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Editing difficulties on Russian Wikipedia

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By Anonymous
The Signpost often publishes articles and opinions with a pseudonym in the byline, but almost never has published works anonymously. Due to the extreme difficulties of editing the Russian-language Wikipedia at this time, we've made an exception in this case. We do know the author's identity. For more information on this topic, see News and notes. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author alone.S

Russian Wikipedia is a multinational community, edited in the Russian language by users from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Germany, the United States, Israel, and other countries. The invasion by Russia, where the largest number of users reside, into Ukraine, where the second largest number of users reside, has greatly affected the Russian Wikipedia community.

Many Ukrainian contributors woke up on February 24 to the sound of air defense sirens or explosions. Some stopped communicating, while others accessed Russian Wikipedia or related informal chats from a bomb shelter. One user, who lived in besieged Mariupol, stopped contacting us on March 2, and it was not until April 5 that we were able to contact him and learn that he was alive. As of April 22, there had been no known deaths of Ukrainian contributors to Russian Wikipedia.

Wikipedia logo currently displayed on the Georgian Wikipedia

Shortly after the beginning of the invasion, it was proposed to put up a banner in support of peace between Russia and Ukraine. The proposal was supported by about 60% of users; about 20% spoke out against a political statement on behalf of Wikipedia, and about 20% of users, unfortunately, expressed explicit or implicit support for the invasion. Since 66% of the vote was required, the proposal failed. Instead of it, we expressed support for Ukrainian colleagues individually, writing about it on the Ukrainian Wikipedia village pump. In comparison, a similar proposal to change the logo was not accepted by the English Wikipedia community as it was deemed a political statement, but was accepted by the Georgian Wikipedia community.

The work of the Russian and Belarusian contributors was considerably complicated due to the introduction of military censorship. On February 24, Roskomnadzor, the Russian media regulator, demanded that the Russian media provide information about the "special military operation" only from official Russian sources. In response, the Arbitration Committee of the Russian Wikipedia limited the use of sources that follow this requirement: it was forbidden to describe events related to Ukraine using these sources; only statements by Russian officials can be quoted.

On March 1, Roskomnadzor sent a notice stating that the article about the invasion allegedly contained false information which needed to be removed, or else Wikipedia would be blocked. The notice was vague about which information was meant. Roskomnadzor has previously sent numerous notices, mostly for articles about drugs or suicide; in 2015, Wikipedia was even blocked in Russia for several hours. The position of the community on this issue is unequivocal: it is against any concessions to the authorities, but we check the specified articles for compliance with Wikipedia rules, usually improving them. Some of the articles on drugs have become good or featured articles after Roskomnadzor sent a notice on them.

That said, the March 1 notice was the first notice which Roskomnadzor issued at the request of the Office of the Prosecutor General. Many users thought that a block of Wikipedia would soon follow, and so the banner "Wikipedia may be blocked in Russia because of an article about the invasion in Ukraine. Find out what to do" was placed on all the pages; a link to the article in question was included in the banner. A blocking did not follow, and a few days later the banner was removed.

Similar notices came on March 29, also on the article on the invasion, on April 4, on five articles, including an article on the Bucha massacre, and on April 12, on the article about Vladimir Putin. On April 7, Roskomnadzor sent a notice about 10 images allegedly containing child pornography. These are the images from Wikimedia Commons that depict erotic posing of children drawn in the hentai genre. Only two of them were used in Russian Wikipedia articles, and they were removed from the articles as controversial and having little relevance to the narrative. Some users fear that Wikipedia will be blocked in Russia under the pretext of distributing child pornography, and it would be done in order to hide the political motivation behind the blocking. As of April 22, Wikipedia is still not blocked in Russia.

On March 4, Putin signed the so called "fake news" law that provides that any information that "discredits" the Russian army can be punished with up to 15 years in prison. It can criminalise, for example, distributing information about casualties of the Russian army or about civilians killed by it. As a consequence, many Russian media outlets have refused to cover the invasion in Ukraine, and most opposition media outlets have been moved abroad or closed down.

All of this has disrupted the usual workflow in Russian Wikipedia, where articles on political topics were usually written using Russian moderate and pro-government sources on the one hand, and Russian opposition and Western sources on the other, balancing each other out. The Russian moderate media has stopped covering the events or has turned into pro-government media, while the pro-government media started a massive disinformation campaign. All of this leaves reliable sources on only one side, which causes a large number of conflicts in the process of editing Russian Wikipedia.

In general, the description of events in Russian Wikipedia corresponds to the description in other Wikipedias: for example, there are articles "2022 Russian invasion in Ukraine" and "Bucha massacre"; they are called the same as in English Wikipedia, although some users suggested moving them to "2022 Russian military operation in Ukraine" and "Bucha incident". The lead of the first article calls Putin's rhetoric that Ukraine is a neo-Nazi state untrue, while the lead of the second article reports that the massacre took place in territory controlled by Russian troops, and that the alleged perpetrators are Russian troops. Both passages are highly resisted by some users, but the community feels it is appropriate to write this way.

It has been suggested that some of the old accounts that became active after the invasion and made pro-government edits, may belong to pro-government organizations like the Internet Research Agency. External organizations have tried to interfere with Russian Wikipedia in the past: for example, in August 2021, during the election of the 32nd Arbitration Committee, a large group of users who voted for pro-government candidates and supposedly formed a bot farm, were found out and stripped of their votes. It turned out that, in February 2021, they also influenced the results of the elections of the 31st Arbitration Committee; allegedly due to that fact the 31st Arbitration Committee made some controversial decisions, which had to be reviewed by the 32nd Arbitration Committee.

Mark Bernstein

On March 10, a well-known Russian Wikipedia contributor from Belarus, Mark Bernstein (who edited under the nickname Pessimist2006), was doxxed in a pro-government Telegram channel, after which he was arrested by Belarusian security forces. The same Telegram channel began to doxx contributors from Russia, threatening them with the "fake news" law. On March 12, Bernstein was sentenced to 15 days in prison for allegedly disobeying the police (such a sentence is often done in order not to comply with the law requiring charges be brought within 3 days after the arrest), and on March 26 it became known that Bernstein was charged under the article "Organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order, or active participation in them", the penalty for which is up to 4 years in prison.

Due to this, the Arbitration Committee recommended that contributors edit the articles related to the invasion using alternative accounts. Also, for the safety of the contributors, the history of edits of the Russian Wikipedia articles related to the invasion is now mostly hidden by an adminbot.

Unfortunately, it was already too late. Another Wikipedia contributor from Belarus, Pavel Pernikaŭ, who edited Russian, English, Ukrainian, Belarusian, and German Wikipedias, had been detained a few months earlier. Attempts were made to remove some of his former contributions using his account, probably by Belarusian security forces. This was noticed, and the account was globally locked as compromised. Pernikaŭ was not actively involved in the Wikipedia community, so it was only on March 28 that we became aware of what was happening to him. On April 7, Pernikov was sentenced to two years in prison for several edits on the Russian Wikipedia and several articles on the International Society for Human Rights website. Pernikaŭ is recognized as a political prisoner by Belarusian Viasna Human Rights Centre.

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