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Contested truth claims in Wikipedia

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By Andreas Kolbe, Bluerasberry, Bri, HaeB, and Smallbones

More fines for Wikimedia Foundation in Russia

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Roskomnadzor and Wikipedia do not exactly see eye to eye

The Wikimedia Foundation has received another two fines in Russia.

On 6 April, as reported by Reuters and others, the WMF was fined –

800,000 roubles ($9,900). Russian news agencies in the courtroom said Wikimedia had been charged with failing to remove materials related to a song by the alternative rock band Psychea, or Psyshit, which has been officially designated "extremist".

And on 13 April, as reported by Associated Press and others, the WMF was fined –

2 million rubles ($24,464) for not removing a Wikipedia article titled “Russian occupation of the Zaporizhzhia region,” a reference to one of four Ukrainian provinces that Russia annexed last September., a site critical of Russia's government, says:

Roskomnadzor, the federal service that supervises communications in Russia, recently ordered the deletion of 133 Wikipedia pages, claiming the website was anti-Russian and "fake news" for publishing articles containing facts about the war in Ukraine. Now, government and judiciary officials are discussing a possible ban on the online encyclopedia.

The Wikimedia Foundation, the supervisory organization of Wikipedia, has battled courts in Russia over claims of discrediting the army and feykov (fake news) since June 2022 ... it has amassed a total of R10 million (USD $123,305) in fines to date.

Isvestia reported that Wikipedia could be the latest non-Russian site to be blocked in the country, and there's little domestic alternative. According to Isvestia, experts estimate Russian versions of online encyclopedias like Runiversalis, Bolshaya Rossyskaya Entsiklopedia (The Great Russian Encyclopedia), and Znanie (Knowledge) will only begin to compete with Wikipedia in a few years.

Pakistani news outlet UrduPoint quotes Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying:

You know that in various formats, on different forums and at different levels, the point of view has been repeatedly expressed that we need to create an equivalent of Wikipedia, and that would contain verified and accurate information, objective information, because we know that there are a lot of distortions on Wikipedia.

Once such an alternative exists, Peskov said, it would make sense to talk about banning Wikipedia.

The idea of a single world encyclopedia that is available to read everywhere and universally accepted as a reasonable compromise between the world's competing truth claims has both attractive and unattractive sides. What is attractive about it is that it would break up information silos, where people on one side of the earth don't even know what news is reported to people on the other side, and how it is reported. However, there is also an obvious downside involved in having such a global reference source – over the years, it might easily become too monopolistic and monolithic.

But whatever one may think of the idea, it seems unlikely to be realised anytime soon. Not least because some governments are unwilling to accept anything less than complete suppression of some viewpoints. – AK

Slate covers Holocaust arbitration case

Stephen Harrison in Slate writes about the ongoing arbitration case on World War II and the history of Jews in Poland (see previous Signpost coverage: 1, 2). Commenting on the historical context, Harrison says:

It is hard to convey the sheer magnitude of the underlying historical tragedies at issue—From 1941 to 1945, Nazi Germany murdered some 6 million Jews. Roughly half of these victims had resided in Poland, which claimed prewar Europe's largest Jewish population. The Auschwitz complex of concentration and extermination camps was located in Poland, as were others.

The suffering of Poland's non-Jewish population was also extraordinary, even by the standards of World War II. Poland was the only nation to be attacked simultaneously by the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, both of whom rejected Poland’s right to exist as a sovereign nation and set about eliminating the country’s political, cultural, and military elites. More than 2 million non-Jewish Poles are estimated to have perished during the war, which left the country in ruins.

Polish Jews and the broader nation of Poland were thus victims of previously unimaginable horrors, and acknowledging one tragedy, and the suffering of one population, shouldn't detract from the other. But the historical record remains subject to intense political scrutiny, unresolved wounds, and understandable sensitivities.

Harrison notes that there are competing historical narratives. According to the one promoted by Poland's current right-wing government, World War II marked "a period when the nation achieved the peak of moral virtue", exemplified by its steadfast refusal to collaborate with the Germans. Scholars like Jan Grabowski – whose paper in The Journal of Holocaust Research, co-written with Shira Klein (User:Chapmansh), sparked the current arbitration case – would like to see greater acknowledgment of the fact that Poland saw some of the same antisemitism that existed elsewhere in Europe and that there were cases of Polish involvement in Jewish suffering.

Looking at how Wikipedia deals with this topic area, Harrison revisits the 2019 story of the "fake Nazi death camp" as one example of misinformation raised by Grabowski and Klein that lasted for more than a decade in Wikipedia before being corrected in 2019 (see previous Signpost coverage). He also explains that addressing such cases is made more difficult by the fact that Wikipedia's arbitration committee is not permitted to rule on content but can only decide conduct disputes.

Harrison argues that there is something "deeply unsatisfying" about this dichotomy, but he sees no easy solution. He quotes Chapmansh and Piotrus – both university teachers who have worked with Wikipedia in the classroom, though they are on opposite sides in this case – as saying that it would be good to have more academics contributing to Wikipedia. Harrison is sceptical, however:

Could experts really save Wikipedia? On the one hand, there is a lot to be said for greater collaboration between scholars and Wikipedia; after all, Wiki pages often have far more reach and page views than traditional scholarly papers. But some Wikipedians are understandably cautious about handing the site over to an exclusive club of specialists. Previous experiments have flopped, such as Nupedia – the predecessor to Wikipedia – which required volunteer contributors with appropriate subject matter expertise for every article. That project was shut down in 2003 after producing only 21 articles during its inaugural year.

Contentious issues, moreover, don't cease being contentious when experts are called in, and there are other ways that involving experts in Wikipedia's adjudicative process could backfire in future cases. Consider the two other topics that, along with the Holocaust in Poland, Wikipedia has placed in its highest category of concern: India–Pakistan and Israel–Palestine. If the precedent is established to invite experts into an ArbCom trial, each side would enlist its own champion advocate in Court TV fashion. The volunteer arbitrators would have to decide who won the battle of experts, despite having no formal qualifications to do so.

More fundamentally, looping in experts at a content trial would undercut the ethos of Wikipedia. The spirit of the site is that volunteer editors curate information by following certain policies, such as using reliable sources. So long as those policies are followed, it's not supposed to make a difference whether experts are actually involved in the article-making process.

Harrison reports that some issues in Wikipedia's coverage identified by Graboswki and Klein have since been addressed, due to an injection of new blood in the topic area, although he says this can be a hit-and-miss process given the prevalence of battleground behaviour and cases of entrenched editors being hostile to newcomers.

At the end of his article, Harrison notes that some of the editors at the centre of the controversy are vigorously defending their actions in the court of public opinion. He comments on how engaging with such emotive subject matter can be a risky affair, linking to a press report on how Grabowski himself was taken to court in Poland over some of his academic writing and noting that some of the editors with whom Grabowski and Klein disagree are reporting sustained off-wiki harassment.

Their situation serves as a stark reminder that the boundary between "real" life and Wikipedia activity can be perilously thin, and that engaging with this painful history poses risks for everyone involved.


Top scoops

Try to top these scoops!

Twitter X'd, Wikipedia scoops Musk

A poop emoji as shown on Twitter

Elon Musk has changed Twitter's name to X Corp. as well as the corporation's state of registration. Twitter, a Delaware corporation owned by Musk, was merged into X Corp, which is owned by a Nevada holding company X Holdings Corp., which is owned by Musk. Twitter is gone. Only X Corp. and X Holdings Corp. remain.

Twitter first revealed the move in a court document dated April 4, but the document was apparently not noticed by the media until Slate published the story on April 10 at 20:29 UTC (4:29 PM New York time). Slate reported that Twitter responded to a question about the deal, but only with a poop emoji. Wikipedia first published the news five-and-a-half hours after Slate at 2:01 UTC, April 11. A non-notable, unreliable crypto blog, CoinGape cited Wikipedia as one of their sources at about 5:00 UTC April 11. Musk's first mention of the news seems to have been a single letter Tweet at 7:03 UTC, April 11, "X". For further details see "not news". – S

Who is to blame for wrong Vatican flags – Wikipedia? Britannica? NASA? the Vatican itself?

Currently displayed flag, after corrections in 2022
The allegedly wrong flag in an exhibit in the Vatican Museum, which includes moon rocks and the explanation "This flag of your state was carried to the Moon and back by Apollo 11"

A bogus version of the flag of Vatican City has appeared throughout the world according to Wikipedia had the wrong Vatican City flag for years. Now incorrect flags are everywhere from the Catholic News Agency. The CNA article says that a Wikipedian added a red disk at the base of the Papal tiara in 2017 which lasted as the main Wikipedia illustration of the flag through 2022. It quotes Father William Becker, of the St. Columbanus Parish in Blooming Prairie, Minnesota, who wrote a book on Vatican flags. According to Becker, after the adoption of the current flag in 1929, it was used in diverging versions for years, and even today, due to what he gently criticizes as a failure by the Holy See to "make some design specifications more available" online (a gap that he created his own website to fill), "a flagmaker is likely to go to a source like Wikipedia, and it may vary in its accuracy." The official Vatican City website does give an illustration without a red disk, albeit as a somewhat grainy JPG image.

Father Becker and CNA credit a March 22 Reddit post for bringing the issue to their attention. It was also covered by Depths of Wikipedia, who put the issue in the context of past "citogenesis" incidents, while pointing out that Encyclopedia Britannica includes the red disk in their version of the flag, too. But @depthsofwiki should have scrolled down to Britannica's "Vatican City" article which has a white-disked flag – E.B. gives an unexplained split decision.

However, the Reddit discussion, which started this red hat-ring business, also uncovered that NASA had sent a red disk flag to the moon on Apollo 11 in 1969, which was put on display in the Vatican Museum. And a later reply to @depthsofwiki shows Pope John Paul II sitting next to a red disk flag on a 1998 state visit to Italy. So who's to blame? – S, H

Alleged U.S. government influence

American writer and past Democratic candidate for Governor of California, Michael Shellenberger, alleges undue influence by parts of the U.S. government on media and tech companies, including the Wikimedia Foundation.

An article in The Washington Examiner cites claims made by Michael Shellenberger on the Joe Rogan Experience that the Wikimedia Foundation and various newspapers and tech companies took part in a "tabletop exercise" conducted by the Aspen Institute in the run-up to the 2020 US presidential elections. The exercise, described as essentially a Zoom call, allegedly looked at how best to mitigate any upcoming, Russian-inspired controversy concerning Hunter Biden. The article says the exercise took place in June 2020, about four months before the Hunter Biden laptop story broke in The New York Post, but about half a year after the FBI had taken possession of Biden's abandoned laptop.

Shellenberger characterizes this as the Aspen Institute "training, or brainwashing, all these journalists [...] to say if something is leaked, we should not cover it in the way that journalists have traditionally covered it." He views it as one of the ways parts of the U.S. government exercise undue influence on media and tech companies, including the Wikimedia Foundation – based on the fact that the Aspen Institute has received government funding, although the Examiner article points out that the non-profit is also "funded by donors such as the Carnegie Corporation, the Gates Foundation, [and] the Ford Foundation".

Despite the Examiner characterizing it as a "startling finding", the (apparently) same tabletop exercise had already been covered in an October 2020 Wired article (published about a week before the New York Post's laptop story broke). Its author Garrett Graff described himself as having co-organized the exercise together with Vivian Schiller, centering it around a fictitious leaks website releasing "doctored documents, appearing to allege that perhaps we don’t know the full truth about Hunter Biden’s role with the [Ukrainian energy] company" Burisma (motivated by concerns about how the media had handled the Podesta emails leak in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election).

Later in October 2020, the Wikimedia Foundation had published a post titled "How Wikipedia is preparing for the 2020 U.S. Election" which among other things mentioned how "specific members of [its 'Disinformation task force'] are regularly meeting with representatives from major technology companies and U.S. government agencies to share insights and discuss ways they are addressing potential disinformation issues in relation to the election." – AK, H

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Elon Musk has essentially shown why you shouldn't use Wikipedia as a source. In all honesty, Elon Musk is basically an example of everything you should not do if you control something. ― Blaze WolfTalkBlaze Wolf#6545 17:19, 26 April 2023 (UTC)[reply]

Quite. Whenever I see criticisms of the WMF or Jimbo, I always think "things really aren't bad. Things could be a lot worse." We now have a case study of how much worse it could be. Blythwood (talk) 21:07, 29 April 2023 (UTC)[reply]
Washington Examiner doing the "mainstream bad" thing again. --Firestar464 (talk) 20:42, 27 April 2023 (UTC)[reply]


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