Requests for comment/Political pressure on the Bulgarian community—and on Wikipedia in general

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The case[edit]

This largely follows the message I sent to Jimbo a few days ago. It concerns a problem that I'm sure many communities face at some point or another—some in much drastic ways, unfortunately—so I thought a wider discussion wouldn't hurt.

What can we do about this type of problems? Should we be doing anything about it all? What could be the consequences? Are there any real risks for the community, or is it just an inconvenience we need to learn to live with? Etc, etc...

TL;DR: A media in Bulgaria published these days personal information—real names, employers, affiliations—of some of our editors in the Bulgarian Wikipedia. The media presented this as an "investigation" of why these editors had voted to delete certain article on bgwiki, accusing them of "doing the bidding of the ruling party". In her last email, the journalist behind the article also wrote "I hope I won't need to publish further such articles to prove that you [in the Bulgarian Wikipedia] are biased".

So, a few years ago there was an article about a corruption scandal in Bulgaria that was drawing much attention at the time (and one of many in recent years). One of our editors, who is known to frequently cross the line with his political preferences, proposed the article for deletion, because he felt, ironically, that it was too politically charged. The discussion was heated at times, but, overall, followed the routine practices (I do have some remarks about how it was closed, but they are not that important here).

In the end, the article was deleted, with a basically split vote of 9 to 8 in favor of deletion, with the most debate being around the question whether such "hot" topics should be covered in Wikipedia.

Fast forward three years. A couple of weeks ago I got an email by a journalist working for, amongst others, the investigative website Bivol.bg (apparently, the reason to contact me was that at the time I had tried to moderate that AfD discussion). She wanted to know the real identities of the editors who had voted "so fervently" in favor of deletion. I shared this with the community, where the general suggestion was to ask her to contact the editors publicly. When I conveyed this to the journalist, she responded that she wasn't interested in having discussions with insert-pejorative-for-anonymous-people. She requested that instead the ediors contact her, revealing their real identities and answering if they were paid for their contributions, if they were members of political parties, etc. At that point, most colleagues in Wikipedia felt that further communication seemed pointless and perhaps even harmful. One of them still did contact the journalist and answered the questions in good faith, but apparently later regretted it, as the communication seemed edgy.

Finally, about a week ago came the article in Bivol.bg, which, in general, accuses the community of censorship and doing the bidding of certain political figures.

For obvious reasons, I'm not going to discuss here the truthfulness (or not) of such statement. But I will note how the article was full of factually incorrect statements, most of which were not corrected even after the journalist was notified several times of them. Examples were "new sysops are elected only by the existing ones", "the sysops don't need to provide justification for their actions", one of our colleagues being presented as an "active blogger of the Foundation", etc. Ironically, the article claimed that WMF "had been presented with the case in details" and promised to investigate it, and ended with a quoted statement by Chantal from WMF's communications team saying that "the manipulation of Wikipedia for personal and political gains is against the essence and the mission of the project"—an entirely correct statement on its own, of course, but in that context it seemed manipulatively presented as if the Foundation had already agreed that a manipulation by the Bulgarian community had taken place.

The problem here isn't just the fact of doxing itself—it's also how these "exposures" are presented. For example, one of our "exposed" editors works for MariaDB and, unsurprisingly, is participating in various FOSS events, one of which is the yearly OpenFest in Bulgaria. AFAIK, OpenFest has been, at least in the past, organized under the auspices of the then President of Bulgaria. In the article, our colleague was presented as "working under the auspices of the former President of Bulgaria [who, apparently, was also supposed to have an interest in deleting that article] and connected with the company MariaDB". While not directly stated, this leaves the absurd impression that MariaDB is somehow also politically involved with the former President and the AfD voting. Was that a result of an inadequate level of professionalism on part of the journalist or an intended outcome, I don't know. But the pressure that it puts on our colleague through his place of employment should be obvious.

Such doxing attempts are of course inevitable. It's also tempting to consider them beneficial, as some editors in Wikipedia most certainly do have conflicts of interest, which they might not have declared. But, in the end, that's why we also craft our decisions through debate and consensus, where the objectiveness and weight of each argument is judged independently. What worries me most is that the fear of being "exposed"—especially of being "exposed" in a factually wrong or unfairly suggestive way—may harm exactly these "common sense" discussions. When the people are afraid to say what they really think, because there might be consequences for them, Wikipedia could easily become a place where what is written depends on who has managed to scare off the most editors.

As I said in the beginning, I've no doubt that these problems are not unique to the Bulgarian projects—in some places around the world they are quite worse, actually.

Feel free to share your bits of advice or even just your general thoughts.

Best regards,
— Luchesar • T/C 14:11, 5 March 2020 (UTC)

NB: I've linked this RfC from the discussion on the bgwiki's Village Pump (more specifically here). — Luchesar • T/C 14:52, 5 March 2020 (UTC)

Discussion[edit]

  • Y i k e s. This is.. not very good. I would argue that what this journalist has done is an intentional scare tactic, trying to influence what is written on bgwiki by scaring off editors that have a specific personal point of view. This is something that is dangerous to the very foundation of the Wikipedia sites: external influences that are motivated to influence the content of the site. We see this a lot with both advertisers and government agencies alike, which leads me to question the independence of this "journalist". It is possible they are independent, and i'm just being afraid for no reason, but it's also 100% possible my view is correct. They are blatantly misrepresenting the situation with their article (I cannot read Bulgarian, so I have to take Iliev's word for it), and are threatening the safety of independent, volunteer editors. Moonythedwarf (talk) 14:48, 5 March 2020 (UTC)
Just my personal opinion. Bivol.bg has been a generally well-regarded and valued investigative website, one of the few who bravely unveil the corruption in Bulgaria. Some of the people from or close to the website happen to be in my social circles and, overall, I think that most people who work there are very decent. I can't comment on that particular contributor to the website, as I know little about her, but my gut feeling is that she wasn't genuinely malicious. Rather, it seems – and that's what most colleagues seem to think as well – she believed to be doing the right thing, but, unfortunately, being already prejudiced. There were comments that even before any questions to the "defendants" were asked, the article had already been written and they were found "guilty". Now, to be fair, I do think that some colleagues had been biased. And I do think that even though the rules were formally followed, the AfD procedure could've been handled better (that's why I tried to moderate it—largely in vain, in the end—as it was obviously a complex problem that needed a lot of things taken into account and carefully weighted). But still, there wasn't anything blatantly wrong with it either. That's how Wikipedia works: maybe one point of view will prevail today, but another—tomorrow. The consensus is never set in stone (speaking of which, one of the factual errors in the journalist's piece was that since the editors had voted to delete the article in Wikipedia, it is effectively banned forever from the encyclopedia—this was also pointed out to the journalist, but never corrected).
To sum it up, I don't really know how much exactly I should be worried about that particular media. I hope that they will realize that they've made here not the very best of judgements. But due to their popularity (at least in certain circles), and the fact that their direct opponents control most of the media in Bulgaria and are not exactly known for high professional standards (to put it very mildly), this precedent may inspire other such "investigations" that from the very start will not be "well-meaning" at all.
— Luchesar • T/C 16:39, 5 March 2020 (UTC)
This is a serious matter, not just for bg.wikipedia but all the projects. I would hope that legal.wikimania is aware about this & are working on how they will address this. -- Llywrch (talk) 00:10, 6 March 2020 (UTC)
The Trust & Safety team (part of the Foundation's legal department) suggested that the bgwiki community prepares a public reply and asks the media to publish it as a "right of reply".
— Luchesar • T/C 17:39, 6 March 2020 (UTC)