Wikipedia’s ‘Supreme Court’ to Review Polish-Jewish History During WWIIReading Time: 7 minutes
Wikipedia’s Supreme Court Is About to Take on One of the Site’s Most Controversial Subjects, Wikipedia reflects historical disputes—but it can’t resolve them., How Wikipedia covers the history of the Holocaust in Poland.
Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s information ecosystem.
Believe it or not, the hottest controversy on Wikipedia right now isn’t about Elon Musk, Donald Trump, or ChatGPT. In fact, it’s something seemingly more distant: the history of Jews in Poland during World War II.
The vast majority of controversies between Wikipedia editors are handled locally by the contributors working on those articles without a formal dispute-resolution process. Only a handful of controversies rise to the level where the Arbitration Committee—essentially Wikipedia’s Supreme Court—agrees to get involved. There were only seven last year, and six the year prior. But an explosive academic essay published by professors Jan Grabowski and Shira Klein in February about Wikipedia’s coverage of the Holocaust in Poland spurred ArbCom to review the matter, opening a new case on March 13 after finding the topic’s articles to be ‘broken’ and its editorial culture ‘toxic.’
As of now, the tribunal is collecting hundreds upon hundreds of page edits known as diffs, digital evidence from more than a decade’s worth of bitter back-and-forth changes. ArbCom’s final decision on the case is scheduled for May 11, but those who are looking for Wikipedia’s highest court to issue a ruling on the historical truth might want to temper their expectations.
It is hard to convey the sheer magnitude of the underlying historical tragedies at issue—From 1941 to 1945, Nazi Germany murdered some 6 million Jews. Roughly half of these victims had resided in Poland, which claimed prewar Europe’s largest Jewish population. The Auschwitz complex of concentration and extermination camps was located in Poland, as were others.
The suffering of Poland’s non-Jewish population was also extraordinary, even by the standards of World War II. Poland was the only nation to be attacked simultaneously by the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, both of whom rejected Poland’s right to exist as a sovereign nation and set about eliminating the country’s political, cultural, and military elites. More than 2 million non-Jewish Poles are estimated to have perished during the war, which left the country in ruins.
Polish Jews and the broader nation of Poland were thus victims of previously unimaginable horrors, and acknowledging one tragedy, and the suffering of one population, shouldn’t detract from the other. But the historical record remains subject to intense political scrutiny, unresolved wounds, and understandable sensitivities. Grabowski, a professor of history at the University of Ottawa, points to a narrative that has emerged among some Polish people that World War II was ‘a period when the nation achieved the peak of moral virtue’ in resisting the Nazis. According to Grabowski, this interpretation of events is far too simplistic. While it is true that Poland did not have an organized, institutional collaboration with the Germans, as was seen in many European countries, the country experienced some of the same antisemitism that prevailed elsewhere in Europe, and Grabowski has researched cases of Polish involvement in the suffering of its own Jewish population. The Holocaust itself remains a fiery political topic in modern Polish politics. In 2018, the country’s current right-wing populist government passed legislation that penalized any public speech attributing responsibility for the genocide to Poland. The law was met with widespread international criticism for its infringement on free speech and academic freedom. As a result of the backlash, the Polish government removed criminal prosecution from the law, although individuals can still face charges in civil court.
This extended historical discourse—and the charged political atmosphere—has long been playing out on Wikipedia, and Grabowski’s own article has become one of the battlegrounds. In the academic essay that prompted ArbCom to take the case, Grabowski and Klein, a professor at Chapman University, write, ‘In the last decade, a group of committed Wikipedia editors have been promoting a skewed version of history on Wikipedia, one touted by right-wing Polish nationalists, which whitewashes the role of Polish society in the Holocaust and bolsters stereotypes about Jews.’ Based on their review of 25 public-facing Wikipedia articles and nearly 300 of Wikipedia’s back pages, Grabowski and Klein argue that this distortionist group of editors has spread misinformation about Polish society on Wikipedia and minimized the extent of Polish antisemitism during World War II.
One striking example of misinformation that formerly appeared on Wikipedia was the fake Nazi death camp, which was first reported by Omer Benjakob for Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper. From 2004 to 2019, the Wikipedia entry for the ‘Warsaw Concentration Camp’ stated that the Nazis killed more than 200,000 ethnic Poles via gas chambers at KL Warschau, even though there is no credible evidence that KL Warschau was an extermination camp. Some Wikipedians have suggested that this misinformation crept in due to Wikipedia’s lax sourcing standards in its early years. Other Wikipedia editors believe that it was a deliberate attempt by Polish revisionists to distort the facts by suggesting that ethnic Polish and Jewish people suffered in similar ways. The death camp misinformation appeared on Wikipedia for 15 years before the article was completely rewritten in August 2019, and is one of many examples recounted by Grabowski and Klein.
Although their academic essay is quite critical of Wikipedia, Klein told me that she is not opposed to the website and in fact supervises students involved in the Wiki Ed educational program. ‘Wikipedia is amazing—it’s free, gets updated constantly, and because anyone can edit it, it gives voice to marginalized groups so long ignored by traditional encyclopedias,’ she said in an email. ‘I don’t think we need to do away with Wikipedia. However, we do need to stop those who abuse it.’
Sometimes that abuse is relatively easy to identify. In 2019, ArbCom disciplined the two editors most involved in this subject area, instituting a topic ban for their ‘incivility and inflammatory rhetoric.’ But what about the more insidious cases when there are no blatant signs of harassment? Wikipedians told me that these ‘civil’ disputes are much more challenging to resolve because of a key jurisdictional issue: ArbCom has authority to decide on user conduct disputes but is not permitted to rule on article content.
There is something deeply unsatisfying about this dichotomy. ‘The connection between conduct and content is so contingent. You can be polite and wrong, and you can be rude and right,’ said David Nelken, a law professor who studies dispute processing on Wikipedia as an emerging example of transnational law. Then again, Wikipedia’s volunteer arbitrators aren’t necessarily lawyers or subject matter experts. Instead, they are highly experienced editors who have been entrusted by the site’s community. Content is beyond their scope to judge. History is beyond their scope to resolve.
I asked Klein about potential reforms. ‘When something is said with enough force and confidence, it just looks really persuasive, even if it’s complete nonsense,’ she said. ‘In this kind of case, Wikipedia needs more expertise. It needs academia.’ (The Wikipedia user Piotrus, one of the alleged distortionists, seemed to agree with this point. ‘I am a big proponent of getting scholars to edit Wikipedia,’ he said in an interview. ‘We need subject matter experts on Wikipedia, including Grabowski and Klein.’)
Could experts really save Wikipedia? On the one hand, there is a lot to be said for greater collaboration between scholars and Wikipedia; after all, Wiki pages often have far more reach and page views than traditional scholarly papers. But some Wikipedians are understandably cautious about handing the site over to an exclusive club of specialists. Previous experiments have flopped, such as Nupedia—the predecessor to Wikipedia—which required volunteer contributors with appropriate subject matter expertise for every article. That project was shut down in 2003 after producing only 21 articles during its inaugural year.
Contentious issues, moreover, don’t cease being contentious when experts are called in, and there are other ways that involving experts in Wikipedia’s adjudicative process could backfire in future cases. Consider the two other topics that, along with the Holocaust in Poland, Wikipedia has placed in its highest category of concern: India–Pakistan and Israel–Palestine. If the precedent is established to invite experts into an ArbCom trial, each side would enlist its own champion advocate in Court TV fashion. The volunteer arbitrators would have to decide who won the battle of experts, despite having no formal qualifications to do so.
More fundamentally, looping in experts at a content trial would undercut the ethos of Wikipedia. The spirit of the site is that volunteer editors curate information by following certain policies, such as using reliable sources. So long as those policies are followed, it’s not supposed to make a difference whether experts are actually involved in the article-making process.
But that doesn’t mean Wikipedia is helpless to correct course when things go awry. Since Grabowski and Klein published their paper, a few of the most egregious distortions have been removed from Wikipedia. This happened in part due to an injection of fresh blood. New Wikipedians have taken an interest in this subject matter, contributors from outside of what one user described as the ‘usual cartels.’ That’s the hope: Once an issue has been spotlighted by the outside world, Wikipedians are capable of handling it themselves.
But are they always? Consider the example of TrangaBellam, a Wikipedia user from India who is based in the Netherlands. After Grabowski and Klein published their essay, TrangaBellam sought to bring her outsider’s perspective to this topic area and support the cleanup effort. But when she tried to update these Wikipedia pages, she was met with what she described as a ‘pretty hostile reception.’ The usual cabal was fiercely territorial about these articles, reverting her changes and implying that no newbies were allowed. Clearly, a small group of Wikipedia editors seems to be trying to exhaust the other side until they no longer have the time or energy to fight. As one editor who has retired from this space put it: ‘the sheer … tiredness that the entire topic area … elicits in me. It’s a cesspit of battleground behavior.’
If there’s a silver lining to Wikipedia taking up the case, it could be this: Battleground behavior is a conduct issue that is clearly within ArbCom’s scope. While we may not expect justice in terms of Wikipedia settling the truth, something truthful may emerge by other means. Until then, the Wikipedia editors at the center of the controversy have been vigorously defending their actions in the court of public opinion, citing sustained off-Wiki harassment and reputational damage. Their situation serves as a stark reminder that the boundary between ‘real’ life and Wikipedia activity can be perilously thin, and that engaging with this painful history poses risks for everyone involved.
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