While national leaders, diplomats, legislators, voters, protesters, and armed troops contest control of the Crimea … Wikipedia users battle to frame the story. (More)

WikiWars Part I: The Ukraine Crisis

This week Morning Feature considers the public but often-overlooked WikiWars behind controversial Wikipedia articles. Today we consider users competing to frame the Ukraine Crisis. Tomorrow we turn to the behind-the-scenes battles over climate change. Saturday we conclude with struggles to describe net neutrality.

“Wikipedia is not a soapbox”

Wikipedia is a remarkable resource, with five pillars that define its mission and values, including:

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia: It combines many features of general and specialized encyclopedias, almanacs, and gazetteers. Wikipedia is not a soapbox, an advertising platform, a vanity press, an experiment in anarchy or democracy, an indiscriminate collection of information, or a web directory. It is not a dictionary, a newspaper, or a collection of source documents, although some of its fellow Wikimedia projects are.

Yet many users do see it as a soapbox, or an opportunity to advocate on a widely-read forum, and edit wars are a routine occurrence. While most readers don’t see them, these WikiWars are public, with users debating sources and defending their edits on the Talk pages of the disputed articles.

These debates are not trivial. While Sen. Rand Paul’s plagiarism of Wikipedia made news, but he’s hardly the only public official to do so. Australian Environmental Minister Greg Hunt cited a Wikipedia article on bushfires, as do medical researchers, New York Times reporters, and even state and federal courts.

“Editors’ personal experiences, interpretations, or opinions do not belong”

With that potential reach, it’s hardly surprising that some editors want Wikipedia articles highlight their points of view, even though that directly contradicts the site’s second pillar:

Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view: We strive for articles that document and explain the major points of view, giving due weight with respect to their prominence in an impartial tone. We avoid advocacy and we characterize information and issues rather than debate them. In some areas there may be just one well-recognized point of view; in others, we describe multiple points of view, presenting each accurately and in context rather than as “the truth” or “the best view”. All articles must strive for verifiable accuracy, citing reliable, authoritative sources, especially when the topic is controversial or is on living persons. Editors’ personal experiences, interpretations, or opinions do not belong.

Wikipedia’s conflict-of-interest policy prohibits users from writing or editing articles in which they have an economic or official stake, and encourages all editors to publicly declare any potential conflicts. But of course some governments, political campaigns, and businesses still pay people to review and modify Wikipedia articles:

Controversies that have come to public attention include United States Congressional staff editing articles about members of Congress in 2006, Microsoft offering a software engineer money to edit articles on two competing code standards in 2007, the British public-relations (PR) firm Bell Pottinger editing articles about its clients in 2011, and the discovery in 2012 that British MPs or their staff had removed criticism from articles about the MPs. The media has also written about COI editing by the Central Intelligence Agency, Diebold, Portland Communications, Sony, the Vatican, and several others.

“The subject of this article is controversial and content may be in dispute”

That warning appears at the top of the Talk Page on the 2014 Crimean Crisis. In fact there are several Wikipedia articles about the ongoing crisis, including 2014 Russian Military Intervention in Ukraine, 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, a separate article on the Euromaidan movement, and another on 2014 Pro-Russian Protests in Ukraine. And there are WikiWars, featuring largely the same groups of editors, behind each article.

“But oh no, those Russians!”

A common theme is whether RT – formerly Russia Today – is a reliable source:

Wikipedia does not, AFAIK, recognize outlets like RT as reliable sources. They are subject to the editorial control of the government of a country well known for lacking freedom of the press, and they disseminate propaganda accordingly.[…]

RT has never been an “unreliable source” on Wikipedia. Like all news sources, reliability is situational, and it’s up to editors to see fit whether a source should be used. During the whole Edward Snowden event and the WikiLeaks cables release, the only sources available at a certain point in time were Al Jazeera and RT, since American media outlets had a blanket ban on the topic and information wasn’t freely available. Back then, it was deemed by community consensus that RT was to be trusted on the WikiLeaks issue.
Again we have the arguments that RT is an underling of the Kremlin. I find it ironic that people in the west, particularly Americans, are oh so abhorred at the thought that the press in Russia has a different viewpoint to theirs, and is therefore a definite Kremlin mouthpiece. It’s strange how it’s accepted that the American media is largely considered as reliable and trustworthy 100% of the time. Meanwhile, everyone seems to have zero qualms that 90% of American media is controlled by a certain ethnicity. I personally find it alarming that one ethnic group is able to control the large majority of American media outlets. But oh no, those Russians!

Editor’s Note: BPICampus does not consider RT a reliable source, due to their record of spreading groundless conspiracy theories.

“Have you ever heard of the term doublespeak?”

The WikiWar over the Ukraine Crisis hinges on a fundamental disagreement:

It is somebody from Russia… I am afraid that in Russia there is a large group that can not accept that Ukrainians do not want to side with Russia… So no matter what we do… As long if we don’t write in this article “all people involved in the 2013 Ukraine pro-European Union protests were wrong and Ukraine is actully a part of Russia” [that editor] will complain about lacking neutrality! pro-chaos hongweibing movement is just what right wing Russians named the Orange Revolution (see here). So we are responding to a request of neutrality by someone who is not interested in neutrality…
“Ukrainians do not want to side with Russia” – speak for yourself, please.

A case in point – the disagreement on whether the Russian military “invaded” the Crimea:

None of the sources cited in this article call this an invasion and not a shot has been fired. What’s stopping someone from starting 2014 Liberation of Crimea?[…]

This is blatant Ukrainian propaganda. There is no-way this is an invasion. Troops already stationed in The Crimea didn’t invade anything. To be completely unbiased, they are occupying certain areas. Russia did not authorise an invasion, they authorised deployment of troops to protect Ethnic Russians.

“Russia did not authorise an invasion, they authorised deployment of troops to protect Ethnic Russians.” Have you ever heard of the term doublespeak?

These read like trivial semantic tiffs, but there are real stakes. Wikipedia articles are edited routinely and there is no “final” version, at some point a Wikipedia consensus will emerge … and casual Wikipedia readers will take that as fact.

It calls to mind this famous, usually misquoted, line by Winston Churchill:

For my part, I consider that it will be found much better by all Parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history.


Happy Thursday!