The Israel Group in Haaretz Wikipedia article

The Israel Group in Haaretz Wikipedia article

“In announcing its special pro-Israel Wikipedia initiative earlier this year, The Israel Group blasted these rules and wrote that because of them, the site “is now the number one global source that actively substantiates the lies and false propaganda being disseminated about Israel.” The group, which in the past published a list of what it termed Wikipedia’s most anti-Israel editors, blasted the volunteer “administrators” who “allowed anti-Israel editors freedom to take over Wikipedia.”

The Second Intifada Still Rages on Wikipedia

920181247Screen Shot 2020-10-01 at 2.45.45 PM

By Omer Benjakob | Haaretz

For almost 20 years, Wikipedia has documented the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Attempts to keep the peace in the narrative war between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian editors now shape how the online encyclopedia deals with all conflicts

When the Cuncator made the edit – only the second on Wikipedia’s page about the second intifada – he had no idea that this article, then less than 4 minutes old, would be edited over 4,500 times over the next two decades and viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

It’s spelled “al-Aqsa, not Al-Aqsa,” he wrote, fixing the opening line of the article, which at the time read: “The al-Aqsa, or Second Intifada, is the wave of violence that is still underway between Israel and the Palestinians.”

It was mid-August, 2002, when the article page opened, almost two years after the events it sought to describe had first erupted in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

For Wikipedia watchers, “the Cunc,” as he’s sometimes known, is the stuff of digital legend: One of the first so-called power editors on Wikipedia, with over thousands of edits to his username, he’s renowned for pushing out a radically open worldview of what Wikipedia should be. In the case of the intifada, the Cunc was wrong: Wikipedia’s style dictates the spelling as “Al-Aqsa” with a capital A. (The page is officially titled Al-Aqsa Intifada.)

It was mid-August, 2002, when the article page opened, almost two years after the events it sought to describe had first erupted in Israel and the Palestinian territories.4048822986

For Wikipedia watchers, “the Cunc,” as he’s sometimes known, is the stuff of digital legend: One of the first so-called power editors on Wikipedia, with over thousands of edits to his username, he’s renowned for pushing out a radically open worldview of what Wikipedia should be. In the case of the intifada, the Cunc was wrong: Wikipedia’s style dictates the spelling as “Al-Aqsa” with a capital A. (The page is officially titled Al-Aqsa Intifada.)

However, his apparently inconsequential intervention was notable for foreshadowing the page’s riven future: Over the years, the article’s opening lines would change, be changed again, and then again and again. The rest of the text, meanwhile, would be the focus of countless lengthy debates and negotiations over issues large and small.

Is it objective to describe the second intifada as an uprising, not only in name, but also in deed? Is “brutal” an unbiased term? Can Israel’s Foreign Ministry be considered a legitimate source? How about the Israel Defense Forces, B’Tselem or even Haaretz? These are just some of the debates that saw each word scrutinized by the hard-core of editors watching zealously over the page during its 18-year history.

Today, that opening section reflects the two-sided nature of the debate behind it. It describes the intifada as “a period of intensified Israeli-Palestinian violence, which Palestinians describe as an uprising against Israel, while Israelis consider it a prolonged terror campaign perpetuated by the Palestinian National Authority and various Palestinian militant groups.”

The Al-Aqsa Intifada page was opened by Uri Yanover, an Israeli who has since left the online project due to the political infighting the article and other Israel-Palestinian conflict-related articles drew online. When the page opened, hostilities were “still ongoing” and the article was still missing a section on the Oslo Accords and the different tactics employed by both sides – issues Yanover flagged as part of “to do” list he left on the nascent article.

The name of the “first Israeli victim, Sgt. David Biri,” was still noted directly in the text, though over the years it would be deleted and relegated to a footnote for the sake of balance with the unnamed Palestinian casualties. Despite his overtly Israeli perspective, Yanover provided what he called “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestinian” sources for would-be editors to use down the road.

A year later, the sections on tactics and the Oslo Accords falling apart had been added, proof that Wikipedia’s open system could work despite the contentious nature of the topic at hand.

However, that political divide, present from day one, would continue to haunt the article and others about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for years to come, testing Wikipedia’s values and editorial safeguards.

Citation needed: al-Durrah

By 2005, the actual intifada had ended. It was also a big year for Wikipedia: a study by Nature had claimed it was as reliable as Britannica and it enjoyed a massive surge in popularity.3012608404

In 2004, a timeline had been placed on the intifada page to detail the events leading up to the Palestinian uprising and Israeli crackdown on it, and by mid-2005 it had been updated to include the Sharm el-Sheikh peace summit of February 2005 that led to its end. The construction of the West Bank separation barrier – “termed a security fence by supporters and an apartheid wall by detractors” – was documented online as progress was made.

One of the most contentious issues regarding the second intifada, both on Wikipedia and elsewhere, was the story of Muhammad al-Durrah, the 12-year-old Palestinian boy who was killed in the Gaza Strip on the intifada’s second day, September 30, while being shielded by his father in what would become an iconic image.

The question of who killed the boy and the accuracy of the video allegedly documenting his death were debated at length on Wikipedia as well as in the courts, where legal battles were fought from 2005 to 2013, each development being updated online.

There were at least 12 big debates regarding the incident on Wikipedia over the years, and how and if it could be used. Even the caption of the iconic frame was debated at length, with pro-Israel editors claiming at one point that “many organizations and analysts have concluded that the incident was staged.”

Sources were politicized as the media got pulled into the fray, with the veracity of the original footage and the integrity of the French journalist who published it being dissected by the community of warring editors. Even this newspaper was blasted as biased (by both sides), and its editors quoted as proof.

As the debate swelled, it was decided that the entire Muhammad al-Durrah incident would be afforded an article of its own – a common solution on Wikipedia, meant to quell the growth of contentious articles.

The same fate befell the Battle of Jenin and the movie “Jenin, Jenin,” which purported to document alleged Israeli war crimes, and whose reliability and possibly libelous nature was also fought in the courts.

These further served to politicize sources on the topic. It seems that when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, no consensus could be reached on which documentaries or journalists could be considered objective.

The battle for the historical record over the intifada rages to this day: the last edit on the article was just this week, with the section on Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli targeted killings being reworded.

Beyond documenting the intifada itself as it happened, the article also documented something no less important: the battle over the narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This skirmish proved pivotal to Wikipedia’s own history.

The Zionist cabal

As the intifada article grew, so did the vitriol between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian editors. Users focusing on the conflict like Michael Safyan, MathKnight, Reenem and Tiamut had grown accustomed to hounding each other’s edits on the article and others related to the conflict. Increasingly gone was the “Assume good faith” mantra that was supposed to stand as the basis for every edit on Wikipedia.2398152740 (1)

Yanover, who was active during the first years of Wikipedia and actually wrote the “Hebrew language” and “Six-Day War” articles, eventually decided he’d had enough. “Why did I leave? During my time on Wikipedia, I took part in the editing of numerous articles on the subject of Middle Eastern politics, which frequently developed into raging ‘flame wars.’ … I came to the conclusion that political arguments are an inherently useless waste of time,” he wrote at the time. “As for the Middle Eastern articles, they won’t get better until they’re edited in the spirit of true scholarship.”

The opposite has happened, though: Two warring camps were established, and over time mutual allegations about “cabals” were exchanged. Wikipedia was the perfect platform for the battle over hasbara (Israeli public diplomacy) and both sides latched onto it, further politicizing the articles.

Wikipedia permits editors to organize “projects” with narrow focuses, and specific volunteer task forces were set up by the camps to help their editors work on large swaths of material and counter the other side: the so-called WikiProject Israel was set up in September 2006 and the rival WikiProject Palestine two months later.

In 2008, an attempt to reconcile the two in the form of the WikiProject Israel Palestine Cooperation was set up: “In a subject plagued by conflicting historical narratives, we are working to make Wikipedia the conflict’s most balanced reference point. Help us build bridges and break down barriers in the world’s most intractable conflict,” the project page stated.

However, that same year, pro-Palestinian organization the Electronic Intifada revealed emails from pro-Israel media watchdog CAMERA, purportedly showing an attempt to set up an organized influence campaign on Wikipedia.

The emails were a call to action for volunteers “to help us keep Israel-related entries on Wikipedia from becoming tainted by anti-Israel editors.” According to the leaked emails, the very existence of the “army” of editors was to remain a secret, because on Wikipedia “anti-Israel editors will seize on anything to try to discredit people who attempt to challenge their problematic assertions, and will be all too happy to pretend, and announce, that a ‘Zionist’ cabal … is trying to hijack Wikipedia.”

The leaked emails led to at least five editors receiving lifetime bans from Wikipedia. But that was just one very public instance of the political infighting spilling outward. This year, another pro-Israel organization, The Israel Group, publicly announced it would join the fight against what it terms the “cabal of virulently anti-Israel anonymous editors.”

Over the years, special solutions have been put in place to try to regulate the infighting that spilled from one conflict-related article to another. As Wikipedia’s administrators – volunteer editors who are elected to official positions in the community and charged with “conflict resolution” – navigated the pitfalls of trying to maintain civility over one of the world’s most contentious topics, they created precedents that would serve the encyclopedia for years to come, governing its coverage of the conflict in English.

The solutions they found in their attempt to harness the destructive narrative wars for encyclopedic purposes – specifically, techniques like locking pages to public editing and banning aggressive editors – lay the groundwork for how Wikipedia now deals with all contentious issues. Today, everything from issues relating to antisemitism in Poland to India-Pakistan tensions rely on the editorial precedents that arose around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Wikipedia’s Supreme Court

The top arbitration body on Wikipedia is ArbCom (short for arbitration committee), which has been dubbed the online encyclopedia’s Supreme Court. When the issues on the intifada page and others related to the conflict reached fever pitch toward 2008, a special ArbCom was convened. The so-called ARBPIA (an acronym of Arbitration Palestine Israel Article) decided on a number of binding rules of conduct for editors and laid out ways to enforce them for the entire field.

While most Wikipedia disputes are limited to a single page, what made this ArbCom so important was its topic-wide focus: “The entire set of Arab-Israeli conflict-related articles, broadly interpreted,” later expanded to “Any page that could be reasonably construed as being related to the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

This topic-wide focus has proven instrumental in addressing conflicts, and a similar solution is now also used on India-Pakistan related articles (confusingly called ARBIPA).

The ruling on Israel and Palestinian articles has been reaffirmed and expanded twice, in 2009 and 2015, with its different “remedies” and “enforcement” mechanisms voted on and amended no fewer than 13 times in the years in-between.

Among the rules it has laid out is the revert rule: Anyone can edit an article on Wikipedia, and this includes “undoing” (or reverting) another editor’s contribution. A common characteristic of “edit wars” on Wikipedia is one editor undoing the work of another. The so-called one-revert-rule (1RR) decrees that any editor involved in editing topics on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is limited to only one revert a day across the entire field. On India-Pakistan issues, a similar but more lax version of the rule exists, permitting three reverts in one day.

The goal is to contain editorial wars to single articles and single edits that can be addressed in an organized fashion. “Editors who violate this restriction may be blocked without warning by any uninvolved administrator, even on a first offense,” the decision states.

Another key facet of the decision is the topic ban: While bans on Wikipedia have historically focused on specific editors and specific pages, the ARBPIA allowed an editor to be banned from editing across the entire field. This solution has also been key in addressing another, no less contentious issue on Wikipedia: Antisemitism in Poland.

Another rule laid out by the ARBPIA ruling is the contentious 30/500 rule. While everyone can and should edit Wikipedia, even anonymously, that’s no longer possible on all articles related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since the ruling, only registered editors with a history of at least 30 days on Wikipedia and over 500 edits to their name can participate. This prevents new and anonymous editors from joining the already heated debate and potentially bombarding it with new text and comments.

In announcing its special pro-Israel Wikipedia initiative earlier this year, The Israel Group blasted these rules and wrote that because of them, the site “is now the number one global source that actively substantiates the lies and false propaganda being disseminated about Israel.” The group, which in the past published a list of what it termed Wikipedia’s most anti-Israel editors, blasted the volunteer “administrators” who “allowed anti-Israel editors freedom to take over Wikipedia.”

Yet regardless of what you may think of Wikipedia’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s hard to deny that its politicized nature symbolizes a wider arch of the past 20 years: the question of what constitutes a fact has increasingly become a political one.