When Jerusalem tech guru Miriam Schwab agreed to sign on to a workshop focused on influencing Israel’s online presence, she didn’t expect to end up on The Lede, a New York Times blog, slugged as an Israeli working to smite domestic and foreign online enemies via “Zionist editing” of Wikipedia entries.
Schwab, founding director of web presence agency Illuminea, is an unassuming, self-described “tech nerd.” She’s all about helping companies improve their online presence using today’s tools: Internet, blogging, social media sites, etc. So when organizers of the Yisrael Sheli movement and the Yesha Council of settlements put together a seminar to help counter anti-Israel sentiment online, Schwab agreed to take part:
It was specifically to influence Wikipedia, and directly linked to the post-Gaza flotilla fallout. There weren’t enough people to counter the anti-Israel narrative, so in keeping with Wikipedia’s “neutral point of view” policy, the aim was to have more people learn how to counter the bias.
Wikipedia, which literally means “quick encyclopedia,” is based on an open-edit model compiled by unpaid volunteers. Anyone can log on and input or alter entries — but the bar is high: Wikipedia editors adhere to strict guidelines surrounding neutrality and accuracy, and not knowing the guidelines or how to technically work with the system can result in material being changed or booted off the site.
“Accuracy” however — among Wikipedia editors — is apparently in the mind of the beholder. And some say Wikipedia’s balance is skewed, particularly in entries relating to the Mideast:
Editors are known to take sides. There’s a Palestine work group, and they hold a Palestinian point of view. Israel’s work group is pro-Israel. There’s anti-Scientology, and pro. That’s Wikipedia. Unless it’s math or science, there’s no truth with a capital “T.” People are on Wiki with agendas and political views.
To offset agendas, Wiki editors vote on popular or hot topics, and decide on the site’s language and tone. But to be allowed to weigh in on official usage — whether or not to refer to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, or to term Judea and Samaria “occupied territories” — an editor has to maintain 100 edits per month.
It’s hard work, and it was a complete mystery to me in technical terms. Wikipedia isn’t standard HTML.
So Schwab sat in on sessions led by two Wiki gurus brought in to help participants understand how to access Wikipedia, use the tools, and weigh in. It was not, Schwab maintains, a crash course on Wiki-Zionism:
They presented the idea that Wikipedians — the people who are really into it — passionately embrace a neutral point of view.
The Wiki gurus were there to help workshop participants learn how to operate within the framework so that a more balanced point of view regarding Israel could be brought forward by people with a stake in the outcome. For instance, a right-wing Israeli itching to go onto the site fighting for a claim would be advised by the experts to be extremely patient and to approach it from a different angle.
The directive for getting a foot in would not be to scour Wikipedia for slanted entries and edit them fastidiously, but rather to follow a deliberate, piecemeal plan of editing entries of personal appeal — say about dog grooming, or Mad Men — without presenting a political agenda. Doing that, a slow buildup of seniority might eventually lead a person to make it through the vote process and then be allowed in on discussion. In other words, it’s a long, methodical haul.
That’s because, says Schwab, if a person comes in screaming about the Mideast, alarms go off:
Edit anything on the Mideast, Israel, Scientology, or the Iraq War, and there’ll be a red flag flying overhead.
Overall Schwab says she thinks Wikipedia is pretty even — “they’re no more biased than the local Israel press” — but there’s always room for improvement.
What she found shocking in light of her recent press exposure, however, was the level of vitriol out there on the virtual plane:
I became the face of the hated Jews. When a video of an interview with me went up on YouTube, the comments section was horrifying. “Hey I found a new hot Zio-Nazi Babe” someone wrote. Left-wing anti-Israel bloggers wrote a lot about the so-called Wikipedia Zionist editing workshop and in general I discovered that people are filled with rage against women, Zionists, and Jews. What was shocking to me was becoming the face of that.