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Vandalizing Wikipedia: A story in five charts

With society becoming polarized and people living more of their lives online, one phenomenon that’s been growing is Wikipedia vandalism. Photo: iStockphotoPremium
With society becoming polarized and people living more of their lives online, one phenomenon that’s been growing is Wikipedia vandalism. Photo: iStockphoto

  • As the society grows polarized, Wikipedia is becoming a battleground of competing narratives. An analysis from 2021 shows how a vast range of articles were edited and re-edited to push ideologies—even culinary delights such as dosa and biryani were not spared

With society becoming polarized and people living more of their lives online, one phenomenon that’s been growing is Wikipedia vandalism. This involves users of the popular web encyclopaedia editing its articles to present their favoured version of events, or engaging in sabotage like deleting entire sections of information. An analysis of Wikipedia’s edit history from 2021 shows such acts affected articles across all kinds of topics, from festivals such as Kumbh Mela to dishes such as biryani. Here’s what the analysis showed:

(Vandalism is measured as the number of users whose edits on a particular page were reversed by others in the Wikipedia community. Though not always necessary, a reversed edit is a sign it’s possibly bad, or worse, malicious.)

1. In the name of god

Religion is a hot topic in online discourse. The Wikipedia article about ‘Bhagavad Gita’ was among the most vandalised last year. One user changed the text to claim that all forms of the Hindu deity Vishnu are actually avatars of Krishna. Another wanted to put 5561 BCE as the year of the Mahabharata war.

The article about Kumbh Mela, which took place in April 2021 in Haridwar, was also edited often. A user replaced every mention of ‘Hinduism’ with ‘Bhartiya Sanatana Dharma, “vaguely known as Hinduism"'; another changed ‘Allahabad’ to ‘Prayagraj’ (Wikipedia policies insist on using new official names only after they have entered common usage).

An article on ‘Religion in India’ was also abused, with provocative comments getting added about conversions to Islam. A section that cited slowing Muslim population growth to allay fears of demographic replacement was completely removed once. Each of these edits was reverted.

Wikipedia Vandalism
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Wikipedia Vandalism

2. Idolised beyond reason

Wikipedia pages about thinkers and philosophers also got abuse. In the article about Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, one user removed the part about how the Hindutva icon saw Muslims and Christians as people who couldn’t be a part of India as their holy lands were elsewhere. Another tried to claim his militarisation of youth had inspired Subhash Chandra Bose and the 1946 Naval revolt.

In the page about Mahatma Gandhi, an edit tried to declare him a devout follower of the deity Ram without providing proof. Another user removed the part which mentioned how Gandhi didn’t criticise the British after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, but had instead criticised Indians for not following non-violent methods.

On Jawaharlal Nehru, there was innocent disagreement about whether he should be described as atheist or agnostic, but some also tried to add scandalous accusations about the relationship between him and Edwina Mountbatten.

Wikipedia Vandalism
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Wikipedia Vandalism

3. Colouring The Past

It’s said history is written by victors. But now it’s often written and rewritten by Wikipedia users. On the page ‘Indian Rebellion of 1857’, some users insisted it be called India’s ‘first war of independence’ instead of ‘rebellion’, but their edits were reversed. Others removed the part that said the troops who mutinied were high-caste Hindus and Muslims worried about ritual pollution. (The revolt was sparked by rumours that sepoys would have to bite off cartridges greased with cow or pig fat.)

The page ‘Partition of India’ faced vandalism that was incendiary in nature. A user tried to add specific incidents of Hindus and Sikhs being killed in Pakistani cities by Muslim mobs. Another attempted to include claims that more Muslims died during the Partition than Hindus and Sikhs combined.

In an article on ‘Mughal–Maratha Wars’, the reference to Maratha ruler Sambhaji was changed to Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj. A user changed the outcomes of wars, saying that after Aurangzeb’s death, Marathas took over all Mughal properties.

Wikipedia Vandalism
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Wikipedia Vandalism

4. Historical Figures Glorified

Online vandals attack pages on historical figures, too, but usually to present them in a more positive light. For example, one person tried to describe Maharana Pratap as the ‘first freedom fighter of India’ because of his opposition to the Mughals. Another edit was made to romanticise his exploits, talking about how the Mughals couldn’t capture him despite having a bigger army. A user emphasised his religion, changing his description from ‘Indian ruler’ to ‘Hindu maharaja’.

Another ruler, Rani Lakshmibai, was valourised because of her battles with the British. One user tried to remove details about her death at the hands of the British, and about casualties for her army in her last battle. Others removed a part where she had fled to Gwalior and was unable to defend the city.

The page on Muhammad Iqbal, the composer of 'Saare Jahan Se Acha', was also edited and re-edited as many users from Pakistan insisted that their national poet be called 'Allama Muhammad Iqbal' instead.

Wikipedia Vandalism
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Wikipedia Vandalism

5. Food fights

A common theme to Wikipedia edit wars is the focus on origins. Some vandalised the page on biryani, choosing to diminish its roots in Muslim culinary traditions. Others said that while the immediate origins of the word 'biryani' may be Persian, if we go further back, it can be traced to the Sanskrit word ‘vrihi’.

Someone once removed a sentence about how the alphonso mango is named after a Portuguese colonial governor. The page says the mango comes from a region covering parts of Myanmar, Bangladesh and Northeast India. One person deleted the words Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Wikipedia Vandalism
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Wikipedia Vandalism

The page on dosa was vandalised as well, with many insisting on spelling it as 'dosai', which matches the pronunciation used in some southern states. Others fought over whether the oldest dosa recipe is found in ancient Tamil or Kannada literature.

Shijith Kunhitty is an independent data journalist.

A note on methodology:

A group of Wikipedia editors, WikiProject India, maintains articles about India and has assessed over 150,000 pages on the website as of 2021. From this set, articles on Indian thinkers, historical figures, food items etc. were chosen and their edit histories explored for this analysis.

These edit histories track every single addition and deletion in Wikipedia pages. Every time a user makes a damaging edit, it is reversed within hours, or even minutes, by another user or bot. These edits are tagged ‘reverted’ and have been used to assess the levels of “vandalism" in this analysis. The analysis counts the number of distinct users whose edits were reversed, rather than the number of edits, as in some cases, a few users may have been responsible for most of the damaging edits.

It must be noted that some of the reverted edits may not have been “vandalism" or malicious, and were rolled back because they fell short of Wikipedia’s standards in other ways. The analysis intends to give a sense of which Indian pages were the most abused.

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