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The strange case of hostage Wikipedian Joshua Boyle

By Gregory Kohs

Joshua Boyle

Joshua Boyle

The mainstream news lit up earlier this month when a Canadian man and his American wife and their children were rescued by a Pakistani military team working on an American intelligence tip to free the family from the Haqqani network. For many readers, the biography of Joshua Boyle seemed to raise more questions than answers.

Who takes their 5-months pregnant wife on a backpacking trip into the most dangerous sector of war-torn Afghanistan? Was he really married previously to Zaynab Khadr, the sister of two Guantanamo prisoners? After his rescue, why did Boyle refuse to get on a plane bound for the United States? Why did he and his wife decide to have children in captivity?

One little-observed fact, though, has not seemed to generate much deeper inquiry by the media. We know that Joshua Boyle, prior to his captivity, was a frequent editor of Wikipedia. But the mainstream press — until a very recent story in The New York Times — did not even begin to delve into what subjects were important to Boyle within the online encyclopedia authored by the public. The New York Times article says this:

Mr. Boyle, under the user name “Sherurcij” (which also sometimes included the first name “Josh”) spent a lot of time editing and updating the Wikipedia page of his former brother-in-law.

His other contributions were largely focused on members of the Khadr family, Canadian politics and some posts on Nazi history, among others. He also made contributions to pages about other terrorism incidents around the world and the profiles of those involved.

His page also included a note at the bottom, in Arabic, that said “Peace is the solution.” And it included a passage of the Robert W. Service poem “The Men That Don’t Fit In.”

Prior to the New York Times disclosing Boyle’s likely Wikipedia user account identity, one member of Wikipediocracy had already sleuthed it out. Behind the scenes, we were learning more about Sherucij’s online habits, debating whether or not to “out” him and potentially get entangled in this confusing web of terrorist intrigue. Then the Times story was published.

Now that Boyle’s Wikipedia account is out there in the public, it is Wikipediocracy’s service to the reader to better inform them about that editor’s history, since it provides a rich bed of informational insight about what moved Boyle intellectually for many years.

An ordinary, nerdy beginning

Like so many Wikipedia nerds, Joshua Boyle’s start on Wikipedia in October 2004 focused on a nerdy subject — Star Wars. He quickly created Wikipedia’s first article about a Turkish reboot of the famous film. For months, Boyle let his Star Wars nerd flag fly on Wikipedia.

Next, in February 2005, we began to see that Boyle was also interested in what might be called “hippie” topics. He wrote about Julia “Butterfly” Hill, the woman who lived in a redwood tree for over two years. He dabbled in articles about a Neil Young song, one of Neil’s albums, and the biography of one of Young’s musical collaborators. Then, like so many Wikipedians after a few months of editing, he adorned his User page with a little description of himself, without revealing who exactly he was:

“Just some 21 year old student that works on Wikipedia in his spare time…”

But then his edits started to get unusual.

Anal torture, sodomy, facials, and Nazis

In March 2005, Boyle began to edit Wikipedia’s article about the “pear of anguish”, a device dubiously attributed to medieval torture as a mouth gag. Boyle wanted the Wikipedia reader to have no doubts that the device was also used to torture the anus and the vagina. “…homosexuals would suffer the same fate on their anus, and women who had induced a miscarriage, or been accused of witchcraft and carnal knowledge of demons would see their vaginas torn apart by it.” Okaaay… None of this commentary was attributed to any source. It was just common knowledge for Boyle.

Days later, he created Wikipedia’s first article about a 15th-century teenage male prostitute associated with Leonardo da Vinci and convicted of sodomy. Boyle then felt compelled to update Wikipedia’s article about the “Facial” sex act to say that it’s simply an “expression of the desire to copulate directly with the most intimate part of one’s partner.”

In addition to a curiosity about unconventional sexual themes, his earliest Wikipedia work also showed a certain dedication to creating and expanding articles focused on war and death, especially with regard to Nazi Germany. He created the biography of a noteworthy German general who was married to a half-Jewish woman, who received a German Blood Certificate (also a Wikipedia article created by Boyle). Similarly, Boyle documented the story of a concentration camp nurse who was executed by the British after the war. Boyle typically provided no reliable sources to back up his extensive narratives, but there was very little enforcement of citation policies on Wikipedia in the early years.

This is not to say that writing about the history of Nazi Germany is weird in any particular way; I myself studied and occasionally wrote about the Nazi regime (especially the Luftwaffe) in both my undergraduate and graduate studies. But Joshua Boyle occasionally took it to a lower, seedier level. For example, within a year, Boyle had escalated his creation of Wikipedia content about the Nazis to the point where he authored an article about Joseph Goebbels’ murdered children and then later engaged in a protracted dispute with other editors who found inappropriate the staggering number of “ghoulish” photographs with which Boyle had illustrated his article (and which are now deleted from Wikipedia). At one point, Boyle actually said, “they are important photos that show (peaceful, unmutilated) corpses of five children, no different than many other articles… the fact ‘omg, they are cute children who never hurt anybody!’ is completely irrelevant from a neutral and academic standpoint.” One long-time Wikipedia administrator disagreed, saying the images were “horrific and disturbing in the extreme”, while another user conceded that one image may be appropriate to convey the horror of the murder, but questioned whether Boyle’s determination to include the “2nd and 3rd image of the corpses adds anything of value to the article at all.” Frankly, though, this is an argument many Wikipedians have waged over the years — some editors cannot seem to grasp that there is an actual difference between the act of censorship and the application of editorial judgment. Though he had been signing himself that way for some time, it seemed an awkward parting shot at the discussion when Boyle appended his signature with “Speaker for the Dead,” while talking about the “need for the charred Magda” photograph.

A social experiment

At one point, Joshua Boyle conducted a fairly elaborate breaching experiment against Wikipedia, to see if an article that was a complete hoax would be detected by others (or at least measure how long it would take). Using a phony “sockpuppet” account, he even sought to get the hoax article onto the front page of Wikipedia, in the “Did You Know?” section. Apparently, it didn’t take long for the article to fall under suspicion. Boyle was then dressed down by the Wikipedia community in a public reprimand, where we see Boyle speak in his own defense:

“I actually put in seven hours of use to the project every weekday, which often involves meeting with, telephoning and writing to the subjects of articles, the Department of Defence, Canadian Members of Parliament and the families of alleged terrorists. I do ‘more than my share’ of serious work to improve the project.”

The next year, Joshua Boyle would enter a stubby Wikipedia article about his own father into the network, though he surely must have known by that point that Wikipedia policies frown on editing subjects about one’s own family, without at least disclosing that potential conflict of interest. Perhaps another social experiment, to see if one can get away with writing about family members without getting caught?

Documenting social and legal injustice

To be clear, Joshua Boyle’s Wikipedia activity did not single-mindedly focus on the fringes of topics related to sex, death, and Nazis — far from it — he seemed knowledgeable about many other subjects. These ranged from obscure Soviet anti-ship missiles to historically-significant geographic features of Asia and the Middle East. Through the wide prism of topic areas, one consistent theme kept re-emerging — that of trying to document social and legal injustices and trying to “tell the story” of accused terrorists. But we wonder now, how much of this work was driven by Boyle’s personal agenda, and how much was in the cause of maintaining a neutral point-of-view?

Early on, Boyle manifested an interest in the wrongfully accused and the wrongfully imprisoned, which happened to be related to a college study unit of Boyle’s.

He was interested in a Canadian celebrity war protestor. He created Wikipedia’s first article about a suspicious Saudi official linked to the 9-11 attacks, even getting indignant about its subsequent modification.

Nobody could deny that Boyle’s contributions to Wikipedia, for example, those documenting the life stories of various Guantanamo Bay prison detainees, were extensive and most likely performed with the intent of helping the cause of human knowledge. But a more careful look at his edits in the areas of terrorism, Islam, and the Middle East is probably merited. His editing deserves additional scrutiny by other analysts with advanced knowledge of the subjects, and this recommendation stands for most high-volume editors of Wikipedia. We have initially seen that Boyle may have been trying to balance (or sanitize, depending on one’s perspective) articles to be more impartial toward Muslims accused of crimes.

Mohamed Atta's Nissan

Mohamed Atta’s Nissan

We can’t say why Boyle created an article called “Mohamed Atta’s Nissan” about the rental car used by the infamous hijacker of Flight 11, but we do know Boyle responded within 9 minutes when someone tried to remove a list of the contents of the vehicle.

Then years later, though Wikipedia’s policies which tend to water down accusatory language in biographies probably had something to do with it, Boyle felt compelled to quickly revert an edit that called Mohamed Atta a terrorist, preferring instead to call him a student. We don’t know why Boyle insisted on the label of ‘student’ for Atta not once, but twice in subsequent days; but we do know that the New York Times, Toronto Star, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, Newsweek, Time, and the National Geographic Channel all felt it appropriate to label Atta a terrorist. Most reasonable people would agree that Atta is better known (from an encyclopedic perspective) for his work in the field of terrorism, rather than his college academic program.

We cannot know why Boyle sought to delete Wikipedia’s article about Sadeq Mallallah, saying, “the fact remains that there is absolutely zero evidence that he ever existed”; but we do know that the Gulf Institute, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal all believe that Sadeq Mallallah existed.

We don’t know why in 2006 Boyle introduced an article about Zaynab Khadr, giving unsourced information to the reader, like “One of her friends, Rana F. says the Khadr family does not have any link towards Al-Qaeda but were in Afghanistan for the sake of helping the orphans”; but we do know that three years later, Boyle would be married to Khadr.

The big picture

Boyle’s uploads of photographic images on Wikimedia Commons (a sister project of Wikipedia) fit with his same themes of focus on the Wikipedia encyclopedia: gruesome war photos, suggestive pictures of young women, and social justice images related to Guantanamo, even if this meant uploading personal family photos without disclosing his conflict of interest. The fact that Boyle edited Wikipedia extensively about his then brother-in-law (#1 on the list of his most-edited pages) and his then father-in-law (#2 on the list) without disclosing his family’s conflict of interest is a point that would normally draw criticism from Wikipedians loyal to the policy of “neutral point of view”. And it’s not exactly a comfort that Boyle’s third-most edited Wikipedia article is the biography of the University of Texas Tower sniper, Charles Whitman. If it were ever discovered by the US government that his interests at one time included torture devices, Nazis, suspected terrorists, and mass murderers — we may be seeing a reason why Boyle refused to return from Pakistan to North America on a US aircraft.

Twirling Dancers

Image: Caroline Design Dancers
License: CC BY-SA 2.0

Unless he writes a tell-all biography (my bet is he will do exactly that), it’s not clear what motivated Boyle’s wiki-tendencies for what the average observer might call an unconventional, almost childlike fascination with sexuality and death. Although Boyle edited Wikipedia articles whose subjects were: panties, loincloth, G-string, muffin top, “going commando”, doggy style, Sybian, and nude swimming, he also worked on the articles about: death by boiling, castration, “bomb-making instructions on the Internet,” and perhaps most disturbing of all, the movie Norbit (permission to laugh here).

We do know that Boyle gave up on the Wikimedia-hosted projects with disgust in May 2010, at exactly the same time that the Wikimedia Foundation’s key figurehead, Jimmy Wales, was in the news. Wales had been deleting numerous images that could be considered “vintage” child pornography, in response to mainstream press concerns that his Foundation’s projects were a fertile ground for those who would advocate for prurient, potentially illegal, interests in young children. Apparently, that clean-up of the wiki space was the final straw for Joshua Boyle.

Finding combatants and compatriots

As Wikipedia User:Sherurcij had made tens of thousands of edits over the years, one might rightly assume that he attracted a few wiki-combatants and a few wiki-compatriots along the way. One editor, User:Iqinn, after touching a nerve with Boyle by removing one of his questionable sources, would eventually be on the receiving end of some cross words from Boyle. Iqinn eventually would be indefinitely blocked from editing Wikipedia. On the other hand, Joshua Boyle surely found at least a few compatriots on Wikipedia. One, for example, was a user called Geo Swan. Any observer of Wikipedia can see in its editing history pages whether one user seems to “follow” another user with any frequency. We can see that Wikipedia’s article listing Uyghur detainees at Guantanamo Bay was created by Geo Swan. Boyle then helped to flesh out that list, and he also created a “template” related to the same subject. We surmise that the two editors interacted with each other about as much as any two Wikipedia users possibly could.

Boyle edited Geo Swan’s “talk page” over 160 times. No surprise, they shared the same interests and together made dozens of edits on articles about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Omar Khadr, and Mohamed Jawad. Geo Swan also shared some interest in topics related to human sexuality; e.g., both Boyle and Swan weighed in briefly on a discussion about how to treat Roman Polanski’s statutory rape conviction in the corresponding Wikipedia biography. And further, shortly before Boyle left Canada for that fateful backpacking tour of Central Asia, Geo Swan was thinking about a tutorial covering safe anal sex, but some months later thought differently about that plan and deleted it.

Many years of torturous captivity later, not long after his rescue by Pakistani forces, Joshua Boyle told the media “Honestly we’ve always planned to have a family of 5, 10, 12 children … We’re Irish, haha.” About the same time, a mysterious Canadian IP address on Wikipedia reached out to User:Geo Swan with the message, “Need your phone number, eed your phone number 76XX does not work. It’s me. Haha.” Haha, indeed. Welcome home, Joshua Boyle.

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…continue reading What can fact checkers learn from Wikipedia — how not to do things, perhaps? (Part 2)

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