Wikipedia in Russian: How to Manipulate Information with Flexible Truths

Written by Anastasiia Ratieieva, analyst HWAG/UCMC

Wikipedia is one of the top five most visited websites in the world as of November 2023. Every month, approximately 4 billion unique users visit the site to learn about “everything in the world.” Given its accessibility and high rankings search results, Wikipedia is a familiar, everyday source of information that shapes public discourse. Given the trust users place in texts created through open collaboration among authors and the ease of access to information, the “free encyclopedia” frequently serves as a platform for manipulating public opinion. 

In this article, we will examine how the Russian version of Wikipedia restricts access to information that is inconvenient for the regime while generating meanings that are favorable to the Kremlin. 

It is important to note that any interference with the operation of the largest source of textual data on the open Internet affects all parties who consume information in Russian, not just the Russian Federation’s population. This is an important consideration for both the information of the Russian-Ukrainian war, which is taking on hybrid dimensions, and the Kremlin’s ability to consolidate its version of reality among Russian-speaking people around the world. 

Open opposition and the development of alternatives

The creation of multiple alternative versions of an event is a common tool used by Russia to manipulate public consciousness. A large number of fakes on any given occasion contributes to a decrease in public trust in information. And Wikipedia, which provides a single, objective version, is an impediment to using this tool. This is why the Russian government constantly attempts to censor and limit the content of the Russian-language Wikipedia. 

The Russian authorities have fined Wikipedia creators several times for “not deleting” pages which criticizes the Russian regime. Roskomnadzor frequently demands the Wikimedia Foundation to limit “inaccurate information,” citing the fact that Wikipedia is based in Russia and so, subject to its jurisdiction. In 2022, the creators of Wikipedia filed an appeal against a Russian court decision to remove information about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Their argument is that because this information is based on facts and is verified by volunteers, removing it would violate people’s rights to free expression and access to information. 

Moreover, the description of Wikipedia as operating in Russia is actually false: the site is not subject to Russian jurisdiction. As a result, the Russian establishment is constantly calling for the resource to be blocked.

Title: Who writes Wikipedia. Hundreds of thousands of volunteer contributors and bots are controlled by an army of administrators who are no strangers to their own understanding of the truth

Representatives of the Putin regime frequently criticize Wikipedia. The resource competes with state propaganda because it allows for free editing. For example, Russian “political analyst” Sergei Stillavin claims that Wikipedia cannot be trusted because “this system was created by British intelligence services to shape the worldview they need.” 

The narrative of “controlled by foreigners” is central to Russia’s propaganda rhetoric about Wikipedia. According to the Thirteenth Telegram channel, Wikipedia is a “hostile information base.” In this way, Russian propaganda reminds the population that there are enemies everywhere, that the West is attempting to deceive Russians (and Russian-speaking people, whom Russia routinely classifies as Russian “compatriots”), and that no one (or nothing) can be trusted other than the state. The Soviet Union used the same rhetoric to limit the population’s access to “ideologically harmful” information.

To bolster the narrative, a forgery of Wiki co-founder Larry Sanger’s words was created. Using the context to their advantage, a number of Russian news outlets spread Sanger’s “statement” that the CIA has been controlling Wikipedia since 2008 and that the US government has been using the resource to promote its agenda. 

Headline: Wikipedia co-founder admits that US propaganda influences the content of the encyclopedia

To lessen Wikipedia’s influence in the Russian Federation, the “Ruviki” website was announced in August 2023, as an analogy to the “political, idealized product” Wikipedia. Interestingly, the data demonstrating Russians’ trust in Wikipedia was collected and made public precisely as an argument for the authorities to create an alternative. According to a Public Opinion Institute survey, the vast majority of respondents (92%) use Wikipedia, with 29% doing so frequently. Users of the resource give it an average of 7.3 out of 10 stars for trustworthiness. This helps to explain the Kremlin’s position that, even if alternatives are developed, the resource will still need to be banned because “users do not change their habits overnight.” 

Ruwiki has approximately 1.5 million articles as of November 8, 2023. Ruviki is a website that is completely controlled by Russian authorities, as evidenced by its content, which is comprised of classic Russian World propaganda templates. The site refers to the Dignity Revolution as a “coup d’etat,” and an article about Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine contains a crystallized myth about the “prerequisites for a special operation.” “NATO’s long-term eastward expansion,” “increased arms supplies to Ukraine, which threatened Russia’s security,” as well as “the war in Donbas launched by the Ukrainian authorities.”

The pages that build the Kremlin’s alternate reality are constantly updated with new fakes and distorted facts. For example, as of November 1, 2023, the “Terrorism and Espionage” section of the aforementioned article contained information that Zelenskyy allegedly personally gave orders for “special services operations,” despite the fact that this fake, which distorted a Washington Post article, appeared only a week earlier.

Ruwiki is not the only alternative that Russian authorities are attempting to implement; a number of resources have been created for this purpose. By Putin’s decree in 2022, for example, the Great Russian Encyclopedia platform was established, where articles are written by entire teams of authors. On the Internet, for example, the “Encyclopedia Runiversalis” and the Russian nationalist-chauvinist wiki “Traditsiya” operate.

The Chinese website Baidu Baike is an example of a successful “alternative state wiki” that supports the regime. While the Chinese version of Wikipedia has about 1.2 million articles, Baidu Baike has over 24.5 million. According to the requirements of the party, the Chinese technology company Baidu censors the content of the electronic encyclopedia.

Modifying what cannot be prohibited

The Russian Federation uses Wikipedia to manipulate public opinion in two ways. The first is the above-mentioned open struggle against this resource, and the second is its covert use. 

In October 2022, two British think tanks, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) and the Center for Analysis of Social Media (CASM), presented a report analyzing the activities of 86 editors who were blocked for various violations of Wikipedia’s code of ethics. The report claims that the history of their edits revealed a deliberate attempt to manipulate the narrative and tilt it in favor of Russia.

According to the researchers, these efforts included changing the “language to minimize the objectivity of pro-Western versions and maximize the objectivity of pro-Kremlin versions,” introducing “topics that tilt the historical background toward pro-Russian narratives,” and adding “Kremlin quotes and press releases to the page to increase the visibility of pro-Russian arguments and points of view.” Simultaneously, the researchers discovered evidence that the banned outlets were frequently inserting links to Russian state media.

It is impossible to trace the Russian Federation directly in this case because, while some edits were made from known Kremlin IP addresses, these addresses are easily changed. Given the well-known relationship between Russian leadership and technology, we can assume that someone edited Wiki directly from the Kremlin. Furthermore, the Russian Federation is not alone in this practice: there are a number of bots on the X network that tweet whenever someone changes Wiki pages from parliamentary IP addresses. A bot for Russian government agencies is also available (the English version of the bot has been disabled).

A screenshot from the Parliament WikiEdits account, which posts whenever someone edits Wikipedia using the UK Parliament’s IP address. This address was used to edit the pages on MPs, a constituency, a scientist, and the FIFA 2026 World Cup, as shown in the screenshot.

Specific examples of interference from content analysis 

We examined the pages concerning the topic “Russian invasion of Ukraine” and its derivatives (“War in East Ukraine,” “Explosion of Kakhovka hydroelectric power station”) in three languages: English, Ukrainian, and Russian, emphasizing the differences between the Russian and Ukrainian versions. 

The Russian version of the page “Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine (since 2022)” is fairly objective, stating, for example, that “according to experts, the real reason for the invasion was irrational imperialism, and the goal was to absorb Ukraine by Russia in order to restore Russia’s glory as an empire.” Even in an article that attempts to be objective, there are some aspects that stand out. 

The first is the section “censorship.” The authors define “censorship” as the process of blocking Russian state media in the European Union, the prohibition on using Z-symbols at demonstrations, and sanctions against those who glorify crimes against humanity and justify genocide. Because of this concept substitution, the reader of the article forms an impression of propaganda television as a relevant channel for spreading “alternative truth.” The prohibition on chauvinistic statements is equated with a restriction on free speech. 

“Both sides are guilty” is a popular narrative in Russian rhetoric aimed at distorting the perception of Russia’s aggression in the war. And the article “Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine (from 2022)” elaborates on this story. 

The section on Zaporizhzhia NPP, for example, states: “After the station came under Russian control, its territory was repeatedly shelled, which the parties blamed on each other” – despite the fact that the reference to the source does not contain information about “accusations of both sides,” only that Russian artillery fired at Ukrainian troops hiding behind the Zaporizhzhia NPP – because it cannot be fired at in return. 

“Before and during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the media of both sides waged an information war and actively spread disinformation,” the authors of the article recall, and then specify which aspects of the information war were used by each side. The Russian side used sabotage accusations, the development of biological weapons, and the planning of an attack on Donbas and Crimea, while the Ukrainian side used the urban legend of the “ghost of Kyiv.” The authors of the article put an equal sign between these incomparable facts of disinformation in the first sentence. 

It is worth noting that, in contrast to the Ukrainian and English versions, only the Russian version refers to “mutual accusations of the parties” when referring to the explosion at the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant. The situation is similar on the disaster pages: only the Russian version states in the introduction that “the cause has not been clearly established.”

Unlike its Ukrainian and English versions, Euromaidan is referred to as a “political crisis in Ukraine” on the page “War in Donbas (2014-2022),” and Russian militants are referred to as “pro-Russian separatists.” The page’s structure contributes to the perception of the war as a civil war, as the “forces of the parties” are referred to as “Ukrainian military groups” and “separatist armed groups,” and the Russian Federation’s participation is mentioned in a separate paragraph, where a large amount of information make the impression that “everything is not so clear cut.” 

As a result, even on a resource independent of states and open to editing, such as Wikipedia, there is room for creating meanings favorable to the Kremlin regime. This demonstrates the importance of conducting extensive research into Russia’s information influence. 

When analyzing Russia’s hybrid threats under Putin’s regime, it is critical to consider how the Kremlin interacts with the public consciousness. Information warfare is being waged not only against Ukraine and geopolitically mediated enemies such as the West, but also against Russian-language consumers. 

Wikipedia is one example of how the Russian Federation reinforces its alternative reality by distorting a small portion of information perception. Distrust of facts, doubts, fictitious “enemies,” and devotion to propaganda all transform narratives hidden in details into beliefs that guide human behavior. After all, if both sides are guilty and the entire world seemingly wants to destroy you, then taking part in a genocidal war against a neighboring state is morally justified, isn’t it?