On Kazakh-language Wikipedia, Crowdsourcing Meets Crowd Mentality

by Myles G. Smith on 12/27/2012

Over at EurasiaNet, I pointed to the heated discussion over Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales’ involvement with the Kazakh government on his user page. Heated, at least, until Wales closed off discussion on the topic of manipulation and bias in his freely-editable Wikipedia page in a curiously unironic rant:

I’m closing this discussion because it has reached the point of the absurd. I have responded to the last comments which were made, so participants and other interested parties can look at that. But I’m going to insist that this discussion, if re-opened, be premised on “Assume Good Faith”.

I’m willing to assume good faith with the guy – I don’t know him, and I’m going to venture to guess that like Sting, Depardieu, and, if our sources are correct, J.Lo, Wales doesn’t know Central Asia. But, he should have known to hedge his praise for the Kazakh Wikipedia project and its implementers at Wikibilim, which its CEO says is funded by Open Society Foundations, the Samruk Kaznya State Investment Fund, and the Wikimedia Foundation.

As I noted, it took only a few seconds of browsing Wikipedia’s own meta-data to find that the Kazakh-language version was full of single-author articles.  Another user in the forum pointed out that thousands of new articles had been created based on donated texts of the official state encyclopedia, at the hands of paid editors.

I find it hard to believe that the sudden surge in the Kazakh wikipedia is due to “volunteers”. Where did the 30 mio. Tenge that Samruk-Kazyna pumped into the project go if not into paid editing? Some of the new content is lifted straight from the “official”, regime-approved Kazakh national encyclopedia. What we have here is basically a hostile takeover. Imho the appropriate response to that kind of content, and the way it is funnelled into Wikipedia, would be “thanks, but no, thanks”. That is, the [Wikimedia Foundation’s] response. Instead it is being touted as a token of the success of the Wiki principle. I find it hard to swallow that.

I also find the idea that thousands of diligent volunteer Kazakh Wikipedians are hard at work writing up an unbiased encyclopedia of the world and of their country. The incentives for it are all wrong. The rewards for glowing diatribes on Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan are clear, but the risks involved in challenging that narrative are equally so.

We venture to submit that though dissenting voices may not be tolerated in the press, on television, in elections, or at public rallies, that somehow a relatively free Internet sphere will remain a last bastion of free discourse. This is basically Wikibilim CEO’s Rauan Kenzhekhanuly’s argument:

Believe or not, but we live in a country where people can go online and express their opinion. Please, bear in mind that people here just getting aquatinted with the WP and other technologies, and I do believe that at some point all the articles in Kazakh WP will meet standards you know. Wikibilim is working to make it true asap.

I submit that the Kazakh-language Wikipedia will be one forum where we see the limits of this theory. Where are they going to find the volunteers willing to risk their scholarships, jobs, or freedom to edit official history?

Many of who know better about what is written there will know better than to write it.

I suspect Kenzhekhanuly, regardless of his motives, knows that in countries with virtually no civil society, there is no place where politics end and civic discourse, unbiased research, and public information begins. This is why he ‘approached the government for help’ – without government involvement in social projects, there is no project. This is a reality that Open Society Foundations, USAID, and now even Wikipedia must face when dealing with a well-resourced, authoritarian state.

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– author of 12 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Myles G. Smith is a project manager, consultant, and independent analyst based in Central Asia. His writing appears regularly at EurasiaNet.org, the Jamestown Foundation, and the Central Asia and Caucasus Institute. He is currently based in Kyrgyzstan, has lived in Turkmenistan and Russia and worked throughout the former Soviet Union. In the process of his work, he regularly consults a wide range of experts, officials, activists, journalists, academics, diplomats and entrepreneurs in the region. He is proficient in Russian.

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