Future Tense

Non-English Editions of Wikipedia Have a Misinformation Problem

A laptop open to a Japanese Wikipedia page with a Japanese flag in the background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by scanrail/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

During World War II, Unit 731 of the Japanese military undertook horrific medical experimentation in Manchukuo (Northeast China). Among other things, members of Unit 731 intentionally infected people with the plague as part of an effort to develop bioweapons. The unit’s crimes have been well documented.

But if you read the Japanese Wikipedia page on Unit 731 in January, you wouldn’t get the full story. The article said that it is “a theory” that human experiments actually took place. It was just one example of the whitewashing of war crimes on Japanese Wikipedia, as I discovered when I was researching the war.

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Around the same time, Wikipedia celebrated its 20th birthday and received praise in the U.S. and U.K. media for the accuracy of its articles. But the coverage focused on the English version, even though Wikipedia is just as influential in other languages. Japanese Wikipedia is the most visited edition of Wikipedia after English. On average it receives 1 billion page views per month. Japanese Wikipedia pages are consistently the top result on most search engines. But Japanese Wikipedia is not an outlier—there is a wider misinformation and disinformation problem on non-English editions of Wikipedia.

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If you look at “The Nanjing Massacre (南京大虐殺)” page on Japanese Wikipedia, the name has been changed to “The Nanjing Incident (南京事件), and it says, “The Chinese side calls it the Nanjing Massacre, but the truth of the incident is still unknown.” It includes no pictures of the massacre or events leading up to it, even though such pictures exist. One of the most troubling is the page on “Comfort Women” a euphemism for the mostly Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military. The page uses the word “baishun(売春),” meaning “prostitution,” to describe them, implying that they were not forced. In an apparent attempt to minimize the phenomenon, the article discusses the practices of other nations. In one passage, it says, “there were three types of battlefield sex policies during WWII: free love (British, U.S.), comfort station (Japan, Germany, France), rape (Soviet Union, Korea).” This is not only false but also incomprehensible, and that seems to be the point. The article is not designed to inform the readers but to confuse them and cast a seed of doubt in their minds.

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The misinformation on Wikipedia reflects something larger going on in Japanese society. These WWII-era war crimes continue to affect Japan’s relationships with its neighbors. In recent years, as Japan has seen an increase in the rise of nationalism, then­–Prime Minister Shinzo Abe argued that there was no evidence of Japanese government coercion in the comfort women system, while others tried to claim the Nanjing Massacre never happened.

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Each Wikipedia page has a talk section that shows the history of discussions the editors have had about the article. On the “talk” pages of controversial historical topics, I found records of people repeatedly raising concerns and making numerous unsuccessful attempts to correct the content. Before 2010, there was a page for “The Nanjing Massacre,” but an editor suggested renaming it “The Nanjing Incident.” Only one another editor agreed to the proposal, but it was adopted within a week. Later, several editors protested the change, claiming that renaming happened too quickly, that they weren’t even aware of the proposal, and that the former name was more commonly used. But their views were dismissed.

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Similarly, I discovered that the old version of the Unit 731 page contained a section called “Human Experiment” that included witness accounts of both victims and perpetrators. But in 2020 a new version deleted the section, replacing it with a much smaller subsection—the one that calls the experimentation “a theory.” It says, “In recent years, U.S. official documents have been declassified and studied, but no records of inhumane experiments conducted by Unit 731 have been found.” A user who attempted to restore the old version was accused of “excessive quotations” and had his account blocked indefinitely. I’ve also found other blocked accounts belonging to the users who had challenged revisionists’ views.

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Historical revisionists in the community often invoke “neutrality,” one of the pillars of Wikipedia, to defend their positions, claiming their views are neutral. Other times, they employ rules such as “copyright issue” to delete edits, controlling the platform.

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In January, the Washington Post ran a piece headlined “On Its 20th Birthday, Wikipedia Might Be the Safest Place Online.” The thrust of this article was that unlike other big tech platforms, Wikipedia had learned to fight misinformation and disinformation. One of the ways this was possible, the Post noted, was that it had “only one page for each subject.”

This point was repeated by Katherine Maher, Wikimedia CEO, in the interview with Al Jazeera, in which she said, “the fact that we only have one page, it’s the same page that’s viewed by absolutely everyone across the globe is really important.”

But Wikipedia exists in 302 languages—thus more than one page for each subject exists across the globe. The statement by Maher itself reveals a false assumption: Yes, the English Wikipedia is viewed by “people across the globe.” But other language versions, such as Japanese, are primarily viewed and edited by people of a particular nation.

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English is recognized as an official language in a total of 67 different countries. People of different nationalities and backgrounds speak English. In contrast, Japanese is primarily spoken in Japan. This difference explains, at least partially, the reason Japanese Wikipedia has a problem with disinformation. Non-English Wikipedia communities tend to be much more isolated, resulting in inherent bias on certain topics. We have seen this on Wikipedia editions besides Japanese. For instance, since 2013, the Croatian Wikipedia has received international attention for whitewashing the crimes of WWII, according to the Croatian Wikipedia page. It’s also accused of promoting a fascist worldview.

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Cultural differences also play a major part in the way technology platforms are used. In a recent interview, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales said the online encyclopedia was “more of an enlightenment project.” Some of the important values of the Enlightenment are freedom of speech, using reason to arrive at truth, and freely discussing societal problems in the “public sphere.”

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But these Western values are not necessarily practiced in the rest of the world. Take the concept of the public sphere, for instance. In the West, people have been coming together to freely discuss societal problems and ideas for hundreds of years, but Japanese don’t discuss social problems in public. In fact, we’re encouraged not to discuss controversial subjects for the sake of social harmony. There is no tradition of a “public sphere” in Japan.

These cultural differences are reflected in the way people use Wikipedia. The talk pages on Japanese Wikipedia show how a group of editors often silence those with opposing views. Users who challenge them risk being accused of “political activism” or violating rules and have their accounts blocked. It’s similar to ijime (bullying), a societal problem in Japan. The community is far from what the “public sphere” is supposed to be.

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Japanese Wikipedia also has the lowest number of administrators per active user of all language editions. Administrators have the ability to block users, protect pages, edit protected pages, delete pages, rename pages without restriction, and so on. According to Wikidata, Japanese Wikipedia has 15,774 active users and only 41 administrators (0.26 percent of the user base), while the English Wikipedia has 144,828 active users and 1,109 administrators (0.77 percent). This means that a few dozen people within the Japanese Wikipedia have power over what goes on in the platform.

Administrators in the Japanese Wikipedia are known to protect articles (which means restricting who can edit the entry) that become the sites of “edit wars.” Currently, that includes the Unit 731 page.

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When I wrote about the problems with Japanese Wikipedia recently in my Japanese blog, I received overwhelming responses. Many said that they’ve been concerned about historical revisionism in the Japanese Wikipedia. One person wrote, “I’ve tried to fix these pages many times, but my edits are almost immediately erased. Now I’ve given up trying.” Another wrote, “The notion that ‘the more people continue to edit, the better it gets’ is uniquely American. This doesn’t happen to the Japanese version because it’s isolated.”

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After several attempts to contact the Wikimedia Foundation, I finally got a response. “We weren’t aware of the content issues you highlighted until now. With more than 300 language versions of Wikipedia it can be hard to discover issues like this,” it said. But when the Daily Dot reported on historical revisionism in the Croatian Wikipedia in 2013, the response from the foundation was similarly vague. A spokesperson said they were “looking into the issue.”

In the meantime, Wikipedia has an immeasurable impact on the minds of Japanese readers who stumble upon pages filled with historical revisionism. One frustrated person left a comment on my blog, “I think Japanese Wikipedia is becoming a convenient propaganda tool for those who want to control public opinions.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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