Andre Oboler, Wiki-Warfare: Battle for the on-line encyclopedia, Jerusalem Post, May. 13, 2008
The Web site Electronic Intifada is running an exclusive report entitled “A pro-Israel group’s plan to rewrite history on Wikipedia.” It “exposes,” with much hype, a Google Group in which CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, has been encouraging activists to become involved in Wikipedia to help one another learn Wikipedia policies and rise to positions of trust and authority within the Wikipedia community.
The idea of getting people involved in improving Wikipedia lies at the core of the Wikipedia ideology. Nonetheless, Electronic Intifada is ringing alarm bells, probably because those getting involved are Jews and supporters of Israel.
Wikipedia does have a problem, but to focus on CAMERA is to ignore the elephant in the room.
TAKE A look at the large banner promoting the story on the Electronic Intifada homepage. At first the banner displays the phrase “A ‘war’ on Wikipedia.” This soon changes to the Wikipedia logo, a world globe composed of puzzle pieces. Each piece displays a letter from a different language.
“Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia” appears below the globe. The slogan fades and the globe then reappears, with each letter replaced by an Israeli flag. The text to the right of this new Wikipedia logo is headlined “CAMERA’s Plan to Rewrite History.”
The article itself says “the pressure group CAMERA… [is] orchestrating a secret long-term campaign to infiltrate the popular on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia… to rewrite Palestinian history, pass off crude propaganda as fact, and take over Wikipedia administrative structures to ensure their changes go either undetected or unchallenged.”
It reminded me of an advert for a film about an alien invasion set to take over Planet Earth.
CAMERA MADE a couple of novice mistakes in its approach, the most serious of which were trying to get involved in Web 2.0 “undercover” and trying to run a Web 2.0 campaign from the top down, rather than from the bottom up. However, it did take the initiative to help train and organize activists, and for this it should be praised.
Given the flaws, the end result should have been a few Wikipedia admins giving a scolding to CAMERA to the effect of “that’s not how we work.”
The intervention of Electronic Intifada puts a whole different spin on things. And it is mostly spin.
Labeling CAMERA a pressure group is a little rich coming from an organization itself founded as a pressure group. In 2001 Electronic Intifada’s “About Us” page described itself as “a focused network of pro-Palestinian activists, inspired by a series of Internet projects… [that] aims to focus on just one aspect of the struggle, the war in the media for a representation of the Palestinian point of view.”
This is hardly consistent with the Wikipedia policy of Neutral-Point-of-View.
The article – referring to a “secret long-term campaign” that was “orchestrated” to “infiltrate” Wikipedia – is saturated with the kind of language one usually sees in reference to fifth columnists or, indeed, the Jewish cabals of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. The image of Israeli flags taking over the Wikipedia globe is also reminiscent of classic anti-Semitic imagery, such as that employed by the Nazis.
To understand why this accusation of “infiltration” is so poisonous one must understand the nature of Wikipedia. Its basic idea is that anyone can edit the on-line encyclopedia. How, then, how can anyone be said to be infiltrating it?
Some might protest, “But these people were seeking to coordinate and thereby achieve a level of control over the editing process!”
I say, “So what?” This is how Web 2.0 works. This is Web 2.0 democracy. It is not perfect, and many would argue it is not even a good idea. Yet this is the model on which Wikipedia is based.
There are other projects on Wikipedia where people work in groups to improve articles and ensure their perspective is included. The most insidious of these is WikiProject Palestine. This project seeks not only to develop content on Palestinian culture and a Palestinian view of the conflict in the Middle East (something I have no problem with), but also attempts to manage the public image of pro-Palestinian groups while attempting character assassination on any pro-Israel groups.
WIKIPEDIA projects work by maintaining a list of pages that form part of the project. These could be existing pages in Wikipedia, or new pages that people have asked to be added. Members of the project – all volunteers – then look at the list of articles and further develop or improve them. At least that is the idea.
A number of articles are tagged as relevant to both WikiProject Israel and WikiProject Palestine, e.g. the page on Jerusalem. The reasoning is obvious. Why CAMERA, NGO Monitor, MEMRI and StandWithUs are members of Project Palestine is far less clear. Two of these are only in WikiProject Palestine (and not in WikiProject Israel for example). Changes to the articles on these organizations, combined with the way qualifications intended to discredit them are added each time any of these organizations is cited in Wikipedia, suggests that some activists have already been rewriting history to suit their own agenda.
THE CAMPAIGNS are not all negative, however. They also remove criticism – of organizations that support their cause (such as the Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions, also part of Project Palestine). In both cases the same agenda is being pushed.
This has nothing to do with secret cabals, the Jewish lobby or alien landings. It’s on-line war, and Electronic Intifada is not a neutral observer. It is one of the combatants and it is attempting to use conspiracy theory, racism and public ignorance to wipe one side of the debate out of the chamber while the other, currently more effective, side continues to rewrite history.
If you want to ensure that an accurate record of history is presented, log in to Wikipedia and get involved. You don’t need an organization to “coordinate you.” You don’t need group instructions. Just do your best to correct mistakes, remove propaganda and play by the rules.
Vote for those who do good work; report those committing vandalism. The rest, as they say, is up to history.
The writer recently completed a PhD in computer science in the UK. A post-doctoral fellow in the political science department at Bar-Ilan, he is also a Legacy Heritage Fellow at NGO Monitor. For the past three years he has run www.ZionismOnTheWeb.org, which monitors and combats on-line anti-Semitism.