Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Wikipedia Battle Between Israelis and Palestinians...

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a new battlefront... Wikipedia.

The online encyclopedia, characterized by allowing anyone to edit and create entries, has become the latest forum for the conflict. As this Telegraph article describes, "the pro-Israel group, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) has called for volunteers to edit entries that display notable bias on the site. In response, a Palestinian aggregator called the Electronic Intifada has exposed the initiative, and states that "the bad news is this allows anti-Israel 'editors' to introduce all kinds of bias and error into the many Israel-related articles. The good news is, individual volunteers can work as 'editors' to ensure that these articles are free of bias and error."

Edit wars, where opposing groups continually edit and re-edit entries in order to frame an issue in their preferred terms, are not uncommon on Wikipedia. In fact, there was a prominent case in February over the Wikipedia entry on the prophet Muhammad, where the display of pictures of the prophet were in dispute.

The conflict raging this week involves several entries relating to Israel's founding as a nation (celebrating its 60th anniversary this week). For instance, check out the Wikipedia page for "Israel". It appears reasonable and the casual observer would have no idea the edit war is even taking place. However, then take a look at that page's edit history, and you can clearly see the high levels of activity that have been occurring in the past few days. The same pattern can be found on other Wikipedia pages related to Israel's founding, such as the "1948 Arab-Israeli War" entry, where at least one edit was reverted due to "possible vandalism".

All of which indicates two things. First, edit wars are far more subtle than the term might imply. Wikipedia warriors are indeed subtle by intention, seeking to carry out their goals under the radar in an unnoticeable fashion. The casual observer reading an entry might have no idea of the underlying conflict over content, which only underscores the prudent need to maintain scrutinizing eyes when consuming information on any Web 2.0 site based on user-driven content.

Second, as was also the case with the dispute over the "Prophet Muhammad" entry, the fact is that the only way to resolve such edit wars and other online conflicts is through the website operator stepping in to assert their authority. In other words, the edit war will rage on until someone at the Wikimedia Foundation decides to let it go no further, at which point they will "freeze" future edits and, in effect, resolve the issue by favoring one side over the other.

In the end, what this illustrates is how, in cyberspace, individuals may indeed have tremendous disruptive power, however, when push comes to shove, they have yet to translate that power into governing authority.


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