Russia is involved in a war right now — a war over information. This war has become particularly heated as the crisis in Ukraine has reached fever pitch. And one of the most significant manoeuvres in past weeks has been the revelation that the Russian government — or at least Russian government IP addresses — have been editing Wikipedia in order to manipulate information about the conflict in Ukraine.
Last month Norwegian activist and blogger Jari Bakken disclosed that from 2005 to 2014, the Russian government made 6,907 edits to Russian-language articles on Wikipedia. Most recently, users behind the keyboards of Russian government computers have made changes to entries pertaining to the crisis in Ukraine and the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crash.
For some time now, Russia has been fighting the information war on three fronts: the global media market, Russia’s domestic output and new, internet-based media. Although in denial about this, the global battle has been lost: state-sponsored English-language channel RT has been successful in its mimicry of the rolling news model of CNN and the histrionic style of Fox News, but its aggressively anti-western tone makes its agenda very evident. On the home front, President Vladimir Putin’s victory, however, is undisputed: the remaining independent radio and internet news sources are forced to work in an increasingly stifling environment and have only marginal reach compared to the dominant national TV networks. Thanks to the latter’s one-sided portrayal of the war in Ukraine, only 3% of Russians believe that the violence could be connected with Russian interference.
This leaves only the on-going battle for control over new media such as blogs and other online platforms that allow one-to-many and many-to-many communication. The Kremlin’s traditional methods of control have struggled against new media because, in today’s world of unregulated content, you don’t have to be a professional journalist to spread information. Wikipedia — the Kremlin’s latest target and one of the greatest accomplishments of Web 2.0 technology — has a large and growing readership in Russia. It may only be a quarter of the size of its English-language cousin, but Russian-language Wikipedia, with 1,100,000 articles, still has 11 times more entries than the second-largest Russian encyclopedia, the Great Soviet Encyclopedia.
Regardless of collaborations like this, the Kremlin’s official rhetoric surrounding the internet has been defensive, to say the least. Putin suggested this past spring that the internet may be “an ongoing CIA project". In April 2014 Russian Federation Council member Maxim Kavdzharadze suggested that Russia develop its own information system, separate from the world wide web, in order to come out from under US influence and to avoid information leaks. He proposed naming this alternative internet Cheburashka after a popular Soviet cartoon character. In May 2014 the state telecom company Rostelecom launched the beta version of its own domestic search engine, Sputnik, intended as a rival to Google and Russian search engine Yandex. That same month there was discussion in the State Duma about forcing Yandex to register their news aggregator as a media outlet, but in July the efforts were revoked. Additionally, Yandex refused to share its statistics on blog popularity with the government and took its blog counter off its website, which is especially important given the most restrictive government action of late: a new law regarding blogging. As of 1 August any independent blogger with over 3,000 followers must officially register as a media outlet and take on a set of new legal responsibilities. Bloggers registered as media cannot remain anonymous, cannot distribute “false” information (whatever that might be), and cannot use foul language. This is a clear move from the side of the state to regulate previously unregulated content.
— Russian Govt Edits (@RuGovEdits_en) July 29, 2014
While Wikipedia is not subject to the new blogger law, it has felt the effects of an earlier statute from 2012 requiring NGOs receiving overseas funding to register as “foreign agents” and submit themselves to debilitating levels of official scrutiny or face closure. “Being labelled as a foreign agent means the organisation will be practically unable to work anymore,” says Kozlovsky. “For this reason we don’t receive any funding from abroad. Moreover, most of the donations that go through the banner on the Wikipedia website go to the USA, and so they don’t come back to Russia.” This means that Russian Wikipedia is cut off from the funding that other versions of the site enjoy. According to Kozlovsky, the main benefactors of Russian Wikipedia today are, therefore, the Russian-language volunteer editors who are aware of this precarious situation.
The foreign agent law is not the only way the government has interacted with Wikipedia — state officials have also edited articles directly. Recently disclosed edits emanating from Russian state IP addresses cover a broad range of topics, from criticism of former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, to the size of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s penis (which, according to one Russian government employee, is 11cm long). There are also attempts to cover up negative facts in the biographies of state officials accused of plagiarism in their dissertations, such as Andrei Klishas, a politician and metals magnate who has been sanctioned by both the EU and the US. It is not all politically motivated, however: edits traceable to the Ministry of Education mostly contain grammatical corrections in existing articles.
Among US government edits there is an entry claiming that Donald Rumsfeld is an "alien lizard who eats Mexican babies"
There was, however, a flurry of highly political edits in the wake of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine on 17 July — an incident which prompted mass speculation and multiple online citations for related Wikipedia articles. Last week, it was revealed that an IP address traced to Russian state broadcasting company VGTRK had edited the article on the crash, insinuating that Ukraine was responsible and deleting existing text blaming Russia. Another edit from a Russian government IP address changed the specifications listed in an article on SU-25 fighter jets — the planes which some Russian officials have claimed were flying near the Boeing before the crash. The amended technical details make it look like a Ukrainian SU-25 could have technically shot down the airliner.
Nor were changes limited to Russian-language Wikipedia. The use of language has been telling throughout this conflict, with the terminology used to refer to anti-Kiev forces varying widely. In the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 article on German Wikipedia these words were changed by someone working inside the Russian government: “separatists” became “rebels", “insurgents” became “military leadership", and “leader of the separatists” became “prime minister".
The Russian government is not alone in getting directly involved in user-generated content. Compare the Russian government’s 6,907 Russian-language edits with the astonishing 10,208 government edits made in Canada over the last eight years, or with 3,015 edits to English-language Wikipedia coming from the German government over a period of nine years. Even Norwegian government IP addresses are responsible for 506 edits in English between 2002 and 2014, and 1,437 edits in Norwegian in the past decade.
Many of these interventions have been uncovered and broadcast by special bots, programmed to broadcast government edits on Twitter. It was the @gccaedits bot, tracking edits made from IP addresses in the Canadian House of Commons, which revealed edits made to political biographies by political staffers looking to damage the online image of rival Canadian politicians. A similar account, @ParliamentEdits, which tracks edits from within the British Houses of Parliament, was created by journalist Tom Scott in the wake of a series of news stories about government officials changing articles. US Congress has even been punished for their edits: on 25 July 2014 Wikipedia imposed a 10-day ban on page edits from IP addresses inside Congress after Twitter bot @congressedits brought attention to a series of changes made from government-owned addresses. Among US government edits there is an entry claiming that conspiracy theories about the moon landing were “promoted by the Cuban government” and that former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld is an “alien lizard who eats Mexican babies".
As this last edit suggests, it is not entirely clear if government employees made the edits on order from their higher-ups or of their own accord. The same is true in Russia. It may very well be that those making the changes were doing so as private citizens simply wanting to set the record straight. Perhaps in the Russian case, those involved in edits blatantly whitewashing the Kremlin’s actions even saw this as their duty as Russians: after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for rebels in eastern Ukraine, patriotism has soared. Both journalists and Russian government staff often sincerely believe that the interests of the state are more important than ethics and objectivity. This loyalty breeds a new kind of censorship, when you don’t have to wait for direct orders to chime in with the Kremlin’s propaganda efforts.