The study, published on Monday, October 17, revealed a network of shadow Wikipedia editors who try to influence the narrative of the Russian-Ukrainian war by making changes to articles on the site. The study doesn’t point the finger at the Russian government, but it does find plenty of cause for concern when it comes to “suspicious” edits made to the open-source platform.

The report was prepared by researchers from two British think tanks – the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) and the Center for the Analysis of Social Media (CASM) – and aims to assess existing methods of searching for disinformation on Wikipedia and determine whether they can be improved.

Anyone can edit an article on Wikipedia. However, this does not mean that the information on the site is not protected. Over the years, Wikipedia has built a sophisticated moderation apparatus, and the organization behind the site, the Wikimedia Foundation, is working consistently on improving this process and protecting the quality of information on thousands of site pages. However, from time to time unscrupulous participants bypass this protection.

The new report analyzes the activities of 86 editors who were previously blocked for various violations of the code of ethics of Wikipedia (editors can be kicked out of Wikipedia for inappropriate behavior). Among the many pages they contributed to, the editors had a history of editing the Wikipedia article on Russian-Ukrainian war. A deeper dive into the changes made by the editors from the blacklist indicates a deliberate attempt to manipulate the narrative and tilt it in the pro-Russian direction.

According to researchers, these attempts included changing “language to minimise objectivity of pro-Western accounts and maximise objectivity of pro-Kremlin accounts,” introducing “topics which sway historical background toward pro-Russia narratives,” and adding “Kremlin quotations and press releases explicitly into the page to increase the salience of pro-Russian arguments and viewpoints.”

At the same time, the researchers found evidence that banned editions constantly inserted links to Russian state media.

“One of the threats to Wikipedia (as identified through the interviews) is the use of suspicious or tendentious sources. We first, therefore, tested an approach of filtering edits by blocked editors based on whether they add references to state-media affiliated or sponsored sites.”

While this may all sound rather suspicious, the report notes that proving coordination between banned editors, as well as achieving accurate attribution (ie, figuring out who actually controls the accounts) is the tricky part. It also makes it clear that there is currently little precedent for government manipulation of Wikipedia. That is, there is simply no hard evidence that it happened — yet.

“There are few known instances of illicit behaviour on Wikipedia clearly attributed to a state. Perhaps the clearest attributions are edits made from known Government IP addresses, and a number of bots on Twitter monitor this activity, highlighting incidents when they occur. These edits do not imply any sort of coordinated or concerted campaign, and IP addresses can be easily spoofed or obscured.”

However, there have been a number of recent incidents that point to the potential involvement of foreign governments. One such incident occurred last year, when several Chinese wiki administrators were blocked, apparently for having “content that favors a hard-line Chinese nationalist viewpoint,” reports Slate.

In addition to government propaganda efforts, Wikipedia has been subject to other hoaxes and controversies over the years, which it is happy to highlight on its page “Wikipedia’s contradictions“. One such incident occurred last year involving a Chinese housewife who was exposed in the falsification of hundreds of articles on medieval Russian history.