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In Ukraine Crisis, War Of Words Hits Wikipedia

Taking careful notes
Taking careful notes

The information war raging alongside military hostilities in Ukraine has hit Wikipedia, where computers linked to the Russian, U.S., and Ukrainian governments have been wielded in a battle over the facts and narrative in the armed conflict.

Culpability in the Malaysia Airlines crash, Crimea’s legal status, the integrity of Russian state media: Government computer users have wrangled over all of these issues via anonymous edits to the collaborative free-access online encyclopedia during Ukraine’s standoff with pro-Russian separatists and the Kremlin.

The revisions were exposed this month thanks to new Twitter feeds that track anonymous Wikipedia edits made from IP addresses linked to governments in Moscow, Kyiv, and Washington.

Arguably the most politically charged of these surreptitious online tussles centered on the July 17 Malaysian airliner crash over rebel-controlled eastern Ukraine that killed all 298 people aboard.

The same day, a user with a Ukrainian IP address altered a Russian-language Wikipedia entry on air disasters.

The perpetrators, the anonymous editor alleged, were “terrorists of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic with Buk missiles systems that the terrorists obtained from the Russian Federation.”

The assertion provoked a counter-edit from someone using a computer associated with the Russian state TV holding company VGTRK, which Ukraine and its allies have accused of manipulations and lies in its news coverage of the conflict.

The change made from the VGTRK computer replaced the previously added language with the following claim: “Ukrainian soldiers shot down the plane.”

Both edits were subsequently removed and replaced with a noncommittal sentence: “The circumstances of the accident are being clarified.”

‘Propaganda’ Barbs

Russian state media themselves have been targeted on Wikipedia from U.S. and Ukrainian government computers.

On June 4, someone using a computer linked to the secretariat of Ukraine’s cabinet of ministers inserted the word "propagandist" to describe Russian media boss Dmitry Kiselyov in a Ukrainian-language Wikipedia entry.

Known for his inflammatory, anti-Western rhetoric, Kiselyov was tapped by Russian President Vladimir Putin last year to head the newly created state media giant Rossiya Segodnya. The move was widely seen as a Kremlin attempt to further tighten its grip on the press.

A record of the edit to Kiselyov’s Wikipedia entry was snared by the Twitter feed @UaGovEdits.

Similar language was used to describe Abby Martin, a news anchor with the Kremlin-funded television network RT, in an anonymous edit made from a U.S. government computer. On July 14, someone using an IP address from the U.S. House of Representatives described Martin as a "Russian propagandist."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in April called RT a "propaganda bullhorn" for the Kremlin. Martin insists she maintains editorial independence during her appearances on the network, citing instances in which she has criticized the Russian government.

The edit, unearthed by the Twitter feed @congressedits, is one of numerous controversial changes originating from the U.S. House of Representatives in recent weeks. On July 24, a Wikipedia administrator banned page edits from the Congressional chamber’s IP address for 10 days, citing "persistent disruptive editing."

One user complained that the ban punishes more than 9,000 House staffers "based on the actions of two or three," adding that some of the anonymous editors are "just making grammatical edits" and "adding information about birds in Omsk."

The Party Line

The Wikipedia edits from these computers generally reflect the stance on the Ukraine crisis held by the respective governments with which they are associated.

For example, three days prior to the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 tragedy, someone using a House of Representatives computer wrote that Crimea is “de jure” part of Ukraine and described the Kremlin’s annexation of the territory in March as "illegal."

Russia calls the annexation an expression of the people’s will in Crimea, while the United States and a majority of UN member states reject Moscow’s claim to the territory.

In another edit, a House of Representatives computer user on July 23 altered an entry for Natalya Vitrenko, a Ukrainian politician sympathetic to the Kremlin, to describe her as a "Russian puppet."

An organization controlled by Vitrenko recently had its bank accounts frozen on suspicion that it was used to finance Donetsk separatists, the Ukrainian news portal reported.

Russia’s Federal Protection Service (FSO) has entered the fray as well, according to Wikipedia records catalogued by the Twitter feed @RuGovEdits.

On May 12, someone using an FSO computer tweaked a Russian-language Wikipedia entry about “titushky,” or thugs that Euromaidan activists claimed were hired by authorities to provoke violence at the protests that led to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster.

The edit appeared to question the validity of these claims, stating that the term was “dreamed up” in May 2013 and adding the word “allegedly” to qualify assertions about ties between “titushky” and Yanukovych’s government.

Not every Ukraine-related edit hews close to the official government line, however.

Yanukovych claimed his ouster was illegal after he was impeached by Ukrainian lawmakers in February, who cited his abandonment of office and the deaths of dozens of protesters and police during street demonstrations.

As of May 14, however, it appeared the self-exiled former leader might have had at least one backer in the secretariat of Ukraine’s cabinet of ministers.

On that day, someone using an IP address accessed a Wikipedia entry on Ukraine’s presidential election in May and added a single word to describe Yanukovych’s removal: "anticonstitutional."

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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