How easy is it to rewrite history?

Scary easy. And when much of the world gets its information from a single online encyclopedia — and swarms of AI chat bots amplify its “facts” — distortions and misinformation can repeat into infinity, drowning out truth.

The current controversy involves Wikipedia pages on Poland and the Holocaust, but academics say it’s a chilling abject lesson for all that can come next.

Shira Klein, associate professor of history at Chapman University, and Jan Grabowski, history professor at the University of Ottawa, put their heads together to document how Polish nationalists have commandeered Wikipedia’s coverage of Polish-Jewish wartime history, editing documents to glorify Polish heroism and downplay anti-Semitism and cooperation with the Nazis.

It takes Herculean effort to counter misleading narratives, and the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation — with more than $250 million in net assets after its bills are paid — must take decisive action to defend historical accuracy and its own reputation as a purveyor of truth, Klein and Grabowski argue.

“Challenging the distortionists takes a monumental amount of time, more than most people can invest in a voluntary hobby,” they write in “Wikipedia’s Intentional Distortion of the History of the Holocaust,” published in the Journal of Holocaust Research. “Few can compete with the hundreds of hours the nationalist-leaning editors spend on Wikipedia every year. In their most active year, Piotrus made 27,423 edits, followed by Xx236 (9,966), Volunteer Marek (9,450), MyMoloboaccount (5,598), Poeticbent (4,480), and GizzyCatBella (3,694). These are staggering figures, considering 96 percent of Wikipedia editors make fewer than 1,200 edits annually.”

Authorship of Wikipedia articles, from
Authorship of Wikipedia articles, from “Wikipedia’s Intentional Distortion of the History of the Holocaust” byJan Grabowski & Shira Klein

Four distortions dominate, the academics wrote: “(A) false equivalence narrative suggesting that Poles and Jews suffered equally in World War II; a false innocence narrative, arguing that Polish antisemitism was marginal, while the Poles’ role in saving Jews was monumental; anti-Semitic tropes insinuating that most Jews supported Communism and conspired with Communists to betray Poles …, that money-hungry Jews controlled or still control Poland, and that Jews bear responsibility for their own persecution.

“Finally, distortionists inflate Jewish collaboration with the Nazis to make it seem an important part of the German policy of the extermination of European Jewry,” they write.

Just days after their paper was published in February, a Wikipedia arbitration committee sprang into action, opening a case that garnered intense interest from folks on all sides. Arbitrators are not experts in the subject matter, but more like referees in a brutal contact sport (or, as one Wiki administrator described it, like navigating “a sack of ferrets fighting tooth and claw”).

Still, this arbitration promised to answer the burning question: How far will Wiki go to fight disinformation?

The arbitrators have reached a proposed solution. The answer, as far as the academics are concerned, is this:

Not nearly far enough.

‘Jew with a coin’

Important bit of context here: In 2018, Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party passed a law criminalizing speech asserting that  “the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland” was complicit in war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Punishable by imprisonment of up to three years, as well as a fine, the law aims to protect Poland from “being slandered as a state and as a nation.”

A cadre of colorfully named, and mostly anonymous, editors set to work (the aforementioned Piotrus, Xx236, Volunteer Marek, GizzyCatBella, etc.). It has been an ongoing battle for years, with one step forward and two steps back.

Consider: GizzyCatBella was topic-banned in June 2018 for falsifying information. “GizzyCatBella removes an apparently reliably sourced mention of an anti-Jewish pogrom in WWII Poland. Instead, GizzyCatBella ascribes a 1939 deportation of ‘ethnic Polish families’ to ‘Jewish communists’ and ‘Jewish militia,’ ” Wiki administrator Sandstein wrote at the time. “I’m by no means knowledgeable about the history of this place and period, but this strikes me as very surprising to say the least, and would need very good sourcing…. I suspect that GizzyCatBella is using Wikipedia for anti-Semitic propaganda by misrepresenting sources.”

GizzyCatBella was soon to return nonetheless.

Also consider “The Jew with a coin.” This Wiki page described the recent phenom of Poles collecting miniatures and paintings of “Jewish-looking” male figures (in Hasidic clothing clutching money) as “a positive, sympathetic portrayal of Jewishness,” “a good luck charm,” and “a talisman,” rather than as a disturbing trope.

“In a country where most real Jews were murdered, some precisely because of the stereotype of money-hungry Jews, such objects evoke clear anti-Semitic stereotypes,” Grabowski and Klein write.

For every distortion reported and addressed, countless others go completely under the radar, they write.

From autumn 2020 through summer 2021, Wikipedia’s article on the Gdańsk-based ‘Museum of the World War II’ included criticism of its emphasis on the victimization of ethnic Poles. In August 2021, Volunteer Marek quietly removed it.

In July 2020, Piotrus purged a well-sourced paragraph on Poland’s 2018 Holocaust Law from ‘Historical Negationism.’ The text was soon restored. But Volunteer Marek deleted it once more in November 2021, without anyone noticing.

An article on Rajgród, a town in northeast Poland, had detailed the annihilation of most of the town’s 600 Jews and the collaboration of ethnic Poles with the Nazi SS. In June, GizzyCatBella deleted that information, unchallenged, Grabowski and Klein write.

‘Failed, and miserably’

Wikipedia is an information revolution. It’s written and edited by volunteer editors who create content with the editorial oversight of other volunteer editors, via community-generated policies and guidelines. It’s been hailed as humanity’s best attempt to collect knowledge all in one place.

How accurate is it? Wikipedia’s entry on the reliability of Wikipedia says it’s really hit or miss, depending on the article. Science and tech entries are more dependable than historic entries. Overall, studies have found it about 80% accurate, while other encyclopedias were 95 to 96% accurate.

This all matters because Wikipedia is the seventh-most-visited site on the internet, with 7.3 billion views a month, the scholars write. Its articles show up in more than 80% of first-page search engine results. Browser searches yield more links to the English-language Wikipedia than to any other website in the world. Wikipedia predominates in “knowledge panels,” the information boxes that show up in Google searches. Myriad websites mirror Wikipedia’s content, students rely on it for research papers and even judges have used it, they write.

That makes the arbitration committee’s proposed decision all the more heart-wrenching for Grabowski and Klein.

The ruling would ban two “distortionist” editors from the topic area, appealable in 12 months.

It would also ban Levivich, an editor with scholarly input, for displaying a short temper.

It would allow one “distortionist” editor to continue unfettered.

This misses the mark entirely and allows falsehoods and manipulation to continue living on Wikipedia’s pages, Klein said.

“The safeguards Wikipedia has in place for battling disinformation are scarily ineffective. Wikipedia has failed, and miserably,” she said. “The arbitrators are not historians, they’re not experts, they’re not in a position to recognize when distortion is happening. They’re charged by Wikipedia to only judge editors’ conduct, not content.

“There are some types of conduct that overlap with content — if you misrepresent a source, cite a fringe source that’s not trustworthy, that’s supposedly a sanctionable conduct — but it takes so much expertise to know if someone is misrepresenting, and non-historians have no idea. That’s exactly what happened in this case. Distortion and misrepresentation of sources, and they just missed it.”

It’s a systemic problem that goes way beyond the distortion of Holocaust history, she said, and should concern everyone.

Levivich, the soon-to-be-banned scholarly editor, noted that Wikipedia tried to manage this very battle back in 2019, creating a “source restriction” requiring only high-quality academic sources.

But in this deja vu case, “the committee has found that this restriction has not been enforced, and that source manipulation is a problem,” said Levivich by email. “But they do not seem to sanction anybody for either the source manipulation or for failing to enforce the restriction. In my case, they’re sanctioning me for complaining too much about source manipulation, but they do not sanction anybody for the source manipulation about which I (and G&K, and many others) have complained.”

What to do?

“Wikipedia urgently needs to start involving experts,” Klein said. “Its whole credo is that it is democratic, crowd-sourced, anyone can edit, and it does have amazing advantages in terms of whose voices we hear. That’s its amazing superpower.

“But when it is alerted to the fact that there’s a team-led effort of falsification that ordinary editors cannot solve on their own — which is what our article alerted them to — the Wikimedia Foundation should hire a team of experts. It has the money.”

Levivich agrees. “I think the Wikimedia Foundation should pay for a professional, outside investigation into distortions in this topic area, as they did recently with the Croatian Wikipedia. They should ask some reputable institutions, like the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yad Vashem, or the Simon Wiesenthal Center, to lend their experts and expertise, review the content, and make recommendations.

“I don’t think the WMF should actually edit the articles — that should be left to volunteer editors — but they should use some of the hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal to hire experts to help us spot problems, as G&K have done.”

We asked the Wikimedia Foundation for its take on all this, and a rep said they’re working on it. We’ll let you know if and when we hear back.

Meantime, caveat emptor, information consumer. New York University professor Charles Seife may have given the best advice in his book, “Virtual Unreality: The New Era of Digital Deception”:

“Wikipedia is like an old and eccentric uncle. He can be a lot of fun — over the years he’s seen a lot, and he can tell a great story. He’s also no dummy; he’s accumulated a lot of information and has some strong opinions. … But take everything he says with a grain of salt. A lot of the things he thinks he knows for sure aren’t quite right or are taken out of context. And when it comes down to it, sometimes he believes things that are a little bit, well, nuts.”

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