It’d be a lot harder for foreign governments to hack Wikipedia than you think

A combination of strong communities and a lack of advertising means it would be more difficult than targeting other online information sources. 

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Carl Miller of the think tank Demos wrote for the New Statesman in August suggesting that a concerted Russian effort to subvert and bias Wikipedia is a real possibility that shouldn’t be taken lightly. As communications coordinator for Wikimedia UK, which supports the volunteers who contribute to and help run Wikipedia, I know the processes that would need to be attacked exceedingly well, and I think it would be far harder, if not impossible, for a foreign actor to influence Wikipedia in this way than Miller suggests.

Wikipedia’s resilience to biased editing comes from its transparency and community of around 200,000 regular editors.

Wikipedia exists in 301 languages, each with their own administrators and editors with different sets of beliefs and priorities. English Wikipedia is by far the biggest version, with 5.7 million articles, compared to 2.2 million in German, 2 million in French and so on. In January 2019, Wikipedia will be 18 years old. Every single edit that has been made in that 18 years is publicly available to be scrutinised by any viewer, just by clicking on the View History tab on any page. Everything on Wikipedia is open and transparent by design.

If a sophisticated propaganda operation were launched by a government to undermine Wikipedia, it is highly likely that it would be spotted. When governments don’t like Wikipedia and get frustrated that Wikimedia refuses to censor particular pages for them, they don’t tend to launch a sophisticated editing operation to undermine it. They just block it, as China and Turkey have done. It’s relatively easy for a state to control what its own citizens see.

But what if they want to influence the billion or more people reading Wikipedia every month around the world?

Wikipedia’s core rules, its ‘Five Pillars’, state that “Wikipedia is an encyclopaedia”, but it is not “a soapbox, an advertising platform, a vanity press”. Nevertheless, people sometimes try to break these rules to make money from paid editing or to massage the reputation of a particular person or group. In the most serious incident of paid editing uncovered in 2015, 381 sockpuppet accounts were blocked and over 200 articles were deleted when editors discovered a group that had been scamming businesses who had had their Wikipedia pages deleted by claiming they would re-publish and protect the articles.

In 2009, Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee, a kind of supreme court that adjudicates disputes, decided to prevent editing access to Wikipedia from Church of Scientology IP addresses, to put a stop to their biased editing. In 2011, the Independent uncovered evidence that the PR agency Bell Pottinger was offering Wikipedia editing as part of its “dark art”’ of reputation management. Wikipedia editors can spot malicious editing from the behaviour of the accounts or IP addresses conducting it, and this means that biased editors would need to go to great lengths to avoid being spotted.

So is there evidence of the Russian government attempting to propagandise on Wikipedia, either in English or Russian? Wikipedia was temporarily blocked in Russia in 2012 and 2015, mainly due to content about drugs. One Russian editor suggested that despite attempts by pro-government editors to insert content favourable to the Russian state and President Putin, there are enough editors who are critical of the government to balance out the biased editing.

A Wikipedia clone called Ruxpert was set up by a Kremlin ally in 2013 and the government has also encouraged “Patriotic editing” drives. One Russian Wikimedian reported that “There are several “patriotic initiatives” for young people “to fill Russian Wikipedia with patriotic content” that came to nothing. In 2017 the Youth Parliament of the State Duma, the parliament of the Russian Federation, launched a “Virtual Front” project to fill Russian Wikipedia with “full and truthful information about achievements and deeds of the Russian people”.

To influence public opinion, governments have other softer targets to exploit than Wikipedia. That sites like Facebook and Twitter have been used to target voters with political propaganda is a well-established fact. These sites are vulnerable because their business model is based on advertising. Ours isn’t.

Wikimedians also frequently meet each other in real life; at meetups, edit-a-thons, or conferences like the annual Wikimania. For a government-controlled Wikipedia account to be elected to an administrative position within the editing bureaucracy, as suggested in Miller’s article, without ever being seen in real life by other editors, would not be easy.

If the agents of a malicious government wanted to subvert Wikipedia by using propagandistic references, they would also need to change the rules on Reliable Sources, another core principle of the community which would be very hard to undermine. They would have to engage with the community in online discussions, debates, votes, and elections, in order to change these rules.  The kind of effort needed to do this doesn’t scale.

We don’t know what we don’t know, but it seems unlikely to me that any government would spend significant time and money attempting to bias Wikipedia. If it were discovered, all the investment would go to waste and the government would be left embarrassed, as the Russian government seems to have been as a result of the botched Salisbury poisoning. I’m a believer that much of life is dictated by incompetence, rather than malice, and judging by the incompetence of most governments, it would seem to me that Wikipedia is safe from their machinations for the time being.

John Lubbock is communications coordinator for Wikimedia UK.