On Wikipedia as a Disinformation Operation
MEDIA, 22 Jun 2020
June 2020 – In March 2020, SPR published a widely read analysis on Wikipedia as a disinformation operation, covering 15 years of research by leading Wikipedia analysts on corporate, political and intelligence influence on the supposedly “free” online encyclopedia.
We now have added the instructive fact that the current Wikimedia Foundation executive director previously worked at the US Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) as well as at a subgroup of the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a US soft power organization involved in international information operations and regime change campaigns.
Needless to say, in the era of Covid-19, Wikipedia once again plays a key role in disseminating the officially sanctioned narrative, defending pharmaceutical interests, and attacking critics.
Wikipedia: A Disinformation Operation?
Wikipedia is generally thought of as an open, transparent, and mostly reliable online encyclopedia. Yet upon closer inspection, this turns out not to be the case.
Moreover, studies have shown that 80% of all Wikipedia content is written by just 1% of all Wikipedia editors, which again amounts to just a few hundred mostly unknown people.
Obviously, such a non-transparent and hierarchical structure is susceptible to corruption and manipulation, the notorious “paid editors” hired by corporations being just one example.
Indeed, already in 2007, researchers found that CIA and FBI employees were editing Wikipedia articles on controversial topics including the Iraq war and the Guantanamo military prison.
Also in 2007, researchers found that one of the most active and influential English Wikipedia administrators, called “Slim Virgin”, was in fact a former British intelligence informer.
In Germany, one of the most aggressive Wikipedia editors was exposed, after a two-year legal battle, as a political operative formerly serving in the Israeli army as a foreign volunteer.
Even in Switzerland, unidentified government employees were caught whitewashing Wikipedia entries about the Swiss secret service just prior to a public referendum about the agency.
Many of these Wikipedia personae are editing articles almost all day and every day, indicating that they are either highly dedicated individuals, or in fact, operated by a group of people.
In addition, articles edited by these personae cannot easily be revised, since the above-mentioned administrators can always revert changes or simply block disagreeing users altogether.
Articles most affected by this kind of manipulation include political, geopolitical and certain historical topics as well as biographies of non-conformist academics, journalists, and politicians.
Moreover, US social media and video platforms are increasingly referring to Wikipedia to frame or combat “controversial” topics. The revelations discussed above may perhaps help explain why.
To add at least some degree of transparency, German researchers have developed a free web browser tool called WikiWho that lets readers color code just who edited what in Wikipedia.
In many cases, the result looks as discomforting as one might expect.
- Wikipedia and the Intelligence Services (OhMyNews, 2007)
- CIA, FBI computers used for Wikipedia edits (Reuters, 2007)
- Spies in Wikipedia (Computerra Magazine, 2007, archived)
- What we know about SlimVirgin (Wikipedia Review, 2007)
- Wikipedia and the Spooks – The Remake? (Intel Today, 2018)
- The Mystery Wikipedia Editor Targeting Anti-War Sites (ML, 2018)
- Wikipedia: Rotten to the Core (Helen Buyniski, 2018)
- Time to ditch Wikipedia? (Five Filters Analysis, 2018)
- Wikipedia Editing Scandal Continues (Neil Clark, 2019)
Swiss Policy Research, founded in 2016, is an independent, nonpartisan and nonprofit research group investigating geopolitical propaganda in Swiss and international media. SPR is composed of independent academics that for personal and professional reasons prefer to protect their identities, and receives no external funding; there are no financial sponsors or backers. Our articles have been published or shared by numerous independent media outlets and journalists, among them Julian Assange, and have been translated into more than two dozen languages.
Tags: Media, Swiss Policy Research, Whistleblowing, Wikipedia
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