Wikipedia has temporarily blocked edits from the US Department of Justice after someone inside the government agency tried to erase references to a particularly-controversial Wiki-scandal.
Early last week, the Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) was accused of organizing a secret campaign to influence certain articles on the "free encyclopedia anyone can edit". Just days later, the DoJ's IP range was used to edit the site's entry on the Pro-Israel "media-monitoring group," lifting a new section that detailed the controversy.
The DoJ did not respond to our requests for comment. But odds are, the edits were made by a single individual acting independently. Wikipedia's ban on the department's IP is due to be lifted today.
On April 21, the Pro-Palestine site Electronic Intifada published a series of emails in which CAMERA Senior Research Analyst Gilead Ini seems to enlist volunteers to help "keep Israel-related entries on Wikipedia from becoming tainted by anti-Israel editors". Ini asks these volunteers to avoid forwarding his emails to the news media and invites them onto a Google Group called "Isra-pedia."
In an email to The Reg, Ini declined to say if the messages published by Electronic Intifada were genuine, but he acknowledged that CAMERA recently ran an email campaign meant to promote edits that "ensure accuracy" on certain Wikipedia articles.
On the alleged Isra-pedia thread - also published by Electronic Intifada - one longtime Wikipedia editor gives volunteers a primer on how to become a site administrator. "There is in Wikipedia the ability by an administrator to set significant limits on other editor [sic]," he writes. "One or more of you who want to take this route should stay away from any Israel realted [sic] articles for month [sic] until they [sic] interact in a positive way with 100 Wikipedia editors who would be used later to vote you as an administrator."
This Wikipedia editor, known as "Zeq," and several others involved with the CAMERA emails were subsequently sanctioned. Some were barred from editing topics involving the Arab-Israeli conflict, and at least one - "Gni," believed to be Ini - was banned from the site entirely.
In the wake of these sanctions, a paragraph on the scandal was added to Wikipedia's CAMERA article, and on two separate occasions, someone inside the DoJ tried to remove it. The user also made a few questionable edits to other articles, and the DoJ's entire IP was banned for four days.
This ongoing affair brings up all the old questions about the social experiment that is Wikipedia. On one level, the site is working hard to police its own content. But on another, you have to wonder if all this back and forth is really necessary.
Longtime contributor Christiano Moreschi, one of the editors that banned the accounts in question, sees the CAMERA crackdown as Wikipedia at its best. "This was an amateur and quite pathetic attempt to subvert the purpose of Wikipedia," he told The Reg. "I have no doubt these chaps were genuine - they were genuinely trying to slant articles towards a pro-Israel point of view, but were massively incompetent at doing so.
"Even if their emails had not been leaked to Electronic Intifada I don't think we would have had much trouble dealing with them as individuals...Once EI had published the emails, the response of the Wikipedia administrative corps was swift, competent, and professional."
But Gilead Ini sees things differently. Declining to say whether he's behind the Gni account, he argues that Wikipedia is banning contributors without sufficient evidence. "Wikipedia notes that 'Revealing the names of pseudonymous editors is in all cases against basic policy,'" he told us. "Some Wikipedia administrators - editors elected to a position of power in Wikipedia - are capriciously banning Wikipedia accounts based on nothing more than speculation about who owns that account."
Ini insists that his email campaign adhered to Wikipedia's rules - which he sees as vague and only intermittently enforced. Some have accused him of creating "sockpuppets" and "meatpuppets" - extra accounts used to push his own point of view - but he's adamant this is not the case.
"A meat puppet is described as 'one who edits on behalf of or as proxy for another editor,'" he said. "Nobody who participated in [his email group] was expected to be a 'proxy' for me or anybody else. They were encouraged to learn about, and if they are moved to do so, participate in, Wikipedia."
You may think Ini is talking rubbish. But as we've said before, Wikipedia invites such controversy in giving editors the right to anonymity. If users were required to identify themselves, puppetry wouldn't be the problem it is - and the site could suppress a single voice without blocking the DoJ's entire IP range.
But there's another question worth asking: If Wikipedia is right to ban someone who merely attempted to game the site, why hasn't it banned others who've actually succeeded? ®