( Article appeared on TOI Delhi on 5th July and Mumbai on 6th July print editions. )
For the better part of June 30, Kolkata was India's largest city and Bangla was the government's official language along with Hindi and Indian English. The sly attempt at misinformation also featured the national motto 'Satyameva Jayate' written in Bangla script on Wikipedia's 'India' page. Many hours later, an administrator who goes by the username SpacemanSpiff landed on the page, saw all the telltale signs of a vandal attack, and scrubbed it clean of the errors. This was right after a round of firefighting on the pages of Jawaharlal Nehru and his family, where an anonymous vandal had tried to pass off the late PM's grandfather as a Muslim.
Vandalism is a fact of life at Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Administrators like Spacemanspiff are senior editors who, over the years, have been entrusted by the Wikipedia community to protect, delete or restore pages, and even block notorious editors.
As SpacemanSpiff reminded fellow volunteers on the India notice board about the need to keep a watch on the Nehru wikis, another editor remembered that similar attempts were made in 2014. "This is not a new meme on or off-Wiki. Parallel attempts to establish that Feroze Gandhi was Muslim are even more common," writes Abecedare.
The popular site sees vandals of all kinds, says A Ravishankar, program director at the Wikimedia Chapter in India. Newbies sometimes click the edit button on a page to make some trivial changes. Some vengeful ones go on a rampage when editors reject their edits due to insufficient citation or poor sourcing. Then there are the passionate hordes that descend on their pet topics, mostly entries about religion and politics. The only way to deal with vandalism is by remaining vigilant, says Ravishankar.
What's more insidious and hard to rein in are changes by editors who are paid to twist the rules at Wikipedia so that their clients' pages sparkle. "We've had PR agencies editing pages for their clients, including actors. IIPM was a prime example of such paid editing," claims Ravishankar. The now-defunct business school allegedly got help from a senior editor called Wifione and an army of sock puppets (bogus user accounts) to keep out negative information about it between the years 2010 and 2012. They were reportedly reverted after severe backlash from within Wikipedia.
Internationally, blog writers for Wikipediocracy, a review site examining Wiki's flaws, have criticized Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit that runs the site, for not doing much to allay allegations that Croatian and Kazakh Wikipedias have been manipulated, sometimes by the government machinery itself. Bots such as <at> parliamentedits (UK) and <at> congressedits (US) came up to track anonymous edits done from official IPs after several instances of tinkering by parliamentarians and Congressmen surfaced. A similar bot from India, <at> AnonGoIWPEdits, linked the Nehru edits to an IP address belonging to the National Informatics Centre.
The reason why so many people flock to get the content right on Wikipedia is the number of page views it gets. Indian users account for 4.1% of the total page views on the site. In December 2014 alone, there were 50,000 edits from the country with 'India' itself being the top edited entry for that year.
Others on the most-edited list include wikis of actors Vijay, Shah Rukh Khan, Rajinikanth and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Curiously, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Kerala, Mahatma Gandhi and Hinduism also made it to this list as per data generated by the Centre For Internet and Society (CIS) from the Wikimedia database. Trending news items also quickly make their way in. PM Narendra Modi's estranged wife Jashodaben got a wiki last year; so did the first Indian in NBA Satnam Singh Bhamara, says Tanveer Hasan, programme officer, CIS-Access to Knowledge.
For all this buzz, India has followed a global trend of slowdown in the number of edits on the English language Wikipedia. "When Wiki started in 2001, the first generation of editors was in their 20s. Many of them have moved out due to family and professional commitments and not many new editors have replaced them," says Ravishankar. Senior editor Tinu Cherian Abraham remembers starting off in 2005 and creating entries from scratch about anything and everything, from a historic fort near Bangalore to villages in Kerala. He also used to organize meet-ups in various cities to create awareness about the site and recruit more editors. Though he still edits, he says he doesn't have much time for anything else.
For now, the action has shifted to Indian language Wikipedias, where smaller and vibrant communities are busy creating pages and correcting errors. There are nearly 2,600 editors in English and close to 10,000 in Indian languages now. Either way, vandals have their hands full.
Disclaimer: Non-commercial reproduction of the article by Sandhya Soman / Times of India. All copyrights are respectfully acknowledged.