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Wikimedia Foundation ousts, bans quarter of Arabic Wikipedia admins

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By Andreas Kolbe, Lane Rasberry, Bri and Smallbones

Wikimedia Foundation bans 16 MENA editors, including seven Arabic Wikipedia admins

On December 6, the Wikimedia Foundation enacted a group ban on 16 editors, all from the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region. The announcement was made in a post to the Wikimedia-l mailing list, and re-posted on Meta, saying

As Wikimedia projects have risen in prominence across the world, it has attracted increasing attention of those who would like to control the information published on it, for political or other reasons. Community members have addressed concerns of this sort for many years, but sometimes volunteers who intervene in such cases may themselves face retaliation for their actions....
In January of 2022, the Foundation began an investigation into alleged conflict of interest editing on Wikipedia projects in the MENA region. In that investigation, we were able to confirm that a number of users with close connections with external parties were editing the platform in a coordinated fashion to advance the aim of those parties. These connections are a source of serious concern for the safety of our users that go beyond the capacity of the local language project communities targeted to address.

There was a request for comment at ar:ويكيبيديا:الميدان/إدارة (in Arabic). NANöR reflected the views of many in his community:

Did the Foundation take into account whether the Arab Wikipedia community was able to receive such a shock in this way and on such a scale? Are we able to recover? The decision was harsh and the way it was issued made it harsher on a community that has enough problems. I think it's time to think about changing the mechanism for making decisions and for empathy to be a priority for everyone before anything else.

Ten of the banned editors, including seven admins, edited mainly on the Arabic Wikipedia. Six edited mainly on the Persian Wikipedia.

Arabic Wikipedia administrators

The Wikimedia Foundation globally banned 7 of the 26 administrators that were active in the Arabic Wikipedia. The banned accounts are listed in order of edit count on the Arabic Wikipedia. They all also had contributed to the English Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, and Wikidata.

Editors primarily active on Arabic Wikipedia

The Wikimedia Foundation also banned the following 3 Arabic Wikipedia editors who are listed by their edit counts in Arabic Wikipedia. They all had also contributed to Commons and Wikidata.

Editors primarily active on Persian Wikipedia

The Wikimedia Foundation banned the following 6 editors of the Persian Wikipedia, listed in order of edit counts on the Persian Wikipedia. Most had also contributed in Arabic and English Wikipedias, as well as to Commons and Wikidata.

Articles created on English Wikipedia by the banned editors

One of the editors also significantly softened descriptions of Saudi government detention of journalist Jamal Khashoggi who was later murdered and dismembered. – AK, Blu, Bri, SB

Admin highs and lows

As of December 30, the number of active administrators for the English-language Wikipedia stood at 497, the year's high point.

In a News and notes column of January 2022, we touched on the "Administrator cadre continues to contract" issue. Since then, not much has changed and according to Signpost analysis, 2022 was the first year in modern wikihistory that the number of active administrators never rose above 500. In 2022, the high point for active administrators was 497 – compared to 521 in 2021. The low point was 449 on April 4 – compared to 434 in 2021.

During the entire year there were only fourteen new admins, the third lowest since adminship started in 2002. While not as bad as last year's low of seven, and better than the ten in 2018; fourteen a year would only maintain the current admin cadre if the average new admin lasted over thirty years as an admin. We will reiterate our statement from a 2019 special report, and say about all these data "Whether that is a problem, or how a problem would manifest, are questions still to be answered." – Bri

2022 Coolest Tool Awards

On Friday December 16 the Coolest Tool Award committee announced this year's winners. The 30-minute award presentation is on YouTube. Winners were

Brief notes

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The banned accounts' contributions histories across various Wikimedia projects
The following discussion has been closed. Please do not modify it.
As one often finds in such cases, many of their contributions were actually perfectly fine, and valuable. Andreas JN466 15:30, 2 January 2023 (UTC)[reply]
I heard about User talk:OsamaK/January 2023#Sad news yesterday. Might be related to this and to the recent MENA news as well. There's your tip for next month, Signpost. Izno (talk) 18:59, 2 January 2023 (UTC)[reply]
I'd love to hear more about OsamaK. Please email me here if you have any tips or info. The 1st email is confidential - then we can discuss it. I suppose I'm the best known Signposter for doing such investigations, but I have to tell you that there is a lot of time and luck involved in coming up with a good story, e.g. I did several stories on a Mainland China/Hong Kong dispute like this. I got tipped off early by somebody I'd never expect (not in the WMF or admin corps - they seldom if ever give me good tips!). I did have some contacts from a previous story, but most of the info came from sending emails to people I thought might know somebody who knew something about it, and asking them to forward my email to those somebodies. So I never knew who suggested they contact me. Several people did contact me, but I don't expect that to happen usually. I still had to spend 3 weeks getting the story and wasn't sure I had anything that could be published until the day of publication. In short - it takes a lot of time and luck. There are probably 2 or 3 other experienced Signposters who might be able to do this better. Contact your favorite one if you want. Smallbones(smalltalk) 17:35, 3 January 2023 (UTC)[reply]
Unfortunately I am not surprised. While researching this for publication it was apparent to me that there was likely to be some kind of unsettling connection to a Middle East security service. ☆ Bri (talk) 03:07, 4 January 2023 (UTC)[reply]
Guardian report today: Andreas JN466 01:48, 6 January 2023 (UTC)[reply] Andreas JN466 01:48, 6 January 2023 (UTC)[reply]
For those watching from the sidelines, it appears that Specialized Criminal Court was involved in the trials; they usually handle state security including terrorism cases. ☆ Bri (talk) 02:04, 6 January 2023 (UTC)[reply]
@Andreas, the DAWN press-release claims that Wikimedia had terminated all of the administrators based out of S. Arabia! So, all of the admins, who were from S. Arabia, were agents of the state — ? WOW. I also wonder how did the news about the persecution of Osama Khaled and Ziyad al-Sofiani were hushed for over 2 years!
Besides, ar-wiki is a self-governing community and has many, if not most, editors who are sympathetic to S. Arabia (see the community response to the Office Action); what prevents them from electing some new agent to the admin/CU ranks? How does the Foundation plan to tackle the chilling atmosphere created in the ar-wiki for dissenters to the Saudi regime? This is a ripe topic for further coverage in the next Signpost. TrangaBellam (talk) 07:37, 6 January 2023 (UTC)[reply]
@TrangaBellam: That part, about all Saudi-based admins having been banned, was news to me too. At first I thought there must be some mistake. But the WMF will no doubt have realised that all Saudi-based admins are vulnerable to coercion. Given these sentences, it's not like any of them would have had a choice. (According to User:Gnangarra in the Wikimedia-l thread the two jailed admins were arrested in 2020, but only sentenced recently.)
What confuses me is that OsamaK stopped being listed as an admin sometime around 2016/2017 ([2][3]), years before he stopped editing. At the time he was jailed, he was not an admin as far as I can see. User:Ziad too stopped being listed as an admin around 2017/2018 ([4][5]).
This is an awful, heart-breaking situation. :( From the DAWN piece: "It's wildly irresponsible for international organizations and businesses to assume their affiliates can ever operate independently of, or safely from, Saudi government control." JN466 12:09, 6 January 2023 (UTC)[reply]
WMF will no doubt have realised that all Saudi-based admins are vulnerable to coercion
This is something that I thought of — the Foundation did not wish to attract scrutiny of the Saudi state on any admin who was not purged. However, if our explanation is correct, the Foundation appears to have defamed (not in a legal sense) atleast some editors in longstanding by accusing them of activities they were not involved in. I am not blaming the Foundation, fwiw; this is a tricky situation to be in.
Khaled appears to have been sentenced in 2021; the increase in the quantum of punishment (from 5 to 32 years) came in August/September 2022. TrangaBellam (talk) 13:11, 6 January 2023 (UTC)[reply]
Cryptic WMF statement now being quoted by Ars Technica: A Wikimedia spokesperson told Ars that there are “material inaccuracies in the statement released by SMEX/DAWN” and in a Guardian report. “There was no finding in our investigation that the Saudi government ‘infiltrated’ or penetrated Wikipedia’s highest ranks,” Wikimedia’s spokesperson told Ars. “And there are in fact no ‘ranks’ among Wikipedia admins. There was also no reference to Saudis acting under the influence of the Saudi government in our investigation. While we do not know where these volunteers actually reside, the bans of any volunteers who may have been Saudi were part of a much broader action globally banning 16 editors across the MENA region.” Andreas JN466 17:47, 6 January 2023 (UTC)[reply]


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