Croatian Wikipedia Disinformation Assessment-2021

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Croatian Wikipedia (Hr.WP) has been struggling with content and conduct-related challenges, causing repeated concerns in the global volunteer community for more than a decade. With support of the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees, the Foundation retained an external expert to evaluate the challenges faced by the project. The evaluation, conducted between February and May 2021, sought to assess whether there have been organized attempts to introduce disinformation into Croatian Wikipedia and whether the project has been captured by ideologically driven users who are structurally misaligned with Wikipedia’s five pillars guiding the traditional editorial project setup of the Wikipedia projects.

Croatian Wikipedia Disinformation Assessment in English
Croatian Wikipedia Disinformation Assessment

Croatian Wikipedia represents the Croatian standard variant of the Serbo-Croatian language. Unlike other pluricentric Wikipedia language projects, such as English, French, German, and Spanish, Serbo-Croatian Wikipedia’s community was split up into- Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian, and the original Serbo-Croatian wikis starting in 2003. The report concludes that this structure enabled local language communities to sort by points of view on each project, often falling along political party lines in the respective regions. The report asserts, furthermore, it deprived the newly-created communities of editorial diversity that normally guides and underpins the traditionally successful process of editorial consensus in other pluricentric language projects.

The evaluation concluded that Hr.WP had been dominated by ideologically driven users who are misaligned with Wikipedia’s five pillars, confirming concerns about the project’s integrity from the global community. This review of Hr.WP articles and community-related documentation reveals that a group of administrators and editors have held de-facto control over the project for more than a decade. During that time, evidence that the expert evaluated suggests that they have intentionally distorted the content presented in articles, abused power, and systematically obstructed otherwise accepted global Wikipedia community practices.

While this investigation was proceeding, the volunteers of the Croatian-speaking community independently started to reorganize and pursue actions. As a result, a series of administrative actions against some of the concerning administrators resulted in one revocation of their administrator privileges. The report argues that this change is clearing the way for a potential restoration of the community. Further, it states that the current admins and active editors are making tangible improvements to some of the most sensitive and most disputed articles on the project.

Based on extensive investigation, and on insights into how the movement has approached setting up other pluricentric Wikipedia language projects, the report provides three recommendations:

  1. Encouraging the Croatian-speaking community to continue re-establishing a robust local governance system, requesting oversight and support from the rest of the Wikimedia movement as needed.
  2. Encouraging the affected communities to discuss unifying community elections for admin and functionary roles across the involved wikis (Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian, and Serbo-Croatian).
  3. Encouraging the affected communities to discuss the possibility of re-merging Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian language projects into the original Serbo-Croatian language projects to re-align with the practices of other pluricentric languages with unified Wikipedia projects; including but not limited to Chinese, English, German, Spanish, Tamil, Korean, and French language Wikipedias.

The report provides pros and cons regarding each recommendation and the lessons learned to support a stronger and more resilient community.

Greater context[edit]

What happened:[edit]

A group of Croatian language Wikipedia (Hr.WP) admins held undue de-facto control over the project at least from 2011 to 2020. During that time, the group intentionally distorted the content presented in Croatian language Wikipedia articles in a way that matched the narratives of political organisations and groups that can broadly be defined as the Croatian radical right. The group systematically produced and edited articles containing unencyclopaedic content and overt historical revisionism. The content became so pervasive and remained online for so long that it created a web of deception to influence the reader's moral or value judgement in a way that corresponded to the group’s ideological views. More recently, after 2020, the local community has made tangible improvements to some of the most sensitive and most disputed articles. However, it is too early to say if this will be enough to put the project firmly back into alignment with the five pillars.

Why did it happen:[edit]

Wikipedia’s factual accuracy and resilience against disinformation and bias depend on the existence of a functional and diverse editing volunteer community. A larger and more diverse pluricentric language project community, based on a mutually intelligible language, would probably have prevented the type of project capture witnessed on Croatian language Wikipedia. The separation of projects allowed the splitting of one diverse editorial volunteer community into nation-state idea based projects, which led to the rise of nationalist bias - and ultimately to the project capture documented here for Hr.WP.

How did it happen:[edit]

The group abused its community positions of power to ban dissenters from Hr.WP. It also selectively enforced and broke rules to manipulate Wikipedia's community institutions and conflict resolution mechanisms - elections, RfCs, and local Arbitration Committees. Their activities were coordinated and resulted in project capture - the near-full control over local community and content on the targeted wiki. Therefore, it can be concluded that Croatian language Wikipedia has been out of alignment with the first and second pillar of Wikipedia. The Foundation over these years adhered to its policy of not intervening in community self-governance, but monitored the ongoing situation.

When did it happen:[edit]

The global Wikimedia volunteer community and the Croatian public became aware as early as 2007 that the Croatian Wikipedia language project may be subject to community issues and highly ideologically charged content. Concerned community members of the Croatian language Wikipedia made several attempts to correct the issues using the traditional community RfC mechanism. These attempts were deflected by systematic and repeated obstruction of RfC and had resulted in further consolidation of the concerning group. Between 2013 and 2019, the content on Croatian Wikipedia became the subject of media scrutiny. In 2021, a community global ban with subsequent revocation of administrator privileges for the group leaders created an opportunity for new admins to join the project and help uphold and defend the five pillars.

What to do about it:[edit]

The report has analysed the local community and content dynamics on Croatian language Wikipedia and identified solutions to address and prevent similar content and behavior issues from happening in the future. A similar approach could be useful for content monitoring on other projects. Finally, it provides three recommendations to the community and offers pros and cons for each option. Encouraging the Croatian-speaking community to continue re-establishing a robust local governance system, requesting oversight and support from the rest of Wikimedia as needed. Encouraging the affected communities to discuss unifying community elections for admin and functionary roles across the involved wikis. Encouraging the affected communities to discuss the possibility of re-merging Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian language projects into the original Serbo-Croatian language projects to re-align with the practices of other pluricentric Wikipedia language versions.

The threat may be gone but the vulnerability remains:[edit]

The Croatian project capture has exposed and exploited a vulnerability in Wikipedia’s model of self-governance. The Croatian Wikipedia came out of a project capture by sanctioning one of the prominent users who was abusing the project. This created an opportunity for realignment of other aspects of the community governance including content neutrality. It is a valuable lesson for the entire movement. It raises the topic of empowering the communities, improving communication, and finding solutions against organised disinformation that will work holistically. While the larger presence of volunteers on many projects can both increase quality and chances of preventing these abuses, the case of Hr.WP demonstrates that there could be similar attempts to introduce disinformation into Wikimedia projects, especially our projects with smaller communities. A more resourced and better-organized attempt to do so could be harder to detect and protect against. The lessons from Hr.WP encourages local and global communities to be more observant and resilient towards maintaining content integrity on Wikipedia projects.

Why is this report being released?[edit]

The Wikimedia Foundation has decided to publish the findings in full so as to provide a transparent documentation overview for the benefit not just of Hr.WP itself but also the UCoC drafting committee, other community projects, and other interested readers. The Foundation believes and the external expert agrees that the recent community-led changes on Croatian Wikipedia already address some of the findings and the recommendations of this evaluation. The Foundation aims to work with the community in the future in incorporating some of the recommendations to ensure content integrity on Wikimedia platforms.