Freedom fighters v. Wikipedia. Is it a tool to distort history?

Falsifications on line
Falsifications on line

The free online encyclopaedia Wikipedia is arguably the most common platform for public accumulation of information. Over time the founders struggled to deal with the increasingly large information flow. Eventually, the ability to edit Wikipedia became attainable to any user willing to do it.

As a result, it has become yet another tool for the operatives and supporters of information warfare. Wikipedia unwillingly became fertile ground to disseminate misleading messages and provoke fierce discussions to boost divisions and tensions within societies.

Not always a trustworthy source of information

Created in 2001, today, Wikipedia is accessible in 299 languages. According to statistics, the Wikipedia platform has 36 million registered users. Total page views per year reached more than 192 billion from June 2018 to June 2019. The number of unique devices accessing the platform varied from 1.5 billion to 1.6 billion per month for the same period.

Most readers perceive the information posted in Wikipedia as sufficiently reliable, not even fact-checking or questioning it. Meanwhile, the academic community and professional media remain cautious. The information and sources are being double-checked before being used. Wikipedia is making its adjustments to distortions as well. As of August 2018, up to 1000 pages were deleted from Wikipedia every day. This number indicates the scale of the ongoing disinformation effort.

The State Security Department of Lithuania rates the discrediting of Freedom fighter movement and the distortion of historical facts as a threat to national security.

According to the State Security Department of Lithuania, in 2018, one of the main targets of Russian policy on history was the Lithuanian Freedom Fighter and resistance movement. Freedom fighters of the Baltic States are also often called Forest Brothers. The small scale of 50 000 Freedom fighters in the Baltics in post Second World War period is contradicting to the historical narratives of resurging and continuously aggressive Russia.

It seems derogation of Lithuanian Freedom fighters will continue to be actively used by Russia to fuel strife within societies of the Baltic States. In the attempts to discredit the most famous Freedom fighters and resistance figures genuine and fake aspects of the Holocaust in Lithuania are also used to deepen discords within the society and get wider international attention.

One of the most famous Lithuanian freedom fighters, Juozas Lukša – Daumantas, was accused of directly contributing to the mass murder of Jews in Kaunas in June of 1941. Russian version published in Wikipedia states the resistance fighter-to-be allegedly single-handedly decapitated a rabbi. This false accusation is also often repeated in talk shows of various Russian propagandists. There were other unsuccessful attempts to discredit Adolfas Ramanauskas “Vanagas”, general Jonas Žemaitis “Vytautas” and other prominent figures.

Russia is manipulating facts and falsifying history

Auksė Ūsienė, an analyst at the Department of Strategic Communication of the Lithuanian Armed Forces, points out that this is Russia’s way to justify their historical narrative. As though there was no occupation of Lithuania, while the Freedom fighters were merely bandits that just killed innocent civilians, and, in general, a civil war was raging in Lithuania. News and TV coverage in Russia is hot on every freedom fight-related event in Lithuania with a series of similar messages, and distorted facts repeated continuously.

According to Auksė Ūsienė, Russia and its allies are also manipulating historical narratives from much earlier historical periods aiming at the very statehood of Lithuania. For example, the page about Lithuanian King Mindaugas in Belarussian Wikipedia does not even mention him being a king. The same can be observed describing famous battles Lithuanians are proud of. Russian Wikipedia downsizes the battle of Orsha (1514) as insignificant and drastically scales down the numbers of troops – from many tens of thousands to 12 thousand on each opposing side.

Lithuanian parliament declared 2014 the Year of the Battle of Orsha, commemorating the anniversary of the Battle.  The Russian ambassador to Lithuania commented on this as an exaggeration of the success of the battle claiming it was evident to every historian that this event was not worthy of such attention. It is, thus, not surprising that the information warfare specialists support these narratives and flock to update the free encyclopaedia. However, according to Auksė Ūsienė, such abuses do not go unnoticed by the administrators of Wikipedia themselves, who restrict particularly frequent editing.

How to recognise false information

It is essential to consider the trends and targets when combating the rapidly growing flow of misinformation on the information warfare front line.  Information warfare is usually aimed at changing behaviour by misleading the public, sowing doubts and distrusting real facts. Therefore, in this case, it would be advisable not to limit yourself to just one source and only one language, but rather check multiple sources.

When it comes to checking the information in the Wikipedia Free Encyclopaedia, it is handy to study articles in multiple languages and see if facts match. Checking the sources in the footnotes and paying attention to their authors is a good option. It is also helpful to analyse the page’s editing history to keep track of who and how often edited the information.

It is not uncommon for the editor of an article to remain anonymous. Sometimes the information edited by anonymous users is rated by Wikipedia as untrustworthy. Sometimes the bibliography provided in the footnotes contains unreliable sources. For example, the aforementioned Russian article about Juozas Lukša – Daumantas refers to the memoirs of NKVD employee, the butcher of freedom fighters Nachman Dushanski, which is not only incredibly biased but in many cases false.

Manipulations regarding Jonas Noreika – General Vėtra (Storm)

Most of the Lithuanian editions of Wikipedia page about Jonas Noreika “General Vėtra (General Storm)” have been performed by a doctor of mathematics and lecturer at Vilnius Gediminas Technical University Andrius Jonas Kulikauskas. A.J. Kulikauskas is an active author on the website known as Defending History, which contains an abundance of thoughts on the actual and alleged crimes in the history of the Holocaust in Lithuanians, particularly on those figures that were involved in anti-Soviet freedom fights.

A.J. Kulikauskas actively contributes to this website with at least 7 articles on Jonas Noreika alone. Founded in 2009, Defending History publishes controversial articles on Lithuanian history. Worth to note that one of the founders and main editors of Defending History is known to have been a member of “Мир без нацизма” (“A World without Nazism”), an organisation founded by the Kremlin.

It is evident that the aim of the page’s founders is not only to reveal the true crimes during the Holocaust, but also to systematically shift the blame on particular individuals, on the ethnicities, and even on the States. In one of his articles, A.J. Kulikauskas unscrupulously labels both alive and murdered Freedom fighters as Nazis or fans of Adolf Hitler, and resents the Lithuanian Court’s decision regarding Jonas Noreika “General Vėtra”.

Corrections made in the J Noreika page
Corrections made in the J Noreika page

Since the articles are published in English, it sounds reasonable to assume that these are attempts to defame Lithuania in the West, as though Nazism is being revived here, this way helping the Kremlin in one of its ambitions – also casting a shadow on Lithuania as an unreliable ally of NATO and the EU. From 2012 to 2019, the aforementioned Andrius Jonas Kulikauskas has edited Jonas Noreika’s account on Wikipedia 11 times. Frequent, consecutive edits are seen in 2012, 2014 and 2019. A.J.Kulikauskas is also editing Noreika’s Wikipedia page in English.

While investigating the editing history of the Wikipedia page of “General Vėtra”, it is evident that there is a great deal of rush to fill in the information in Lithuanian, Russian, as well as English languages. After the recent events in Vilnius, when a plaque commemorating Jonas Noreika – General Vėtra (Storm) was shattered, Noreika’s page on Wikipedia in the Russian language was quickly updated on the matter.

Jonas Noreika General Vėtra
Jonas Noreika General Vėtra

Even Der Spiegel…

Yet again the one-sidedness and unreliability of the sources, especially in the Russian language in Wikipedia’s page on Noreika are striking. It is hard not to see that most of the footnotes to the source of information lead to Russian propaganda sites. Russian version refers to an article published in1984 in the German magazine Der Spiegel written by none other than former KGB employee Leonid Olschwang. Right at the beginning of the page in Russian language, J. Noreika is introduced as a collaborator to Nazis and a participant of the anti-Soviet resistance.

It is then falsely claimed that he urged for a fight against the Jews in his anti-Semitic booklet of 1933, while in fact, he urged Lithuanians not to be lazy and to get themselves involved into commerce and not to sell merchandise to Jews. Facts are further distorted by portraying his anti-Nazi activity for which he was sentenced by Nazis to Stutthof concentration camp as organisation and murdering of Jews in Lithuania.

He is further blamed for organizing the Holocaust in Plungė town of Lithuania. If one would compare the pages on Noreika in Lithuanian, English and Russian languages – the information in these pages is tremendously different. It would be reasonable to conclude that this is just one example of manipulation that Kremlin propagandists use to cast doubt on any character that was part of the Lithuanian Freedom fight movement.

How and whether work will be carried out to make public information trustworthy

It is of utmost importance to look for alternative ways to ensure the transparency and trustworthiness of general information. “It is not easy to correct the opinions of people who have already established firm views. The society’s literacy and capability to analyse information comes into play here. But, unfortunately, many still regard Wikipedia as an automatically trustworthy source of information. Overall the flow of information is massive, a fierce battle is raging here, and even educated people are easily fooled,” says Alkas Paltarokas, the head of one of the Lithuanian private agencies specialising in communications.

Statement of the Committee on European Affairs

“Freedom of expression is one of the fundamental values of the European Union. Inscribed in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania, it allows citizens to take part in democratic processes, which are being made increasingly difficult by the substantial and systematic dissemination of disinformation.

The statement of the Committee accentuates a firm belief that the goal of disinformation campaigns is to harm to undermine democracy in any Member State as well as to discredit the European project itself. The society is encouraged to evaluate the sources of misinformation.  Civil society and the private sector, mainly social media networks are encouraged to assume an essential role in fighting disinformation.  Committee on European Affairs of Lithuanian Parliament emphasised the importance of appropriate economic and social strategies aimed to boost trust in the State by the most misinformed, frustrated and distrustful groups of citizens, who succumb to populist instigation and hybrid influences.

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