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Is the Social Network Mightier than the Sword?

By Hersch 

With the advent of the internet, the social response time to mass communication has been radically reduced.  This has made possible new social phenomena, as large numbers of people can quickly coordinate their activity in response to a particular set of circumstances. An early example of such phenomena was the “flash mob.” Because of the speed at which these sorts of events transpire, there is not much time for calm reflection, and so a sort of herd (or stampede) impulse comes into play. The political utility of social media was recognized early on, and it was discovered that for a relatively modest investment in infrastructure, one could achieve major political effects. For example, it has been suggested that a few organizations with deep pockets exploited social media to produce the Color Revolutions in former Soviet bloc nations.


As Wikipedia emerged as the social networking site with the most Google juice, it became a magnet for propagandists of all varieties. This is despite the fact that Wikipedia has a policy called WP:NOTSOAPBOX, which states that “Wikipedia is not a soapbox, a battleground, or a vehicle for propaganda,” making this one of Wikipedia’s most widely ignored policies. Teams of contestants at Wikipedia use other social media to coordinate their activities and win content disputes, so as to skew Wikipedia article content toward their preferred ideological biases (see “How to control a topic”.) Of course, the way the Wikipedia game is played, all content is supposed to be cited to Reliable Sources. For rapidly-developing current events, there are no scholarly, peer-reviewed sources available. These things take time. Therefore, the only option which remains is to use the news media.

There were two noteworthy articles that recently appeared: “Media bias a problem in Ukraine reporting”, which appeared on the English language website of Deutsche Welle, and “Ukraine: western media coverage’s bias should be held into account”, which appeared in the London Guardian. Both articles examine the extent to which the media on both sides of the debate over Ukraine, i.e. the media aligned with Russia and her friends, and those aligned with the U.S. and Europe, tend to uncritically reflect the policy lines of their respective foreign policy establishments, using inflammatory language. To put it more bluntly, the media on both sides are churning out propaganda.

Even on relatively non-controversial matters, there are questions to be asked about the reliability of news media. In a brilliant little essay entitled “Otto Middleton (or why newspapers are dubious sources)” or WP:OTTO, veteran Wikipedia editor Scott MacDonald illustrated the point by demonstrating how a number of the news sources most revered by Wikipedians were all taken in by a hoax about a mythical pet dog belonging to Kate Middleton. Mr. MacDonald constructed a mock Wikipedia article about the dog, with sourcing that would be regarded as impeccable in any Wikipedia debate. Of course, every detail in this reliably-sourced article was false.

So, for the contestants in the ongoing article content wars at Wikipedia, a standard tactic is to disparage the media sources being employed by one’s opponents, while extolling the virtues of one’s own sources. It is said that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. So, the successful WikiWarrior will immediately begin compiling a list of sources that say “terrorist,” while his opponent compiles a similar list of media that say “freedom fighter” and looks for any angle to discredit the sources that say “terrorist.”

There are other tactics available to the more advanced contestants. For example, you can start a new article about a very specific aspect of an ongoing controversy. If you can narrow the focus, you might gain an advantage over your opponents because the majority of media sources may support your bias in this new and more narrowly defined topic. At Wikipedia, this is called a “POV fork” and Wikipedia officially opposes this practice. However, one of the most fundamental principles of the successful WikiWarrior is that Wikipedia policies only apply to one’s opponent.


In the case of the present controversy over Ukraine, here is a sampling of the different articles, most of which have been created in the past few months:


Incidentally, Wikipedia also has a policy against “Recentism”, but no one pays any attention at all to that one.

For most WikiWarriors, the dissemination of propaganda is an avocation, not a vocation. But since we know from a recent series of revelations on the Wikipediocracy blog that many corporate interests devote substantial efforts into controlling content in articles about themselves, can we rule out the possibility that government agencies are also interested in shaping Wikipedia article content?

Two years ago, the London Guardian revealed that the US military had developed software that enables military operatives to create fake online personas or “sockpuppets” for the specific purpose of influencing public opinion by creating a false consensus in online conversations on social networking sites. According to the Guardian,

A Californian corporation has been awarded a contract with United States Central Command (Centcom), which oversees US armed operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, to develop what is described as an “online persona management service” that will allow one US serviceman or woman to control up to 10 separate identities based all over the world.

At this point, it might be appropriate to mention that another standard tactic of the WikiWarrior is to create multiple Wikipedia accounts for the purpose of creating a false consensus in order to win article content disputes. This, too, is against Wikipedia policy, although for technical reasons it is difficult to confirm with certainty that a given account is, or is not, a sockpuppet. Instead, it is traditional to rely on merely the allegation of sockpuppetry, which is usually sufficient to get one’s opponent banned from the project.

Is there any concrete evidence of governments attempting to manipulate Wikipedia article content? There is, although to date it is minor. Last year, Wikipediocracy investigators spotted an edit which vandalized the Wikipedia biography of Edward Snowden, and tracked it to an IP address used by the U.S. Senate. More recently, it was revealed that IP addresses belonging to the British government were used to make defamatory edits to the biographical article about Canadian author and university professor David Gilmour, as well as vandalistic edits to the article on the “Hillsborough Disaster” where 96 people were crushed to death during the FA Cup semi-finals at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, England. Wikipediocracy investigators have tracked the latter edits, and the trail leads to a mere 20-something loose cannon, a low-level civil servant. However, given the undisputed influence of Wikipedia over public opinion, and the incessant battling for supremacy there by amateur propagandists, the temptation to join the fray may well be too great for sophisticated government agencies to resist. And with their access to an “online persona management service” where each operative can control up to 10 separate identities based all over the world, it will be much more difficult to detect.


From the Wikipediocracy Forum: 

 There is an entire Wikipedia article on U.S. Congressional staff edits to Wikipedia (THL). There is also this page with more edits from government computers: Wikipedia:Congressional staffer edits (THL).


Image credit: Flickr/leighmcmahon, Flickr/Thomas Shahan 3 ~ licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

5 comments to Is the Social Network Mightier than the Sword?

  • As Hunter S. Thompson said about Las Vegas:

    Hired muscle tends to accumulate in fast layers around money/power poles . . . and big money, in Vegas, is synonymous with the Power to protect it.
    So once you get blacklisted on the Strip, for any reason at all, you
    either get out of town or retire to nurse your act along, on the cheap,
    in the shoddy limbo of North Vegas . . . out there with the gunsels,
    the hustlers, the drug cripples and all the other losers.

    It’s evocative of the hustle being run at Wikipedia, and what happens to you if you make waves over there.

  • Matty.007

    Um… “Incidentally, Wikipedia also has a policy against “Recentism”” is completely incorrect. There is an essay, along the top of which is emblazoned “Essays are not Wikipedia policies or guidelines”. And the link you’ve given is wrong.

  • Hersch

    Noted. I suppose that trying to discourage “Recentism” would be too much an exercise in futility, even for Wikipedia.

  • Matty.007

    Thanks for the quick response. On Wikipedia, current events articles are often created. I have been guilty of that a few times, but usually article creators can tell if an event is notable, or the article gets deleted. In The News (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:In_the_news/Candidates) somewhat encourages current event documentation, but I don’t think that’s really a bad thing.

  • […] we discussed here a few months ago, it is likely that some more sophisticated government operatives may already be up to their […]