By Andreas Kolbe
Wikipedia, the crowdsourced online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, has often been credited with “democratising knowledge”. But it’s a strange sort of democracy. Wikipedia has a near-monopoly online: almost any search engine query will return a Wikipedia article as a top result. Most internet users only read the first search result. And in fact, users often do not even have to click through to Wikipedia. More and more material from Wikipedia is displayed on Google’s own search results pages, thanks to the Google Knowledge Graph panel and Google’s new snippet overlay. No wonder that there is such great interest from the most diverse parties to influence Wikipedia’s content.
News from Azerbaijan
A case in point is the government of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is an oil- and gas-rich former Soviet republic that has for more than two decades been ruled by the Aliyev dynasty. Likened in leaked US diplomatic cables to a mafia don, its current president Ilham Aliyev is seen as “increasingly authoritarian and hostile to diversity of political views.”
The 2014 Human Rights Watch report on Azerbaijan reads as follows:
The Azerbaijani government’s poor record on freedom of expression, assembly, and association dramatically deteriorated during the year. The authorities arrested dozens of political activists on bogus charges, imprisoned critical journalists, broke up several peaceful public demonstrations, and adopted legislation that further restricted fundamental freedoms. This crackdown was the backdrop for the October 2013 presidential election, in which incumbent President Ilham Aliyev was re-elected for a third term with 84.5 percent of the vote.
So when in September of last year an obscure news item about the Azerbaijani Wikipedia was raised for discussion in our forum, it seemed worthy of a second look. Published by Azeri business news portal abc.az, it told the world, in somewhat broken English:
The Azerbaijan Ministry of Communications and Information Technologies creates social movement for expansion of the information about the country in online encyclopedia Wikipedia.
According to the Ministry, together with the Azerbaijan Association of Young Translators (AGTA) it will create VikiHərəkat (Wiki-Movement) movement intended for expansion of online encyclopedia content in Azerbaijani language.
A press release by the Ministry of Communications and Information Technologies of the Republic of Azerbaijan said,
The Ministry of Communications and Information Technologies (MCIT) continues to implement measures in accordance with the Action Plan, approved by the Ministry in connection with the declaration of 2013 the Year of Information and Communication Technologies in Azerbaijan.
Thus, paragraph 22 of the Action Plan envisages taking measures to develop the content on Azerbaijan and data related to the Republic of Azerbaijan in global information resources like Wikipedia.
When asked about the matter at the time, Jimmy Wales said,
I know nothing about it. I know no one involved. There is no chapter in the Azeri language region. I have never heard of “VikiHərəkat”. I do not know its organizing principles, foundational rules, organizational structure, funding, leadership, membership, or anything else about it. Therefore, it would be irresponsible of me to voice an opinion about it. If you take a genuine interest in the issue, I recommend that you find people who speak English and Azeri and invite them to come here to discuss it.
As is often the case, Wales did not seem particularly interested in the question. His response could perhaps be paraphrased as follows: “Whatever is happening with the Azerbaijani Wikipedia, I know nothing about it, and I don’t want to know anything about it. It’s not my fault.” That is far too facile a response for someone who makes a comfortable living out of marketing himself as the founder and spiritual father of Wikipedia.
“Principles of propaganda”
Of course the government of Azerbaijan is not the first repressive government of an oil-rich former Soviet republic to have shown an active interest in controlling their language version of Wikipedia. The Kazakh Wikipedia, often held up by Wales as a model for the smaller language versions of Wikipedia, owes its growth to a similar initiative spearheaded by figures in Kazakh President Nazarbayev’s administration.
The result has been that much of the content of the Kazakh Wikipedia is now a mere copy of the state-published Kazakh National Encyclopedia, a work not known for its pluralist credentials, and that WikiBilim, an organisation that features a picture of Karim Massimov, Nazarbayev’s chief of staff, in the header of its website, claims to be “administrating” the Kazakh Wikipedia. Wales’ response to that situation was to name the coordinator of the Kazakh Wikipedia effort Wikipedian of the Year.
While there is no reason to doubt Wales’ word on his ignorance of developments in the Azerbaijani Wikipedia, it may be worth recalling that the Azeri government has been reported to use the reputation management services of Freud Communications. Wales’ wife Kate Garvey, Tony Blair’s former diary secretary, is a director of Freud Communications according to her profile at the World Economic Forum, whose recent Annual Meeting in Davos (January 22–25 2014) once again included Jimmy Wales, Tony Blair (who has taken money from the oligarchies of both Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan), and Presidents Aliyev and Nazarbayev in its list of attendees.
Whatever the Azerbaijani Wikipedia may contain at present, it seems to be heading for a similar fate as the Kazakh Wikipedia. On 24 January 2014, news.az announced that the Information Technologies Center of IRELI Public Union, a youth organisation loyal to the Azeri goverment, would launch a WikiDays project in partnership with Wikipedia Azerbaijan:
Professional trainers will hold training and seminars about how to create and edit Wikipedia articles, to protect Wiki-articles, Wikimedia fund, principles of propaganda in Wikipedia and other issues as part of the project.
The project aims to encourage the youth to use Wikipedia in a correct manner, to protect interests of Azerbaijan in Wikipedia and prevent distortion of information about Azerbaijan.
“Principles of propaganda?” “Encouraging” the youth to use Wikipedia in a correct manner? What sort of encouragement could be expected from a state with a human rights record like that of Azerbaijan? The most recent report by Amnesty International was explicit:
This week, the Azerbaijani government has taken worrying steps to further restrict freedom of expression and association with the arrest of a prominent civil society activist and the unexpected adoption of new amendments to legislation regulating the activities and registration of NGOs by the parliament on 16 and 17 December 2013, respectively. Unannounced changes to administrative requirements have placed grant dependent NGOs at risk of inadvertent errors and the threat of prosecution.
That same month, in a ceremony attended by Azeri MPs, state officials and public figures, Farhad Hajiyev, “Executive Director of the Youth Foundation under the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan”, presented IRELI with the 2013 “Best of the Best” award. An organisation with perfect credentials then! The IRELI website states:
As an organization, we are creating the image of a citizen who respects national-spiritual values, religion, language and history. We are against cosmopolitanism which has been created by liberalization accompanied by an expansion of democratic desires in society. Only spiritual and ethical criteria based on national values and rules will be able to guarantee the complete and comprehensive development of every member of our society. We are guided by neo-conservative ideas. We want to see responsible state officials, students and property owners who are true to their values.
Does this sound like a free, politically neutral encyclopedia in the making? Where is the Wikimedia Foundation’s response to such developments? What effective measures are in place to prevent various regional-language versions of Wikipedia from being co-opted by repressive regimes, all the while flying the global Wikipedia brand’s flag? Who on the Wikimedia Foundation staff has the breadth of knowledge, training and political expertise to cope with such challenges? Most of them are amateurs, Wikipedia volunteers who have risen through Wikipedia’s internal ranks.
It’s not just Wikipedias for languages spoken in the former Soviet republics that are easy victims to political manipulation. The fate of the Croatian Wikipedia illustrates how vulnerable Wikipedia is to political activists of every stripe. In September 2013, a flurry of press articles reported that the Croatian Wikipedia had been taken over by a clique of fascists who were busy rewriting Croatian history. Croatia’s education minister, social democrat Željko Jovanović, felt compelled to make a public statement advising his country’s pupils and students to give the Croatian Wikipedia a wide berth, as “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 own 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.
The Croatian Wikipedia controversy is still ongoing. There is no solution in sight.
Does this sound like democratisation of knowledge? It seems more reminiscent of George Orwell’s saying, “Whoever controls the past controls the future”. Today, the way to control the past is to control Wikipedia. Rather than presenting the sum of human knowledge, Wikipedia seems in practice to have become a ceaseless effort by anonymous and not-so-anonymous actors to present their version of human knowledge to the masses, and lazy journalists who copy its content blindly.
It’s democratic in a way, as anyone can have a go, but in practice it isn’t, as only those with the biggest investment in propagating their version of reality, their wiki-truth, are willing to expend the time and resources it takes to manipulate Wikipedia. Those are not usually the most mainstream, sensible people.
And that seems to be okay with the Wikimedia Foundation, which emphasises that it has no role in controlling Wikipedia content: “it’s the role of the volunteer editing community to manage articles and make any changes” (whoever those “volunteers” may be). And in a way, the more fights over content there are, the better it is for the Wikimedia Foundation. It’s nice to be desired!
Wikipedia, lacking any serious competitor to challenge its Google ranking, is the one site whose content everyone would like – and is welcome to try – to control. This applies to spin doctors and fanatics as much as it does to repressive regimes, all of which can and do contribute to Wikipedia – anonymously so if they wish. And it goes for the big Wikipedias as much as for the small: a recent German study of covert PR editing of Wikipedia, by journalist Marvin Oppong, came to the conclusion that PR efforts and manipulation of content are omnipresent in Wales’ “temple of the mind”.
Is having one encyclopedia, one ministry of truth for everyone, open to manipulation by all comers, really a good thing for the internet?
Flickr/Kalexanderson, CC attribution 2.0 Generic