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Tilt! How to get bias into a Wikipedia article

To all you budding propagandists in Wikiland: too many of you are working like a bunch of amateurs. Sorry to be so negative, but you have to understand that getting bias into the Wikipedia is a skill; it requires practice, finesse and imagination. It has to be learned; it is not a natural thing, though some have more talent for it than others.

I have been following the Middle East Wikipedia battleground for a few years now, and have been very impressed with the skill of some editors in introducing bias into articles. To ingenuous editors, some of these techniques may seem innocuous enough; in many cases, it is hard to see how proposed edits are biasing an article one way or another. It is, in fact, only in the last few months that I have been able to define what these techniques are and how they work to introduce bias.[1]

The first thing you need to know as a budding propagandist is this: there are two levels at which bias is introduced into the Wikipedia: at the article level, and at the topic level. You need to set your sights high: you don't want to merely bias a single article, you want the entire Wikipedia on your side. Without understanding the importance of topic bias, it is hard to understand many of the article-level techniques, so I will start with the topic level.

Topic bias[edit]

The Wikipedia is a tremendous tool for propaganda. Good propagandists want all the articles dealing with their particular topic to reflect their bias. You should, therefore, start with the broad view: look at all the articles dealing with a topic, and see how you can create an overall picture that supports you.

Many is better[edit]

Having many articles on a topic of interest is better than having one article, even if one coherent article would be better than many disorganized ones. This is good because it increases the chances of a reader coming across one of the articles through a Google search. Take, for example, the issue of anti-Arab sentiment in Israel. One could write an excellent, all-encompassing article on this, including the legal aspects, the socio-cultural aspects, and all the different areas of discrimination. But a better approach would be to write three articles: Racism in Israel, Human rights in Israel, Israel and the Apartheid Analogy. All three of these deal with essentially the same topic. They are different enough in focus so that attempts to merge them will fail the consensus test. Most important, if a reader searches for any combination of the search terms Human rights, Racism, Apartheid, and Israel, a Wikipedia article will pop up as first choice.

Examples of article spawning are rife in the Wikipedia. For example, every one of the Palestinian villages abandoned during the 1948 war has an article, even though most of these articles have no content to speak of. A more concise and interesting way to present this information would have been in a table, with articles for some of the more prominent villages about which there is more information; but, by creating an article for every village, we guarantee that a reader will land on our article through a Google search.

Remember that, for disputed topics, it is easy to create an article but hard to delete it. Deletion requires consensus, and your friends will militate to prevent an article from being deleted, even if it is clearly redundant. Look at the arguments over the deletion of Anti-Israel lobby in the United States. This attempt to delete the article was doomed to failure from the outset, even though there are two other articles which cover exactly the same subject (Opposition in the United States to the Israeli Occupation and Arab lobby in the United States).

Look at the big picture[edit]

Make sure articles support each other, then link them together, either through links in the text (best) or through See Also links. This way, a reader gets the whole picture. This is also one of the reasons that you want to create a lot of articles. Once you get the reader into the Wikipedia, even with a stub article, you can lead him to other articles of interest to you.

Another important part of looking at the big picture is to create consistency across articles. I discuss this more below. For example, you want to be sure that all your political opponents are labelled, while you want to avoid labels for your friends. This way, your enemies appear to be part of an extreme fringe, while your friends appear to be mainstream.

Use Wikipedia as an opening to your world[edit]

Many readers start their research on a topic at the Wikipedia. Be sure that, from your article, they will find their ways to other websites supporting your view. The best way to do this is through in-line links. Next best is through the External links section, and also good is in the References.

Article-level bias[edit]

While the topic level is your main concern, it is at the article level where the battles are fought and won. Your effort in introducing bias into an article is twofold: you must make your enemies look bad, and you must protect your friends from attacks by opponent propagandists (or merely editors seeking neutrality). Here are some of the main techniques.

Label your enemy[edit]

but never your friends. Look at the talk page of Gideon Levy for an example. Try to get Gideon Levy, an Israeli journalist outspoken against Israeli policies and attitudes toward Palestinians, labelled as "left wing". But make sure the labeller - for example, columnist Ben-Dror Yemini, who has distinguished himself with a series of scathing, even slanderous, attacks on Israeli peace and social change groups - is not identified politically.

On first look, it is unclear why calling someone "left-wing" (or "right-wing" if you are militating for the left) is biased. Many people are left wing and are proud of it. But the point here is not to identify the subject's politics; it is to identify the subject as outside of consensus. Because the subject's critics are not identified, readers assume they are mainstream, or representing some objective opinion. This is the key to the subtle smear. Use it.

Incidentally, this is a tactic used successfully by the pro-Israel and pro-settlement propagandists, and not at all by the pro-Palestinian propagandists. Articles on Avigdor Lieberman, Arutz Sheva, Effie Eitam - all representatives of Israel's extreme right - have nothing in their articles to classify their politics, while Gideon Levy, Gush Shalom, and Yossi Beilin - the last, at least, being a mainstream politician, for years associated with the Labor party -- are all identified as "left wing".

Prefer the vague to the specific[edit]

One of your main objectives when writing about an enemy is to avoid giving the enemy a platform for his or her views. Try to keep the enemy's positions as vague as possible. For example, take Gideon Levy, the journalist who writes about discriminatory Israeli policies and attitudes toward Arabs. Levy is a very clear and careful writer, who has stated with ultimate clarity what his position is. As a propagandist, whatever you do, don't let Levy's statements into the article. A lead that describes Levy as a general "critic of Israel" is much better than something like "a critic of Israeli policy and attitudes toward Arabs." The less specific, the better.

Describing an enemy as a generic "critic of Israel" makes that enemy appear to have a general bias. It means, this person doesn't think about the substance of things - he thinks everything Israel does is bad. This is a good way to denigrate that enemy's opinions.

If you are forced to include substantive statements about an enemy's opinions, try to push them as far down in the article as you can. And write them as generally and as cryptically as you can. Long, obtuse sentences, fragmentary quotes that say nothing, convoluted syntax, all contribute to obfuscating your enemy's views. "Levy is a prominent left-wing critic of Israel and Jewish settlers, to whom he attributes 'the hard reality on the Palestinian side'". What does that mean? It took me a while to understand that it means nothing, and quite intentionally. It is a brilliant attempt to blur, to garble, to obfuscate.

Keep your eye on the ball[edit]

I will tell you a secret: many issues are complicated and have many facets. Keep this a secret. Always treat issues as though there is only one thing involved, and everything else is irrelevant. For example, take the article on the Golan Heights. The Golan Heights, everyone agrees, is Syrian territory that has been occupied by Israel. Wall-to-wall agreement that the Golan Heights belongs to Syria. No one is arguing with that. The fact that most of the current population is Israeli, that all of the transportation, communications, infrastructure, governance, language and culture are Israeli is all irrelevant. The fact that today the only way to get to the Golan Heights is to fly to Tel Aviv and take a bus or taxi is irrelevant; the only issue is that the Golan Heights is Syrian. So, when you put a map into the Wikipedia article, the more explicit that fact is, the better. Don't use the National Geographic map, for example, which shows the Golan as politically part of Syria, but obviously open to Israel. Instead, use the CIA map, that has the word "Syria" written boldly across the ceasefire line, and makes it appear that there is no way to get from Tiberias to Quneitra, without a very long roundabout trip through Damascus.

Remember, in every article, there is only one point to be made. Make that point; don't get sidetracked by anything.

Downplay controversy[edit]

This was a surprise to me. I frequently encountered propagandists who consistently tried to downplay controversy. "I have no intention on making him more controversial than he is," wrote Jaakobou of Gideon Levy. He repeatedly complained of language describing the very intense debate over this journalist - "inappropriate"; "needlessly sentimental".

Why do you want to downplay controversy over someone whose views you clearly despise? Because you want to make this person seem fringe, unimportant. "Levy's opinions are just that and there's no need for the fluff", wrote Jaakobou at one point. Levy is living on the lunatic fringe; no one takes his opinions seriously, and so there is no need to exaggerate the minor controversy surrounding his writings.

There is a corollary to this rule: the more influential your opponent, the more you want to downplay controversy. But if a person or group has little or no influence, feel free to denigrate them in the most colorful terms. Look at the lead to Gush Shalom: "Mainstream Israeli media... describe it, on occasion, as "radical" and "extreme". Because Gush Shalom has little influence in the Israeli political arena, feel free to slander it at will.

Attack the source[edit]

This is an old and familiar trick, there is little I can add. It is important to know, though, that in the battle over reliable sources anything goes - lying, trickery, the basest chicanery. Jaakobou complained that Peace Now - a group devoted to researching the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank - had made up a citation from a government report on the West Bank settlement of Mitzpe Ha'ai that appeared on the group's website. "I went ahead and checked their claim that an official report requested by the Prime Minister stated something on Mitzpe Ha'ai. The Mitzpe was not mentioned in the original," he wrote in the discussion on the Reliable sources noticeboard. When someone pointed out the section and page where the settlement was mentioned, he claimed that the mention did not include the specific information that was included in the article. When the original passage was quoted in its entirety, he still didn't give up; he claimed that the addition of a satellite photo of the settlement on the web page made the citation unreliable ("citing the content to Peace Now is problematic, since they add their own words and images to wiki-reliable information").

The point is: never give up. If you don't win this time, maybe you will win next time. And remember, all your efforts are documented in the archives forever, if anyone ever wants to read them.

The grounds for banning an unfriendly reliable source are myriad, you should use them all. For example, Moshe Pearlman, for years a respected Israeli journalist who started his career as head of the prestate secret service, wrote a biography of Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, the Mufti of Jerusalem who was a virulent opponent of Jewish settlement and an ally of the Nazis. His biography was considered for years to be the authoritative biography, based on his personal knowledge of the subject, and his access to secret files documenting the Mufti's activities. But Pearlman's book was banned as a reliable source, not because of his personal bias (which was undeniable) but because Pearlman was not an historian by training.

Never quote your enemy[edit]

This is actually a corollary of the rule to prefer the vague over the specific. The last thing you want to do is to advertise your enemy's remarks. It is, of course, almost impossible to keep the enemy's words out of the article when there are other editors involved. Some of the tactics you can use: use only a small fragment of a quote, or paraphrase the quote and put the original in a footnote. Paraphrasing is a powerful tool in your hands. You can always give a different spin to a quote by paraphrasing. See, for example, this revision of the Gideon Levy article, before other editors started getting involved. It does not contain a single quote by Levy in its entirety - all fragments.

Use the talk page[edit]

While you want to downplay controversy in the article, you should be as rambunctious as possible on the talk page. The rules governing BLP (biographies of living persons) and reliability of information are much more lax, or don't apply at all, on the talk page. So you can slander freely there, bring comments and information from the most dubious of sources, and no one can complain. As long as you are not so abusive that your remarks get deleted by an administrator, whatever you write is there forever.

While most general readers never look at the talk page, it is important to document these things. Objections will arise again and again, and you should see your comments on the talk page as building a case over the long run. You can always refer to an argument as having been previously settled in a long-ago thread that is buried in some archive, and hope that no one actually looks there.

When all else fails - fork[edit]

The content fork is an important tool for the propagandist. The trick in creating a successful fork is to make the subject of the fork different enough (at least ostensibly) from the original that it is hard to delete, and then enlisting your friends in the deletion discussion.

Perhaps the most insolent example of forking is Arab salad, which actually contains some of the same language as its progenitor, Israeli salad. That the Wikipedia should call this indigenous Arab dish by its Israeli name so incensed pro-Palestinian editors that they created this clone, and successfully defeated the merge attempt.

Rules of etiquette[edit]

Much has already been written on the subject of wikietiquette, and behaviors that are considered disruptive. As a propagandist, your only concern in this area should be not to get topic-banned. Remember that your objective is not to convince anyone of the rightness of your way. This is an impossible task and therefore a waste of time. Opposing editors will never be convinced by your arguments, and the best you can hope for is to get them neutralized by goading them into a gross violation of civility, about which you can then complain at Wikipedia:Arbitration enforcement. But even this is unlikely and risky, as the other players on the article talk page are probably just as savvy as you.

Editing styles of propagandists range from feigned extreme politeness (Jaakobou) to sarcasm and baiting (Supreme Deliciousness). This is largely a matter of personal preference, and really makes no difference to the end result.

There are, however, two principles that you should follow.

Don't budge[edit]

Compromise is for wimps. You have a message to deliver; don't let others force you into compromise.

Don't give up[edit]

If at first you don't prevail, you may decide to step out of the fray for a while. But always come back. Wikipedia editors come and go, but your cause is eternal. Follow Jaakobou's example: He was losing the battle for his biased lead at Gideon Levy, so he stepped out of the talk page before consensus could be reached. Without him (but with others more compromising), agreement was reached on the text of the article. Nine months later, Jaakobou returned and tried to reintroduce the same lead that had been rejected. When I said that there was a consensus on the wording of the article, Jaakobou protested that he was not part of that consensus and had never agreed with the wording of the lead as it stood. He was absolutely right - he ducked out at just the right moment, thus preserving his right to return and fight again. And again. And again...


  1. ^ Most of the examples for this essay are taken from editing battles I have been involved with - either as a partisan or as a go-between - in the last couple of weeks; and primarily with User:Jaakobou at Gideon Levy and with User:Supreme Deliciousness at several articles.