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Saudi Arabia infiltrated Wikipedia to control editorial content, NGOs say

January 8, 2023 at 9:47 am

Photo illustration of the Wikipedia logo [Illustration by Mateusz Slodkowski/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images]

Saudi Arabia’s government has allegedly infiltrated the famous online encyclopedia Wikipedia in an attempt to control its editorial content, convicting and imprisoning two of its administrators in the process.

In a joint statement by the NGOs Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) and SMEX, which cited anonymous sources with knowledge of the operations of the site’s parent company Wikimedia, “the Saudi Arabian government infiltrated Wikipedia by recruiting the organization’s highest-ranked administrators in the country…to control information about the country and prosecuting those who contributed critical information about political detainees.”

The two high-ranking Wikipedia administrators who had access to edit fully protected pages – Ossama Khalid and Ziyad al-Sofiani – were arrested by Saudi authorities in September 2020 and then sentenced to 32 and 8 years in prison.

The two NGOs stated that they had evidence of the kingdom’s penetration of Wikipedia based on interviews with anonymous sources close to the site and the imprisoned administrators.

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The alleged Saudi infiltration comes weeks after Wikimedia announced the banning of 16 volunteers from its educational platforms who had “conflicts of interest” while editing pages on Wikipedia in the Middle East and North Africa region. The company said it “was able to confirm that a number of users with close connections with external parties were editing the platform in a coordinated fashion to advance the aim of those parties”.

It stated at the time that “While we do not know exactly where they reside, the actions targeting volunteers, who may have been Saudi, were part of a much broader effort…across the region”.

Following DAWN’s and Smex’s findings, however, Wikimedia said Saudi penetration is “unlikely to be the case”, even though some users “who may have been Saudi” were amongst those banned. “These organisations did not share the statement with the [Wikimedia] Foundation, and ‘sources of knowledge’ as cited in their release can get things wrong.”

According to DAWN’s Executive Director, Sarah Leah Whitson, the reported Saudi infiltration of Wikipedia demonstrates “not only its persistent use of spies inside international organisations but the dangers of attempting to produce independent content in the country”. An official from the NGO also said it “shows a terrifying glimpse of how the Saudi government seeks to control the narrative and Wikipedia”.

Despite Wikimedia playing down the allegations of Saudi infiltration and refusing to confirm them, reports of the kingdom attempting to plant and recruit spies inside other companies with worldwide influence have been revealed over the years, with Twitter – under the site’s former management – being a key example, especially after a US court sentenced a former Twitter employee to three and a half years in prison for spying for Saudi officials last month.