The dangers of a Wikimedia

Online ‘open communities’ such as Wikipedia must present both sides

By Alex Brummer, August 26, 2010

Wikipedia is one of those websites which quietly has changed the way that people interact with the internet. For journalists, academics and ordinary consumers, it is often the first port of call for research. It is an organic encyclopaedia which for many providesan early draft of history.

It also defines events. It was academics debating on Wikipedia who decided that the 2006 conflagration between Israel and Hizbollah should be officially known as the 2006 Lebanon War.

But as an information source, Wikipedia's reliability is often questioned. The insistence of its founder Jimmy Wales that is an "open community" - meaning anybody can contribute - makes it vulnerable to vandalism.

Among the early Wikipedia consumers to recognise this was corporate America. In 2007, the New York Times reported a series of egregious pieces of Wikipedia editing which disturbed major international companies. Pepsi Cola, for instance, found it was being targeted by interlopers alleging the product was detrimental to health. Companies suffering similar Wikipedia attacks included brewer Anheuser-Busch over practices at
its Sea World theme park and Diebold over its electronic voting machines.

To combat such "conflict of interest" editing - as Jimmy Wales has called it - a website called WikiScanner sought to identify those involved in making rogue entries.

The Middle East has long been a battleground on the web

The Middle East has long been
a battleground on the web, as followers of the Guardian's Comment
is Free website would testify. But
at least those engaging on this site
do not depend on it for the facts.

Far more insidious is manipulation of Wikipedia to make political points. In a recent article, under the heading 'The right's latest weapon: Zionist editing on Wikipedia', Ha'aretz chronicled the Israeli right's efforts to correct what it believes are misleading Wikipedia entries.

It cited a past dispute over Ariel University Center which was described
as "the largest public college in Israel". But Ariel, in the Central West Bank,
is not actually in Israel. The resulting compromise was to call it "the largest Israeli public college".

The right clearly believes it hasn't been getting a fair Wikipedia hearing. So the Yesha Council and another conservative group Israel Sheli have embarked on a project to ensure pro-Zionist editing on Wikipedia.

"The objective is not to make Wikipedia rightist but for it to include our point of view," Naftali Bennett, director of the Yesha Council told Ha'aretz.

He notes that in the wake of the Gaza flotilla incident, when people went to Wikipedia for information only one side of the argument could be found.

The response has been a course designed to teach how to "contribute to and edit for Wikipedia", including
a prize for the 'Best Zionist Editor.'

The existence of the course, which has been attended so far by around
80 people, was picked up by the Guardian with some glee. The paper noted, "Now two Israeli groups seeking to gain the upper hand in the online debate have launched a course in 'Zionist editing' on the internet."

A New York Times blog did not find the Zionist fight back that curious.
It noted there was "no fuss when neuroscientists get Wikipedia training" or when journalism students become Wikipedia editors simply to improve their CVs.

However, the website magazine Palestine Note, in a dispatch from Washington, saw the "Zionist editing" course as a, "high-tech tactic to spread their views and ideology".

Many Israel supporters will
be wondering what took them
so long. After all, the Jewish state is the home of high-tech and if any country has the capability to create the right kind of monitoring software, it is Israel. What perhaps gives cause for concern is that the initiative is coming from the right - including the settler community - and not from mainstream academia.

One must trust that from this less than enthusiastically received initiative, some sensible Wikipedia monitoring - of the kind routinely deployed by business - may eventually emerge.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 11:17am, August 26 2010