When it comes to Wikipedia, the Russian government’s computers are busy bees. Over the past ten years, IP addresses belonging to various Russian state agencies are responsible for almost 7,000 anonymous edits to articles on Wikipedia’s Russian-language website.
A Norwegian programmer named Jari Bakken recently produced a complete list of the Russian government’s 6,909 anonymous edits to Wikipedia. Bakken has published similar lists for Wikipedia edits made on IP addresses that trace back to governments in the United States, Israel, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and Norway, as well as changes by several major oil corporations.
Studying the Wikipedia revisions made on the Russian government’s computers, we can only guess whether the people responsible were acting independently or in service to an organized campaign. Probably, it’s a bit of both.
Bakken’s list includes repeated revisions to articles about Russian politicians, adding accolades and removing damaging information. For instance, IP addresses at Russia’s secret service, the FSO, made 36 edits to the Wikipedia article about Russian Senator Andrei Klishas, whom the US government sanctioned in March 2014 for his role in the annexation of Crimea. The same agency has revised Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin’s Wikipedia page five times. Government IP addresses have protected the reputations of other public figures, too, including playwright Aleksandr Pudin (25 revisions), philosopher Viktor Vaziulin (30 revisions), Russia’s “Children Ombudsman” Pavel Astakhov (35 revisions), Astakhov’s successor Aleksei Golovan (4 revisions), politician Vyacheslav Tetyekin (36 revisions), and many others.
For all that, not everything looks like a Kremlin conspiracy to whitewash the Internet. For example, someone at a computer owned by a state-run chemical plant in Kursk edited the Wikipedia page about the video game “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3”—not to criticize the game’s storyline (which involves a Russian military attack on New York City), but to correct a small detail in the article’s plot summary. The author was probably just a fan of the game.
Some of the revisions even suggest dissension amongst the ranks of Russia’s bureaucracy. In the midst of protests that rocked Moscow in December 2011, for instance, someone at a state-run TV company updated a Wikipedia article about an anti-Putin petition to show that another 2,000 people had signed. Presumably, this Wikipedia edit wasn’t on orders from the government.
Other revisions to Wikipedia, however, do dovetail with the Kremlin’s efforts to protect its own reputation and damage the image of the United States. Here are five 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.
Of course, even these suspiciously pro-Russia, anti-West changes to Wikipedia don’t prove that the Kremlin is trying to control the Web’s biggest encyclopedia. The author of the attack on Ambassador McFaul, for instance, deleted the revision almost immediately. It’s entirely plausible that these revisions are the work of state employees acting on their own, out of genuine interest in “setting the record straight.”
This being the Internet, we’ll probably never know for sure.