Wikipedia Manipulation: Anti-Israel Activists using Criticism Elimination

A new paper by Andre Oboler (CIE’s Director), along with Prof Gerald Steinberg (head of NGO Monitor) and Rephael Stern has been published by the Journal of Information Technology and Politics. The full length academic article, “The Framing of Political NGOs in Wikipedia through Criticism Elimination”, introduces the concept of criticism elimination, a type of information removal that has been used by anti-Israel activists to control the message and frame issues in Wikipedia articles.

Criticism elimination facilitates a new form of gatekeeping, and the article demonstrates how this was systematically done to remove criticism of NGOs actions in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The article also categorizes the editors responsible for the behavior into four types. Mitigation approaches to criticism elimination are also suggested.

Background

  • Wikipedia’s approach has, however, raised concerns (Lichtenstein, 2008) that are traditionally reserved for the mass media. For instance, the media has long acted as a gatekeeper, selecting and framing issues in what was perceived to be the public interest (Williams & Delli Carpini, 2004). The management of public discourse through framing raises significant political implications…
  • The presence of politically motivated framing (rather than the expected NPOV), as well as gatekeepers, sanctioned or de facto, has serious implications for the understanding of content production in Wikipedia.
  • The problem in subjective areas is that Wikipedia articles can be dominated. Sunstein (2006) notes that the last editor “can appoint himself as sovereign” (p. 158) destroying, rather than aggregating, content. Stacy Schiff (2006), writing in The New Yorker, noted that more frequent editors generally get their way. Articles or entire topic areas can be framed with a particular view by users with knowledge, determination, and power within the system.
  • By dominating articles and topic areas, Wikipedia can be used as a platform for political propaganda. Paul Murphy (2008) called Wikipedia “an early and illustrative warning of the collapse from informed social networking to propaganda.” He explained that “sub-groups of the general community … are now using Wikipedia as a marketing tool for their viewpoints.” He called it “fundamentally inappropriate in a site nominally dedicated to the provision of objective information.” He raises a concern that those with an agenda will be more dedicated to getting their point across than casual users, thereby allowing them to dominate.
  • Framing can occur though gatekeeping (Lewin, 1947), a theory of how items are “selected” or “rejected.” … [it] is “the process by which selections are made in media work, especially decisions whether or not to admit a particular news story to pass through the ‘gates’ of a news medium” (McQuail, 1994, p. 213). Social responsibility theory (Peterson, 1956) saw the public as passive and easily manipulated and the media as “information gatekeepers who represented the public’s interest” (Williams & Delli Carpini, 2004, p. 63).
  • Wikipedia’s dominance raises concerns about its own effect, or that of dominant editors, in framing information and acting as gatekeepers….  In Wikipedia, a culture (Schiff, 2006) with power structures, guidelines, and policies has developed to prevent this. These policies include NPOV, which states that articles should be “written from a neutral point of view, representing significant views fairly, proportionately, and without bias” (Wikipedia, 2008c)… In practice, however, the top 1 percent of posters jointly contribute about half of Wikipedia’s edits (Wilson, 2008). The power of the elite gives them a default gatekeeping role. Their strength in authority, time commitment, and knowledge of Wikipedia can easily overwhelm, and thus eliminate, the contributions of others.

The experiment

We use an in vivo experiment in the form of an observational study with predefined variables and multiple “sites” (articles in this case), making this a field study as per Basili’s (1996) classification scheme for experimentation in software engineering. As Wikipedia records all interactions within the system, we use content analysis on stored data as a form of observation.

Metrics:

  • 16 NGO articles were used in this study, all edits to these articles were reviewed
  • 627 edits relating to criticism were extracted
  • Of the 16 NGO articles, nine were included in WikiProject Palestine (and their criticism sections were heavily revised to eliminate criticis

Methodology:

We reviewed how the edits changed the nature of the article, and specifically whether they removed relevant sourced information. We reviewed the over all impact on the article, and the over all editing behavior of the editors found doing such criticism elimination. We did this both for numeric results and for a more in-depth qualitative review.

Summary of Results

Four of the NGO entries examined (including the UK-based charity Christian Aid and the Israeli NGO Hamoked) had sourced criticism sections completely or almost entirely deleted. In both cases, all discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was removed (twice in the case of Christian Aid).

In total, 89 editors removed criticism, and 61 of these used registered user names. There are four prominent users removing criticism from multiple NGOs; 16 users removing criticism multiple times from one or more NGOs, in addition to making revisions in other NGO entries; and 26 users with low-edit counts focused on NGOs.

Qualitative analysis revealed 4 types of users who removed criticism:

A campaigner is a Wikipedia editor working towards a larger goal. He or she edits across a range of NGO articles and other articles. In the NGO articles examined here, campaigners usually removed sourced criticism. Some campaigners are members of WikiProject Palestine. Others appear to edit articles in the project without being members.

An advocate editor is concerned almost entirely with one page or a very limited topic. In the case of our research, the focus would be a particular NGO. One hypothesis is that advocates may be members, supporters, or staff of the NGO. These editors are using Wikipedia for a purpose unrelated to the advancement of the encyclopedia, and instead they remove criticism in order to frame their targets in the best possible light.

The lobbyists are editors who work within a broad scope of articles across Wikipedia, yet focus on only one NGO. They differ from advocates, because they contribute in other places, and from campaigners, because their actions do not appear to be part of a general campaign. These editors may attempt to remove or reduce criticism or set very high standards for the inclusions of criticism. As they become more involved in Wikipedia, their use of Wikipedia’s internal policies and guidelines to achieve their goals becomes more sophisticated.

Casual editors are visitors to Wikipedia who only edit articles on occasion. Spread across many topics, their edits show no unified agenda. Their attention is divided and, very often, thinly spread. These users may remove information that conflicts with their conceptual model on the justification that it is out of place.

Examples of each type of editor and the changes they made can be seen in the full paper.

The paper may be cited as: Andre Oboler, Gerald Steinberg and Rephael Stern, “The Framing of Political NGOs in Wikipedia through Criticism Elimination”, Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Volume 7, Issue 4 October 2010 , pages 284 – 299.

The published, Routledge (Taylor and Francis), have made the article a sample for the Journal. As a result the article is online and may be downloaded or read online for free.

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