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Wikipedia’s Balkanisation

By Andreas Kolbe, with input from Eric Barbour

Wikipedia is the encyclopedia anyone can edit – anonymously, under an assumed name. Credentials are unnecessary. The Wikimedia Foundation does not even make any provision to verify the credentials of actual subject matter experts who are happy to edit under their real names. As a result, such experts have no more standing in Wikipedia than any other anonymous contributor. At the same time, contributors are free to claim qualifications they do not have – sometimes with amusing (or terrifying, depending on your point of view) results.

Wikipedia is also one of the top Google links for almost any topic under the sun. Enter anything at all in Google, and a Wikipedia article is usually found near the top of the search listing – a reflection of the site’s top-10 Alexa ranking. This visibility, combined with the ease with which anyone can change content at any time, makes Wikipedia an irresistible magnet for social entrepreneurs, activists and extremists of all kinds.

Politically motivated Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik famously exhorted his sympathisers to edit Wikipedia to create new truths in support of his right-wing agenda. He even edited it himself (as did Pentagon shooter John Patrick Bedell and Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza). Advice on how to edit Wikipedia can be found on white supremacist website Stormfront.

According to the Wikipedia myth, the presence of extremists among its editor base poses no problem. Opposing activists, so the thinking goes, will balance articles. At best, however, this adversarial approach produces articles dominated by duelling extremist sources, with moderate and mainstream opinions underrepresented; moderates simply don’t care enough to engage in daily wars over article wordings. At worst, as the number of Wikipedia administrators continues to dwindle and the number of articles rises to ever more unmanageable levels, stretched resources mean that more and more poorly monitored pages come to be dominated by one view or another.

This is a particular problem for Wikipedias in minor languages. The Kazakh Wikipedia has effectively been co-opted by the repressive Kazakh government, with large swathes of its content replaced by state-published material – with the Wikimedia Foundation’s blessing. Similar government interest in Wikipedia exists in equally oil-rich and equally repressive Azerbaijan, a country that entrusts its PR work to Freud Communications (the company where Jimmy Wales’ wife Kate Garvey is a Director; coincidentally, the Kazakh government is advised by Garvey’s former boss, ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair). The Azeri government is now reportedly sponsoring its own “wiki movement”.

Jimmy Wales with Croatian Wikipedians in 2008

In Croatia, recent weeks have seen a spate of press articles alleging that the Croatian Wikipedia – the 39th largest language version of Wikipedia with over 140,000 articles, yet run by just 27 administrators and populated by barely two dozen steady contributors racking up more than 100 edits a month – has been taken over by a clique of fascists who have ousted more moderate contributors. Croatia’s education minister, social democrat Željko Jovanović, took the unprecedented step of warning the country’s pupils and students to avoid relying on the Croatian Wikipedia, since “a large part of the content of the Croatian version of Wikipedia is not only dubious but also [contains] obvious forgeries, and therefore we invite them to use more reliable sources of information.” According to the English Wikipedia’s article on the Croatian Wikipedia –

Snježana Koren, a historian at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb, has judged the disputed articles as “biased and malicious, partly even illiterate”. She further added that “These are the types of articles you can find on the pages of fringe organizations and movements, but there should be no place for that on Wikipedia”, expressing doubts on the ability of its authors to distinguish good from evil.

Although the situation was discussed at length on Jimmy Wales’ talk page, there seems to be little progress in remedying it.

Extreme right-wing views can apparently be found even among the Wikimedia Foundation’s own staff. Its Education Program Consultant for the Arab World, Faris El-Gwely, sports a little green userbox with a black and white picture of Adolf Hitler on his user page in the Arabic Wikipedia. The Arabic text next to that image reads, “This user respects Adolf Hitler”.


This user respects Adolf Hitler
(هذا المستخدم يحترم أدولف هتلر).

Alerted to this fact by discussions in the German Wikipedia, Wikipedia Education Program Communications Manager LiAnna Davis commented there on September 17, 2013: “The comments posted in this discussion have brought this issue to our attention, and we are looking into the situation.” Three weeks later, the Hitler userbox on Faris El-Gwely’s Arabic user page is as proudly displayed as ever.

Needless to say, extreme right-wing pro-Israeli bias is just as common in other parts of Wikipedia. Wikipedia isn’t biased in one clear direction, it’s biased in a hundred directions at once, depending on which anonymous actors hold sway for a time on any given page, in any given language version of Wikipedia. To them, Wikipedia participation has nothing to do with altruism, or making the sum of human knowledge available to mankind, and everything to do with propaganda in the service of political, social or commercial goals. We’re witnessing the Balkanisation of Wikipedia.

Caveat lector.

Image credits: Wikipedia 1, 2; Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 UnportedAttribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

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