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Russia continues to see value in Wikipedia despite patchy efforts to replicate it

Free of the "LGBT lobby" and mentions of the war in Ukraine, Runiversalis is intended to be a Russian alternative to Wikipedia. It is off to a bumpy start, crashing shortly after launch.

Runiversalis went online in June but remained largely unnoticed before its creators announced the launch on Telegram on 18 August. It gained even more traction several days later, as the Russian State Duma deputy, Anton Gorelkin, picked up on the message.

Gorelkin touted Runiversalis for respecting Russian laws and values as opposed to the policies "imposed" by Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organization behind Wikipedia. "This means that any attempts to give the article a left-wing liberal and Western-centric bias will be thwarted," he said.

Shortly after, the website went down. The project's Telegram channel said on 23 August that the encyclopedia was temporarily unavailable, citing "abnormal load that is typical for a DDoS attack," or distributed denial of service.

Runiversalis is online again, but it now requires users to register even to see the content and fill out an application to get editorial rights. "Who owns Crimea?" is among the questions prospective editors should prepare to answer, project creators said on Telegram, referring to a Ukrainian peninsula Russia occupied in 2014.

Screenshot of Runiversalis before it was taken down. Image via Telegram.

Distorted reality

Runiversalis paints a picture of the world that Russia wants its citizens to see. It means no mention of the war in Ukraine – only references to the "special military operation" – and exclusively heteronormative views on topics like gender and sexuality.

In a manifesto announced on 18 August, the creators of Runiversalis declared it to be an encyclopedia of "common sense." With servers based in Russia, it would run in accordance with Russian laws and would have "no fake absurdities about what is happening in Ukraine," they said.

It would also reflect "traditional values" on topics like homosexuality, as opposed to Wikipedia, which references "Western scientific journals that have succumbed to pressure from the LGBT lobby," the manifesto read.

Said to be curated by former editors and administrators of Russian Wikipedia, Runiversalis is envisioned to replace the world's most popular encyclopedia in Russia. So far, it is a mere shadow of the original.

Wikipedia's Russian language edition alone has 1.8 million entries, while Runiversalis has 9,000 – with most reportedly copy-pasted from Wikipedia and only edited to reflect Russian state views.

Runiversalis also runs on MediaWiki, the free software developed for use on Wikipedia, despite taking swipes at the website for its supposed liberal bias. Cybernews has approached Wikimedia Foundation for comment.

Runiversalis refers to the war in Ukraine as a "special military operation." Image via Telegram.

Ambiguous relationship

Russia's relationship with Wikipedia is an ambivalent one. Free and easy access to the online encyclopedia is anathema to the regime that seeks to control and curate information. It is also a way for it to shape the narrative.

"Wikipedia remains a valuable resource of information warfare for the Russian government and its supporters in its current form. The ability to edit English-language and other variants of this website gives an invaluable advantage to engage in data manipulation," Irina Tsukerman, an information warfare specialist, said.

In 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a replacement of Wikipedia with a "reliable" Russian version. Then in May, he railed at the encyclopedia again, urging Russians not to use it. And yet Wikipedia remains largely unblocked in Russia – with several articles mainly relating to the war in Ukraine an exception.

"Blocking a medium only makes sense if it has no redeeming value, but Wikipedia's format lends itself to the sort of 'strategic ambiguity' Russian intelligence agencies specialize in," Tsukerman said.

"Western users may become more discerning over time and more assertive in pushing back and editing the article. If the back-and-forth is deemed a waste of time, Wikipedia will cease to be of value and will be blocked," Tsukerman added.

Vladimir Putin has called for a Russian replacement of Wikipedia. Image by Shutterstock.

Growing pressure

As Russia continues to pursue its "sovereign internet" dream, it unceremoniously banned other foreign media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, following its invasion of Ukraine in February. Wikipedia's continued presence in the country stands out but faces increasing pressure.

In March, Russian authorities ordered Wikimedia Foundation to remove content related to the invasion of Ukraine from the Russian-language Wikipedia, deeming it "disinformation" and a violation of Russia's fake news laws.

Shortly after, police in Belarus arrested Mark Bernstein, a Russian-language Wikipedia editor, for spreading "anti-Russian materials," in what appears to be a coordinated push to intimidate the Wikimedia Foundation.

In June, the organization appealed the fine issued by a court in Moscow for failing to remove "prohibited" information. Wikimedia Foundation said at the time it would not comply with the order to take down entries about the war in Ukraine, arguing Russia did not have jurisdiction over its global presence. It also said the removal of information would constitute a human rights violation.

Russia's media censorship body, Roskomnadzor, responded by saying it would take steps to punish the foundation, including disclaimers informing users that Wikipedia violated Russian laws.

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