Rights groups have accused the Saudi Arabian government of 'infiltrating' and seeking to control Wikipedia, after the Wikimedia Foundation banned 16 users for engaging in "conflict of interest editing" in the Middle East and North Africa.
The ban late last year came after an almost year-long investigation that concluded that the users had close connections to "external parties", and that these links were a source of "serious concern for the safety" of users, said the Wikimedia Foundation.
Beirut-based digital rights group SMEX and human rights group Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) said that Saudi authorities had recruited Wikipedia's most reputed administrators in the country to control information about the kingdom.
The government jailed administrators who contributed critical posts about political detainees to the free online encyclopedia, the two groups said earlier this month.
A spokesperson from the Wikimedia Foundation said the organisation's investigation found no evidence of Saudi infiltration.
Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Communication and Information Technology did not respond to a request for comment.
The Saudi government's actions, if proven, were "novel" but mirrored trends by oppressive governments worldwide to control online spaces, said Pat de Brún, head of artificial intelligence and big data at rights group Amnesty International.
"A huge amount is at stake," de Brún told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Knowledge is power, and the power to rewrite history and do propaganda is valuable for governments who have a lot to hide and have a shameful human rights record."
'TWO CLASSES OF HUMANS'
Entries on Wikipedia are created and edited by dedicated volunteers around the world. While anyone can edit most of the pages, only a small group of users tend to do so regularly - which has opened up the site to controversy.
In 2019, Justice for Iran, a London-based human rights group, said Wikimedia, which runs Wikipedia, had opened an investigation into Persian Wikipedia following concerns about the neutrality of the platform.
"Restrictions, deletions, and edits of facts followed by addition of false information have played into the hands of the Iranian state and promoted their official narrative," the group said in a statement at the time.
And in 2021, Wikimedia banned seven pro-Beijing editors, and removed the administrative powers of a further 12, sparking criticism of the platform's bias and Western stance. Those involved were accused of bullying and intimidating pro-democracy editors.
Wikimedia's business model is to blame, as it has created "two classes of humans" - those that are paid to manage Wikimedia, and the volunteers who produce and edit Wikipedia's content for free, said Raed Jarrar, DAWN's advocacy director.
"The biggest question here is about Wikimedia's model of relying on volunteers who are operating in authoritarian countries, and putting them in danger, and not advocating for their release when they are in trouble," he said.
A spokesperson from Wikimedia said crowd-sourced knowledge is a core value for the company, and that paid workers are available to support the volunteer community.
MORE TRANSPARENT MODEL
Wikimedia's most recent bans drew the ire of the Arabic Wikipedia community, which slammed the confidential nature of the investigation, and called for a more transparent model that would allow communities on the platform to hold themselves accountable.
Of the 16 accounts banned in December, seven were engaged in edits on Persian language Wikipedia, making up 30% of Arabic Wikipedia's administrators, the group said in a statement.
"We lost seven active administrators in one fell swoop! This has set our community back years and does not, surely, contribute to encyclopedia growth."
Wikimedia's investigation had "concluded that the actions of these users caused a credible threat to harm, and the overall safety of Wikipedia, and the security of Wikipedia platforms," said a spokesperson from the Wikimedia Foundation.
The banned accounts created "problematic edits" on English Wikipedia about the Saudi investment fund, a minister who held senior posts with oil giant Aramco, and The Line, a hi-tech city that rights groups have warned will subject residents to surveillance.
"One of the editors also significantly softened descriptions of Saudi government detention of journalist Jamal Khashoggi who was later murdered and dismembered," Wikipedia said on its website, referring to the 2018 incident.
The ban included all of Wikipedia's administrators in Saudi Arabia, according to SMEX and DAWN, which was founded by the slain journalist. Jarrar said there was a connection between the Saudi Arabian government and the banned administrators.
"They were pressured or recruited, we are not sure," Jarrar said. "This is very concerning."
Saudi Arabia regularly muzzles dissenting voices, and has adopted a harder stance on online content it deems unfavourable, human rights groups say, pointing to the sentencing last year of a woman to 45 years in prison for social media posts.
In the case of Wikipedia, the Saudi government arrested two administrators in September 2020, charging them with "swaying public opinion" and "violating public morals," according to DAWN and SMEX.
The two men were initially sentenced to up to eight years in prison, with the sentence of one then being extended to 32 years.
They were prosecuted because they had contributed information deemed to be critical about the persecution of political activists in Saudi Arabia, the groups said this month.
Saudi officials have not commented on the arrests or sentences. But it was "entirely predictable" that they were prosecuted merely for posting content about the government's human rights abuses, Jarrar said.
"Wikimedia also needs to take responsibility for the fact that its authorised editors are today languishing in prison for work they did on Wikipedia pages," he said.