The Mideast Editing Wars

"We will go to war," reads the ungrammatical email, "after we have build our army, equipped it, trained… so if you want to win this war help us build our army."

The language, fortunately, is figurative. According to that email and others, the members of a secret cell of nationalist operatives were expected only to edit, not to explode. Their battleground in the great Israeli-Arab Narrative War would be Wikipedia, where they would heroically struggle to retake virtual territory for "accuracy and impartiality" by keeping "Israel-related articles… from being tainted by anti-Israel editors." For instance, they'd rename the article on the "2006 Lebanon War," making it the "2006 Israel-Hezbollah War," thereby eliminating the calumny "that this war was conducted against Lebanon." (Never mind the impact on Lebanon as a whole, or the fact that the Israeli government itself named that conflict the Second Lebanon War.)

Behind the clandestine Wiki-editing effort apparently stood the Committee for Accuracy on Middle East Reporting in America, CAMERA, the hawkish watch-dog group that has for years attacked what it regards as biased reporting on Israel in the mainstream media.

As conspirators, it seems, these were shlemiels -- bunglers who apparently allowed enemy forces to acquire printouts of their discussions. Last week the pro-Palestinian website Electronic Intifada (EI) published a report on the CAMERA Wikipedia project, including first one, then another long PDF file of email correspondence between CAMERA staff and supporters. Examination shows the files were scanned from printed pages, then run through character recognition software.

Judging from the messages, the CAMERA group had yet to change much on Wikipedia. The final notice, from Gilead Ini, a CAMERA senior research analyst, announced that the private Google group isra-pedia, which served as the rebels' cyber-safe house, had closed down in the wake of the penetration. Ini's name also appears on the original March 13 mail asking for volunteers for the project, which began, "Please forward this alert to people committed to fair and factual reporting about Israel and the Middle East. Do not forward it to members of the news media." (Whence one might conclude that no member of the news media could be committed to fair reporting about Israel. I hereby take umbrage, and continue writing.)

Ineffectual as the CAMERA effort apparently was, there are several morals to the story. One is that despite the techno-idealism that Wikipedia can inspire, it's best to approach the encyclopedia with an attitude of caveat lector, let the reader beware. The affair is also a reminder -- not the first -- that CAMERA is ready to exempt itself from the demands for accuracy that it aims at the media. And like others engaged in the narrative wars, it does not understand the difference between advocacy and accuracy. A true news report, the organization's activists seem to believe, is the one that does not upset what they previously believed. It should not be news, but olds.

But first for the obvious question: Are the CAMERA papers published by Electronic Intifada authentic? Responding to my email query, EI executive director Ali Abunimah said his organization received the texts from a "concerned person." EI was confident of their authenticity, he said, after checking whether "actual edits on Wikipedia correspond to discussions of edits in the emails" and examining the email header information "from a technical standpoint." I took that as a start, but looked further.

The Google group to which the mails refer, isra-pedia, exists but is listed as invitation-only. Gilead Ini does work for CAMERA. When I phoned him at the organization's Boston headquarters and asked him if the emails were real, he avoided answering and asked to speak again later. By the time I called back, Ini had checked my name. He answered, "Given your previous hostile and unfair reporting of CAMERA… this isn't something I want to discuss with you." I asked several more times; Ini never confirmed or denied his role or CAMERA's.

It's true that I've criticized CAMERA's inaccuracies in the past -- here, and again here -- especially on the issue of the illegality of Israeli settlements. (Ironically, both CAMERA and Electronic Intifada have cited my appearance on the Washington Post's op-ed pages as proof of the paper's bias -- anti-Israeli and anti-Palestinian, respectively.) Ini's "no comment" isn't a confession. Still, Ini represents an organization that asks the media to get its facts right. He should have wanted the facts about this case to be accurately presented -- unless "accuracy" only means not printing anything embarrassing to his own side.

In the meantime, a raging debate on the affair ensued among Wikipedia administrators, the online gurus responsible for overseeing the site's throngs of anonymous volunteer editors. Eventually, one of the participants mentioned in the original emails, nicknamed "dajudem," joined in and confirmed the group's existence. Though this isn't quite a DNA marker, it's fairly solid evidence that the emails were real. "I don't see what the big deal is," dajudem wrote. The group "was simply there to make sure that the pro-Israel point of view was represented."

To a degree, dajudem is right. People like Wikipedia because it's free and vast, and because it's open-source: a community, not a corporation. But the encyclopedia's two basic qualities -- it provides information to millions of people, and it is written and edited by anonymous volunteers -- make it an obvious battleground for political conflicts. Why be surprised?

Wikipedia's "about" page describes the encyclopedia as aiming for balance through consensus. But consensus isn't the same as accuracy, and there is no consensus on an issue like the history of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Each side has a "correct" story of the past, identifying the villains and victims. Or rather, each camp within each side has such a narrative. When Wikipedia tells a different story, at least some people will feel their very identity assaulted and will respond. They'll regard their work as an essentially defensive effort. Scholarly and journalistic accounts that challenge the standard narratives are likely to get attacked from all sides, and a random reader won't know which way the battle has shifted today. On Wikipedia, in contrast to a book or an article in the media, there's no byline to aid the reader's judgment. While CAMERA's alleged effort to change Wikipedia was uncovered, that doesn't mean it's necessarily the first such organized effort, or the last.

But this doesn't absolve CAMERA of being duplicitous. In what appears as his first instructions to volunteers, Ini advised volunteers "to avoid… picking a [Wikipedia] user name that marks you as pro-Israel, or that lets people know your real name." In a later email, another participant asks some volunteers to edit articles unrelated to Israel until other editors elect them as "uninvolved administrators," who can adjudicate disputes on Middle East articles and ban biased editors. Ini later backed up that proposal. CAMERA's foot soldiers were to hide their intentions in order to abuse the system.

So in pursuit of accuracy, it appears, CAMERA did not feel constrained to be truthful about its own actions. From previous experience, I'm not shocked. I've already learned that CAMERA pushes the media to correct errors, but does not see itself as similarly obligated. On its website, on pages like this one by Ini, CAMERA continues to assert that the Carter administration was the only U.S. administration after 1967 that judged Israeli settlements to be illegal. That's after I publicly confronted the group with Johnson and Ford administration statements asserting that the settlements violated international law. For PR purposes, CAMERA's fib is convenient, since many Jews regarded Jimmy Carter as unfriendly to Israel long before the publication of his recent book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. But if CAMERA cared about accuracy, it would revise its story. When CAMERA fires off its letters to newspapers, both editors and readers should look at them with a cold eye, asking what the organization has left out or warped.

Obviously, the media does make mistakes. Sometimes media outlets do show bias against or for Israel. Journalists can benefit from a "fifth estate" of critics. But the Wikipedia affair is a hint at the psychology of CAMERA's advocacy. It aims at defending the story it already knows by presenting only what is necessary to bolster that narrative. CAMERA's story is an un-nuanced, hard line version of Mideast history in which Israel can do no wrong. It's a narrative that disturbs many thinking supporters of Israel.

When CAMERA fights for "accuracy," what it really wants is for the media -- or Wikipedia -- to promote that narrative. In defense of such "fair and factual reporting," it might even recruit some volunteers to misrepresent themselves in the Wikipedia wars. Let the reader beware.

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