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Saudi Government Reportedly Influenced Wikipedia Information

The Wikimedia Foundation has banned 16 Wikipedia administrators from the Middle East and North Africa. They are accused of editing critical content on behalf of the Saudi Arabian government. This includes articles on imprisoned administrators.

The affected administrators were already given a global ban on the platform last month. Wikimedia had justified the ban with conflicts of interest. Now the two organizations DAWN and SMEX have disclosed what the specific reason for this was. According to DAWN, Saudi Arabia has recruited the country’s top 16 administrators as agents to control information about the state and track users. Wikipedia editors and administrators work on a gratuitous and voluntary basis and can achieve various ranks.

A good two years ago, according to The Guardian, the two Saudi Wikipedia administrators Osama Khalid and Ziyad al-Sofiani were arrested for “influencing public opinion” and “violating public morals” and sentenced to five and eight years in prison, respectively. In September, a court extended Osama Khalid’s sentence to 32 years. The editors are said to have published critical information about political prisoners in Saudi Arabia. The administrators have also contributed to articles accusing the government of human rights violations.

Wikimedia denies an infiltration

However, according to the BBC, Wikimedia has denied that agents from the country infiltrated a team in the Middle East. Despite anomalies in the activities of the blocked administrators, there is no evidence, contrary to the reports from DAWN and SMEX, that Saudi Arabia has influenced the contents of the encyclopedia. The Saudi Arabian government has not yet officially commented on the issue.

Wikimedia’s Take “Updated Jan 11, 2023”

“Wikimedia’s spokesperson told Research Snipers that the story from SMEX/DAWN contains material with inaccuracies. As others have reported, we dispute the activists’ claims. The Foundation was not provided with the SMEX/Dawn statement before release. The Wikimedia Foundation outlined the details of its investigation of Wikipedia projects in the MENA region in a note to Wikimedia community members last month. 

According to the spokesperson the following highlighted statements had inaccuracies: 

The Wikimedia Foundation has banned 16 Wikipedia administrators from the Middle East and North Africa. They are accused of editing critical content on behalf of the Saudi Arabian government. This includes articles on imprisoned administrators.

This is inaccurate and misleading. The article conflates an action taken by the Wikimedia Foundation with activists’ claims (we have disputed) related to Saudi Arabia. It is problematic to present the activists’ claims as fact or as the reason behind our actions. 

The spokesperson said, there was no finding in our investigation that the Saudi government “infiltrated” or penetrated Wikipedia’s highest ranks. And there are in fact no “ranks” amongst Wikipedia administrators. There was also no reference to Saudis acting under the influence of the Saudi government in our investigation. While we do not know where these volunteers actually reside, the bans of any volunteers who may have been Saudi were part of a much broader action globally banning 16 editors across the MENA region. 

Wikimedia had justified the ban with conflicts of interest. Now the two organizations DAWN and SMEX have disclosed the specific reason for this was.

The spokesperson said, the organizations referenced in the article are not internal to the Wikimedia Foundation and would not be able to “disclose” information about our actions. Instead, they can make claims (which we have disputed). It is problematic that you state their allegations as fact. 

Mark Goodman

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