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Revenge of the editors Wikipedia has blocked a group of users who edited Russian-language articles to praise local governors and take down opposition activists

Source: Meduza
Note: Some of the Wikipedia articles edited by the individuals mentioned in this piece included content about Meduza.

Oldfishkeeper and friends

Mikhail Gruznov is the co-founder of Wikify, a digital publishing group that produces commercial and nonprofit projects using the Russian version of Wikipedia. In late February of 2019, Gruznov noticed that a new editor operating under the handle Oldfishkeeper had appeared on the crowdsourced platform. The account had been created very recently, in January, and its owner had gotten started by making edits to a wide variety of articles that had to do primarily with chemistry and technology. For example, Oldfishkeeper edited the Wikipedia entry for the Bessemer process, an obsolete method of producing steel from iron ore, to add a paragraph about the applications of the method in non-ferrous metallurgy based on the discoveries of Russian engineer Vasily Semennikov. In an article about electroforming, Oldfishkeeper inserted multiple references to the technology’s creator, the physicist Boris Yakobi.

Just a month after Oldfishkeeper appeared on Wikipedia, the account radically shifted its target subject matter. By February 17, it had begun editing articles on former Russian presidential candidate and Communist Party leader Pavel Grudinin, former State Duma deputy Dmitry Gudkov, New Times Editor-in-Chief Yevgenia Albats, and Ukrainian journalist Arkady Babchenko. In each case, Oldfishkeeper added negative remarks and cited pro-regime sources to back them up. In Albats’s case, for example, the account added a reference to “ideological censorship” in The New Times and cited Politonline, a company within the conglomerate owned by pro-Kremlin media manager Vadim Gorshenin. In the Wikipedia entry for Dmitry Gudkov, the account referenced reports that Gudkov’s brother owns a large debt collection agency. The reports were published by the Federal News Agency (FAN), which is reportedly controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, more widely known as “Putin’s chef.”

At the same time, Oldfishkeeper began supplementing articles on Russian regional governors with positive statements about their character. The entry for Tula Region Governor Alexey Dyumin suddenly changed to note that his “happy marriage has lasted more than 15 years” and that his wife studies linguistics and runs marathons. In an article about Acting St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov, Oldfishkeeper added a “Personal life” section entirely devoted to Beglov’s religiosity: “Alexander Beglov is deeply religious, churchgoing Orthodox man who regularly attends services in a local cathedral,” the article stated.

Common interests

Over the course of a few months, Gruznov counted at least 12 suspicious Wikipedia accounts that all operated along similar lines: they added negative language to articles about Russian opposition figures and positive language about regional governors and infrastructure projects like the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Among the accounts’ targets were multiple employees of Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, especially current Moscow City Duma candidate Lyubov Sobol, as well as independent journalists. On June 8, 2019, one of the accounts created an entry titled “The Ivan Golunov case” that repeated false charges brought against the Meduza correspondent. Alongside those more noticeable edits, the accounts made large numbers of “neutral” changes to articles unrelated to Russian politics. Gruznov compiled a spreadsheet to track the accounts and their interactions.

Nine of the 12 accounts were created recently, between 2017 and early 2019. By February 2019, Gruznov told Meduza, the new editors had already accumulated enough edits to apply for advanced ranks in Wikipedia’s hierarchy. Specifically, they began applying for the statuses of autopatroller and patroller, which allow users to make changes without peer approval and approve changes made by others, respectively. A few accounts, including Oldfishkeeper, soon received autopatroller status and applied to advance to the rank of patrollers. Before those status changes, they had leaned on older accounts created between 2007 and 2013 to approve the changes they made. The most active among those accounts, Zergeist2, was created in September 2013 and has eliminator status, meaning that it has the ability to delete entire pages. Although the account has existed for six years, it only began actively (and successfully) applying for new statuses in April of 2018.

Gruznov suggested that the accounts might be acting in concert: the older accounts appeared to be helping the newer ones approve changes to articles, including neutral changes intended to ‘dilute’ the politically biased ones, which criticized opposition activists while praising government projects and officials. Gruznov believed that the accounts could be coordinating their actions through private chats, a practice Wikipedia’s guidelines discourage. The guidelines ask editors to discuss articles and edits to them publicly on Wikipedia itself so that any of the project’s editors can participate in the proceedings.

The investigation

On July 2, Mikhail Gruznov petitioned Wikipedia to investigate the 12 accounts he believed were making a coordinated effort to discredit opposition figures and strengthen pro-government ones. Gruznov contacted Wikipedia’s Russian checkusers, a rank only five Russian-language accounts and 30 English-language ones have obtained, and asked them to verify whether the 12 accounts were indeed interconnected. This is the second time in the history of Wikipedia’s Russian-language encyclopedia that such a mass investigation request has been submitted. The first request is now known as the “Case of the 26 Baku Wikipedists,” and it ended with administrators blocking accounts en masse after determining that they had used a secret messaging board to coordinate negative edits to articles about Armenia.

Soon enough, noted Russian Wikipedia editors who had eliminator status entered the discussion surrounding Gruznov’s request. Most of them supported Gruznov’s conclusions. One user, Leonrid, wrote, “This analysis must be received in all seriousness. I have canceled some of the provocative edits and patrols mentioned in the analysis due to their inclusion of scandalous rumors and gossip as well as troublesome and frequently off-topic spam targeting opposition activists with offensive tags and so on. I have also issued warnings to those responsible.” A handful of accounts defended their accused counterparts. Zeitgeist2 denied the accusations and threatened to complain to Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee, whose members are selected for limited terms to resolve conflicts that have proven intractable by all other means. Tonnay-Charente, one of the 12 suspicious accounts, claimed to be a housewife who, after 12 years of childrearing, had devoted her newly discovered free time to describing the “daily lives” of Russia’s governors.

The verdict

On the evening of July 4, the checusers’ verdict appeared. They affirmed Gruznov’s allegations: eight of the 12 accounts he named were run by different people, the checkusers wrote, but they “coordinated their actions off-wiki and, in at least one case, it appears that they had access to each other’s passwords.” (Wikipedia’s rules forbid discussing edits outside of Wikipedia itself if the purpose of the discussion is to hide information from other users.) Some of the users, including Oldfishkeeper, had also “used similar or identical instructions or identical operation patterns.” The checkusers also found that one of the suspicious accounts maintained four ‘virtuals,’ or other accounts controlled by the same individual. Such accounts are also forbidden under Wikipedia’s rules. Ultimately, by the time this piece was published, seven of the 12 accounts mentioned in Gruznov’s request were banned. Tonnay-Charente and Vladislav 1987, two of the accounts the checkusers said had coordinated their actions off-wiki, remain active. Gruznov explained that from the checkusers’ perspective, those two accounts did not commit any formal violations, meaning that they can only be blocked by the next-highest body in the Wikipedia hierarchy: the Arbitration Committee.

All of the accounts in question are anonymous, and Meduza was unable to identify the individuals behind them. The checkusers were unable to determine who coordinated the network, and they are not permitted to publicize the IP addresses of the users they investigated. However, the identity of one of the blocked users is known nonetheless: the checkusers’ decision indicates that the account labeled Zergeist2 “is highly likely to belong to the same person who controlled the account S.Felix, which had previously been placed under an indefinite ban.” S.Felix was banned in 2009 for “provocative, confrontational behavior” and a series of other gross violations of Wikipedia rules. Nonetheless, the user was able to create a ‘virtual,’ the Zergeist2 account, and maintain that account for six years while approving edits made by the suspicious users on Gruznov’s list. There is an email account listed on S.Felix’s profile, and it belongs to Sergey Nesterovich. Nesterovich is a co-founder of a website called Tradition that serves as a kind of “alternative” Wikipedia for Russian nationalists.

After the initial release of this article in Russian, Sergey Nesterovich replied to a message Meduza sent to the email address listed on S.Felix’s page. Nesterovich denied any connection between that account and Zergeist2, which was blocked on July 4. He wrote, “I would like to point your attention to the fact that I was banned on Wikipedia in 2009. In the intervening years, I have gone through multiple providers, computers, and homes. If Wikipedia’s activists were able to establish a reliable connection between myself and an account they said appeared several years after I was blocked, they would either have had to collect and save web data about me, as Russian officials can do under Yarovaya’s Package, or they would have had to conduct some kind of detective work.”

Story by Alexey Kovalev

Translation by Hilah Kohen