what I found instead was a love story.

To be more specific, I found a breakup story, one that answers a question scholars and poets have asked for centuries:

What happens when your spurned ex is a devoted archivist, a Wikipedia administrator, and perhaps the most online man the world has ever known?

The first thing people notice upon browsing Gerard’s accounts on Mastodon, tumblr, Twitter, Bluesky, LinkedIn, Reddit (formerly), Facebook, his blog, or sites he's contributed to is that he hates crypto. The second thing people notice is that he really hates crypto. The third thing they notice is that he also hates rationalists: AI prophet of doom Eliezer Yudkowsky, psychiatrist and polymath Scott Alexander, and the sprawling subculture that has sprung up around their writing. Eventually, if people dive deep into his archives, they might find his other interests. His Reddit comments are representative here:

“Buttcoin” is a group dedicated to making fun of crypto. “SneerClub” is a group dedicated to making fun of rationalists. “GamerGhazi” is a group dedicated to making fun of antiwoke gamers. “WormFanfic” is a group dedicated to fan stories of one of the most popular, sprawling works of online fiction around. And “EnoughLibertarianSpam” is a group dedicated to making fun of libertarians.

All of his social media is like this. Post after post, day after day, laughing at everything he hates. He has books, too: Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain, laughing about why he hates Bitcoin, and Libra Shrugged, laughing at Facebook’s failed attempt at cryptocurrency. I first became loosely aware of him half a decade ago, when I was an active participant in the conversations in and around Scott Alexander’s writing. As far as I was concerned, he was simply a force of nature, unchanging and eternal. The sun rose, the tides came in, Gerard mocked crypto and rationalists.

But history, it turns out, is rather longer than my own participation in it, and the 57-year-old Gerard has been busy my entire life.

When I reached out to him for comment on this article, he replied, “I can't see this as any sort of productive use of my time, sorry. I'm sure you can cobble together something from the extant public records.” To his credit, he has almost always used his own name online and has rarely pushed for any of his behavior to be deleted. The archives of his online activity are vast, touching on three full decades of online history. He calls himself the Forrest Gump of the internet, and honestly, I can’t particularly disagree.

The Early Romantic Years

Back in 1995, when I was born, Gerard was my age, and the internet was in its infancy, he was the sort of person drawn immediately to its promise: an Australian sci-fi fan and early career sysadmin, a proudly weird bisexual and polyamorous goth—and hey, let he who is not a gay furry cast the first stone—who divided his time between parties, “ministry” in the parody Church of the SubGenius, and conversations in still-young online chatrooms.

As far as he was concerned, the internet was a place for reason, freedom, and fun, and he hopped on its early trends enthusiastically—particularly its fight against Scientology. “Scientology itself is not important,” he explained on the anti-scientology page[3] he hosted on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s free-speech-focused server, “but the organization must be made an example of so that others do not [f---] with the Net.” He wrote impassioned arguments against them, joined demonstrations, and leaned into his self-image as Defender of the Net. “I view dealing with Scientology,” he said, “as part of basic social hygiene. The community equivalent of cleaning the toilet on a regular basis.”

Assange would go on, in fact, to cite experiences on that server, facing down demands from the Church of Scientology to expose Gerard as the site’s creator, as a key part of his inspiration for WikiLeaks.

Gerard loved the internet. It was his tribe, his people: a group of nerdy, edgy, iconoclastic men—and it was, in those days, almost all men in the spaces he spent his time—on the cutting edge of a technology that would transform the world, brimming with possibility that they had a chance to define. Free thinkers, they would call themselves, devoted to a quasi-left, quasi-libertarian pastiche of techno-optimism, love of Science, atheism, hacker culture, free (and often deliberately shocking) speech and free software, and social liberalism. Information wants to be free, they cried. They jeered at the backwards Christian “moral majority,” blanched at anything resembling censorship, and looked for chances to offend the retrograde values of their elders. And Gerard leaned in, devoting his time and talents to advancing its mission, as he perceived it, any chance he saw.

Sometimes, this meant fighting against Scientology. Later, it meant playing host to one of the internet’s most infamous shock sites, Lemonparty, which greeted visitors with the sight of three elderly men having sex, as well as several lesser-known shock sites (alleged examples include “yourmom.org”, “thewillpower.org”, and “k-k-k.com”). But it was only when an ambitious young site promising to provide a free catalogue of the world’s information came onto the scene that he found his true online vocation: wiki editing.

It might be tempting to focus only on the salacious, and here and there Gerard’s old edits tell amusing stories, as when he argued passionately in defense of keeping anatomic photos directly visible on sex-related pages (“What are you people doing looking up autofellatio at work in the first place?”), but the simple reality is that the majority of his early Wikipedia edits were earnest, straightforward tweaks to articles touching on one or another of his interests on a fledgling site. He created a page for Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, built scientology pages, and tweaked and opined on pages on everything from OpenOffice to cosmotheism to Australian indie rock. When a major moment like the AACS encryption key controversy came around, Gerard was there in the background watching and documenting.

In 2004, he joined the site’s list of administrators, gaining access over time to tools like locking pages, blocking other users from editing, permanently deleting content from Wikipedia, and eventually becoming the first (and, for a time, only) editor on the site able to see IP addresses of other editors (“checkuser”). Later, having moved to the United Kingdom, he became the country’s volunteer press contact for the site.

Gerard was an early and active participant in the process of establishing and shaping Wikipedia policy, most notably penning most of a thoughtful essay on practical process focused on exploring how to build human-centered rules. He hammered out much of the essay’s content with his fellow Wikipedia editor and close friend, a pre-transition trans woman who would later become known as Elizabeth Sandifer[4]. The essay’s core point: “Instructions are useless to restrain the clueless or malicious, as the clueless won't understand and the malicious won't care.” Throughout it, he focuses on the risks of rules lawyering and obsessive process tweaks aiming to cover every edge case, the importance of common sense, and the damages bad processes could cause. One of his points stands above the rest:

"Some people write things as hard rules because it is important for others to follow them. Editorial guidelines get phrased as didactic policy. This results in phenomena such as Wikipedia:Reliable Sources (a guideline) being taken as robotic instructions, regardless of damage to the articles (gutting them of content) or damage to public relations (people kept from clearing up press errors in the articles about them), or used as a bludgeon by [point-of-view] warriors."

In addition, Gerard wrote extensive suggestions on how to handle the delicate process of writing biographies of living people on Wikipedia, many of which reflect the site’s current policy in that regard. At one point, Gerard suggested a top-to-bottom rewrite of Wikipedia’s article on reliable sources in line with his and Sandifer’s preferences, pointing to Sandifer’s academic experience teaching a course on the subject.

Wikipedia was always staid and self-serious, and it didn’t take long for other wikis to spring up and for Gerard and other editors to turn to them to blow off some steam. First came Uncyclopedia, a nonsensical parody site of Wikipedia, in 2005. There, Gerard contributed a logo and several tweaks to the page of an imagined cartoonishly racist baseball team (strong content warning on that one)[5], created a (somewhat NSFW) page calling sarcastically for “furry tolerance,” and generally joined in the site’s pursuit of the peculiar style of early 2000s internet humor we all know and, ah, know. Gerard, after all, went online back when all the sin was still original.

The logo Gerard made for an Uncyclopedia parody page of the Cleveland Indians (the Birmingham [slurs])

Two years later, after a Christian conservative activist created Conservapedia aiming to balance out a perceived liberal bias on Wikipedia, a few skeptics banded together to create what would become Gerard’s next online home: RationalWiki, aiming in its own words to “analyze and refute pseudoscience and the anti-science movement, document crank ideas, explore conspiracy theories, authoritarianism, and fundamentalism, and analyze how these subjects are handled in the media.” The site took a similar approach to Gerard’s anti-scientology work: archive, rebut, mock. Gerard joined the site a year after its founding, quickly becoming a prolific editor.

While Gerard’s early years as an editor and admin mostly went smoothly from an outside view (notwithstanding the complaints of Wikipedia’s own sneer club of the day), he showed some early signs of willingness to abuse his role to further petty feuds or to smooth over inconvenient moments. Cade Metz[6], now a New York Times tech correspondent, documented many of those moments in his years of Wikipedia muckraking. One, Gerard’s 2009 feud with Australian political blogger Andrew Landeryou, stands out. It gets a bit into the weeds of Wikipedia policy, but bear with me.

After Gerard apparently used his IP-revealing (“checkuser”) powers to post Landeryou’s personal information in a scathing blog post, Wikipedia’s “arbitration committee” (ArbCom)[7] elected to strip him of those powers for abuse, dissemination of private information, and “failing to maintain proper decorum in public fora.” In response, Gerard accused the committee of libel, and Mike Godwin (of Godwin’s Law fame), then general counsel for the Wikimedia Foundation, pressured the committee to reconsider and permanently delete all record of their decision. This was mostly unprecedented on Wikipedia, and the whole thing caused an enormous stir.

Leaked emails show the thinking of the arbitration committee at the time:

We need to show him the door. I'm sorry, but he's a liability for the project(s) and his apparent status gives him the credibility to cause real harm. It's a shame he's on so many rolodexes, but he still blusters around as though he is speaking from the project when we are consistently ashamed of his behavior.

He's had numerous chances before; we all tried several time to ask him to tone his rhetoric down and he is unwilling or unable to. We need to make it very clear that his behavior is unwelcome and unbecoming, and that any pretension of speaking for the project is entirely illusory.

After securing his retraction, Gerard mostly moved on, encouraging others to do so as well.

Gerard had previously feuded with, and used his admin tools against, the editor on the other end of this statement. Sandifer defended Gerard at the time.

That same year, a new challenger arose to the “rational” title: LessWrong, Eliezer Yudkowsky’s spin-off from the group blog Overcoming Bias. It was an ambitious project, aiming to create a community of “rationalists” centered around lengthy sequences of articles focused on different aspects of the art of rational thinking. Gerard watched with detached interest for a time, soon building a RationalWiki article about the site (“The good: Most of the articles are very interesting, and Yudkowsky's work in particular is very thought-provoking. He really is pretty [d---] smart and clueful. / The bad: The personality cult of Eliezer Yudkowsky.”).

Prodded by Paul Crowley, an old friend of his from the UK goth scene and bisexual conventions and an eager participant in the rationalist community, Gerard started to post to LessWrong in October 2010. “LessWrong irritating me seems good for me. Or productive, anyway,” he mused in his introductory post. “This may not be the same thing.”

The introduction would, in a peculiar way, prove pivotal for both Gerard and LessWrong, with his time on the site and his eventual revulsion towards it acting as a microcosm for a much broader change sweeping the internet and setting the stage for one of his longest-term obsessions: controlling the public image of its users through every tool at his disposal.

Gerard’s fling with LessWrong in the twilight of the old internet

From the time of its launch, LessWrong has been a honeypot for intelligent autodidacts cynical about institutions, nerds obsessed with logic and speaking truthfully, almost all of a sort of transhumanist bent. Its founder, Eliezer Yudkowsky, is a high school dropout who became fascinated by the Singularity early on and began to write and advocate first to pursue it, then—worrying that a powerful AI, carelessly designed, could destroy humanity—to slow AI progress and figure out how to align it better to human values. The community that formed around that writing began to examine topics like AI, transhumanism, cognitive biases, cryonics, Bayes’ theorem, life extension, game theory, prediction markets, motivation, and rather a lot more. News outlets that paid attention to them at the time treated them as a curiosity, a Berkeley-based group exemplifying many quirks of the Bay Area, from their transhumanist bent to their fascination with the potential and risks of artificial intelligence to their frequent rejection of conventional taboos around topics like polyamory or IQ.

Yudkowsky was an early advocate of Effective Altruism, a movement focused on understanding how to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people, and was the first to use the term (though he shrugs off the idea that he coined it). Their utilitarian, numbers-driven, distance-blind approach to ethics suited Yudkowsky and the rationalists perfectly, and while they were not the founders of the movement, they were early and enthusiastic participants as it developed.

I was one of many who found both RationalWiki and LessWrong as a curious young teenager with a skeptical bent. I looked up to both, at the time—so many brilliant people who knew so much more than I did, taking the time to guide people towards reason and strike out against falsehood—but after a time I bounced off LessWrong, frustrated by their dismissal of religious people and conscious of a tension between their frame and that of the Mormon faith I loved.

Gerard had no such hesitancy. As with everywhere else he decided to participate, Gerard launched himself at LessWrong with a sort of frenetic energy and enthusiasm for participation, reading and rereading every post in the sprawling main section of the site and commenting more than three thousand times over a few years. In one early comment, he noted that he’d thought the site was “way weirder than it actually turned out to be.” His commentary at LessWrong, mostly earnest, open, and free of snark, provides one of the best windows into his thought processes.

While he agreed with site users like Scott Alexander that the site drove newcomers off with a flood of posts that “require you believe in [their] particular formulation of transhuman singulitarianism” to even make sense of their premises, he was gratified to realize that the site welcomed and rewarded his criticism when he phrased it well. He noted the intelligence of its users repeatedly, explaining that he was attracted by the amount of “really smart people” there and that the site “knocks [Wikimedia] into the shade” as a source of people smarter than he was to interact with[8].

By early 2011, Gerard began to pen lists of benefits he saw from using the site and felt inspired to make his first-ever edit to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Wikipedia page, noting both that Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter fanfiction was “highly popular” and that Yudkowsky used a Dvorak keyboard. He also brought periodic Wikipedia criticism to the site, in particular around its use of “reliable sources.” “Wikipedia,” he said, “has evolved its own epistemology of where knowledge comes from.” He noted that it “generates absurdities like regarding newspapers as ‘reliable sources’, which anyone who’s ever been quoted in one will laugh hysterically in horror at,” and that it treated its approach not just as one of many options, but as “the way to abstract truth for an encyclopedia.”

David Gerard’s first edit to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Wikipedia article (Gerard’s additions highlighted on right)

During this timeframe, Gerard acted as a sort of ambassador from RationalWiki to LessWrong, as well as the primary editor of the RationalWiki page on the site. To RationalWiki readers, he described LessWrong as “the teetotalling and disapproving older brother of RationalWiki, waiting for us to get off the drugs and sex and follow them into an Ivy League college,” a place worth checking out but with some annoying features that he would fixate on. To LessWrong readers, he described RationalWiki as the place to clean up “alligator-laden swamps” and “toxic waste spills” in sanity’s waterways while LessWrong aimed to raise the sanity waterline, and repeatedly aimed to reassure them that RationalWiki really did love them and should be thought of as an “unpleasable fanbase,” often seeming disappointed that LessWrong users didn’t simply take his teasing as friendly banter[9].

The consensus LessWrong position on RationalWiki, meanwhile, was best put by the user Vladimir_M:

Pretty much any RW article I've ever seen takes the premise that the position of the mainstream academia -- and, in case of more explicitly politicized topics, the left-center of the respectable public opinion -- is correct, and any serious contrarian position can be held only by comically nutty crackpots or sinisterly malevolent extremists. Now, this isn't always a bad heuristic: it produces more or less correct conclusions on topics where the aforementioned institutions are usually reliable, such as, say, physics. But on any topic where they are significantly biased, RW ends up as a passionate defender of all their biases and falsities. And from what I've seen, the RW writers typically make no serious effort to study such topics dispassionately, but instead jump at the first opportunity to engage in ideological warfare, typically via ignorant sneering and mocking.

In a soul-searching pub conversation with Crowley (the friend who got him to start posting on LessWrong), Gerard confronted this tendency as it related to cryonics, a decidedly weird idea that rationalists embraced and he found absurd. The two of them concluded that Gerard would not sign up for cryonics unless it was socially normal, and Gerard concluded that the rationalist goal should be to make cryonics normal. Gerard emphasized alongside this that he is extremely conservative about changing his mind or embracing new ideas[10].

Gerard’s hatred of crypto, long core to his preferred self-presentation, provides another example of his mindset. He dipped his toes into the topic in May of 2011 year by linking a critical article on LessWrong while expressing ambivalence about its contents. That June, he wrote his own scathing article about Bitcoin and created a RationalWiki article mocking it.

I have never particularly cared for the world of crypto. As Zvi Mowshowitz says, it’s been a hive of scum and villainy for most of its existence, with plenty of idealists and well-meaning honest people and plenty more scumbags getting rich and running exchanges. If someone wants to play the role of perennial industry critic, I can think of many worse spaces to do so than crypto. It is also a domain in which I have near-zero personal expertise, one where I have little capacity to make sophisticated criticisms.

But, well… look. Back when he started mocking Bitcoin, one Bitcoin cost around $6. Now, it costs $50,000.

I do not know if Gerard ever hedged his criticism with investment in case he was wrong, and perhaps if not he would say that standing on principle was more valuable than money. All I know is that if he had hedged just a bit as he jumped on the cutting edge of criticism of an emerging technology, he could have written his later anti-crypto books while living in luxury in early retirement.

While Gerard was almost always civil on LessWrong and remained a regular participant until 2014, he was upfront about his frequent annoyances. LessWrong was too weird, too jargon-heavy, too trapped in a libertarian frame where “politics is the mindkiller” and thus its background politics could go unchallenged. Although he cared about intelligence and encouraged people to donate sperm in part to so they could “add a human of higher intelligence to the population,” he was repulsed by conversations about anything to do with race and IQ, a topic a few posters would occasionally raise. When someone discussed the topic at a meetup, he decided that would be the last meetup he went to.

Towards the top of his list of grievances was Roko’s Basilisk, an infamous thought experiment raised by a LessWrong poster, then deleted by Yudkowsky, imagining a future superintelligence that might retroactively blackmail people who failed to work sufficiently to bring it about. While it was a blip for most on the site, one of many curiosities they spend a moment thinking about before moving on, Gerard came to see it as the perfect encapsulation of his frustration with the weirdness and failure states of rationalism. It was, he said shortly after its occurrence, “a defining moment in the history of LessWrong” that “will be in every history of the site forever.”

Frustrations or no, Gerard would continue to have civil, wide-ranging conversations with rationalists and Eliezer Yudkowsky in particular through much of 2013. In one exchange, Yudkowsky provided extensive constructive criticism on RationalWiki’s article on cold fusion, noting that “the right to mock has to be earned, not stolen.” He continued to occasionally recommend Scott Alexander’s articles. While Gerard would occasionally blow up at Yudkowsky and other users, at one point erupting in fury when Yudkowsky deleted another user’s comment as trolling, he bookended his irritation by noting that he “like[d] LW really,” and Yudkowsky noted that while Gerard was often critical of the site, he was not a troll.

Not yet, anyway.

The bitter end

In the background underlying all of this was a simple reality: Gerard’s beloved adopted homeland, the internet, was changing. It was no longer the quiet corner populated by computer nerds he had fallen in love with. It was gentrifying. Sites he jumped onto while they were small passion projects became world-recognized resources. The nerds had achieved a certain sort of cultural dominance, but with that dominance came new standards. Normal people were flooding in, drawn by the cultural products the weird nerds had pulled together but put off by all the weird nerds. As the online gender balance shifted, some women started to speak up against the sort of crude, edgy, often-sexually or racially charged humor that so often characterized Gerard’s old haunts spots like Uncyclopedia. Heated arguments went on in forums every day: should the internet grow up, professionalize, and tone things down, accepting the value of moral limits, or should it spit once more in the face of would-be censors wanting to control it?

Most alarming to Gerard was the rise of the internet’s home-grown far-right movement: the neoreactionaries. In 2007, computer scientist Curtis Yarvin started the blog Unqualified Reservations under the pen name Mencius Moldbug. It was a deliberately provocative project aiming to wrench people away from liberalism, one that framed progressivism as a virus leading to chaos, oath-breaking, tyranny, and noble lies, and called for a reactionary return to order, unitary rule, hierarchy, and strength by sharing self-proclaimed hard truths. Yarvin could not be waved off as another out-of-touch outsider waging war against Gerard’s beloved internet. He was every bit the insider Gerard was, a Silicon Valley tech company founder who spoke the language and understood the culture of the internet.

Another blow to old internet culture came with the January 2013 suicide of Aaron Swartz after he was arrested and prosecuted for downloading and sharing articles from academic journals. Swartz was an exemplar of that culture’s values: a programming prodigy, hacktivist, and fierce idealist who fought openly, proudly, and perpetually for the “information wants to be free” ethos of that crowd during his brief life. Gerard added his own mourning to LessWrong’s chorus on Swartz’s death, adding bitterly on his own blog: “You don’t understand just how much they loathe and despise the Internet.” In Swartz’s death, online ideals came face-to-face with the bitter realities of the offline world.

All of this came to a head in August of 2013, when military leaker Chelsea Manning announced her gender transition the day after her sentencing for providing hundreds of thousands of classified and sensitive documents to WikiLeaks. Another editor immediately renamed her Wikipedia page to “Chelsea Manning” over objections. After a brief edit war, Gerard blocked non-admins from editing the page. From there, well, all hell broke loose.

A few fateful actions on Wikipedia

Everyone on Wikipedia had an opinion. Onlookers across the internet, from Wikipedia’s subreddit to r/drama and elsewhere, took note. Editors who disagreed with Gerard, furious at his unilateral action, escalated their complaints up Wikipedia bureaucracy all the way to ArbCom. Wikipedia has processes, see. It has standards. Editors are not supposed to make unilateral decisions and lock others out.

Things escalated further when Gerard’s friend Elizabeth Sandifer, a couple of years before her own transition, wrote several articles harshly critical of Wikipedia’s actions, decrying the site as enabling bigots willing to play as rules lawyers, slavishly devoted to malicious manipulation of process. In one, she revealed details about the real-world identity of the user opposing Gerard at the heart of the edit war, pointing out that he was in the military, “a fact he has studiously attempted to hide.”[11] This, too, is discouraged on Wikipedia, to put it lightly.

When the dust settled, ArbCom formally admonished Gerard and restricted him from using admin tools on pages related to trans issues, then banned Sandifer from the site indefinitely. This was the last straw for Gerard: in his eyes, he had used his judgment, prioritizing people over blind process to make a compassionate decision, and Wikipedia treated him as a villain for it while allowing transphobes and bigots to run free so long as they followed the letter of the law—then, worse, banned his longtime friend for fighting on the side of right. Gerard would make his own run for Wikipedia’s ArbCom at the end of 2013, shortly after these events. He castigated the site and its authorities for “strange and disturbing decisions” that, in his telling, saw “the reputation of the English Wikipedia dragged through the mud.”

The warmth faded from Gerard’s LessWrong comments. He began to obsess about Roko’s Basilisk, editing and re-editing a RationalWiki article about it from early 2013 onwards and taking every opportunity to discuss it. “The Basilisk,” he noted once, was definitely the high point of site weirdness,” and he could not stop thinking about it. He’d said news about the rationalist community would focus on the Basilisk, and he was determined to do his part to make it so. The article became his baby, with him returning to it hundreds of times over the years.

A couple of weeks before the Manning blow-up, he commiserated with another aggrieved user about “the racists, sexists and Libertarians” on the site and “the assumption that these are fine positions to hold and variance from them is mind-killing.” By early 2014, though he was still posting and participating in open threads on the site, he noted that he “[found] quite a lot of LW utterly offputting and repellent.”

In particular, Gerard gradually started mentally associating LessWrong with neoreaction, though for a time he acknowledged he only saw incidental encounters between the two. Starting in early 2014, the RationalWiki article on neoreaction became his second baby, as he tweaked and re-tweaked it to explain just what he found off-putting about them.

My impression is that Gerard fixated on neoreactionaries as the one small part of a much broader rise of the online right that was happening in his own online neighborhood. In the old internet culture he had helped build, explicitly right-wing people were rare and often targets of mockery. That became unsustainable as more people came online, and eventually they built their own spaces and started poking their heads in where people shared some of their interests. The same lack of censorship Gerard harangued Yudkowsky to maintain on LessWrong meant that, by and large, the site would give people a hearing out before dismissing them. Because Gerard was on LessWrong when the internet splintered and polarized, he saw the whole story through the lens of LessWrong, and on an instinctive level the site became his go-to scapegoat for all that was going wrong for his vision of the internet.

Back in 2010, Gerard had created the Wikipedia article for LessWrong as a simple redirect to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s page. In March 2014, towards the end of his time as a LessWrong regular, Gerard warned users wanting a Wikipedia page to be careful what they wished for: "Having a Wikipedia article is a curse." Heedless of his warning, a few LessWrong users began to develop a brief article explaining their website.

The Vindictive Ex

“What my view is of [his] argument (whether I believe him or not) is actually irrelevant. It is the mere fact that you have a conflict with him that is reason enough to step away from the article. Wikipedia is not a battleground.

As it turns out, I don't think you have an agenda against [him] per se. You clearly do have an agenda regarding the topic generally, as you have made very clear yourself. Again, whether or not I personally agree or disagree with that agenda is irrelevant to the question of whether you should step away from the article. We are Wikipedians, not advocates, and whenever we feel too strongly about a topic, it's best to step away and let other good people deal with it.”

-Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales to former Wikipedia editor “Ryulong”, on editing with an agenda

In 2014, Gerard was mad. In the prior two decades, he’d given countless hours of his life in volunteer efforts to build and fight for the internet, his adopted tribe. And for what? Wikipedia, the site he had so devoted himself to, had betrayed him, standing for pedantic rules-lawyering over justice. The world had betrayed him, prosecuting and imprisoning or killing the activists who embodied the ethos of the internet he loved. The internet itself had betrayed him, giving rise to a movement he feared and loathed as much as any he had railed against before. The ill-fated relationship between two gamers that would bring the unified online culture he had idealized to a final, ignominious end had already begun, though he didn’t know that at the time[12].

He had started out on the internet 20 years before as a passionate partisan for his new tribe and its potential to transform the world. In the intervening decades, though, his optimism had waned. He went from assuming good faith in a collaborative effort to viewing online culture as a struggle between good and bad, his righteous allies and his evil opponents. As for the process he had argued so passionately about keeping human-centered and sane? Well, Wikipedia violated that truce, and now the barbarians were at the gate. He knew more than almost anyone alive about Wikipedia process, and now it would be just another weapon in his arsenal.

Wikipedia trench warfare is an elaborate game, opaque and bizarre for outsiders to even contemplate, in which motivated figures fight to exhaustion over often trivial-seeming changes with deep significance to participants. Given that, I’ll expend my last remaining bit of sanity to bring legibility to a few of Gerard’s skirmishes. When Gerard fixates on something within an article, he touches it up via a series of gradual, mild tweaks: often individually defensible, usually citing one policy or another, all pointing one direction. He removes neutral information tangential to his fixation, gradually expands and adds citations to the sections he fixates on, and aggressively reverts any change that goes against his vision. When challenged, he raises policy names, invites editors to escalate, requests hard proof for straightforward claims he knows are true, accuses opponents of being fringe conspiracists, and if all else fails, simply goes silent and waits for people to shift their focus before returning to what he wanted to do in the first place.

The article for Mozilla cofounder Brendan Eich, one of Gerard’s quiet focuses, provides an illustration. Gerard had made his article, after all, back when Gerard was just a tech nerd and Eich a force in building out the software infrastructure he relied on. But in 2008, Eich donated against gay marriage. After another user added mention of that donation to the Wikipedia page in 2012, Gerard guarded it repeatedly against deletion[13]. In March 2014, when Mozilla appointed Eich its CEO, Gerard’s social circles erupted in fury. Eich stepped down quickly. Immediately, Gerard entered the talk page and the article to ensure Eich’s opposition to gay marriage became central to his Wikipedia narrative. In the first few months of 2014, Gerard edited Eich’s article nineteen times, fleshing out details about the controversy and removing older external links more focused on Eich’s technical work. Between 2019 and 2020, Gerard repeatedly fought to make the “Known for” box on Eich’s page mention opposition to same-sex marriage and avoid any mention of Eich’s projects beyond JavaScript[14]. After all, Gerard pointed out as he added a PinkNews reference to the claim—it was in a Reliable Source.

LessWrong

Eich, though, was not the topic that consumed Gerard’s thoughts and conversations on a near-daily basis around the internet. No, starting in 2014, that honor belonged to LessWrong and everything that descended from it. At first, his actions mostly reflected only his fixation on Roko’s Basilisk. When Slate’s David Auerbach, fascinated by the story of the Basilisk, focused an article on it in July 2014, Gerard’s time had come. Two days later, he would begin to edit the LessWrong Wikipedia article, making minor tweaks to a basilisk section another admin, Sandstein[15], had added the day before. From that point forward, he became the article’s primary custodian, guarding it carefully and shaping it to his vision. He fixated on three goals:

  1. Strengthen the association between rationalists and Roko’s Basilisk
  2. Build an association between rationalists and neoreactionaries
  3. Remove positive information from the article

A month later, Gerard would feud directly with Eliezer Yudkowsky over this. Yudkowsky explained his thoughts on Roko’s Basilisk, his frustration with RationalWiki (“which hates hates hates LessWrong”), and his sense that nothing he said could stop people from caricaturing him. Gerard stopped by to argue with him, after which Yudkowsky outlined his perception of a systemic pattern of malicious lying from Gerard and pleaded with people not to take Gerard’s word as given. Gerard listened politely, shrugged his shoulders, and went back to editing.

In early 2015, he removed the LessWrong article’s “see also” section, later attempting to re-add the section having stripped it to nothing but a link to RationalWiki. Later that year, he removed a large block of positive phrasing (“a Wikipedia article should not read like publicity material”), re-separated the section on Roko’s Basilisk from the site history after others merged them, then edit-warred[16] to keep a statement on the page implying that a taboo on the topic lasted five years. Having lost that war, he waited six months, then re-added that statement. In 2018, Oliver Habryka and his team took over development of LessWrong and announced a redesign. Gerard deleted news of the update from its Wikipedia page, citing lack of reliable sources.

Gerard’s second project, to create an association in people’s minds between rationalism and neoreaction, was much more ambitious than the first. Roko’s Basilisk was an idle thought experiment that meant more to David Gerard than it ever did to any rationalist, but at least it had originated on the site. Rationalists and neoreactionaries, on the other hand, were distinct and well-defined groups, neither of which particularly liked each other. Eliezer Yudkowsky hated neoreactionaries, believing people should block them, delete their comments, and avoid feeding the trolls by arguing with them. Scott Alexander, by far the most popular rationalist writer besides perhaps Yudkowsky himself, had written the most comprehensive rebuttal of neoreactionary claims on the internet. Curtis Yarvin was certainly interested in persuading rationalists, but the singular blog post he had written about LessWrong was to call rationalists humorless servants of power and dub their site “Less Wrongthink.”

But Gerard had two cards to play: first, a glancing, single-sentence note in an article from the Reliable Source known as TechCrunch that neoreactionaries occasionally “crop-up on tech hangouts like Hacker News and Less Wrong, having cryptic conversations about ‘Moldbug’ and ‘the Cathedral,’” and second, more than a decade of Wikipedia experience combined with obsessive levels of drive and persistence.

TechCrunch’s article, incidentally, remains an excellent and wholly correct overview of neoreaction, one anyone looking to understand the movement’s origins would do well to read. Its passing note on LessWrong is reasonable and accurate: neoreactionaries occasionally cropped up on LessWrong, as they did in other tech-adjacent hangouts, and as a result of their origin in Silicon Valley drew more initial attention from those sites than others. Before LessWrong existed, Yarvin periodically commented on its predecessor site Overcoming Bias, though not, one assumes, as much as Gerard commented on LessWrong. Rationalists, with their typical willingness to discuss anything that came their way, occasionally linked Yarvin’s blog to poke and prod at it. Had it been a normal Wikipedia article, the line may have remained as a passing reference, a reminder that in a place like Silicon Valley, everyone is two degrees removed from everyone. Indeed, the Wikipedia article had said just that for years: “It has also been mentioned in articles about online monarchists and neo-reactionaries.”

This was not a normal Wikipedia article, though. This was a Gerard. And by mid-2016, preparations Gerard had begun years earlier were finally falling into place.

One of Gerard’s first edits to his pet RationalWiki article on neoreaction back in 2014 had been to insert references to LessWrong into it, mentioning that Michael Anissimov, who had worked for years at the organization running LessWrong, later became a neoreactionary.

Since Gerard regularly used his claims about Anissimov as evidence for a tie between LessWrong and neoreaction, it’s worth understanding Anissimov’s story. I spoke with Anissimov, who has long since faded from the public view. He had started volunteering at Yudkowsky’s AI institute, the Singularity Institute of Artificial Intelligence sometime around 2002, as a nineteen-year-old who hadn’t really come into his own but was determined to push towards the institute’s goals. Around 2008 to 2009, he told me, he started reading Yarvin’s writing but did not discuss it with coworkers, afraid that he’d overshadow the institute’s goals with politics and alienate his LessWrong friends—who he described as generally the sort of classic Berkeley liberal who has polyamorous sex parties and attends Burning Man.

It was only after Anissimov was let go from the institute in 2012, five years after Yarvin began to build neoreaction, that he began to speak openly about his politics. In short order, Yudkowsky denounced neoreactionaries and Alexander wrote a comprehensive rebuttal of Anissimov’s claims. From there, Anissimov founded a breakaway blog called MoreRight, which rationalists initially linked to but quickly backed away from as they found his ideas to be too extreme.

As Anissimov sees it, it’s easy for people to put forward a conspiracy theory, but the reality is that he developed in a different political direction to the people around him, hid it for a time out of fear of rejection, posted his ideas hoping to sway other rationalists but finding them uninterested, and wound up as something of a shunned outcast who had to make new friends as a result.

It’s true, in other words, that an employee at Eliezer’s institute became a neoreactionary—and that’s the last time he ever really associated with the group he had devoted himself to long before his politics were clearly defined.

With that out of the way, we can return to Gerard, who had plenty of RationalWiki sources but nothing firm enough to get away with adding. For that, he would need the help of his old friend Elizabeth Sandifer.

Sandifer had been busy during her time away from Wikipedia, writing an essay collection titled Neoreaction: A Basilisk. Five of the self-published book’s six essays (about ants, TERFS, Trump, the Austrian School, and Peter Thiel) were forgotten the day they were written. The sixth is Gerard’s masterwork. Sandifer starts the essay with quick critical overviews of Eliezer Yudkowsky, Curtis Yarvin, and Nick Land, then goes on a sprawling journey from William Blake to John Milton, with stops at Fanon, Debord, Butler, and Coates. This review describes the experience well. I can only describe it as leftist free association based on the prompt “Say whatever comes to mind, inspired by David Gerard’s obsession with Roko’s Basilisk and neoreaction combined with your own love of leftist theory.”

That’s not a guess, to be clear. Sandifer thanks Gerard for pointing her towards the sources she needed in acknowledgments, then cites his pet article on Roko’s Basilisk directly while giggling about how mad it made Yudkowsky fans. Gerard, for his part, advertised her Kickstarter for the book in May 2016 while mentioning he had spent the past six months “researching, editing, copyediting and helping with the publicity.”

Neoreaction: A Basilisk, Acknowledgments

Neoreaction: A Basilisk, pg. 7

and the attendant footnote

Hold on, you might be thinking. Surely you’re not saying he got around Wikipedia’s ban on citing his original research by feeding all his obsessions to his old friend before citing his friend.

No, of course not. That would be crass.

They got another friend to review the book when it came out, and he cited that.

Gerard began to focus on neoreaction in Wikipedia’s LessWrong article shortly after publicizing the kickstarter for Neoreaction: A Basilisk, first stopping someone from removing a reference to neoreaction in the article, then stopping the same person from contextualizing it by listing more common topics of discussion on the site by calling for reliable sources for those topics and claiming neoreaction was one of two things LessWrong was famous for in the wider world[17]. When people objected to his edits, he spat an ink cloud of policy and objected that he was being personally attacked. Soon after, when someone stopped by to point out that neoreaction was not particularly popular on the site, Gerard added a survey showing showing fewer than 2% of site members self-identified as neoreactionaries. Then an essay by his friend-of-a-friend Adam Riggio about a book by his friend Elizabeth Sandifer citing his synthesis of ideas came out, and he struck, noting benignly that he was adding more reliable sources on the neoreaction claim while sliding the essay into the citations.

For the next few years, Gerard patiently massaged the article to his satisfaction. He called the reliability of the survey he had added into question several times, then split the neoreaction blurb off into its own article section while deleting the survey reference. He swapped a citation in the article showing Eliezer Yudkowsky hating reactionaries so it referenced his friend’s essay, letting him include the phrase “Yudkowsky counts many reactionaries among his fanbase despite finding their racist politics disgusting” in footnotes. He added a citation to a Breitbart article by Milo Yiannopolous and Allum Bokhari after they claimed neoreaction grew out of comments on LessWrong, and another citation to an article in German-language newspaper FAZ that cited the same connection. When I asked Yiannopolous and Bokhari for comment, Yiannopolous did not recall the context, and Bokhari has not returned my request for comment at this time. Since the claim has no basis in history and reads like a loose cribbing from RationalWiki, and since neither Yiannopolous or Bokhari was ever part of neoreaction or LessWrong, my honest guess is that Gerard aptly demonstrated the reason to treat Breitbart as unreliable by using a poorly sourced and false claim from it. FAZ editors noted that editors and a proofreader had looked over the article, but the notes which were used for it no longer exist and they could not reconstruct its writing process[18]. My best guess is that they too sourced their claim of a link to one of Gerard’s articles.

In 2017, Gerard made one last trip back to LessWrong to taunt them about the article for a bit, helpfully explaining that his being one of its most vocal critics and the sources he added referring back to him simply meant he was a subject matter expert, implying they were cranks who didn’t want to engage with reliable sources, and warning them against advocacy editing and conflicts of interest.

Finally, in 2019, a wave of users on Wikipedia began to notice the peculiarities of the article. First, one asked if the neoreaction section was necessary, noting the tenuous connections, and Gerard shrugged and asked, “What do the [Reliable Sources][19] say?” One user, PDVk, deleted the section. After Gerard escalated by calling him a fringe theorist and asked for backup from Wikipedia’s “fringe theories noticeboard” to defend against PDVk’s “spurious claims”, PDVk pointed out more-or-less precisely what was going on:

[A]ll its sources derives their content from previous iterations of the Wikipedia page for the site, or less commonly from RationalWiki, which has a well-documented political grudge against LessWrong. There is long-standing editor consensus on Talk:LessWrong that this claim is baseless and the sources are weak; David Gerard is the only dissenter. It is shameful that he has been allowed to promote his personal view to this extent; repeating a lie often enough to get it into well-regarded sources does not make it become the truth.

In a grand triumph of reason and good faith, Gerard ~backed down and removed the claim~ called the editor a conspiracy theorist who was simply trying to remove Reliable Sources he didn’t like and asked for proof.

The section stayed.

Despite some further discussion, the article remains crafted largely in Gerard’s image to this day. During the time he could edit it—we’ll get to that—he was the page’s most frequent editor and the one who added the most substance to it. For almost eight years, his masterwork has survived: a section in an article about his hated former haunt, run by a man he had feuded with for years, sourced to his friend’s interpretation of his friend’s interpretation of his pet ideas.

Finally, Gerard had found the most Reliable Source of all: himself.

Effective Altruism

Today, effective altruists tend to think of Émile Torres when they think of their most committed malicious critic. Before there was an Émile Torres, though, there was David Gerard[20].

In April 2014, Gerard created a RationalWiki article about Effective Altruism, framing the subculture as “well-off libertarians congratulating each other on what wonderful human beings they are for working rapacious [s---]weasel jobs but choosing their charities well, but never in any way questioning the system that the problems are in the context of,” “a mechanism to push the libertarian idea that charity is superior to government action or funding,” and people who “will frequently be seen excusing their choice to work completely [f---]ing evil jobs because they're so charitable.”

Of all Gerard’s feuds, this one bothers me the most. Despite my wide-ranging disagreements with their philosophy and my public criticism of aspects of their organizational structure[21], I have long felt that individuals within the movement are uncommonly virtuous, more serious about doing good and more earnest than the lion’s share of their critics. They deserve scrutiny, but they consistently respond in good faith to that scrutiny.

In this case, a couple of effective altruists took RationalWiki at its word that its users would respect constructive attempts to improve it, and set about making suggestions a few months later. One tried to present more of an EA perspective in the article. Gerard reverted it. Kelsey Piper, then a prodigious young writer, made another attempt. Another user reverted it. The EAs had not quite understood the name of the game, had stumbled into a snark website aiming to work politely alongside people who mostly just wanted to poke fun at them. They did not return.

I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow of Gerard’s edits this time, focusing instead on one controversy: the time Gerard once again turned to Wikipedia’s fringe theories noticeboard, used for ideas that depart dramatically from the mainstream, to solicit help with keeping an EA figure who was embroiled in a minor scandal highlighted on a list of the most prominent Effective Altruists. EA, Gerard explained, belonged as a fringe theory because it “keeps assessing ‘give all your money to avert Roko's basilisk’ as an incredibly valuable charitable endeavour.”

When people pointed out his history mocking effective altruists elsewhere, Gerard once again mocked the idea of symmetry between him and editors from the subcultures he fixated on: “Being an advocate for a particular cluster of fringe movements - as you are - is not symmetrical with not being an advocate for that cluster of fringe movements - as I am not - even as fringe advocates consistently try to paint it as being such.”

He opposes people in and around the rationalist movement reflexively, habitually. When Kelsey Piper started making waves at Vox, Gerard was there trying to get her Wikipedia article deleted. When Gerard happened by the page for evolutionary biologist and effective altruist Diana Fleischman, he idly added warnings for notability and puffery. Last year, he did the same for rationalist writer and sex worker Aella.

Gerard got his start fighting scientologists and started out at RationalWiki mocking witches and 9/11 truthers. No matter his opponent, he saw reality the same way: he was the Respectable Mainstream Consensus accurately scrutinizing flimsy fringe movements, they were fringe advocates who just wanted to dodge scrutiny. When he ran into a movement whose members were happy to face scrutiny and who were willing to come into his space trying to resolve differences in good faith, he found that his true love was simple mockery.

Scott Alexander

Gerard has a way with personal details.

Back in 2009, Wikipedia stripped Gerard of his power to see user IP addresses because he revealed private information about a man he didn’t like. In 2013, Gerard fought for the right to immediately change a trans woman’s article title to her preferred name as a matter of basic respect, then reacted with outrage when Wikipedia punished his friend for revealing private information about a man Gerard didn’t like. And in 2020, Gerard finally had the chance to combine his passions: he could reveal the private name of a man he loathed. He jumped at it.

Gerard did not, in fact, always hate Scott Alexander. In the LessWrong years, he would occasionally chat amiably with Scott or recommend others read his articles. That was a distant memory, though, by 2020. Really, it was a distant memory by 2014, as an old conversation between Gerard and Scott demonstrates. To Gerard, Scott’s blog was far too charitable and calm about neoreactionaries, even as he rebutted them, and not nice enough to the social justice left. And to Scott, well, Gerard came off as a particularly obsessive hater who had chosen to repeatedly smear Scott for distorted and fabricated reasons, taking him to task for insufficient charity while providing none, and who would keep doing so until Scott “refuse[d] to ever engage with anyone who disagrees with him about anything at all.”

By 2020, that hatred had deepened and calcified into a core part of Gerard’s identity, and he watched an announcement from Scott in June of that year with eager anticipation: Gerard’s old rival Cade Metz was writing an article about Scott in the New York Times, he was going to use Scott’s real name, and Scott would prefer he didn’t. Scott cited patient care and personal safety as reasons to be circumspect about his name, pointing out that he had received death threats and faced dissatisfied blog readers calling his workplace, and noting that like many psychiatrists, he preferred to be a blank slate to his patients in his out-of-work life and to avoid causing any drama for his hospital.

Finally, Gerard had the opportunity of his dreams: to supply the Paper of Record with a decade of exhaustive notes about everything he hated about Scott Alexander.

Gerard sprung to work on Scott’s Wikipedia page the day after the announcement, quickly becoming the most active editor on the page and its talk section. He started by stripping away most of the page that covered anything other than the New York Times controversy, then carefully and repeatedly guarded the page against articles critical of the NYT’s decision, which had become a news story of its own. When he couldn’t get a response from the National Review removed, he looked for the lines in it that could put Scott in the worst available light and added them to the article (“since the NR is heavily defended as a suitable source in talk”), later restoring them with a quick note: “[I]t’s cited to [a Reliable Source], after all.” As more and more articles came out about the blog and the controversy, particularly an excellent overview in the New Yorker, removing them would have been a Sisyphean task, but Gerard could at least try to turn lemons into lemonade.

A few days after Scott’s announcement, Gerard added an obscure academic paper Scott had written under his own name to the article—then restored it to the page again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again. The paper had gone largely unnoticed within Scott’s audience and without, and to the average reader his attention to adding it would come across as little but an odd enthusiasm for AI safety. Gerard clung to the article, though: it was his best chance, he figured, to skirt Wikipedia’s policy preferring omission of names subjects prefer to have concealed, and he fought for its inclusion repeatedly in discussions about the page.

In February 2021, after Scott rearranged his life and quit his job in order to minimize the disruption from his name being revealed, then doxxed himself, the New York Times finally published its article. Off of Wikipedia, Gerard was thrilled, bragging about how much he had been able to land in a Reliable Source:

i sent Metz SO MUCH material for that NYT SlateStarCodex article, i can see the ghosts of what i sent

every phrase is firmly backed up by multiple sources - but it was run through the NYT mealymouthed centrist filter

In particular, he noted that he had encouraged Metz to use Scott’s real name. “[I]t isn't the article we wanted,” he noted on his favorite snark page, “and I suspect Cade wanted it stronger too. But it's good enough.”

Good enough indeed, and he quickly got to work fending off critical responses to the NYT article on Scott’s Wikipedia page. After someone pointed out a long list of critical responses from The Hill, Reason, Quillette, Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, journalist Cathy Young, and others, Gerard shrugged: “Zero of those are [Reliable Sources], so we can’t use them.”

Policy, you see. Hands were tied.

This time, though, people were paying attention, and Gerard had a problem: While you can get away with a great deal when people aren’t looking, Wikipedia does not actually want to be known as the site where people spend decades compiling dossiers against their personal enemies.

Gerard defended himself gamely for a while when people escalated the dispute up the Wikipedia bureaucracy. “Stop casting aspersions,” he told people who claimed he had a conflict of interest. “You’re making a bizarre claim.” “Do you have diffs[22] from Wikipedia” demonstrating a conflict of interest?

When someone pointed out that Wikipedia explicitly prohibited the sort of edits Gerard was doing, noting that “an editor who is involved in a significant controversy or dispute with another individual—whether on- or off-wiki—or who is an avowed rival of that individual, should not edit that person's biography or other material about that person, given the potential conflict of interest,” Gerard shot back with “It's more of a no-evidencer. Supply on-wiki diffs that you consider show this, and how.” He knew the policy, of course—he helped write the policy! It was an elaborate sort of game he invited people into: You know this, I know you know it, but do you have the patience to outlast me on it?

This time around, though, some people weren’t buying. Someone set up a vote: Should Gerard be banned from editing articles about Scott Alexander? After seven years of tendentious edits, Gerard was finally facing scrutiny.

At first, it seemed as if nothing would happen. Several of Gerard’s longtime allies on-wiki added their voices to his. One, Loki, gamely added, “I think any situation which would make him covered by [the conflict of interest policy] would have to be two-sided.” Another, XOR’easter, followed up with “I'd suggest that assuming good faith in this case means not leaping to the conclusion that he won't immediately try to worm through a loophole.” A third, NorthBySouthBaranof, added their voice to the chorus: “sanctions are supposed to be preventive, not punitive.” For a moment it looked like people wouldn’t ban Gerard from the topic after all.

Then an uninvolved admin, Wugapodes, caught wind of what Gerard was doing. His rant is full of Wikipedia jargon and awkwardly long to insert into what is already a behemoth of an article, but I cannot possibly do it justice without including it in full.

Wugapodes’ righteous fury

Seriously, everyone, what the [f---] is wrong with us? … Reading through this discussion it seems that David has called the subject a neo-nazi, has significantly contributed to a NYT article described by other sources as a “hit piece”, disingenuously used Wikipedia to push his [point of view] despite a [conflict of interest] obvious to anyone with eyes, and we as a community are incapable of doing anything other than a warning? What the [f---] is wrong with us?”

After seven years, someone finally saw what was going on.

The ban passed.

To the best of my knowledge, David Gerard never responded. He simply shrugged and carried on eliminating Unreliable Sources.

Conclusion

This article is, you may have noticed, a bit long.

Certain stories become common knowledge in online communities, passed around by word of mouth and picked up by osmosis. This is one such story. Gerard has 30 years of dense online history, and I interviewed dozens of people on and off the record picking up bits and pieces of that history, then trawled archives and logs for others. Online drama is peculiar and Wikipedia drama more so, because each site is so often its own ecosystem and each Wikipedia page the fiefdom of the editor who cares the most. I thought about providing a condensed version, a “greatest hits,” something that could convey All Of This without actually making people sit down and read All Of This, but the simple reality is that for some stories, people simply need to see it for themselves. Nobody but a madman would trawl through this whole mess, but everything on the internet is written by madmen, and usually only the tiniest bits of the grand sagas behind their mad conflicts bubble to the surface.

I can’t pretend to be neutral here, of course. I have spent years watching a man hundreds of times more prolific and focused than I am pursue an elaborate decades-long grudge against communities and writers I value, wondering if or when he would turn that grudge towards me—when it would be my turn to face Gerard and his Reliable Sources. While this article has been on my mind for a while, the most direct inspiration came when Gerard bragged about his role in providing background for a harshly critical Guardian article about a recent conference I attended.

This article accelerates that, of course, and given his history, it’s a much riskier topic than even most controversies I cover. A few hours after I asked for information in an obscure forum, Gerard’s friends were already spreading the word and looking for dirt on me. I was happy to hear Gerard himself had “previously considered [me] on the saner end of the rationalists[23] from [my] reasonably coherent Twitter,” though I suspect that’s over and done with. That’s fine. I know who I am; I know who my friends are. I stand by what I say and what I do, and I will not be defined by Gerard. While I’d prefer a neutral reporter had taken interest in parts of Gerard’s story at some point, ultimately I realized that given his history, virtually nobody who could write the story could truly be neutral. Either I would write this article or it would never be written, I concluded, and it’s a story worth knowing.

I find Gerard much more sympathetic than I had expected going in, and had I met the version of him that showed up on LessWrong, I suspect I would have gotten along with him quite well. As Gerard says, no one is a villain in their own mind.

His story, in the end, is an ironic tragedy. He started out in love with the internet and its potential, eager to volunteer untold hours to its idealized mission to spread reason and knowledge for free, outside the often arbitrary and capricious bounds of official institutions and that’s the spirit in which he came to Wikipedia. He wrote lucidly about the importance of human-focused process and the dangers of rigid reliance on “Reliable Sources” that he knew were nothing but.

But at some point—perhaps the Manning debacle, perhaps yet earlier—he, obsessed with his vision of basilisks, set out to become one: to kill everything he touched on Wikipedia, using every trick he had warned against in a no-holds-barred struggle against everyone and everything he hated. He judged Reliable Sources based on whether they shared his viewpoint, and when that wasn’t enough, he built the Reliable Sources himself. He made sweeping changes to the site with wildly insufficient explanations, then guarded them with decades of built-up knowledge of how to frustrate opponents and wear them down. He demonstrated step-by-step that he was correct: Wikipedia’s processes really were insufficient to deal with a sufficiently motivated bad-faith actor with friends willing to cover for him, and each time the site slapped him down he simply found another way to pursue his bitter mission.

On many topics, I love Wikipedia—its spirit of collaboration and sharing, its accessibility, the passionate editors who have built so much that I value. But—well, Gerard has been a Wikipedia administrator almost from its beginning. He was a spokesman for many years. He has played a pivotal role in its policy for years and has spent the last half-decade doing everything in his power to shape even the sources people are allowed to use in order to wrest the site into his image. On any heated issue, then, the site lives under the shadow of Gerard’s deadly gaze. The idea of a democratic, leaderless group has calcified into one where an old guard determined to weaponize process act as de facto leaders of everything they can bludgeon others away from.

It’s a shame for the website and for those of us who use and appreciate it, but once more, Gerard has the right of it[24]: “It’s difficult to think of a worse (appropriate) punishment […] than continuing to be someone who would think this was a worthwhile way to spend their life.”

But hey, don’t take my word for it.

After all, I am not a Reliable Source.


Thank you for reading. This is one of the most involved stories I have ever worked on—deep dives like this are labors of love that take immense time and effort. If you enjoy my work and want to see more like this, want to encourage me towards this as an economically viable careerr path, or if you want to read a companion article talking about the personal side of my history with LessWrong, RationalWiki, and the men who built the internet I grew up on, please consider becoming a paid subscriber or sharing this article on social media.

Companion article: A Young Mormon Discovers Online Rationality

  1. ^

    Gerard almost always abbreviates this as “an RS.” For clarity and to avoid an excess of Wikipedia acronyms throughout the article, I use the full phrase each time.

  2. ^

    Note that when judging reliability of sources, Wikipedia editors select from “Option 1” (reliable), “Option 2” (unclear), “Option 3” (unreliable), and “Option 4” (publishes falsehoods and should be banned as a source).

  3. ^

    "Why do a seven-meg Web site critical of Scientology?”

  4. ^

    Gerard and Sandifer battled alongside each other in the Wikipedia trenches for years starting in the early 2000s, and remain close friends to this day. Examples follow: (1), (2), (3), (4), (5)

  5. ^

    Gerard was proud enough of this article that he linked it from RationalWiki half a decade later.

  6. ^

    An anti-Wikipedia gossip site mentions Gerard once called Metz a “sociopathic a---hole.” This would make sense given their opposed interests at the time, but link rot has claimed the original source, so this one just gets a footnote.

  7. ^

    A set of admins elected as a sort of “supreme court” for Wikipedia who act as the final word in on-site dispute resolution.

  8. ^

    This yearning, along with a time Gerard described his experience in school as frustrating and lamented the plight of “the brilliant kid unchallenged by school” who falls to pieces on hitting real challenges, is the most sympathetic I have found Gerard. I have written at some length about my own feelings on interacting with smart people, and the plight of smart kids unchallenged by school was the focus of my first piece of serious public writing and remains a fixation of mine.

  9. ^

    Here, I once again find myself more sympathetic to Gerard than I expected. It was difficult, at times, for people in LessWrong’s serious, almost robotically logical frame to make room for things like teasing, and during the years Gerard was friendly to LessWrong, the site’s RationalWiki article really was laudatory and affectionate in many places.

  10. ^

    Crowley’s efforts to get his friend interested in cryonics did not stick, as Gerard’s later Wikipedia commentary attests.

  11. ^

    The user in question had given media interviews under his real name some years before, and per Sandifer had twice mentioned his workplace on Wikipedia, but at the time of Sandifer’s leak he was actively seeking to keep his Wikipedia editing separate from his work.

  12. ^

    There may come a time when I talk about reproductively viable worker ants, but this is not that time. I’ll give you one guess as to whether Gerard was active in that particular controversy, but so far as I can tell, it was not pivotal to his own narrative. I was a Mormon missionary in Australia at the time, offline and blissfully unaware of All Of That, and I have maintained an intense distaste for it since. If this paragraph reads as nonsense to you, congratulations. Do yourself a favor and keep it that way.

  13. ^

    When a detail involves a long sequence of Wikipedia edits, I will often simply link the page’s revision history for simplicity. To find specific edits, search “Gerard.”

  14. ^

    (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), (6) — you get the point. He added it, then sourced it to a PinkNews article. “[T]here we go, cites - and this had been international news since 2012.” “[A]nd another, in the headline, internationally. It's literally what he's most famous for.” “Brave is covered in the wider world primarily as "Eich's next project" and not for its own sake.” “Need to bring RSes showing that he is actually mainstream famous for those other things.”

  15. ^

    Writing an article like this inevitably leads to Pepe Silvia moments as you see the same names pop up again and again and wonder about the connections. Because many Wikipedia editors use pseudonyms divorced from their identities elsewhere online or in the world, information about who they are is scarce and it’s easy to imagine coordination anywhere from “these two people have similar interests and values” to “these people talk every day.” I had one such moment with Sandstein, who (as discussed in the article) later pushed hard to get another prolific editor with his own twenty years of history banned from Wikipedia for criticizing Gerard’s deletionist approach to Reliable Sources. Coordination and tangled webs of relationships are inevitable when people spend years in common space, and there’s nothing sinister about that, but threads like that are idle reminders that as much happens online in private spaces as in public ones, and even benign coordination often leaves nothing but shadows on the open web.

    Sandstein, Sandstein, I look in the mail, this whole box is Sandstein!
  16. ^

    In a Wikipedia edit war two editors wrestle directly over the content of a page, reverting each other’s choices and arguing. Here, Gerard wanted to include a 2015 statement in order to imply that a taboo on discussing the topic lasted a long while, while others wanted to remove it to reflect that the topic was discussed normally before that date. If you love petty arguments, feel free to read the edit reasoning, bottom to top.

    “Quit it with the blind reverts.”

  17. ^

    of Gerard and his friends.

  18. ^

    Full comment: “Thank you for your mail and for your interest! Generally spoken, the process of writing and researching an article is very different depending on the subject and the special perspective of the author, mixing reading, talking and thinking. Before publication, two editors and one corrector proofread the text. But I am sorry that it is not possible for us to reconstruct the writing process of an article which is seven years old. All the notes which have been used for it don‘t exist anymore. We hope for your understanding.”

  19. ^

    Gerard and his friends

  20. ^

    Gerard appears to have been quite fed up with Émile back in the day. He was personally responsible for deleting Torres’ Wikipedia page once upon a time, then making it so only admins could recreate the page. In one terse Wikipedia edit, he comments that he’s removing “spam promotion of [Émile] Torres, whose article was just deleted for the fourth time.”

  21. ^

    I consider myself a friendly critic of EA. My wrestling with them is mostly out-of-scope for this essay, but for the curious, I recommend Erik Hoel, Zvi Mowshowitz, and Nuño Sempere.

  22. ^

    Wikipedia’s term for article edits, used to substantiate specific claims about editors.

  23. ^

    I have never considered myself a rationalist, as I explained to a couple of rationalists who kindly brought me on for a podcast interview, but that’s as much out of respect towards them as anything else and many of the communities I actually spend my time in spawned in their shadow. While I’ve never been drawn to AI, quantum physics, and Bayes the same way they have, they are some of the smartest people I know and I consider it a compliment to be conflated with them. I have long read, appreciated, and commented on Scott Alexander’s work, count many rationalists and effective altruists as friends, and get on better with them than I do with most.

  24. ^

    He was complaining about a notorious serial downvote troll on LessWrong, someone who caused him no end of frustration during his time on the site by going through a long backlog of his posts and downvoting them.

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Thanks for writing up this super diligent post and shedding some light for what must to outsiders seem like a very opaque subculture. It definitely fits with my limited experience of David Gerard as an editor, in both cases where I agreed with his edits and those I didn't.

Gerard seems like an especially egregious case - and particularly galling to us as the targets of his vendetta - but I'm also interested in the broader lessons. 

Having been an avid user of wikipedia early on, in some senses it has been successfully far beyond Jimbo's expectations, especially in terms of its scale and influence. But on the other hand its hard to imagine he would have wanted - or tolerated - this, and my impression is that the reliability of wikipedia on politically-salient topics has fallen over time. To what extent was this inevitable? It seems wikipedia, despite having a lot of policies and procedures, failed to have a sufficient immune response to deal with such a transparent bad actor. Is this because other senior editors are similar or sympathize with him, or just that their para-legal infrastructure was deficient?

This sort of Robert Conquest-style decay seems like it has happened to a lot of organisations. One protective factor seems to be for-profit status, because competition and customer preferences act to keep you focused on the mission. But even that is not guaranteed, and many organisations we care about would be difficult to structure as for-profits.

One alternative seems to be to have a charismatic leader with whom the buck stops. Outsiders cannot easily evaluate the morass of internal wikipedia discussions, but they could evaluate Jimbo, and if everyone in power was accountable to (someone who was accountable to ...) Jimmy that seems like a significantly better check. This is basically the approach taken by a lot of Democracies - you have a leader, whose character and achievements can be evaluated by voters, and then in turn they have a broad mandate with the power to achieve it.

At this point we're far from the original topic, but it does occur to me that EA collectively doesn't really have either of these, since the most plausible candidates have declined to take up the mantle. 

I do think governance is very important, as EA's recent history has illustrated, and deserves way more discussion.

Outsiders cannot easily evaluate the morass of internal wikipedia discussions, but they could evaluate Jimbo

I'm skeptical of this argument, but I'm trying to steelman. Is the idea that I can form an opinion of Jimbo's character based on e.g. his tweets, and once I trust his character, I can trust him to adjudicate internal Wikipedia disputes?

Because if I'm forming my opinion of Jimbo by reading internal Wikipedia disputes -- which honestly seems like the best method -- we might be back where we started.

Wikipedia does run ArbCom elections, but you need a certain number of edits to vote. Presumably that additional context helps voters evaluate candidates. (EDIT: It could also worsen self-selection/organizational drift issues. I'm tempted to say self-selection is the main problem with controversial online discussion.)

EDIT: I suppose Larks' argument could also work if you simply empower the existing ArbCom with a broad mandate.

I'm sure there are a bunch of leaders you have some opinions of - Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Jamie Dimon, Peter Thiel, Kim Jong Un, Joe Biden etc. You made those evaluations based on some mixture of different factors - reading their tweets, seeing them interviewed, observing whether their plans work out, reading other people's views on them. If they were a big wikipedia editor, you could even read internal wikipedia disputes they participated in, just as reading their EAF/LW comments can help you judge people here. 

The key step is that you make this evaluation for the one single leader, and then if they seem intelligent and ethical and motivated and organised and so on, infer that the organisation they lead is good also. You don't have to read all the wikipedia disputes to judge the collective decision making of the editors, or even a representative sample - just read some controversial ones Jimmy got stuck into, and see if the King ruled wisely.

The reason this is not 'right back where we started' is I think most people find it much easier to evaluate a single human (a task we practice all our lives at, and did in the ancestral environment) than to evaluate large organisations (a much more difficult skill, with worse feedback mechanisms, that did not exist in the ancestral environment).

The reason this is not 'right back where we started' is I think most people find it much easier to evaluate a single human (a task we practice all our lives at, and did in the ancestral environment) than to evaluate large organisations (a much more difficult skill, with worse feedback mechanisms, that did not exist in the ancestral environment).

Sure, that seems reasonable. Another point is that large groups may have competing internal factions, which could create a source of variability in their decision-making which makes their decisions harder to understand and predict.

Lower variability with the CEO approach should mean a smaller sample size is required to get a bead on their decision-making style.

BTW, did you get the private message I sent you regarding a typo in your original comment? Wondering if private messages are working properly.

One of the most interesting posts I've seen on the forum, ever. Thanks for writing this up!

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