Russia’s Wikipedia volunteers risk their freedom for truth

San Francisco-based Wikimedia Foundation pushed back on Putin threats

As independent media abandon Russia or are censored, Wikipedia is filling the information vacuum, thanks to volunteers writing and editing articles on the Russian-language Wikipedia, which drew more than 600 million page views from readers inside Russia in February.

Around 4,000 volunteers worked on Russian Wikipedia last month, some at great personal risk. One of those volunteers is Pavel, a Moscow senior citizen.

Pavel told The Examiner in written comments that Wikipedia has become “one of the main sources of information for millions of people, while more traditional media is subject to censorship.” Pavel, which is not his real name, said “contributing to Wikipedia is the best thing I can do” amid what he called “widespread fears of mass crackdowns of the remnants of civil society in Russia.”

Those efforts impress the San Francisco-based Wikimedia Foundation, which supports volunteers around the world by maintaining Wikipedia servers, holding fundraisers and providing legal support.

“The resilience of volunteer editors who continue to work throughout this ongoing crisis to ensure that Wikipedia remains a fact-based, dependable source of knowledge is remarkable,” the foundation’s CEO, Maryana Iskander, said in a statement to The Examiner.

Wikimedia Russia, one of many global affiliates, also raises funds and supports volunteers in Russia. But the people who work on the crowdsourced encyclopedia, like Pavel, do so unpaid, and often for deeply personal reasons.

“Everyone has fears now,” Pavel said. He works on Wikipedia because “the benefit is knowing you are doing the right thing.”

The Examiner interviewed a dozen Russian Wikipedia volunteers who are working to provide unbiased information under extraordinary circumstances. Their identities are withheld and the first names given are not their real names, due to the significant danger of reprisal from the Putin government. Through emails from Russia and screenshots of their Wikipedia work, The Examiner was able to verify their identities.

Wikipedia is created, edited and maintained by volunteers around the world, though the Wikimedia Foundation supports volunteers with grants and training. The volunteers gather for events, including an annual conference, called Wikimania, and maintain a rich online culture of building informational resources with a neutral point of view and verifiable sources.

Those volunteers’ work lures around 750 million page views a day to Wikipedia-related websites, from English and Russian Wikipedia to the freely licensed media collections on Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps no volunteers are making a bigger personal commitment than those in Russia.

President Vladimir Putin has expelled independent journalists and Facebook, while Apple, Google and Microsoft have all pulled services from the country in protest of a bloody invasion of Ukraine. But Putin has not banned Wikipedia, yet. Some believe that is coming.

Last month, the most popular article on Russian-language Wikipedia, with 3.25 million page views, was “Russian invasion of Ukraine (2022),” which cites 499 references for its information. It notes “Vladimir Putin used the false image of Ukraine as a neo-Nazi state,” and “at least 406 civilians have been killed” and “The invasion led to anti-war protests … and caused the largest monetary and economic crisis in Russia since 1998.”

Those are highly unusual facts in Russia today, as the government seeks to shape its version of the Ukraine invasion. They did not go unnoticed.

On March 1, the Russian government sent a threatening letter to the Wikimedia Foundation claiming the article on the Russian invasion of Ukraine “contains false messages about terrorist attacks or other kind of information of public concern disseminated under the guise of reliable information that threatens life and health of citizens.”

The Wikimedia Foundation pushed back in a blog post “defending the right of volunteers to continue their diligent work of editing Wikipedia with the most up-to-date and reliable information available related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

“At a time when knowledge and information are increasingly weaponized, maintaining the reliability of the information on Wikipedia is more important than ever,” said Iskander.

But for many Russian Wikipedians, the article on the invasion is just one of 1.8 million articles. Their mission is to treat all subjects with the same diligent and unbiased approach.

“People still need reliable information on local history topics that I’m working on,” an electrician in northwest Russia who asked to be identified as Andrey told The Examiner. “Feels a bit like a musician on Titanic. Everybody goes apesh*t about what is happening between Russia and Ukraine, society panics and we’re still doing articles about various historical towns of Russia.”

Another volunteer, an executive in a Russian company in his 30s who gave his name as Anton, said Wikipedia allows people in Russia to “avoid propaganda, see different points of view,” and lets him “pretend that at least something is still the same, though it’s not.”

He said he keeps in mind that working on Wikipedia could be dangerous if he is not careful how he is identified because “you are publicly exposed and could be identified easily by your name or even location, experience and interests.” He said he keeps in mind that “I need to keep my family safe and be on a short alert to make significant changes to my life if needed.”

The Examiner connected with Russian contributors via an American volunteer. Victor Grigas, a videographer who makes films for Wikipedia spent time with Russian volunteers on a trip to Russia several years ago. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he asked some of his acquaintances why they were updating and editing articles on Russian Wikipedia about the invasion.

“I asked people, ‘What are you aiming for?’ They said they were trying to get things to be clear with verifiability, a neutral point of view, and facts. That’s what Wikimedia Russia has done a great job of doing. They’re being Wikipedians, under extraordinary circumstances.”

San Franciscan Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, has given millions to support Wikipedians in this kind of effort, he told The Examiner. “I’m seriously impressed by the courage of all involved, also very concerned regarding the safety of both Wikipedians and Wikipedia, given the increasing intensity of information warfare,” he wrote in an email.

Valentin, an IT worker in St. Petersburg who is around 50, told The Examiner in a written comment that some people might be willing to delete or change articles under government pressure to avoid blocking of the entire Russian Wikipedia. “Wikipedians perceive such pressure as an attack on neutrality,” he said, “and that is sacred.” Usually there are ways to include opposing points of view by treating all ideas with respect, he said, but these are unusual times. “Now there are very real problems, and no one wants to negotiate.”

Fighting disinformation doesn’t mean the Russian volunteers do not have their own political opinions.

“Part supports Russia, part Ukraine, part distanced themselves from the war for various reasons,” said a Russian Wikipedia volunteer who called himself Stepan. Expressing those opinions anywhere online can be dangerous. “We live in a state where a repost or even a like in the social network can be blamed for treason with all the ensuing consequences.”

How long can Russian Wikipedia walk the tightrope of neutrality in this difficult atmosphere?

“I do not rule out that tomorrow the Russian special services will try to influence the content of Wikipedia by coercing the participants,” Stepan said. “We see the closure in Russia of the media that broadcast a point of view that does not coincide with the point of view of Putin. Will such a fate await Wikipedia? Probably, yes.”

The Russian Wikipedia had more than 600 million page views for February. (Wikipedia)

The Russian Wikipedia had more than 600 million page views for February. (Wikipedia)

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