(Photo Credit: The Cradle)
Saudi Arabia has reportedly “infiltrated” Wikipedia in a bid to exercise control over the online encyclopedia’s narratives, said a 5 January investigative report released by activist groups Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) and Social Media Exchange (SMEX).
“The Saudi Arabian government infiltrated Wikipedia by recruiting the organization’s highest ranked administrators in the country to serve as government agents to control information about the country and prosecuting those who contributed critical information about political detainees,” the report reads, citing a 2022 investigation.
Following the investigation carried out last month by Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia’s parent organization, 16 users were banned for life for “engaging in significant conflict of interest editing and posing a threat to the safety of other users” in West Asia.
“A number of users with close connections to external parties were editing the platform in a coordinated fashion to advance the aim of those parties,” the report adds.
It also states that in 2020, the kingdom imprisoned two of Saudi Arabia’s top Wikipedia admins, Osama Khalid and Ziyad al-Sofiani, on charges of “swaying public opinion [and] violating public morals.” Khalid received a sentence of 32 years, while Sofiani received eight years.
According to the Gulf region’s research director at DAWN, Abdullah Alaoudh, the arrests and the alleged infiltration of Wikipedia represent Riyadh’s desire to control online narratives.
Despite this, the Wikimedia Foundation quickly disputed the report, claiming it misrepresents their investigation.
“There are material inaccuracies in the statement included from SMEX/DAWN … There was no finding in our investigation that the Saudi government ‘infiltrated’” Wikipedia, the parent company said in a statement.
It did say, however, that some of the banned users “may have been Saudi.”
“While we do not know where these [users] 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 (Middle East and North Africa) region,” the Wikimedia statement added.
The kingdom has not responded to a request for comment on the matter.
Saudi Arabia is notorious for its attempts to influence online activity and public opinion in its favor, mainly through social media-led misinformation campaigns involving the use of Twitter ‘bots.’ The kingdom has also expressed a heavy interest in acquiring Israeli-made, cyberespionage tools, including Pegasus spyware.
Similarly, Israel itself has launched courses for “Zionist editing” for Wikipedia in the past. In the early 2000’s, former prime minister Naftali Bennett – head of the Yesha council at the time – said: “We want to be the guys who influence what is written there, how it’s written, and to ensure that it’s balanced and Zionist in nature.”
In October of this year, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy asked the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US (CFIUS) to launch an investigation into Saudi Arabia’s influence on Twitter, particularly after the recent $44 billion acquisition of the social media platform by Elon Musk, which was aided by Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Holding Company (KHC).
Just last month, dual US-Lebanese citizen and Twitter employee Ahmad Abouammo was found guilty of spying on users for Saudi Arabia.