On a Friday in March, shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, Mikhail, a Russian-based Wikipedia editor, opened the Telegram app to find he had been doxxed. His personal information, including his name and social media accounts, had been posted on a channel run by an online Russian vigilante group targeting Wikipedians writing about the war. Below the text was an image with one word: “Retribution”. The post had been viewed more than 110,000 times.
Soon after, Mikhail, who was granted anonymity for this story for his safety, began receiving threats on social media.
“I started to act more cautiously,” he said. “I closed social media to strangers and became even more careful to monitor [Wikipedia] changes that could be linked to my name and displayed as [legal] fines. »
That month, at least four other Wikipedia editors were also doxxed and accused of smearing Russia’s war efforts, by the group, which called itself Mrakoborec – a reference to the Aurors, or wizarding police, in Harry Potter. . Among them was Mark Bernstein, a publisher based in Belarus, Russia’s ally in the war in Ukraine. After Bernstein’s name appeared in the Mrakoborec group on March 10, he was arrested and detained in Minsk. famous Okrestina Detention Center. In Junehe was sentenced to three years of restricted freedom for “organizing and preparing activities disturbing social order”.
“Before this event, nothing like this had ever happened in Russia [Wikipedia] community,” said Sergey Leschina, another Russian Wikipedia editor. Like many other publishers, Leschina left Russia after the war started. He now lives in Lithuania and says many editors are reluctant to work on war pages. “I think almost everyone who edits from Russia or Belarus does so with different accounts,” he said.
Bernstein’s arrest and threats against individual Wikipedia editors are part of a broader campaign to stifle the platform as the Russian government pushes a pro-war propaganda campaign, including banning the platforms of Western social media and cracking down on independent reporting. Although local media have related the Mrakoborec group to the Russian government, observers say the link is difficult to prove, as groups like these are set up to provide the government with plausible denial.
The organization that runs Wikipedia has also found itself targeted by the Russian propaganda campaign. In March, Russia passed a law criminalizing the publication of any information about the military that the state considers false information. Under the new law, a Russian court fined the Wikimedia Foundation, owner of Wikipedia, 5 million rubles ($88,000) for failing to remove what a Russian court called misinformation about war in Ukraine. The organization launched a call in June.
“I am quite sad to see how the idea of the free flow of information, which has always been at the heart of Wikipedia, is being suppressed with all its might in my home country, giving way to government censorship,” said Mikhail, who continues to work at Wikipedia from an anonymous account.
Wikipedia, which has more than 1,800 Russian-speaking volunteer editors, has long been a thorn in the side of the Russian government. The country blocked the site in 2015, on a page on drugs, but quickly reconsidered its decision. “It’s good that Wikipedia is too serious a player to be blocked so easily, because Facebook, Instagram and all sorts of opposition sites have already been blocked,” Mikhail said.
Since February, Wikipedia editors have been regularly updating content about the Ukrainian War in Russian, including articles such as “2022 Invasion of Ukraine”, which is viewed more than 40,000 times daily on average. Anton Protsiuk, program coordinator at Wikimedia Ukraine, said Russian authorities have failed to promote their views on Wikipedia, and that Russian-language Wikipedia has been largely neutral in terms of depicting the war.
In March, the Russian communications agency Roskomnadzor threatens to block the site on the article describing the invasion of Ukraineleading to bulk downloads off-line copies of the encyclopedia. The agency ordered Wikipedia to remove several articles about the war in Ukraine. Wikipedia did not comply. Meanwhile, local officials ransacked the encyclopedia as a “weapon of informational warfare”. In July, Roskomnadzor ordered Russian search engines to start marking Wikipedia as violating Russian laws on search results pages.
Russian media has also targeted Wikipedia with accusations of hosting child pornography on what the unofficial local Wikipedia group describe than images of anime girls.
“It’s an old smear tactic,” said Victoria Doronina, a Wikimedia Foundation board member and molecular biologist from Belarus.
As a San Francisco-based organization that adheres to US laws, the Wikimedia Foundation has been able to fend off requests from Russian authorities to remove content. But, as it has done with Google, Twitter and other Western tech companies, Russia has required that the Wikimedia Foundation open an official representative office that would be subject to Russian law – including official censorship demands. Although some companies have taken steps to comply with local hiring laws, sometimes referred to as “Hostage Taking Act” other online platforms have been reluctant because they open up the risk that authorities could arrest local staff or request user data.
“The Russian government would like to have all the information so they can punish Wikipedia editors and maybe even readers,” Doronina said.
Suing editors may be another way the Russian state is trying to exert control over Wikipedia. In 2021, a investigation by Russian outlet Daily Storm linked the Mrakoborec Telegram group to notorious Russian troll factories connected to the Internet Research Agency, the online influencer organization accused to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Proving a direct link to the government, however, is tricky, said Roman Osadchuk, a research associate at the Digital Forensics Research Lab at the Washington-based think tank Atlantic Council.
But, no matter who is behind the band, “the whole reason for [Mrakoborec]is to silence the voices that oppose the position of the Russian state,” Osadchuk said. He said Mrakoborec tried to stifle stories contradicting the Russian state’s position by unfairly reporting reports of Russian atrocities in Ukraine that appear on social media platforms. The tactic is less effective on Wikipedia, where the platform’s community plays a bigger role in editing articles. As a result, Osadchuk said, Mrakoborec turns to doxxing.
Telegram shut down the original Mrakoborec group in March, but the group reappeared on the platform under a different account.
Mrakoborec claimed in a Telegram post that he collected information on more than 1,000 Wikipedia editors who were involved in editing articles about the war in Ukraine. Doronina, of the Wikimedia Foundation board, said Russian state agencies could target any of these publishers at any time. “You can’t predict who will attack. It’s not a bear, it’s a pack of bears,” she said.
Not all Russian Wikipedia editors are threatened with repression. The local organization Wikimedia includes members with diametrically opposed views on the war, with some backing the country’s president, Vladimir Putin. It made discussing the war like “walking through a minefield”, said another Russian editor, Konstantin. Konstantin, who asked for his name to be changed for his safety, said: “Any careless word spoken publicly can lead to real retaliation.”
Konstantin said that many publishers in Russia now participate less in Wikipedia, with some having abandoned the project altogether. As a result, he fears that the neutrality of Wikipedia’s coverage of the war in Ukraine may suffer, with articles on the subject left to Russian-speaking editors who live out of reach of Russian and Belarusian authorities or who support the war effort. of Russia. .
The remaining publishers are still trying to do what they can, Konstantin said, but he characterized their efforts as resembling those of an orchestra playing on a sinking Titanic.
“Our goal is to create an encyclopedia that is as neutral and complete as possible, and as accessible to everyone as possible. And, in this sense, Russian Wikipedians do not differ from, say, Poles, Croatians, Americans, English or Ukrainians. [Wikipedians],” he said. “Despite the fact that our countries have entered into such a tragic interaction, it allows us to continue to do something together on this platform.”