Harvard University doesn’t trust it. Foes of Internet trolls and “Internet rage” shun it. And to those who sneer at “the dumbness of crowds,” it will never compete with Encyclopedia Britannica. Heck: If you want to read more about the scorn for Wikipedia, check out the Wikipedia entry “Criticism of Wikipedia.”
After today, Russian President Vladimir Putin will warrant citation in that entry, if he’s not there by the time you read this. The Russian government has announced it will create a “regional electronic encyclopedia” to serve as a counterweight to Wikipedia.
“The initiative will be an alternative of Wikipedia: the analysis of this resource has shown that it does not have enough detailed and reliable information about Russian regions and the life of the country,” according to a statement posted at Russia’s Boris Yeltsin Presidential Library. “Integration of unique materials on the regions in a single electronic encyclopedia will allow to objectively and accurately present the country and its population, the diversity of the state, the national system of Russia.”
It’s not clear whether the as-yet unnamed reference source will catch on. Wikipedia is a pretty big name in the market for crowdsourced knowledge. Indeed, Citizendium, a Wikipedia alternative floated by a Wikipedia co-founder in 2006, doesn’t seem to have gotten much traction.
But Russia has more power than the average wiki enthusiast to turn the computers of its citizens from one Web site to another. In April, Putin called the Internet — yes, the whole thing — a “CIA project.” And when he did, he was already trying to exert more control over its use.
Since February, as Reuters reported, Russian authorities have had the ability to block whatever Web sites they choose without a court order. Putin didn’t wait long to try out this new power — in March, he ordered several opposition sites blocked. And in August, bloggers with more than 3,000 followers were ordered to register with the government.
Meanwhile, Russia has been monkeying with Wikipedia. After Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down in eastern Ukraine in July, Twitterers went head-to-head assigning blame for the disaster.
It was more than an argument about details.
An initial Wikipedia entry said the plane was shot down “by terrorists of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic with Buk system missiles, which the terrorists received from the Russian Federation,” as the Telegraph reported. Within an hour, a user with an IP address linked to the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company changed the story. “The plane [flight MH17] was shot down by Ukrainian soldiers,” according to the new entry.
This wasn’t a one-time deal. Around the time of the crash, Norwegian programmer Jari Bakken produced a comprehensive list of Wikipedia edits from IP addresses linked to the Russian government. There were almost 7,000 of them — more than 40 of which were about Ukraine.
Russia’s edits didn’t rewrite history wholesale — there was no wiki re-education on, say, the legacy of Karl Marx or Mikhail Gorbachev. The edits were often quite granular, even seemingly random changes to Wikipedia pages on obscure politicians and to the “Sexuality of Adolph Hitler,” for example. Global Voices, a Web site devoted to “citizen media reporting,” offered a roundup of notable examples:
- Criticizing the appointment of Michael McFaul as U.S. ambassador to Russia.
- Changing the historical background subsection of the Wikipedia article on the Beslan school hostage crisis to claim that Ossetians welcomed Russian influence in the 18th century.
- Adding a sentence to the Wikipedia article about the Vietnam War to emphasize the embarrassment of America’s defeat.
- Criticizing Greenpeace for “non-scientific” claims about genetically modified food.
- Removing a claim on Andrei Klishas’ Wikipedia page that his dissertation may have been plagiarized.
“Posted materials will be constantly updated and renewed, being available to users from any Internet access point,” the presidential library said. “As expected, the regional electronic encyclopedia will be one of the most popular Russian Internet resources.”