One of Russian Wikipedia’s most prolific editors, whose edits are considered critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was arrested by Belarusian forces over the weekend, local and tech media reported, amidst a widespread crackdown related to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Mark Bernstein, who edits under the username Pessimist2006, was reportedly arrested for “distributing fake anti-Russian information.” His arrest is only the most recent and explicit of the Kremlin’s attempts to undermine the free and open encyclopedia edited by volunteers across the globe. The editor had also been editing articles about the invasion, and one the last edits Bernstein made was to a Russian-language article about a poem about Babi Yar.
Russia has long incited against Wikipedia, with Sputnik in recent years repeatedly labeling it a source of biased Western knowledge, and Putin even going as far as saying Russia would revive its own great encyclopedia to counter Wikipedia’s narrative.
Putin has recently threatened to block access to Wikipedia, as part of a wider crackdown on independent media and online sources. The Russian agency that is the de facto authority on internet censorship sent the Wikimedia Foundation, the U.S.-based nonprofit that oversees the different “wiki” projects, including Wikipedias in different languages, a letter calling on them to remove the aforementioned Russian-language article. The article, Russian authorities claimed, showcased “illegally distributed information” that included “false messages about terrorist attacks or other kind of information [...] that threatens life and health of citizens.”
The WMF, which does not intervene in the open encyclopedia’s content, refused, writing that they “defend the right of volunteers to continue their diligent work of editing Wikipedia with the most up-to-date and reliable information available related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”
In a statement to the San Francisco Examiner, the WMF’s CEO Maryana Iskander, added that “At a time when knowledge and information are increasingly weaponized, maintaining the reliability of the information on Wikipedia is more important than ever.”
As the first Russian forces crossed the border into Ukraine, volunteer editors in Russia opened a Wikipedia article for the “Russo-Ukrainian War” of 2022. The Russian-language article, which has since been renamed “Russian invasion of Ukraine,” has been read over 7 million times in the weeks since then.
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In line with the times, the current war has not played out solely in the physical realm: Cyberwarfare between Russian state hackers and digital Ukrainian resistance fighters has seen cyberattacks on nuclear sites and official state Russian organizations. Information – and disinformation – has also emerged as a key battleground, and Wikipedia, one of the world’s 10 most popular websites, is no exception.
However, while social media has been awash in disinformation from both sides, Wikipedia in English, Ukrainian and even Russian seems to have managed to stay factual.
In a story about how Russian editors were putting themselves in harm’s way by making sure the Russian-language articles were properly sourced and did not serve as a mouthpiece for Russian disinformation, an editor who was in touch with those in Russia told the San Francisco Examiner: “I asked people, ‘What are you aiming for?’ They said they were trying to get things to be clear with verifiability, a neutral point of view, and facts. That’s what Wikimedia Russia has done a great job of doing. They’re being Wikipedians, under extraordinary circumstances.”
Indeed, the threat is real. Another editor quoted in the story said that they “do not rule out that tomorrow the Russian special services will try to influence the content of Wikipedia by coercing the participants.
“We see the closure in Russia of the media that broadcast a point of view that does not coincide with the point of view of Putin. Will such a fate await Wikipedia? Probably, yes.” Bernstein's arrest is a case in point.
In the meantime, it seems that the attempt to block local independent media has backfired: Since Wikipedia requires verified sources from trusted outlets, the Russian ban on media has left a vacuum and the Kremlin’s narrative has been all but drowned out in Russian, Ukrainian and English.
For example, the Russian-language article about the invasion notes that “As a justification for the invasion, Vladimir Putin used the false image of Ukraine as a neo-Nazi state.” It also details, in Russian, the existence of an anti-war movement within Russia, with a special article devoted to the “white and blue” flag that has become the symbol of the Russian opposition to the fighting – not exactly the details Putin has been trying to disseminate.
In English Wikipedia, in line with wider attempts to counter Russian disinformation, there are now two articles focused on Russian attempts to push out false or misleading information. The articles both list the falsehoods and provide sources debunking them.
However, it’s not just the Russians that are being called out. The English-language article on the “Attack on Snake Island” quickly debunked claims by Volodymyr Zelenskyy that more than a dozen soldiers were killed and would receive top state honors. The truth is that Ukrainian forces surrendered; editors amended the text and removed the article from the category of “Massacres in 2022.”
Nazi comparisons have become a centerpeice of the disinformation wars raging between the two sides. The article on Hitler was among the most viewed in the Russian-language Wikipedia in recent weeks.
Though Putin’s bogus claims of “denazifying” Ukraine were called out, in English, the article on the contemporary far-right neo-Nazi Ukrainian paramilitary group, known as the Azov Battalion, has become a battleground, with some attempts to whitewash the group and deny their use of a Nazi symbol and neo-Nazi sentiments.·
The page, like many others, currently faces editorial restrictions. · For example, while anyone can edit any article on Wikipedia, even without a username, this is no longer possible for articles related to the conflict; only those that are logged in can contribute. This, together with the requirement for trusted sources for every factual claim, has proven to be Wikipedia’s key to success: Attempts to push falsehoods are blocked preemptively and the very foundations of misinformation are undermined.
This technique has also been used in historical articles, with World War II pulled into the digital fray. Traffic has surged to articles ranging from the Battle of Kyiv to the 1941 Lviv pogroms, showing how history can also be subject to political manipulation. Luckily, these articles too face the same editorial restrictions and have not fallen victim to historical revisionism.