Call it the Wiki Wars. Fed up with what he considered the skewed perception of Israel depicted by Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia, Gilead Ini, a senior research analyst at CAMERA, the Boston-based pro-Israel media watchdog, decided to mobilize.
On March 13, he sent an e-mail seeking 10 volunteer Wikipedia editors who would ensure that Israel-related articles “are free of bias and error, and include necessary facts and context.”
“Assuring accuracy and impartiality in Wikipedia is extremely important,” Ini wrote in the e-mail. “If someone searches for ‘Israel,’ on the Google search engine, the top result would be the Wikipedia page on Israel.”
More than 50 CAMERA members signed up. The group began to communicate using a private Google Group called Isra-pedia.
That’s when the trouble began.
Isra-pedia e-mails were leaked to the pro-Palestinian site Electronic Intifada (EI). On April 21, Electronic Intifada posted an expose on its site, charging CAMERA with “orchestrating a secret, long-term campaign to infiltrate … Wikipedia to rewrite Palestinian history, pass off crude propaganda as fact, and take over Wikipedia administrative structures to ensure these changes go either undetected or unchallenged.”
Within hours, Wikipedia editors who allegedly participated in CAMERA’s project were barred from editing topics related to the Arab-Israeli conflict for periods of time spanning one year to indefinitely.
They were faulted for working off-line, conspiring to make changes in a way that goes against the democratic culture of Wikipedia.
Wikipedia user “Gni,” strongly believed to be Ini himself (though he denies this), has been banned from the site entirely.
This is the latest twist in the ongoing battle for supremacy among the ever-conflicting narratives championed by Palestinian and Israeli supporters. Instead of academics squabbling in their ivory towers, though, ordinary individuals are taking it online — and they’re doing so anonymously. Wikipedia, the seventh-most frequently visited Internet site, is the go-to site for students and professionals alike. Though the online encyclopedia may not maintain the credibility held by Encyclopedia Britannica 50 years ago, it certainly commands its influence — with nearly 60 million visitors a month. That’s why the stakes are so high and why winning the Wiki Wars is so important.
“When we talk about the Wikipedias of the Internet, there’s a sense of community and empowerment and having that kind of access is very attractive, especially among young people,” says Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which just released its first “iReport.” It found a 30 percent increase in the past year alone in the number of sites on the Internet promoting inaccuracies, terror and hate. “But the casualty very often is the truth.”
According to Honest Reporting (HR), another pro-Israel group that monitors media coverage of the Mideast, “Anti-Israel bias in Wikipedia takes three forms: vandalism, blatantly false allegations and attempts to marginalize the Israeli perspective.”
Examples include defining Jerusalem as “the capital of Palestine” (quickly corrected) and, in an entry on “Massacres committed during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War,” listing only those allegedly committed by Jews.
But who’s to say that CAMERA’s truth is, well, true? And on the other hand, can Electronic Intifada’s version of the facts be trusted? Although Wikipedia documents every edit on its “history” page, the average user doesn’t have the time to analyze each change and has no way of knowing the biases held by the anonymous, and volunteer, editors.
Therein lies the problem, since the beauty — and frustration — of Wikipedia is its supposed democracy, in which anyone can edit entries. When it comes to basic information such as the correct spelling of a name or the meaning of a technical term, it generally proves accurate.
But as any college student will tell you, you can’t cite Wikipedia as a source in a term paper.
In other words, when it comes to understanding politically contested history, let the reader beware.
That’s the advice offered by Gershom Gorenberg, a respected Israeli journalist, in an article in The American Prospect earlier this month. Gorenberg faults CAMERA for being deliberately duplicitous in advising Isra-pedia members to avoid usernames that mark them as pro-Israel and engaging in an administrator’s gambit, by specifically avoiding editing Israel-related articles at first. (Gorenberg has been criticized by both CAMERA and EI for alleged bias).
“For a long time, I’ve felt that CAMERA, in approaching media coverage of Israel, has failed to make a distinction between advocacy and accuracy,” says Gorenberg. “CAMERA promotes a morally simplified view of Israeli history, a propagandist view designed to avoid any dissidence.”
Not everyone is as quick to blame CAMERA for its Wiki-downfall.
Social media expert Andre Oboler, a Legacy Heritage fellow at NGO Monitor who runs ZionismOnTheWeb.org, acknowledges that CAMERA made novice mistakes in its approach, the most serious of which was trying to get involved in Web 2.0 “undercover.” For that CAMERA should have gotten a scolding from administrators, he said, since “this is not how things are done.” Instead, though, administrators dealt the harshest consequences in their power: indefinite bans.
Oboler said that while CAMERA isn’t the first advocacy group to band together to edit Wikipedia, it’s the only one being scapegoated. “Wikipedians for Palestine,” a closed Yahoo group established in January 2006, allegedly engaged in similar practices, inviting Wikipedians “to combat anti-Palestinian and pro-Zionist bias in the English language version of Wikipedia.” The group has since been deleted — along with its archives — so it’s unclear who belonged to the group and what impact, if any, the group had on Israel/Palestine-related Wikipedia pages. But it’s naïve to assume that CAMERA is the only advocacy group banding together to edit Wikipedia.
“Pro-Israel advocacy groups are being smeared by pro-Palestinian supporters,” says Simon Plosker, a managing editor at Honest Reporting.
In a report just released on its Web site, Honest Reporting claims that Electronic Intifada, and not CAMERA, is “manipulating Wikipedia to achieve its ideological goals.”
“It’s a blatant attempt to shut down our ability to respond to untruths,” says Plosker.
The report reveals that Wikipedia user “Bangpound,” who first expressed concern about CAMERA’s subversive Wikipedia uses, is an Electronic Intifada staff member by the name of Benjamin Doherty.
“Electronic Intifada is manufacturing a story,” says Oboler, who contributed to HR’s report. “This is a battle between two competing lobby groups, in which one is manipulating the system to accuse the other of not playing fair, and thereby shut down the debate and ensure that it has free rein.”
Ini says that with Wikipedia contributors hiding behind pseudonyms and making alliances with others to win enough votes to become administrators on the site, “it’s a big game — a convoluted and complicated world.”
And the stakes are high in the competition for promoting one’s version of the Mideast narrative.
Ini contends his group was formed to educate fair-minded people about Wikipedia’s policies and how to become editors, as well as to share resources with one another.
“We’ll be perfectly transparent about what we’re going to do,” says HR’s Plosker. “People will know where we come from. There’s nothing suspect about it. Everyone has right to contribute.”