Israel and the Middle East on the Battlefield of Wikipedia

The Arabs and Iranians are fighting over the entry for the Second Lebanon War; the Iranians and Arabs are locked in battle over the history of the Gulf War; and all of us together are fighting over the entry for Operation Cast Lead.

Oded Carmeli
Oded Carmeli
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Oded Carmeli
Oded Carmeli

Since going online in 2001, the free encyclopedia Wikipedia has generated 37 million entries, written by 40 million editors in 280 languages. The trouble is, not all the 40 million editors agree on every word of the 37 million entries. Everyone wants to write the world according to his viewpoint, and in Wikipedia everyone can also dictate his worldview to the rest of the world. The result is lengthy discussions that are fascinating, vicious and often amusing, in hundreds and thousands of pages of disputed entries. As the saying goes: Show me two Wikipedians and I will show you three entries.

Just like almost everything else, the wars of the Wikipedians also have a Wikipedia entry: “Edit warring.” There is also an entry that details the most exhausting and idiotic editing wars. “Was Chopin Polish, French, Polish-French, or French-Polish?” is one of the questions asked in “Wikipedia: Lamest edit wars.”

“For years,” it continues, “there has been a low-level ‏(and at times high-intensity‏) conflict about which country can claim Chopin as its son. Or was it Szopen? The observer learns a lot about the Napoleonic code, about the nuances of ‘citizenship,’ ‘nationality,’ and ‘ethnicity’ ... Can you emigrate from a country of which you are not a citizen? Can you receive citizenship if you already have it? The possibilities for intensive study are endless ... Even Chopin’s remains are divided. The body rests in Paris, the heart in Warsaw.”

However, even the Wikipedia entries that list the most controversial Wikipedia entries are themselves mired in controversy. In fact, these lists are the battle heritage of the community of editors − and more particularly, of the community of editors in the English-language version of Wikipedia.

Well, now we can forget about assessments, subjective experiences and guesswork. An international group of researchers, headed by Dr. Mark Graham and Dr. Taha Yasseri from the Oxford Internet Institute, has set itself an odd goal: to quantify the Wikipedia wars and, once and for all, answer the question: “What question are we unable to answer once and for all?”

To quantify the wars of the Wikipedians, the researchers chose the “edit reverts” tool − the Doomsday weapon for a surfer who wants to completely ignore everything to which another editor devoted time and thought, and to restore the previous version of the entry.

The research team
assigned greater weight to editors who overturned another’s editing more than once. The result is a list of the 100 most controversial topics in ten different languages of Wikipedia.

In English Wikipedia, the entries of greatest controversy are those for “George W. Bush,” “anarchism” and “Muhammad,” while in French they are “Segolene Royal,” “UFOs” and “Jehovah’s Witnesses.” In the Hebrew-language version of Wikipedia, the entry “Chabad” has been reedited 78,336 times; the entry “Chabad messianism” has undergone 65,576 reversions; and the entry “2006 Lebanon War” has been rewritten 60,125 times. No less surprising is the rest of the Hebrew list. The fact that the entry “Jewish settlement in Hebron” has been reedited 31,680 times is one thing, but what prompted people to revise “Harry Potter − secondary characters” 1,736 times?

An inter-Wikipedia comparison of the controversial topics reveals something quite stereotypical about global cultural differences. In the Hebrew, English, French and German versions of Wikipedia, most of the controversy-making entries are about politics, politicians and political parties, whereas in the Spanish version, the controversial topics fall under the categories of sports, soccer and soccer teams.

The Japanese, for their part, are mired in bitter disputes over songs, singers and musical styles; the Romanians over entertainment; and the Arabs over religion. A matter of priorities.

And as in every international conflict, in the Wikipedia wars, too, everyone cries where it hurts − and Israel hurts everyone. “Some of the smaller language Wikipedias have a high degree of self-focus in their articles that are characterized by the greatest degree of conflict,” the researchers conclude. “Note, for instance, the geographic focus of conflict in the Czech and Hebrew Wikipedias” over the entries “Czech Republic” and “Israel,” respectively.

“However, interestingly,” the researchers continue, “the Middle East often seems to be the exception to this rule. The Spanish and Czech ‏(as well as all languages in our sample apart from Hungarian, Romanian, Japanese, and Chinese‏) include articles on Israel as some of those characterized by the greatest amount of conflict.” Overall, they add, “the pages ‘Israel,’ ‘Adolf Hitler,’ ‘The Holocaust’ and ‘God’ are highly contested in all the language sets.”

As if that weren’t enough, the research team compared the recurrent conflicts in the Hebrew, Arabic and Persian Wikipedias. Expectably, the conflicts which appear in the Middle East Wikipedias match the conflicts that exist among the countries of the Middle East. The Arabs agree with us not to agree with us about Jerusalem; the Iranians agree with us not to agree with us about the Holocaust; and, among themselves, the Arabs and Iranians agree not to agree about Muhammad.

Naturally, Israel’s wars are also represented in the Wikipedia wars: the Arabs and Iranians are fighting over the encyclopedia entry for the Second Lebanon War; the Iranians and Arabs are locked in editorial battle over the history of the Gulf War; and all of us together are fighting over the entry for Operation Cast Lead. This is not the first time that the Oxford team has studied the geography of conflict in Wikipedia. Previously, Graham coauthored a comprehensive paper with Prof. Matthew Zook, a geographer from the University of Kentucky, on “geotagging” in Wikipedia. ‏(The Wikipedia entry for “geotagging” defines it as “the process of adding geographical identification metadata to various media.”‏)

That previous study showed that Israel is one of the most highly represented countries in Wikipedia in relation to its area, with 7.6 to 10 entries for every square kilometer of holy soil. As a rule, the geotagged articles maintain the large geographic gap between East and West, and between North and South. For example, the uninhabited continent of Antarctica is tagged in more entries than each of the 53 countries of Africa, with the exception of South Africa. Even invented geographies, such as Discworld − conjured up by the English fantasist Terry Pratchett − are geotagged more than the real countries of Africa.

However, Israelis not only take, they also give in return. In 2010-2011, no fewer than 215,333 Wikipedia edits in a variety of languages emerged from the area between the sea and the Jordan river − almost as many as edits that emerged from all the other countries of the Middle East and North Africa combined.

In another article, Graham and Zook examined the linguistic boundaries of the whole information cloud on the web above conflicted regions. Here, too, it emerges that the Hebrew information cloud fires thunder and lightning at the Arab information cloud, even above the cities of the Palestinian Authority. Thus, between 85 and 95 percent of all the geotagged words uploaded to the web by Palestinians are in Hebrew.

So what’s the talk that people are talking in Israel-Palestine? The most recurrent Arabic word is “Muslim”; in English, the most recurrent word is “cat”; and in Hebrew, the most commonly used word on the Israeli geotagged web is “tax.”

That’s right, “tax.” How Jewish can you get?

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