The truth about war is messy — just read Wikipedia

The writer is a former FT Moscow bureau chief

Rarely, if ever, in the history of human conflict have contributors to encyclopedias been counted as combatants. But in the information war that is raging between Russia and Ukraine, the frontline is nowhere and everywhere — as one of Wikipedia’s editors has found to his cost.

According to local media reports, he was seized by the Belarusian security police in Minsk, charged with publishing “anti-Russian” information and detained. An active contributor to Russian language Wikipedia, he has contributed more than 200,000 edits. When some other members of Wikipedia’s small army of unpaid editors complained that the page entitled “Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine (2022)” violated Wikipedia’s neutral point of view, he responded: “Russian troops invaded the territory of Ukraine. It’s just a fact, not a point of view.”

The Kremlin has previously complained about Wikipedia, warning it might throttle the site in Russia. It has already passed a fake news law threatening to jail those who report disinformation for up to 15 years and has blocked most foreign media. It has disabled US social media sites, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. According to a report from the internet research site Tracking Exposed, it also appears to have persuaded TikTok, owned by China’s ByteDance, to filter out all non-Russian content from its video service in Russia, too.

Wikipedia is blocked in some countries, such as China and Myanmar, and is periodically censored elsewhere. For the moment, it remains accessible in Russia. But the site has long been a battleground between Russian and Ukrainian editors, resulting in parallel interpretations of the same events in different language editions. There was a particularly fierce online skirmish over the Maidan Revolution of 2014 and subsequent annexation of Crimea. “There is no policy on Wikipedia that prevents articles from differing across languages,” says Vidhu Goyal, lead communications specialist at the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit organisation that runs Wikipedia.

Yet in spite of Russia’s media crackdown and the passions inflamed by war, the Russian language page on the current invasion remains fact-filled and comprehensive. In places it diverges markedly from the Kremlin’s account. Wikipedia, designed to be a collective record of human knowledge, is not a rolling news service. But this page has been frequently updated and carries striking photographs and maps. It lists 563 sources, including RIA Novosti, the Washington Post and Meduza, although some links will no longer work in Russia without access to a virtual private network.

By any measure, Wikipedia is an extraordinary phenomenon. Launched in 2001, the online encyclopedia now contains more than 58m articles in 325 different languages. English language Wikipedia accounts for 11 per cent of these articles. About 3 per cent are in Russian and 2 per cent in Ukrainian.

Crowdsourcing truth does not sound like the best idea in partisan times. But although Wikipedia should not work in theory, it mostly does in practice. Content is produced by more than 280,000 unpaid contributors per month. In principle, anyone with an internet connection can edit an entry if they abide by guidelines. But a few contested pages, such as those on wars or political leaders, are protected and can only be modified by experienced editors.

Wikipedia certainly has its flaws, biases and blind spots. It has been gamed by trolls, corporate lobbyists and propagandists. It can be extremely difficult to remove errors in reports from reliable sources. What counts as a credible source can be hotly disputed. Wikipedia does not accept Russia’s RT or Sputnik news services, considering them outlets of state propaganda. But editors have also barred some well-known western media, including the Daily Mail, which they consider to be “generally unreliable”.

For all its imperfections, Wikipedia remains one of the “last best places” on the internet, says Taha Yasseri, associate professor at University College Dublin. But we should not expect it to be the final arbiter of truth, he adds: “It is a very good place to start your research but a terrible place to end your research.”

It may be far from ideal that an online encyclopedia carries ever-changing, contested and kaleidoscopic versions of reality in different language editions. But, as we are seeing now, the disputes may just reflect reality. On some subjects, at least, truth is messy.

Source: Financial Times