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Unreliable sources Fake quote attributed to future U.S. Secretary of State spreads from Wikipedia to the Russian media

Source: Meduza
Mark Makela / Getty Images / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Before U.S. president-elect Joe Biden formally announced Antony Blinken as his pick for Secretary of State, an anonymous Wikipedia editor took it upon himself to edit Blinken’s Wikipedia page. The editor beefed up the section on his attitude towards Russia and its President Vladimir Putin, throwing in a quote attributed to Blinken for good measure. The quote was quickly picked up by Russian and Ukrainian media and it spread across social networking sites. But as it turns out, Antony Blinken never actually spoke those words.

In U.S. president-elect Joe Biden’s future administration, foreign policy will be handled by Antony Blinken, his longtime associate in the Obama cabinet. Blinken’s name appeared on the new presidential administration’s website as the future head of the United States State Department on November 25. But sources from Biden’s campaign headquarters broke the news about his pick shortly after election day — back in early November.

On November 16, an addition was made to the English-language Wikipedia page about Antony Blinken, speaking at length about his attitude towards Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The edit included a quote, purportedly from Blinken, referring to American sanctions against Russia and claiming that they, among other things, are meant to “demonstrate to the Russian people that there is a very hefty fine for supporting international criminals like [Putin].” Allegedly, Blinken uttered this phrase during a speech at the Brookings Institution back in 2014, when he was the United States Deputy National Security Advisor. 

Blinken was pivotal in the formulation of the Obama administrationʼs response to the 2014 Crimean Crisis. In a speech at the Brookings Institution in June 2014, Blinken emphasized that a wide and expansive sanctions regime was critical, focusing on Russian President Vladimir Putinʼs inner circle and the Russian public at large. The first prong is necessary to deter oligarchs from risking American-based assets, while the latter prong is necessary to “demonstrate to the Russian people that there is a very hefty fine for supporting international criminals like [Putin].”

The quote was linked to the Brookings website, which included a video and written transcript of Blinken’s speech. As it turns out, this phrase didn’t feature in the speech or in the written text. Moreover, this particular quote doesn’t appear to be cited in any other sources prior to popping up on Wikipedia. 

What Blinken actually said about sanctions at Brookings

“But then, even more significant, were the measures we took to isolate Russia economically. We started and the President was determined to adhere to a basic principle, that we should do it with our partners, with Europe, and with other key countries, for two reasons. First, the practical impact of being able to impose sanctions with others is much greater. But second, the political impact is reinforced, and it reinforces the sense of isolation when itʼs not just the United States doing it”

On November 24, the quote caught the attention of other Wiki editors. They deleted it as an incorrect citation and the author who added it to the article was blocked for a month.

However, by that time, the fake quote had already spread across Russian-language media and social networks. Gazeta.ru published an article containing the quote on November 23 and it was cited word-for-word in several Ukrainian publications (including reprints on Russian state media websites). The quote was also featured on Politekspertin 2017, RBK journalists uncovered that this website belongs to a media holding linked to the so-called “troll factory” that investigative journalists have, in turn, connected to Russian billionaire Evgeny Prigozhin. On social media, this quote was also picked up by patriotic bloggers from both Russia and Ukraine

Gazeta.ru has already served as an authoritative source for “Blinken quote” on the Russian-language version of his Wikipedia page. It was added to the article by the very same editor who was banned for adding the fake quote to Blinken’s English-language page. Wikipedia’s Russian-language editors had yet to respond to the quote at the time of this article’s publication. 

The identity of the person who is adding the fake quote to articles about Antony Blinken in various languages remains unknown: this individual doesn’t have a registered Wikipedia account and makes all edits anonymously from an American IP address.

Can you edit anything on Wikipedia? 

“It’s called the ‘equality of participants’,” wiki editor Mikhail Gruznov tells Meduza. “It implies that the barrier to starting editing, making a useful contribution, should be minimal. So that each person can improve an article and a topic they understand (or [fix] a mistake they see). But this mechanism fails as soon as you come across someone malicious. As a result, popular topics are under monitoring already, because there are experienced participants who can pick out false [information] or rollback nonsense. But second-tier topics — like articles about American politicians on Russian-language Wiki — are defenseless.”

Such articles only get the attention they need on a case-by-case basis, Gruznov explains: “When there’s a suitable news background (such as an appointment to a new, senior position), then an experienced contributor might look over the article. That doesn’t guarantee anything, since an experienced provocateur can skillfully hide an attack on a politician in the text under the guise of ‘transparency’.” 

The only thing known about this user is that he is professionally involved in translating song lyrics by Western rock bands into Russian — he mentioned this himself in a edit to an article about the song “Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel. His passion for rock-music is clearly visible in the history of his edits on English-language Wikipedia — for which he has also been sanctioned repeatedly due to unreferenced quotes and “disruptive editing.” 

Besides articles about rock music and future U.S. State Secretary Antony Blinken, this same user constantly corrects Wikipedia articles about high-profile political and media figures in both Russia and Ukraine, such as Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s former Health Minister Ulana Suprun, and Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko. A significant portion of his edits involve adding unlinked quotes, causing other Wiki editors to delete them. For example, he was so active in “correcting” the Wikipedia article on Arkady Babchenko that in September 2020 he was blocked from editing this page for six months. 

Update. Russian Wiki editors fixed the Russian-language page on Antony Blinken shortly after Meduza’s article came out.

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

Story by Alexey Kovalev

Translation by Eilish Har

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