Aligning Text to the Right: Is a Political Organization Editing Wikipedia to Suit Its Interests?

An employee of NGO Monitor was recently banned from editing articles about the Israeli-Arab conflict for bias and not revealing his place of work.

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In the 12 years since its founding, the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia has become one of the most important and influential sources of information on and off the Internet. It has also become a battleground for all conceivable topics, from commercial companies to, of course, the Arab–Israeli conflict.

Recently, another incident in the editing wars came to light when Arnie Draiman, a social-media employee of NGO Monitor who goes by the username Soosim, edited articles in English about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict in an allegedly biased manner. Draiman concealed the facts that he was an employee of NGO Monitor, often described as a right-wing group, and that he was using a second username, which is forbidden under Wikipedia’s rules.

NGO Monitor asserts that it "provides information and analysis, promotes accountability, and supports discussion on the reports and activities of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) claiming to advance human rights and humanitarian agendas.” Under Aims and Objectives on its About page it states its objective as "to end the practice used by certain self-declared ‘humanitarian NGOs’ of exploiting the label ‘universal human rights values’ to promote politically and ideologically motivated agendas.”

A discussion of the complaint against NGO Monitor’s employee on Wikipedia shows that he promoted his company’s agenda as much as the organizations he worked against promoted theirs, as journalist and blogger Yossi Gurvitz also wrote.

According to complaints from editors on Wikipedia, Soosim, who was active for several years, began editing intensively in 2010 after joining NGO Monitor (his LinkedIn page shows that he was working for Israel Advocacy. He is listed on NGO Monitor’s website as working in the communications department). The editors accused him of editing in a biased manner (“POV-pushing” in the site’s language), particularly on his organization’s page and on the pages of organizations that NGO Monitor’s president, Professor Gerald Steinberg, opposes such as B’tselem, the New Israel Fund and Human Rights Watch.

Soosim is also accused of having used a “sock puppet,” an additional account (Scarletfire2112) and a “meat puppet,” which is another person who did the editing together with him under that username. Comments from Soosim and Scarletfire2112 can be seen on articles’ talk pages.

The writer who complained about Soosim (user name Nomoskedasticity) also wrote that NGO Monitor has the custom of issuing a press release, waiting until it is quoted in a newspaper, and then quoting the news item in the relevant articles as fact. During the conversation, it turned out that Draiman even explained this during a workshop he gave on Israel advocacy in which he called on pro-Israel advocates to join the “wiki war.”

In a blog post at i-Point Media, Hadassah Levy wrote that she conducted the workshop with him because he told her about the battle he was waging for objectivity on Wikipedia. “One of the things I learned from Arnie is that the Israeli-Arab conflict is such a controversial subject on Wikipedia that it has its own rules,” she wrote. “Changing text back to its previous version can’t be done as often on this subject as it can be for other, less controversial, topics.

Another interesting fact is that while Facebook and Youtube are not considered to be reliable sources on Wikipedia, an article which quotes a Facebook status or a Youtube video is thought to be reliable. As for Wikipedia etiquette, Arnie recommends remaining anonymous and being polite even in the face of provocation.”

In a conversation on Wikipedia, Draiman rejected the complaints about shadow users, claiming that the person who complained about him had been working against him for some time, as had other users. He also claimed that all his edits were responsible and accorded with all of Wikipedia’s editing rules, and that many editors had drawn hasty and inaccurate conclusions.

In the end, Draiman was topic-banned — in other words, forbidden to edit articles on subjects about the conflict in general and articles about his organization and the conflict. “This is for POV-pushing combined with the coyness about his connection to NGO Monitor, and his abuse of multiple accounts,” wrote an editor with the username EdJohnson, justifying the decision, which was confirmed by site administrators.

After Draiman was topic-banned from editing articles about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his own organization, the accusations that he was using an additional account led to his being blocked indefinitely from editing on Wikipedia (in a separate discussion of his case). When he appealed the decision, his appeal was denied.

Neither NGO Monitor nor Arnie Draiman commented on the incident.

NGO Monitor is not the only organizations engaged in biased editing. “I’m completely against this form of resistance, even if it’s unfortunately not all that uncommon on Wikipedia,” Yan Nasonov, an administrator at Wikipedia who works in IT and is a computer programmer, told Haaretz. “The problem is that in most cases, it’s very hard to prove it.” Long-time editors also told Haaretz they were certain other organizations engaged in tendentious editing as well.

Nasonov, who has no connection with this story, said that blocking and even complete banning were not unusual, even if they were not all that common. A look at the past year’s list of banned users shows that only a few were banned for sock puppetry. What is unusual in Draiman’s case is that he was exposed as a worker for an organization — a fact that came to light because he revealed his name in 2008 to another editor, long before he began working for the NGO.

Nasonov added that it may be less acceptable, but even as an employee of NGO Monitor, Draiman was permitted to make edits and add information as long as he stated his connection to the organization and, of course, provided citations for everything he wrote. A long debate on the subject has been taking place on Wikipedia, mainly because of instances where articles are edited by various companies.

According to established custom on Wikipedia, any edit may be made as long it is reasonable. If someone decides to delete the change that was made (in other words, to restore the previous version of the text), he must go to the Talk page and discuss the decision.

One of the best-known cases took place in 2008 when the Israel advocacy organization CAMERA called for volunteers to begin an editing campaign.

CAMERA officials told the volunteers then: “There is no reason to advertise the fact that we have these group discussions. Anti-Israel editors will seize on anything to try to discredit people who challenge their problematic assertions, and will be all too happy to pretend, and announce, that a ‘Zionist’ cabal (the same one that controls the banks and Hollywood?) is trying to hijack Wikipedia.”

The attempt ended in exposure by Electronic Intifada and with penalties or permanent banning for five of the people who took part in the editing campaign. Nasonov said that the case not only damaged Israel’s image, but also led to imitations by other organizations on both sides of the conflict and on other topics.

Wikipedia's logoCredit: Or Kaplan

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