Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s information ecosystem.
On Thursday, President Vladimir Putin issued the order for Russian forces to invade Ukraine. Since then, Russians have killed 352 Ukrainian civilians, including 14 children, according to Reuters. That information is now reflected on the English Wikipedia page for the “2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine,” an article that sprang to life mere minutes after Putin’s televised address and has been collaboratively written by nearly 740 distinct authors as of Tuesday morning.
With deadly explosions in Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv and a developing refugee crisis, it might seem odd to cover the play-by-play of a digital encyclopedia. But internet-savvy Ukrainians, including the country’s own Ministry of Foreign Affairs, recognize that how the facts are represented on Wikipedia matters. Right now, the number of people reading about Ukraine on Wikipedia is at an unprecedented high—spiking to more than 22 million English page views in the past month versus roughly 290,000 in February 2021. Meanwhile, Russia is coupling its lethal military campaign with a Goebbels-like propaganda blitz. The lies from Moscow put pressure on Wikipedia to maintain the site’s disinformation countermeasures.
But before covering the latest developments, it’s worth revisiting one of the most brutal edit wars in Wikipedia’s history, which also says something about the Ukrainian spirit. The issue was whether the web encyclopedia should spell Ukraine’s capital as “Kyiv” or “Kiev.” Beginning in 2003, editors tried to change the spelling on the subject’s Wikipedia page, taking advantage of the site’s open platform to modify it from “Kiev” to “Kyiv” and back again. “Kyiv” derives from the Ukrainian language, while “Kiev” has Russian-language roots and is seen by Ukrainians as an imperial imposition. Both sides recognized that the spelling on Wikipedia was not a trivial matter. Not only does Wikipedia inform the work of journalists and publishers, but it powers Google’s search results around the world.
For nearly two decades, Wikipedia editors retained the “Kiev” spelling, spending more than 50,000 words on arguments and discussion about the issue (archived here). But following Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, many Western media outlets began using the “Y,” acknowledging the importance of that spelling to Ukraine’s national identity. The social media campaign #KyivNotKiev launched in 2018 and began gaining traction. In August 2020, Wikipedia editors began a long and spirited discussion about how language changes over time, and whether Wikipedia should play a role in “righting great wrongs.” After reaching consensus to use the Ukrainian name, English Wikipedia editors formally adopted “Kyiv” in September 2020.
Now that “Kyiv vs. Kiev” has been resolved (at least on Wikipedia), the editors are working to document the breaking news of Russia’s invasion. The English Wikipedia page on the invasion provides historical context prior to Feb. 24, including the 2014 annexation of Crimea and Russia’s opposition to Ukraine joining NATO. There is a daily timeline of events, including Russia’s launching ballistic missiles at airfields and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s mobilization of all Ukrainian males 18 to 60 years old. Besides the Wikipedia article for the invasion itself, there is an entry on the larger Russo-Ukrainian War dating to 2014 and separate pages for its individual battles like the “Battle of Kharkiv” and the “Attack on Snake Island.”
Wikipedia editors are required to construct the encyclopedia pages using reliable sources. The policies generally prohibit Russia’s state-run media outlets, which are seen as unreliable, from being used in citations. For instance, English Wikipedia’s source guidelines state the following about the publication Russia Today: “There is consensus that RT is an unreliable source … a mouthpiece of the Russian government that engages in propaganda and disinformation.”
Although Wikipedia itself has a reputation for being somewhat text-focused, the articles about the conflict in Ukraine are embedded with visuals. There’s an animated map of the invasion and photos of apartment buildings that have been struck by Russian missiles. One photo showing a structure hit by a missile fragment in Kyiv initially caused some controversy. At first, Wikipedia editors were unable to verify its authenticity, but later were persuaded by the fact that the image file contained full metadata. The metadata showed the precise geolocation where the photo had been taken in Kyiv, and indicated that it had been taken with a first-generation iPhone on the ground.
According to Samuel Breslow, an experienced Wikipedia editor and an information journalist, one of the trickiest elements of covering the Russian invasion is writing the encyclopedia articles at the right level of detail. Wikipedia aspires to take a long-term world-historical view similar to a traditional encyclopedia like Encyclopedia Britannica. That means presenting a summary rather than an overly detailed description of historical events. But with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it’s not immediately clear what events will have long-term historical importance. “For instance, we don’t know whether the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ will ultimately be a significant part of the narrative of the invasion or just a momentary internet rumor,” Breslow said in an email. (If you’re curious, the Ghost of Kyiv’s wiki page describes it as an “unconfirmed MiG-29 Fulcrum flying ace” credited with shooting down six Russian planes. The page also notes that the Ghost is most likely an urban legend that has had the effect of boosting Ukrainian morale.)
Most of the English Wikipedia articles relating to the invasion of Ukraine have a blue “E” symbol in the top-right corner, indicating that editing is limited to experienced Wikipedia editors, those with at least 500 edits and a month’s tenure. That means brand-new editors can only propose edits to the article’s behind-the-scenes talk pages. On the one hand, this protective measure cuts against Wikipedia’s ethos as the encyclopedia that “everyone” can edit. But Wikipedians say that the extra level of protection is helping to reduce vandalism and disinformation attacks on Ukraine-related information. “Writing on Wikipedia always comes with a lot of responsibility,” Breslow said in an email. “Wikipedia is the major collective record of humanity’s knowledge, and its articles are read by a staggering number of readers. They influence what people believe and how they live their lives, so it’s essential we make them as reliable, neutral, and comprehensive as possible.”
It’s important to note that there is not a singular Wikipedia, but rather at least 323 language editions—and that these language editions can vary considerably. For instance, although English Wikipedia has seen a huge uptick in the amount of activity dedicated to Ukraine, the Ukrainian-language version has seen considerably less activity. Since the invasion, the number of article edits per day on Ukrainian Wikipedia has decreased by at least 50 percent, according to the Wikimedia Foundation. That’s understandable. When a superpower is invading your country, the Wikipedia-editing hobby tends to fall off the old to-do list. “Editing Wikipedia from a bomb shelter is difficult,” said Mykola Kozlenko, the vice president of the Wikimedia Ukraine user group. “To be honest, covering the invasion is not our main priority now. People are mainly trying to put in place their plan B, either by evacuating to a safer place, by joining the army, or by joining volunteer organizations.” Kozlenko told me that he knew of Ukrainian Wikipedia editors who were supporting the army by giving blood, organizing supplies, and building barricades designed to thwart the Russian army’s advance.
One Wikipedia edition that has signaled its support for Ukraine is Georgian Wikipedia, the version for the language spoken in the country of Georgia, which like Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. To express solidarity, the editors of Georgian Wikipedia changed their logo to reflect the blue-and-gold coloring of Ukraine’s flag. English Wikipedia has not yet changed its logo, and past efforts to make a public political statement have been controversial. For example, back in 2020, English Wikipedia editors voted against a proposal to “black out” the site in support of Black Lives Matter in part due to concerns that it could threaten Wikipedia’s reputation for neutrality.
Meanwhile, there are echoes of the old “Kyiv vs. Kiev” battle lingering on Russian Wikipedia, where some editors have pushed to rename the article, changing it from “Russian Invasion of Ukraine (2022)” to either “Russian Military Operation in Ukraine” or even the “Liberation of Ukraine” (emphasis added). “This is Russian Wikipedia and we must interpret events from a Russian point of view,” argued LukaE, a Russian Wikipedia editor. (LukaE, naturally, wrote in Russian; I used Google Translate to translate this and other comments.) A few editors repeated the Kremlin’s position, pushed without basis, that Russia is on a peacekeeping mission. “The Russian side does not consider this a war, but a special operation to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine,” wrote Russian editor Alexander Poryadin. Other Russians argued that the word invasion was inflammatory and violated Wikipedia’s policy to present information from a neutral point of view. Note how this maneuver weaponizes the concept of neutrality to conceal and mischaracterize the underlying facts.
Ultimately, Russian Wikipedia editors determined that the word invasion was accurate, and reached an agreement to preserve that word in the article’s title. As the Russian editor Pessimist put it, “Russian troops invaded the territory of Ukraine. It’s just a fact, not a point of view.” Today’s readers of Russian Wikipedia will find an article describing their country’s invasion of their neighbor.
At first, it might come as a surprise that Russian-language users on Russian Wikipedia would be willing to defy Putin’s preferred spin on events, especially given his government’s willingness to arrest anyone who opposes him. But as Slate’s Yana Pashaeva has reported, Russian citizens have been loudly denouncing the attacks on social media and other digital channels, despite great threats to their personal safety. Overall, it seems encouraging that Russian Wikipedia editors would be willing to call an invasion what it is. In the best case, it’s a leading indicator: The Russian people are resisting Putin’s war.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.