Wikipedia—the online encyclopedia that helps you learn stuff, waste time, and seem more knowledgable than you really are—is not immune to foreign propaganda efforts, according to new research. A study published Monday exposed a network of shadowy editors, the likes of which have been attempting to sway the narrative about the Russo-Ukrainian war by making subtle changes to the website’s articles. The study doesn’t definitively point the finger at the Russian government but still finds plenty to be worried about when it comes to “suspicious” changes made via the platform’s open-editing model.
The report was put together by researchers with two U.K. think-tanks—the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) and the Centre of the Analysis of Social Media (CASM)—and seeks to assess current methods for finding disinformation on Wikipedia to determine whether they can be improved.
As you probably know, anybody can edit an article on Wikipedia. However, that doesn’t mean that the information on the website isn’t protected. Wikipedia has built up a complex apparatus for moderation over the years, and the organization behind the website—the Wikimedia Foundation—routinely works to improve its process and protect the quality of the information on its thousands of pages. However, that doesn’t mean that bad actors don’t occasionally slip through.
The new report analyzes the activities of 86 editors who had previously been banned due to various breaches of Wikipedia’s code of ethics (editors can get kicked off Wikipedia if they behave badly). Among the many pages to which they’d contributed, the editors had a history of making edits to the Wiki entry for the Russo-Ukrainian War. A deeper dive into the blacklisted editors’ changes seemed to show deliberate attempts to manipulate the narrative and sway it, ever so slightly, in the direction of a “pro-Russian” narrative.
According to researchers, these attempts included changing “language to minimise objectivity of pro-Western accounts and maximise objectivity of pro-Kremlin accounts,” introducing “topics which sway historical background toward pro-Russia narratives,” and adding “Kremlin quotations and press releases explicitly into the page to increase the salience of pro-Russian arguments and viewpoints.”
At the same time, researchers found evidence that the banned editors had consistently inserted links to Russian state media—another potential red flag:
One of the threats to Wikipedia (as identified through the interviews) is the use of suspicious or tendentious sources. We first, therefore, tested an approach of filtering edits by blocked editors based on whether they add references to state-media affiliated or sponsored sites.
While this might all sound pretty suspicious, the report notes that proving coordination between the banned editors, as well as accomplishing accurate attribution (i.e., figuring out who is really running the accounts), is the difficult part. It also makes it clear that, currently, there is little precedent for government manipulation of Wikipedia. That is, there just isn’t any good evidence that it’s happened—yet:
There are few known instances of illicit behaviour on Wikipedia clearly attributed to a state. Perhaps the clearest attributions are edits made from known Government IP addresses, and a number of bots on Twitter monitor this activity, highlighting incidents when they occur. These edits do not imply any sort of coordinated or concerted campaign, and IP addresses can be easily spoofed or obscured.
That said, there have been a number of recent incidents that—like the research covered in the study—point to potential involvement of foreign governments. One such incident occurred last year, when several Chinese Wiki administrators were banned, apparently for having skewed “content toward a hard-line Chinese nationalist point of view,” Slate reported.
Beyond government propaganda attempts, Wikipedia has suffered its fair share of other hoaxes and controversies over the years—something it readily cops to on its “Wikipedia controversies” page. One such incident was uncovered last year involving a Chinese editor who was outed for having fabricated hundreds of entries about medieval Russian history.