War of the virtual Wiki-worlds

6 May 2008

What if they decided to pursue the Arab-Israeli conflict by other means? Inevitably, it would take place on the Internet. And inevitably Wikipedia would be involved.

In what was probably not a very smart idea, Gilead Ini, a senior research analyst for CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, put out an e-mail call for 10 volunteers “to help us keep Israel-related entries on Wikipedia from becoming tainted by anti-Israel editors.” (Basically, anyone with a Web browser can edit articles on Wikipedia, which wreaks havoc with the site’s treatment of controversial topics such as evolution, Bill Clinton, or the Middle East.) More than 50 sympathizers answered the call, and Ini put his campaign into motion.

In follow-up e-mails to his recruits, Ini emphasized the secrecy of the campaign: “There is no need to advertise the fact that we have these group discussions,” he wrote. “Anti-Israel editors will seize on anything to try to discredit people who attempt to challenge their problematic assertions, and will be all too happy to pretend, and announce, that a ‘Zionist’ cabal … is trying to hijack Wikipedia.”

That is certainly what the campaign looked like to the The Electronic Intifada, a parallel-universe, pro-Palestinian news organization operating out of Chicago. Someone leaked four weeks’ worth of communications from within Ini’s organization, and the quotes weren’t pretty. Describing the Wiki-campaign, a member of Ini’s corps writes: “We will go to war after we have built an army, equiped [sic] it, trained.” There is also some back-and-forth about the need to become Wikipedia administrators, to better influence the encyclopedia’s articles.

EI accused CAMERA of “orchestrating a secret, long-term campaign to infiltrate the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia, to rewrite Palestinian history, pass off crude propaganda as fact, and take over Wikipedia administrative structures to ensure these changes go either undetected or unchallenged.”

That got Wikipedia’s attention. A panel of three administrators sanctioned or indefinitely blocked and banned five members of Ini’s group. “Wikipedia is based on open, transparent editing in an atmosphere of mutual respect between editors,” these administrators opined. “This goal is fundamentally incompatible with the creation of a private group to surreptitiously coordinate editing on Wikipedia by ideologically like-minded individuals.” A formal arbitration process is ongoing.

Ini is unapologetic about his role in the deception campaign, which, he insists, was never a deception campaign at all. “We would be idiots if we thought we intended to hide our intentions,” he said in an interview. In some areas of controversy, Ini said, “Wikipedia is a madhouse. We were making a good-faith effort to ensure accuracy” in Middle East postings.

Why bother with Wikipedia, I asked? “It may be the most influential source of information in the world today,” Ini said. “And we and many others think it is broken.” I asked Electronic Intifada co-founder Ali Abunimah if his outfit played similar games. “We would never encourage people to do that,” he said. “There has been no parallel effort on our side whatsoever.”

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