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Why Can’t Governments Stop Editing Wikipedia?

New bots reveal the censorship and manipulation carried out by governments on Wikipedia

Michael Cruickshank
Why Can’t Governments Stop Editing Wikipedia?© 2018 Wikipedia

Wikipedia, since its humble beginnings in 2001, has since grown to possess millions of articles in dozens of languages. Its immense catalogue of information now covers ever-more obscure topics with a constantly expanding level of detail. However, now that Wikipedia has cemented itself as the number one place to go for everyday information, problems have inevitably begun to arise.

These take the form of government manipulation and censorship. Government departments, politicians, and their staffers, all exploit Wikipedia’s “everybody can edit” philosophy in order to change information on an alarmingly regular basis.

Governments & politicians change information on an alaramingly regular basis.

Most recently, a Wikipedia bot program called ‘@congressedits’ caught the IP address belonging to the United States House of Congress engaging in behaviour which it considered ‘disputive editing’. After a 24 hour ban last month, certain politicians (or their PR teams) obviously didn’t learn their lesson, and thus today, have been given an extended 10 day ban on anonymous editing.

Image: © 2014 Flickr - Bernt Rostad

Similarly, a separate Wikipedia bot program detected a much more malicious use of editing by computers connected to the Russian government. It found that computers within the Russian state-run TV company has been changed the perpetrator of the shooting down of MH17 from pro-Russian rebels, to the Ukrainian government. In addition to this, similar changes were made to the Wikipedia page of the SU-25 fighter jet, where the maximum altitude of the plane was modified to fit Russian government disinformation that the Ukrainian Air Force used these aircraft to shoot down the Malaysia Airlines plane.

While these new bot programs do increase transparency and accountability, they can also easily be avoided. Governments who are serious about using Wikipedia to spread propaganda, or politicians who are keen to improve their image online, can easily use technical means to continue anonymous editing. These include the use of VPNs, proxy servers, and multiple accounts. This all serves as just one more reason to not fully believe everything you read online - even on Wikipedia - until it is confirmed and backed up by multiple sources.

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