Conservaleaks is a collection of emails liberated from the sooper seekret mailing lists that senior Conservapedia administrators use to discuss Conservapedia policy. The collection consists of somewhere around four thousand threads and contains a total of a few tens of thousands of individual messages.
The collection is interesting because Conservapedia is unusually hierarchical as online encyclopedias go. Standards and guidelines are not hammered out in debates between contributors, not even ostensibly; they are simply decreed from up above. Conservapedia is also unusually secretive. Andy and his lieutenants are convinced they are being persecuted by an organized online militia of intellectually feckless but energetic liberal activists, possibly by Anonymous itself. What little deliberation there is must be kept confidential lest the enemy should learn to manipulate it.
You could always have painted a reasonably accurate picture of how Wikipedia works based on nothing but public Wikipedia pages. You couldn't have done this for Conservapedia; you just didn't have a large enough body either of the relevant policy discussions or of the casual background chatter. You do now.
Conservapedia's inner circle likes to meet in invitation-only mailing lists hosted by Google Groups to discuss changes to site policy and coordinate site supervision. The encyclopedia has created and disbanded at least five separate mailing lists over the course of the first three years of the site's existence. There may have been more; five is the number of lists we can prove have existed:
The Fab Five were run in parallel first with The Zeuglodon Blues, then later with the Conservapedia Group. We don't know if either the Group or the Five are still active. The reason Conservapedia keeps hopping from list to list is internal disagreements and management issues: The original mailing list was opened for all the world to read by a disaffected senior administrator who had fallen out with the rest of the inner circle. The list was closed again a few days later and outsiders who had signed up while it had been open were summarily expelled. Andy must have decided just a few more days later it would be safer to move to a new venue altogether.
At least one group seems to have been discarded because it was falsely believed to be unsafe. We don't know if Andy had grown suspicious of another administrator or if he was afraid the list had been infiltrated from the outside.
One other new list was established specifically because people on the old one had fallen out of favor. Apparently Andy could not bring himself to admit to members of his exclusive circle of eternally trusted lieutenants they were not really as eternally trusted as they had been led to believe. What he did instead was create an even more exclusive circle of even more eternally trusted lieutenants, quietly, behind their backs. One recurring theme with Conservapedia is that the only editors safe to assume they have an accurate picture of their standing with the project are those who have been banned. Approbation comes and goes; the shitlist is forever.
Archives of four of the five mailing lists we know about have been released to the general public at various points by various unhappy administrators. Some lists have been leaked wholesale, of others only portions seem to have been sneaked out. Messages have been leaked in a total of four batches:
All in all the leaks consist of a few tens of thousands of emails in slightly fewer than four thousand threads. The whole thing is an unholy mess due to how the messages had to be screen scraped out of Google's tag soup HTML pages; the original pages are impractical to navigate and difficult to read without their external style sheets and various other accoutrements. Many postings are incomplete because the scraper will sometimes mistake legitimate message parts for trailing signature blocks or cascades of quoted messages. Many postings still contain useless gunk the scraper does not recognize as such. Many threads have arrived broken into fragments the scraper has been unable to glue back together.
It's possible that I may find the time some day to build a better scraper and clean this train wreck up some. It's not actually very likely though.
Andy Schlafly is as blissfully undisturbed by Conservapedia's credibility issues and modest growth as he looks from the outside. Andy believes his project is a huge success. He is either unaware or completely unconcerned not everybody who comes to his site comes there for a reason other than to point and laugh. He believes practically every visitor is a new convert for conservatism; the idea that anybody could read a few of his articles with an open mind and still walk away unconvinced seems to honestly not occur to him. He doesn't just think the reason network ratings are declining is that more and more people switch to Conservapedia for information; he suspects his site could be the single largest reason America is moving to the right in general. Andy doesn't refuse consensus reality so much as transcend it; he will never be demoralized and he will never be ground down.
Andy's cheerful disposition is not the only thing at variance with what you'd expect given Conservapedia's unsteady course and uncertain outlook: the leadership style of some of his chief lieutenants is interesting in light of the project's trajectory too. The encyclopedia with no articles and no editors acts as though people were elbowing each other out of their way to the registration form. Since the encyclopedia is practically swamped with volunteers it makes perfect sense for administrators to have exacting standards, to the point of appearing capricious. Random reprimands for transgressions of rules made up on the spot are used to weed out contributors of insufficient amenability to authority. Random demands for writing plans are used to weed out editors of unsatisfactory dedication to the project. Well, they are in theory; there is no recorded case of any editor ever actually submitting one.
Random blocks with no warning and no explanation are used as tests of character and political reliability. Your reaction to a patently inexplicable permaban completely out of nowhere is significantly different from falling on your face and begging to be allowed back in? You clearly must have been a troublemaker anyway. If you do prostrate yourself with adequate theatricality, or if you warrant preferential treatment because you used to be an administrator yourself, you may be put on probation; a parole officer will be assigned to your case with great solemnity.
If you were uncharitable you could get the impression that not all of the conservative encyclopedia's senior sysops are there primarily to write articles. Some of them do seem to be in it mainly for the sense of authority. A number of them dispense contempt and swing the banhammer with a vibe that reminds you of sneer sites like Pandagon or Shakesville: what they want to look is casually dismissive, what they do look is angry. Actually, if you consider the sense of persecution, the arguments by ad hominem, the disinclination to accept basic tenets of science, and the person-portable telescoping goalposts, Conservapedia does have a lot in common with some of the communities they'd think are their polar opposites. Andy's grasp on inferential statistics is not much firmer than that of the average gender studies major; claiming to fight for evidence and reason but not accepting "evolutionism" requires almost as much epistemic inconsistency as accepting evolution while selectively rejecting "evo psych;" and if exchanges like this one don't remind you of anything then chances are you've never been to Feministe and you're unfamiliar with every major catfight since at least Black Amazon vs. Seal Press.
Of course you wouldn't have needed any leaks to know about these last examples. You also wouldn't have needed any leaks to tell you that Andy generally shares parts of his frame of mind with other people who prefer working down from political conviction to working up from evidence. They mostly just make for nice corroboration. What the leaks really drive home is how disenfranchised and betrayed the average Conservapedia administrator must feel. It's not just that Andy's lieutenants don't always come across as people of sociable disposition and cosmopolitan outlook, they also don't tend to come across as people of erudition and disposable income. Few seem to hold down jobs. Most seem to be unhappy.
One other thing they can come off as is cynical. Conservapedia's inner circle are aware that Ken is not well. Everybody knows his fourty-hour essay editing sprees are not doing him any good, his essays are substantially less devastating than he thinks, and the tens of thousands of activists he has recruited for his crusade of the week against evolutionism exist in his imagination only. Nobody will call him out on his fibs or have an honest word with him about his literary output, nor is anyone going to try and convince him to get help. Thanks to their sheer number, the massive interlinking, and the constant stream of copy edits the pages Ken keeps churning out actually do accomplish their asserted aim: they win a lot of page views for the site. Andy cares about page views. It's Ken he's not all that concerned about.
All in all the people in control of Conservapedia really do spend more time and energy investigating suspected infiltrators than trying to win editors or working to improve articles. They also spend a lot of time venting their helpless anger against the many disenchanted former friends who have left them behind. They seem to spend even more time daydreaming about the revenge they plan to one day get against the many enemies they are convinced they have. In fact, drawing up revenge plans is the one area Conservapedia shows its most resolve and inventiveness in.
One of the earlier and simpler ideas was to get the cops to harrass his critics. Andy believed the wiki vandalism sometimes directed against Conservapedia was a federal crime; he also believed the vandals weren't just the usual random trolls but an organized mob controlled by a gang of sacked former Conservapedia administrators. Specifically, Andy believed the vandals were controlled by Rationalwiki, a competing wiki encyclopedia the group in question had founded. If Andy were to report the vandal attacks to the authorities then his detractors would be taken out for him by federal law enforcement, or at least that seems to have been the plan.
In July 2007, Andy advised his council of senior administrators he had registered his complaint with the FBI's Internet crime division. The investigation was never heard about again; asking about how the investigation was coming along became a banning offense in a matter of weeks. Conservapedia watchers agreed the scheme must have fallen flat because the FBI had refused to treat graffiti on a web site as a high crime. A FOIA request filed in 2010 appears to suggest the council may have been misled; the FBI asserts it has no record of Andy's alleged report.
One of the later and more sophisticated schemes was to manipulate the enemy into bringing about their own downfall; Rationalwiki was going to be destroyed through judicial jiu jitsu involving the popular and endlessly versatile intentional tort of libel. Conservapedia would put up an article denouncing Rationalwiki as a hate site; Rationalwiki would be forced to sue. Because a hate site is what Rationalwiki actually was, according to the plan, the people behind it would lose their lawsuit and, with it, all their money. The reason this plan came to nothing is that Rationalwiki turned out not to really care that much what Conservapedia was calling them.
Initial setbacks nonwithstanding, Conservapedia remains convinced that one of these days their detractors will pay the price for the lies they have been spreading and the barrage of disruption and sabotage they have been orchestrating. One way or other, in the fullness of time, Conservapedia will make it happen.
We all like to take snipes at Wikipedia for its Byzantine power structure; the truth is their hierarchy is remarkably flat for a community of that many people. Hierarchies in volunteer wiki communities generally are. There will be users with special privileges, out of necessity, but there will also be rules they will have to follow in exercising them. They will be expected not to form gratuitous secret societies and not to hold execessively many secret meetings behind closed doors. The community will try to decide questions of policy by building some kind of consensus in public discussions. If no consensus can be reached and a referendum is necessary then all votes will be equal and suffrage will be very nearly universal. The same will go for resolving personality clashes between users. Any form of deliberation of any consequence will be kept public and accountable as much as reasonably possible.
Wiki communities don't gravitate towards this kind of culture because wiki editors are somehow preternaturally mature and enlightened. Wikis tend towards openness and accountability partly because this is the direction the affordances of wiki software combine to nudge them into, partly because openness and accountability are what potential editors have learned to implicitly expect. It doesn't take a conscious decision to build a wiki that debates out in the open. It does take a conscious decision to sequester all policy discusion into a private backroom, a room the rank and file are not just not admitted to but not supposed to even know about.
It turns out you do this at your own peril.
Conservapedia demonstrates it's not necessarily hard to rake up a handful or two of underemployed middle-aged males somewhere who would rather work as Internet mall cops for free than have absolutely no authority over anyone anywhere. The project also goes to show, however, that relying on this type of motivation for essentially all your community maintenance and leadership needs has its problems. On the one hand spending half your waking hours being a vigilante gets very old very fast if the community you have sworn to protect is a ghost town and there are no people to swagger around in front of. On the other hand vigilante types do tend to be drama queens. Unfortunately for Conservapedia, this applies to posses on the Internet pretty much the same as it applies to those in real life.
If your online encyclopedia attracts lots of contributors for a while but fails to engage and retain most of those who came to write articles, you may end up with too many deputies and too few civilians for them to patrol. Your posse could eventually turn on each other, partly because they may blame some of the site's decline on administration errors and partly because they were a bit on the testy side to begin with; partly also just to pass the time. There will be backstabbing. There will be flounces. There will be ragequits. It will take a certain amount of situational awareness and diplomatic aptitude to actually keep the private backroom private.