Distortion of history to aid control by a central government is a thousands-of-years-old technique. Since at least the times of Pharaoh Ramses II, rulers have successfully altered the historical record. In more recent times, George Orwell (1949) wrote:
And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. “Who controls the past” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
Less obvious are attempts to control the internet in countries we view as “democratic.” Here mechanisms are emerging to control expression of opinion and coerce diversity.
The internet is a source of unfettered information and thus freedom. However, as most technology the internet is neutral with regard to its use. Thus, while there are forces promoting freedom on the internet, there also are influences promoting totalitarianism.
Ideas duel in electronic spaces. In theory as in formal duels, conditions on the web allow balance; this way the resulting freedom of expression of opinions should allow factual data to emerge. In reality, interests of some weight promote national or even international based censorship. In the case of mainland China, dubious relationships with such internet giants as Yahoo.com and Google.com (e.g., Anonymous, 2006; Wikipedia: Advice to Tor users in China, 2006) aid in this. Other interests exist throughout the world, e.g. the United Nations’ wish to exert control over electronic space in a process which places dictatorial regimes in positions of influence (e.g., DiPippo, 2005).
My interest arose after attempting to correct what was initially perceived as uninformed errors of fact about Cuba in publications. (One notes in passing that Wikipedia is, by far, not the only source of misinformation on the Cuban circumstance. For example, Kapur and Smith, 2002,1 and some even in the U.S. government, e.g., Robson, 1996,2 place distorted ideas onto the web.) In Wikipedia, ignorance seemed to be a significant factor; for instance some anonymous editors removed references because they were in Spanish (“Mensch,” 2006).3 In this venue, it became apparent that the factual and referenced data that I inserted was removed or altered with less than scholarly purposes (“Splash,” 2005).
More recently, for example in the article on Che Guevara, some assumed the “right” to remove some references in Spanish and yet leave others. They ignored that: Guevara wrote in Spanish, many primary sources of study are in Spanish, and Cuban government sources may well have differing external (English) and internal (Spanish) variants of “official truth.” Clearly ideologues sought or had gained control of such topics.
This circumstance strongly indicated that supporters of Castro do not limit input to promoting their ideas in Wikipedia. They are using all means at their disposal to engage in extremely aggressive repression of the ideas that differ from their own. Thus, they extend the political controls on the island into international cyberspace. Unfortunately, the methods used provide models for the control of the internet in democratic countries.
The above seemed an interesting phenomenon worthy of study. To study this matter in scholarly focus, the treatment in Wikipedia of selected aspects of Cuban History were examined.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
Venue According to Ahrens (2006) “Wikipedia is an openformat Internet encyclopedia available to just about anyone who wants to write and edit an article. It was launched in English in January 2001 and now has millions of articles in several languages. …Unlike, say, the Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia has no formal peer review for its articles. They may be written by experts or insane crazy people. Or worse, insane crazy people with an agenda and Internet access.” However, use of Wikipedia continues to expand enormously (e.g. Rubel, 2005).
Wikipedia’s basic premise is that many anonymous amateurs can replace a few specialists in the field to reach statistically approximated truth. Wikipedia has the support of Yahoo.com and Google.com, providing advertising, funding, and “bandwidth” (e.g. Green, 2006). This premise is weak and subject to challenge, since it: (1) neglects mature scholarship; and (2) is vulnerable to group activity and political manipulation. For these and other reasons, “expert” knowledge is not only challenged but often overwhelmed by controlling activities of political action groups. Absolute ridicule is only avoided by the countervailing contributions of a few devoted, but anonymous, experts.
Wikipedia supporters (e.g., BBC staff, 2005) tout a reputation for accuracy based on certain studies (Giles, 2005), setting aside rebuttals characterizing these studies as contrived (Encyclopædia Britannica staff, 2006). Even unfavorable press (e.g., Bachelet, 2006) is touted as favorable in Wikipedia (e.g., Snow and Snow, 2006). Over time, Wikipedia has gained a reputation for malicious inaccuracy (e.g., Seelye, 2005; Ahrens, 2006).
A scholarly study was undertaken using verifiable and referenced data probes of various kinds (see Box 1 for examples). A “semi-transparent” Wikipedia persona, “El Jigüe” (User IP 220.127.116.11, for definition and origins of “Jigüe” see Daley, 2006), slowly developed and eventually was used to place test material on Wikipedia sites. Responses made clear that there was more involved than mere ignorance of Cuban matters, scholarly rivalry, or the usual academic style infighting, since significant proportions of non-factual insertions and deletions were placed by supporters of the Castro government (e.g., “Colle” 2006). These changes (see below) were used to establish an “ideologically coherent false truth,” in which the Cuban circumstance was presented as a caring parliamentary democracy.
Pro-Castro ideologues eliminated factual data using very irregular excuses and enforced permanence of their changes through coercive practices. These practices were supported by spurious accusations of various sorts, usually “vandalism,” repeated corrections, lack of neutral point of view (NPOV in “Wikipedian”), for example “Lbmixpro,” 2005, and summary Wikipedia style “trials” were held (Box 1). “El Jigüe’s” access was blocked repeatedly. During this time, a number of other Wikipedia personas presenting material unfavorable to Castro’s government were also banned, e.g. “KDRGibby,” 2006).
Even though he answered at length and in scholarly detail, “El Jigüe” was summarily blocked for increasingly longer periods and much of the material “El Jigüe” had inserted was removed (e.g., “Jay,” 2006). It was clear that these were totalitarian style “trials” where, as in present day Cuba, the accusations of these “prosecutors” were considered factual evidence and not subject to rebuttal. The summary of charges were immediately accepted without query or question by anonymous Wikipedia “Judges” and El Jigüe was quickly sanction by denying “him” editing access to Wikipedia pages for a period of some weeks.
WIKIPEDIA BLOCKING SOFTWARE
Although the technological aspects of the blocking software used by Wikipedia is not understood by this author, it is quite obvious that it is functionally simple, selective, and once set in motion, automatic. Thus any machine that accesses Wikipedia sites can be identified and allowed or disallowed access to these Wikipedia sites.
Tests with anonymizers such as Tor4 are not successful because Wikipedia maintains a list of Tor computers which it blocks also automatically: “Safe in the knowledge that they cannot be traced, some use Tor to post disruptive messages to Internet message boards, wikis, or chat rooms. As a result, many large providers of such services, such as Wikipedia and many IRC networks, prevent users of anonymizing services from posting to them” (Wikipedia on Tor). Mainland China’s government already blocks access in this way (Wikipedia: Advice to Tor users in China). It should be noted that Wikipedia has blocked Congressional IP addresses in their controlled electronic space (Wikipedia Requests), an action approved by Wikipedia supporters.5
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
These matters were brought to the attention of media, and Pablo Bachelet (2006) of The Miami Herald published a news piece. After this, senior but still anonymous Wikipedians, including far more skilled polemicists than previously encountered, intervened. However, these senior Wikipedians, although more subtle were equally ineffective or/and biased in favor of the present Cuban government.
Although a dubious source, Wikipedia is commonly consulted by undergraduate college and high school students. This makes it the bane of many instructors. Freedom of expression is distorted in the heavily-trafficked Wikipedia sections on Cuba, Castro, Guevara, etc., which with their heavy influence on youth and the uninformed present an inaccurate image biased in favor of the Castro regime. These sections are constantly patrolled by clever, devious, and unscrupulous polemicists for the present Cuban government. Using various tactics, described above, these polemicists have achieved the “banning” of input that differs from their opinions (Bachelet 2006).
Thus in Wikipedia there are, despite the efforts of many, absurdities such as the insistence that Cuba has “free” elections, the white-washing of Fidel Castro’s biography (e.g., his murderous activities at Havana University are described as “student activism”), and almost absolute ignorance, or worse, biased descriptions of Cuban history (Castro is never referred to as a Dictator, that designation is reserved for Machado). For example (see also Box 2), to Wikipedia the Liberal Party survived into the times of Grau, Prio, and Batista. The economy (“Cuban poverty increased greatly under Batista’s leadership,” sic), health data, and culture (e.g., the removed reference to “palestinos” as a descriptor of internal migrants), and other topics are similarly Bowdlerized (Zlietzen 2006).
Sometimes the rationale for these deletions is overt, sometimes merely puzzling. For example, references to Graham Greene’s 1958 classic novel Our Man in Havana are rapidly deleted. One might infer from this that the Castro government has some hidden agenda, since Greene was an openly partisan supporter of the Cuban dictator (Sherry 2004). Yet, Greene did work for British intelligence at one time, and the missiles of 1962, which he so oddly predicted, were in reality not designed as vacuum cleaners.
Castro’s partisans brook little or no corrections, and almost immediately delete such based upon the most ridiculous of reasons. For example, Colle (2006) removed “The police La Seguridad del Estado supports the system.” This was then replaced [Revision as of 04:05, 15 February 2006 18.104.22.168 (Talk | contribs) Present State of Cuban Literature] with “+ There exists censorship in Cuba.” Within 12 minutes it was removed by Colle [*Revision as of 04:17, 15 February 2006 Colle (Talk | contribs) Present State of Cuban Literature] by Colle with vague comment “there is censorship in every country,” thus removing any reference to censorship in Cuba. An effort to include, in an article on demography, the sentence, “There is internal illegal immigration to Havana seeking greater opportunities; these internal illegals are known as palestinos,” was removed by a senior editor (Zleitzen, 2006 in Current Revision).
Scholarly critics of Castro, even when they write from the ASCE forum, are often not considered reliable sources by senior Wikipedia editors. For example senior editor Zleitzen (2006), disagreeing with contributor “Ultramarine” over an article on Fidel Castro’s wealth published in Cuba in Transition6 says:
That’ll be this Maria C. Werlau, the woman who wrote “Cuba: Safe Haven for Fugitives and Hotbed for Terrorists.” Who states: “Castro’s virulent hatred of the United States goes back far before he even came to power.” Who ends with “The Bush Administration should exert maximum pressure on the Castro regime to guarantee U.S. and hemispheric security.” OK, Ultramarine, your idea of scholarly research differs from mine. … As an aside, Werlau appears at length in the infamous “Los Muertos de Castro” documentary. One of the most audacious pieces of propaganda and misinformation I have ever seen, on any subject. Take a look if you can find it. All material by Werlau should be treated with extreme scepticism; that Ultramarine describes her work as real criticism does not make it so.
Given the situation in China, where that government’s approach to web censorship, is openly supported by Google and Yahoo, one can readily imagine this kind of collective censorship approach extending to all those societies where information is under some level of government control. However, this is a free country and one might expect that here countervailing forces will prevail. Yet, this is not so, for a number of reasons.
• First is the massive advertisement, promotion, exposure and support for Wikipedia by Google and Yahoo.
• Second is the prevalence of Wikipedia mirror sites, and other less original URL that present the same or similar material; these sites give the impression that the information is “universal” and thus sound. I was able to trace, using my own insertions verbatim copies of information at such other “informational” web sites (information not presented here).
• Third, and perhaps most important, is the lack of critical evaluation by present day youth when accessing web site information, as illustrated by a recent comic strip by Scott and Borgman (2006). In this cartoon Jeremy’s mother see her son constantly spending his time in front of a computer screen asks her son “Why don’t you read the newspaper, play cards or go to the library.” Her son responds “It’s like you live in some alternate universe where people actually read the newspaper, play cards or go to the library.”
Clearly, already Wikipedia selectively blocks access to editing by those who oppose the government of Cuba. Lists of such users’ computers are maintained by Wikipedia. Wikipedia style software can be, and seems to be, used to politically control internet traffic in general in certain non-democratic countries (see above). In these countries this kind of control extends to other similar electronic media (Becker, 2006). In addition, in democratic countries, such a system—if coordinated by mayor information providers on the internet such as Google.com or Yahoo. com—could be applied to heavily influence the general internet. Such links between Wikipedia and the above mentioned companies already exist. AOL, in one notorious case four years ago, blocked Harvard admission correspondence.
Solutions proposed here to this interesting problem naturally do not include censorship. Benign persuasion within the Wikipedia “world” appears too weak promote effective change. The author of this paper notes with approval recent efforts of some ethical Wikipedians to address this problem.
However, it is my opinion that these valiant efforts, as were those attempted by others and myself previously, will ultimately fail. For instance references to the massive arrests during the “Bay of Pigs” and the “The War Against the Bandits” have been moved to remote secondary sites.” Mention of this “War Against the Bandits” (a conflict that lasted longer and involved far more insurgents and Castro militia than the original Castro forces and Batista soldiers in the war against Batista) has been tagged as “needing clean up,” and thus is in danger of being removed.
Now notice is placed at the head of the Raúl and Fidel Castro discussion sections with the warning (see below) not to criticize the Castros, since any criticism smuggled out of Cuba or written in Cuba may be labeled “poorly sourced” or “potentially libelous” even though U.S. law specifically diminishes recourse of public figures in libel law litigation.
This article must adhere to the policy on biographies of living persons. Negative material that is unsourced or poorly sourced must be removed immediately, especially if potentially libelous. The three-revert rule does not apply to such removals. Concerns relative to this policy can be addressed on the living persons biographies noticeboard. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Talk:Ra%C3%BAl_Castro, accessed 9–24–06)
It seems ineffective to merely concentrate on correcting details within Wikipedia, since these details are commonly removed or bowdlerized; it is suggested that it is necessary to make the general public aware that Wikipedia’s articles on Cuba and similar or related subjects are not accurate, complete, or reliable. Perhaps in this way higher quality competing web products will emerge. Another remedy, which is slowly growing, derives from the presence of readily available, computer-searchable, scholarly texts on the web. Legislation may be required to limit monopolistic practices on the internet.
1. Example of false statement from Kapur and Smith (2002) on housing: “Most former owners were fully compensated for their losses, but landlords of slum tenement buildings received nothing from the government.”
2. Example of distortion from Robson (1996) on Cubans coming to the United States: “Many wealthier Cuban families came here, both because they disagreed with the goals and methods of the revolution, and because it was the only way to salvage their financial assets.”
3. Mensch (2006) writes: “All the links referring to non-English sources are removed from the article. If necessary I can compile a list of the resources taken out of the article for Spanish speaking people who would like to validate them. But still, I’m unsure if non English sources qualify as material for an English Wikipedia entry, so it’s probably better to find equivalent English sources.”
4. Dingledine and Mathewson (nd) write: “Tor is a toolset for a wide range of organizations and people that want to improve their safety and security on the Internet. Using Tor can help you anonymize web browsing and publishing, instant messaging, IRC, SSH, and other applications that use the TCP protocol. … Tor aims to defend against traffic analysis, a form of network surveillance that threatens personal anonymity and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security. Communications are bounced around a distributed network of servers called onion router.”
5. For supporters of this action see, e.g., Davis (2006) and McGath (2006). McGath writes: “Wikipedia has instituted a block against edits from IP addresses in the range 156.33.xxx.xxx. These addresses are assigned to a notoriously dishonest and unethical group of people: the United States Congress. Go Jimbo!” (Jimbo refers to J. Wales, head (CEO?) of Wikipedia.
6. María C. Werlau, “Fidel Castro, Inc.: A Global Conglomerate,” Cuba in Transition—Volume 15 (Washington: Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy, 2005), pp. 376 –395.