Center for Strategic Communication

by Nicholas Brody

Wikipedia is becoming a major source of news and reference information for the American public. A Pew internet poll found that 36% of online adults consult Wikipedia. That number jumps to 50% for college-educated adults. Among educational and reference websites, Wikipedia is by far the most popular, owning a 24.33% share of hits when compared to other similar sites.

Whether we want to accept it or not, a large proportion of the worldwide population uses the open-source Wikipedia to learn more about a variety of issues—including the war on terror.

A Google search for “War on Terrorism” returns almost 8 million hits. The first result? Wikipedia. As a source of information, the emergence of open-source reference pages such as Wikipedia provide an exciting opportunity in an age where the mainstream news sources are often subsumed by conglomerates with self-serving motives. Although the Wikipedia “flame wars” have become almost legendary, theoretically anyone with an internet connection can make a contribution to an article. Clearly, the contents of articles can be of extreme strategic importance.

In the controversial “War on Terror”, controlling public opinion is vital. How long might it be until we see the fingerprints of the military, CIA, or even Al Qaeda on strategic Wikipedia entries?

WikiScanner is a web application created by Virgil Griffith, a graduate student at Cal Tech. By cross-referencing IP addresses and their host with edited articles, you can determine where Wikipedia edits are coming from and how often edits are made. Dozens of instances of corporate tinkering are readily available. State-supported editing is almost as prevalent.

Computers using CIA IP addresses have edited entries on the “2003 invasion of Iraq”, “7 July 2005 London Bombings”, and “Ahmed Chalabi”. It is harder to track individuals since you can only identify them by their ISPs, so state agencies and corporations bear the brunt of explaining their actions.

In a comparison of anonymous Paestinian and Israeli Wikipedia edits, the Digital Methods Institute found that some of the most commonly edited articles included entries on “Hezbollah”, the “West Bank”, and “The History of Palestine”. One addition to the “Hezbollah” article by a user with an Israeli IP addresses included the following statement:

Hezbollah is a terror organization which is responsible for the kidnapping and killing of Israeli soldiers and civilians.

These examples illustrate an important conclusion of our white paper on new communication models: You can’t control the message. As a quasi-objective source, Wikipedia has a growing influence as a source of framing for strategically important issues. That’s why the CIA has apparently taken time to edit some of its entries. But the openness of the source makes it easy for people to challenge interpretations that it contains. The messages on Wikipedia are not under anyone’s control, a fact that complicates traditional models of strategic communication.