Iranian politics, white guy editors test Wikipedia’s high-minded mission
When you search for my husband’s last name, the only Google results are links to an opera singer with the same name. But for a brief moment in time, a few years ago, his family name was listed in Wikipedia’s category: “Royalty of Georgia (country).” His family isn’t royal, and never has been. Presumably out of boredom, my husband edited the wiki entry and inserted his last name. It stayed up for months. And when it was deleted, he changed it back. This time, it only stayed up for a couple of hours.
My husband’s edit was inconsequential. But not all edits on Wikipedia are as trivial as his.
Sina Zekavat describes in his piece for OpenDemocracy how he found major differences between pages on Iranian events, the country’s history and politics in English and in Persian. Content in English gives much more nuanced context, often with hundreds of verified sources; the Persian versions read like rote pro-government propaganda with dead links and footnotes to government-sponsored news outlets.
In 2007, Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales praised an Iranian contributor for his defiance (see his video for Amnesty International on free speech here). But the Iranian Ministry of Culture — which is responsible for the country’s “media management” — seems to work together with the non-profit Persian Wikipedia organization, and now there are talks to incorporate it into its ministry as an affiliated NGO.
“Registering Persian Wikipedia as a so called Non Governmental Organization in a state institution that is in charge of the country’s censorship apparatus can only be described as an Orwellian event,” Zekavat wrote in his article.
I know that I’m not alone in venturing onto Wikipedia to quickly resolve a heated debate in a bar, like whether the heart of a shrimp is “really” located in its head. We all use Wikipedia to some extent. It’s in the top 10 most visited websites globally, and Google conveniently places it on top of our search results. Wikipedia supports 300 different languages, with some 46 million articles accessed by 1.4 billion unique devices every single month.
Wikipedia is as vulnerable to disinformation and manipulation as any social platform:
- The Australian PM’s office edited Wikipedia in 2007, sparking a political crisis.
- Jimmy Wales, one of Wikipedia’s founders, reportedly broke up with his girlfriend by editing her Wikipedia entry.
- A former reporter at The Independent edited the Wikipedia pages of a number of critics of his work in 2011.
- A Wikipedia trustee and a Wikipedian In Residence — a role held by Wikipedia editors held in high esteem — edited on behalf of PR clients, CNET reported in 2012.
- The North Face in 2017 was accused of placing pictures with people wearing their outfits on various pages.
The examples go on. But lately, Wikipedia has faced considerably more heat (and not just from among its co-founders.) In an excellent Buzzfeed article worth your time, on the fury surrounding Wikipedia’s removal of a volunteer site administrator, Joseph Berstein explains that “as existential concerns about Wikipedia’s accuracy have faded into the background, demography has emerged as the most serious threat to the project’s legitimacy; it can hardly aspire to be the sum of human knowledge if only white guys create and manage it.” He cites the platform’s pornographic actress list as recently as 2015 had more edits and editors than its list of female poets. A 2017 study found that 77% of Wikipedia articles are written by 1% of its users.
Wikipedia was always a utopian project — volunteer labor, the sum of human knowledge captured and democratized, etc. But that doesn’t mean the hijacking of the Persian language Wikipedia into Iran’s censorship apparatus is inevitable. Wikipedia’s Persian language users — and not just that 1% currently doing all the heavy lifting — can take action as editors, no algorithm expertise necessary.
My favorite Coda Story piece this week, is Charles Rollet’s story of a heralded US biometrics professor coming under fire for links to the Chinese biometrics community. Wikipedia’s problems and this story both highlight how ethics, or their lack, are at the core of the debate over what role technology should play in our lives. You can find this article in our reporting on Authoritarian Tech, and you can stay up to date on similar stories like it by signing up to our AT newsletter here.