By Asaf Elia-Shalev
SAN FRANCISCO — When a pair of professors last month published a paper accusing a group of Wikipedia editors from Poland of revising articles to distort the history of the Holocaust, their research went viral.
Most academic articles are seen by dozens or hundreds of people at best.
One published in the Journal of Holocaust Research hit more than 27,000 pageviews within weeks.
The paper’s reach was fueled by its analysis, unprecedented in the academic literature on Wikipedia, and its finding that a dedicated group has for some 15 years manipulated a source of information used by millions in ways that lay blame for the Holocaust on Jews and absolve Poland of almost any responsibility for its record of anti-Semitism.
The paper caught the eye of not just scholars and journalists but of the people in charge of resolving disputes over editing on crowd-sourced Wikipedia, the seventh-most popular website on the internet and one that is seen as the last bastion of shared truth in an ever-fracturing online environment.
Typically, disputes among Wikipedia editors are resolved through community consensus mechanisms, but occasionally those mechanisms fail and allegations are brought to Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee, a panel of elected editors known as Wikipedia’s Supreme Court.
“Wikipedia is not exactly democratic but anarchistic in a way that actively discourages any sort of an authority coming to solve a dispute,” said Joe Roe, a veteran Wikipedia editor who served on the committee in 2019 and 2020.
“The Arbitration Committee is a very limited exception.”
A unique effort at self-scrutiny by Wikipedia
In this case, something especially unusual happened. The Arbitration Committee, or ArbCom, decided to look into the allegations without receiving a formal request to do so. No one could recall the committee taking such a step in its nearly two decades of existence.
“A myopic decision here could result in untold numbers of people being fed a distorted view of Jewish/WWII history, which could have very real consequences given the recent amplification of violently anti-Semitic rhetoric by mainstream public figures,” wrote a user named SamX in a public post about the case. “ArbCom needs to get this right.”
The article that triggered the opening of the case was published under the title, “Wikipedia’s Intentional Distortion of the History of the Holocaust.”
It accused 11 current and former editors of intentional distortions to numerous articles relating to the Holocaust in Poland.
The paper referred to the editors by their usernames but also provided their real names if they had publicly identified themselves on Wikipedia message boards.
“Due to this group’s zealous handiwork, Wikipedia’s articles on the Holocaust in Poland minimize Polish anti-Semitism, exaggerate the Poles’ role in saving Jews, insinuate that most Jews supported Communism and conspired with Communists to betray Poles, blame Jews for their own persecution, and inflate Jewish collaboration with the Nazis,” wrote co-authors Jan Grabowski, a historian at the University of Ottawa, and Shira Klein of the history department at Chapman University in Orange, Calif.
Normally, mistakes on Wikipedia, whether intentional or not, can be quickly fixed by experienced editors who deploy a set of rules regarding sourcing and style.
But in this case, the alleged distortionists know Wikipedia’s mechanisms well enough to at least appear to follow the rules and are willing to spend time arguing with other editors who step in to intervene.
It becomes harder to get to the truth because they work to discredit established historians and prop up fringe voices to create the semblance of a real-world debate over historical events, according to the article.
In one of the dozens of examples documented in the study, the alleged distortionists have tried to pass the self-published work of an anti-Semitic Polish writer named Ewa Kurek as a reliable source.
Kurek has said that COVID-19 is a cover for an attempt by Jews to take over Europe and that Jews enjoyed life in Nazi ghettos.
An editor named Volunteer Marek argued in a backstage conversation among editors that Kurek should be cited as any “mainstream scholar” would be.
Another editor, working on an article about a 1941 massacre of Jews in Poland, added Kurek’s claim that minimized the number of Jewish victims and exonerated Polish perpetrators.
Focus on what’s been done, not on motivations
One thing the research didn’t discuss is what motivates these editors to invest so much time and effort into distorting Wikipedia. Klein said the omission was deliberate.
“We’ve been very careful not to make any assumptions on what drives them or what their politics are,” Klein said.
“Instead, we’ve tried to focus just on what they’ve done, which is in the written record.
“As we say in the article, we don’t see any evidence of them being tied to a government or being in the service of anyone else.”
Klein’s disclaimer obliquely points to a larger challenge around the historical record of the Holocaust in Poland.
A central tenet of the country’s ruling Law and Justice party is defending the image of ethnic Poles and imposing nationalist narratives on the past, especially the period of WW II.
While history shows that many Poles participated in the persecution of Jews, Poland’s nationalist right insists on portraying Poles only as victims or heroes.
In 2018, the Polish government passed what’s known as the Polish Holocaust Law, which makes it illegal to slander the Polish nation or blame the country for Nazi crimes.
In practice, the law has served to censor scholars and chill debate.
The Wikipedia editors now being accused of distorting articles to further nationalist narratives have rejected the allegations against them.
“I have not engaged in any ‘Holocaust distortion,’ on Wikipedia or anywhere else. I am not a ‘right-wing Polish nationalist,’” said Volunteer Marek in a public comment on a Wikipedia message board that was endorsed by at least one other alleged distorter.
“I am not part of some nefarious ‘Polish conspiracy’ on Wikipedia which seeks to manipulate content.
“All of these accusations are ridiculous and absurd. They are particularly disgusting and vile since they go against everything I believe in.”
Poland forbids historical facts about the Holocaust
Prof. Grabowski, Klein’s co-author on the accusatory paper, has for years sparred with the nationalist right over Poland’s historical memory.
He sued a Polish group that accused him of publishing lies about Polish history in 2018, and in 2021 was ordered by a Polish court to apologize for his research before an appeals court ultimately overturned the order.
Domestically, Poland’s ultranationalists have largely won the war over the public discourse, which has freed them to focus on the global scene, where English-language Wikipedia is regarded as a major battlefront.
In this atmosphere, even something as basic as the background of Yiddish novelist and Nobel prize laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer can become fodder for debate.
For years, Singer was at the center of a fight between two editors over whether Singer was best described in the first line of his Wikipedia article as a Jewish or Polish author.
The eventual compromise — “Polish-born Jewish American” — lasted for almost two years until Feb. 23 when someone again dropped the “Jewish.”
Existential crisis for Wikipedia
In the debate about how to handle the case, dozens of arbitrators and ordinary Wikipedia editors — all volunteers — spoke of the situation on a Wikipedia message board as something close to an existential crisis for Wikipedia.
Not only was the website accused of being used to spread anti-Semitic propaganda, but it was also alleged to be vulnerable to large-scale manipulation by a small group of bad-faith actors.
There is little confidence in the community that a solution is within reach. By its own rules, the committee isn’t supposed to decide on disputed information.
It’s more of a disciplinary body that evaluates the behavior of Wikipedia editors and can ultimately decide whether to restrict their editing privileges or ban them outright.
But figuring out whether the accused editors have indeed evaded safeguards and undermined Wikipedia’s integrity would seem to require that the arbitrators become experts on the history of the Holocaust in Poland.
The decision to take up the case serves to acknowledge that the committee failed to solve the problem when it last considered complaints about editing related to the Holocaust in Poland about two years ago.
That was during Roe’s tenure and he says the committee was distracted by another dispute at the time.
“It can’t be escalated further than it already has in our mechanisms,” Roe said. “The best we can do is what’s currently happening now — just put it through those mechanisms again, and hope that something better will come out on the other side.”
In explaining why the committee must nevertheless take on the case, an arbitrator who goes by Wugapodes commented that the only other choice is to kick the can down the road.
“This will not be an easy issue to resolve, but the committee was not convened to solve easy issues,” Wugapodes wrote, pointing out that the timing is right given the attention and involvement of outside experts and editors.
“We can leverage these resources now or wait for this decade-long problem to get still worse.”
How the investigation works — and how long it takes
By a vote of nine to one on Feb. 13, the committee decided to open the case.
The proceedings, which start with an evidence-gathering phase, are expected to last up to six weeks, after which they can decide to ban and restrict offending editors.
Beyond that, an unorthodox last resort option is also available. Wikipedia’s so-called Supreme Court could ask for help from an even higher authority: the Wikimedia Foundation, a nonprofit that owns the encyclopedia.
The foundation intervened in 2021 in what some see as a similar scenario of a far-right takeover on the Croatian-language Wikipedia, hiring an outside expert to disentangle the web of obfuscation and banning a set of editors.
Roe said that his tenure on the committee in 2019 and 2020, which featured related complaints about the editing of articles on the Holocaust in Poland, helped lead him to believe that Wikipedia should embrace change, at least when it comes to controversial political topics.
“I would like to see these difficult and politically charged content problems be referred to a new body made up of external experts, and that we don’t insist on doing everything internally among the community volunteers,” Roe said.
But he acknowledged that such a scenario is unlikely to result from the Poland dispute.
“It’s not a popular view and it kind of goes against the general idea of Wikipedia,” he said.