People telling the world about cyborgs, war, and accurate history. How Ukrainians reclaim Wikipedia from Russians
The 21st century dictates other rules for the fight against propaganda: new powerful tools are emerging, but also challenges appear that the state must respond to. Wikipedia has long been one such battlefield.
Russia quickly mastered the rules of this battle and began to conduct anti-Ukrainian propaganda not only in the Russian-language version but also in the pages read by people in the West. Ukraine didn't immediately join the process, so for some time, in the English-language articles about the "DPR-LPR" terrorists, you could find such phrases as "insurgents," "civil war" and other statements from the methods of Russian propagandists.
Noticing this, a group of volunteers founded Wikipatrol, which fights every day to ensure that Ukraine is portrayed in the right light, and millions of people abroad can read the truth about the events in our country. Rubryka contacted one of the movement's founders, co-owner of "Wikibusiness" Roman Melnyk, to learn more about their activities. Read about the Jews and Bohdan Khmelnytsky, information wars with the Russians, and the project's further prospects in our new article.
"You still have to prove to Wikipedia that the DNR is a dodgy enterprise"
At first glance, it may seem that editing Wikipedia is easy: anyone can go to the page they need and change the text. However, in reality, the online encyclopedia has strict rules and any recent information requires confirmation from authoritative sources.
"Five years ago, I saw in the English-language Wikipedia that "DPR-LPR" is referred to there as "unrecognized republics." Then I began to argue that they're artificial formations that have nothing to do with the state. I've spent a lot of time on it until I found an authoritative justification. One of Barack Obama's quotes, where he referred to NATO, helped; it was very difficult," Roman Melnyk said. "Wikipedia sometimes includes excessive formality and academicism. If you can't give examples from some authoritative sources like the New York Times, where there's a clear definition that "DNR" is a dodgy enterprise, they'll cancel your edit. You're from Ukraine and biased, and you need to rely on something neutral. And the Russians are publishing all sorts of nonsense. Five years ago, many Russian media were considered quite authoritative sources, so we had to explain that they're just biased."
"In the articles, we write not only about the war and our tragedies"
Wikipatrol activists have focused their efforts on working with English-language pages. They also don't forget to write texts about Ukraine in German, Polish, French, Portuguese and other languages. Thankfully, their team is multilingual. But they admit it is almost impossible to fight on the territory of the Russian Wikipedia.
"The Russians have state funding. They even support the local Wikipedia by pouring money into it. They bribe them a little. There are suggestions that Russian Wikipedians are often directed and corrupted by FSB members. This can be seen from their behavior in the wiki. By the way, in Ukraine, FSB tried to reach specific Wikipedians. But only to remove information about certain politicians. Unfortunately, there was no talk about national interests. The big stumbling block is the fact that most Russians are thinking like emperors, so they continue Russian propaganda voluntarily."
The Ukrainian state isn't working so closely with Wikipedia yet, but there are some changes. Roman Melnyk explained exactly what:
"We're planning some cooperation with our government agencies. We'll soon meet with certain high-ranking officials and talk about how we can teach our diplomats, politicians, who have many assistants, how to edit Wikipedia properly. They still use it in their professional life, plus, they're educated, so correcting some brutality isn't a problem for them. Our Foreign Ministry, by the way, did some things on their own, although they may have heard our appeals because we are actively talking about the wiki. For instance, the Foreign Ministry did little Wikipedia marathons to write more about Ukraine in the English-language wiki."
Wikipatrol promotes Ukraine's interests in different ways and different areas: "In the articles, we not only criticize Russia, the war and remember our tragedies but also criticize the police regime of Avakov. We created an English article about Katia Handziuk, rewrote the Russian article about Sternenko because he was called a murderer there. We write in different European languages about Ukrainian culture, modern films, "Cyborgs," our shows, and posted a small series about unrecognized Ukrainian composers."
"Russians don't like it if one writes they're to blame for the terrorist attacks in Ukraine"
Working with Wikipedia requires an in-depth study of sources. As the co-founder of Wikipatrol recalls, they had a hard time with a text about the Cossack Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, who was accused of mass murder of Jews during the liberation war in the English version:
"They did suffer, but I found the original memoirs of a German traveler who was in Ukraine in the 1640s, where he wrote about how Jews mocked Ukrainians, treated them worse than dogs. He returned 20 years later and stated there was no such thing anymore. We added it to the text, that is, we slightly corrected Khmelnytskyi's biography."
However, Roman Melnyk admits that some victories in Wikipedia are better not to put under the radar; it's too easy to destroy everything in it by vandal methods:
"Russians don't like it when one writes we've got some terrorist attacks because of them. We created a page in Russian about the assassination of the SBU general, but they deleted it, explaining that a separate page about him already exists, and the page about the murder is unnecessary. We created an article about "cyborgs" who defended the Donetsk airport, which is still miraculously online and fulfills its educational role, even if not for Russians, then for Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Although they delete most articles on patriotic topics from Russian Wikipedia.
Therefore, we switched more to the English, Spanish, Polish, Swedish, Portuguese versions. We have many people who speak different languages; the diaspora helps. Someone creates articles, and someone sends us texts. We created a page on Patreon, but it's more to show our openness to funding. This money goes to pay for translations mainly. We do it in our free time; we spend the earned money on it because we're interested in it. We're engaged in Wikipedia for commercial purposes as well (To recap, Roman is a co-founder of "Wikibusiness" – Ed.), but also for the sake of patriotism. It's not even charity, because by strengthening Wikipedia, we're doing a good deed."
"Is the Russian version better? And how many articles did YOU write for the Ukrainian Wiki?"
Serious difficulties for the Ukrainian Wikipedia are created because most Ukrainians also speak Russian, so it's very hard to compete. However, the process is gradually underway: now the Ukrainian segment of Wikipedia ranks 17th in the world in the number of articles, and traffic is thriving:
"Yes, our Ukrainians read Russian Wikipedia more, because it's bigger, better if you don't consider the history and current topics. There are better articles on our part but they have more people: academics, marketers who can spell out details. But we always tell Ukrainians, calling the Russian version the best, "And how many articles did YOU write?"
"Anyway, the change process is slowly going in two directions. People visit the English-language Wikipedia, and that's great, and Google a little more in Ukrainian. In any case, the traffic to our Wikipedia is gradually increasing, not fast, but there's progress."
When Rubryka contacted the co-founder of Wikipatrol, he was in Germany; the local version of the encyclopedia is considered one of the best in the world in terms of the number of materials and their depth. According to Roman, it's directly related to the literacy of the population and the level of GDP:
"I'm temporarily in Germany now, and I see that they read a lot. If there are young people, they often read fiction and only German, not English. The German Wikipedia is a profound depth of materials because they don't chase the number, but take quality into account."
"Students will be able to write articles in Wikipedia instead of essays"
Coronavirus and lockdown also affected the work of Wikipatrol. It turned out to be much more difficult to organize volunteers, and some plans had to be postponed:
"We had some setbacks. We gathered a lot of volunteers, invited them to our office, but it didn't work out; the coronavirus may have affected. We have a core team, but we want to attract young people, students. But now, it's uncomfortable to visit classrooms. We plan to contact all major universities in Kyiv and arrange for students to write articles for Wiki instead of essays. Young people are active, they know English, so we want to make an army out of them.
And if we're ever involved in the public sector, we can start working more project-wise. For example, to create a thousand pages about Ukraine in the English-language Wikipedia: from princes to cities, presenting them in the best way. Some studies show that it has a beneficial effect on tourism. That's why there are still a lot of plans."
Also, see the surprising records of the Ukrainian Wikipedia 2020.