‘Iranian cyber army’ blamed as Wikipedia deletes atrocities

FIONA HAMILTON     |     THE TIMES     |     JANUARY 8, 2024

Wikipedia entries have been changed to downgrade Iranian human rights atrocities and other abuses, The Times has learnt.

The alterations raise concerns that the site is being used to ­manipulate information about the hardline Islamic regime. Details have been changed to discredit dissident groups, and government publications have been presented as impartial sources on the free online encyclopaedia.

In one case key details about mass executions by the regime were removed. The involvement of senior officials in the 1988 death commissions, in which thousands of political prisoners were killed, was also deleted. In a separate ruling, supporters of Vahid Beheshti, an Iranian human rights activist who went on hunger strike in the UK, were thwarted when they tried to set up a Wikipedia page.

Mattie Heaven, Mr Beheshti’s wife, said four attempts were made to set up a page because there was so much online misinformation about her husband, who continues to put pressure on the British government to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organisation. Ms Heaven said the text was repeatedly ­removed so the page could not function. “We believed it was the Iranian cyber army,” she said.

The Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit group that operates Wikipedia, said all content was ­determined by its global community of volunteers. A spokeswoman said all information was required to be neutral and verified by ­reliable sources. Serial offenders could be banned, she added.

The online encyclopaedia also deleted references to the jailing of an Iranian official in Sweden in 2022 for human rights abuses, and the expulsion of two Iranian diplomats from Albania in 2018 over their alleged involvement in a bomb plot against dissidents. The changes were made anonymously so it is impossible to question the motives.

Ms Heaven, an adviser to the International Organisation to Preserve Human Rights, said online disinformation was a key tool of the Iranian regime. She said it was important for it to have legitimacy in the eyes of the world. “They care what the world thinks about them,” she said. “If the regime can add confusion and misinformation then they will do it.”

British security officials have increasingly called out Iranian tactics. MI5 and police said they had disrupted at least 15 plots to kidnap or kill Iranian dissidents in Britain since the start of 2022.

Online misinformation is a key tool for the regime. In 2019 the news website Open Democracy revealed key differences in the ­reporting of Iranian affairs on ­Persian Wikipedia compared with its English counterpart.

It reported that the Persian page on Iranian involvement in the Syrian civil war was based mostly on unchallenged statements by Iranian officials.

Manipulation now appears to have been carried out on the ­English-language Wikipedia. Many of the Iran edits concerned a page for the People’s Mujahidin of Iran, also known as the Mujahidin-e-Khalq, an exiled opposition group. Over the summer reports on human rights abuses by Iranian officials on the MEK’s page was deleted. The anonymous users who changed the content cited the need for “trimming”.

Last June details were removed from a section on the 1988 death commissions, including that many of the political prisoners were jailed for peaceful activities such as handing out leaflets. A reference to the executions being carried out by “several high-ranking members of Iran’s current government” was also deleted. A month earlier the same anonymous user removed references to the expulsion of two Iranian diplomats from Albania due to alleged involvement in a bomb plot against the MEK in 2018. In April 2022 a reference to about 3500 MEK prisoners being killed in the early 1980s in Iran was removed.

Analysis showed some edits were replaced but many deletions remained intact at the time of publication. Marco, a Wikipedia ­editor, reported the changes to site administrators and alerted The Times because he believed insufficient action was taken.

He also noted that material on Iran’s mass internal protest movement appeared to be manipulated.

A Wikimedia spokeswoman said the foundation took misinformation “very seriously”.

“When a user account or IP ­address repeatedly violates policies, Wikipedia administrators can take disciplinary action and block or ban a user or IP address,” she said. “The foundation has a trust and safety function that flags such issues to the volunteer community when it is reported.”