A vicious culture war is tearing through Wikipedia

Getty Images / Wikipedia / WIRED

In July 2019 an anonymous Wikipedia editor added a line to the article about “Jai Shri Ram”, a Hindi expression that translates as “Glory to Lord Rama”. The editor made what would prove to be an extremely controversial addition, noting the phrase was also used as a “war cry”.
The edit was the first in a struggle that raged for more than a year, with one side claiming it constituted a form of “Hinduphobia” and the other side saying it was an accurate portrayal of the religious term, which had been embraced by India’s ruling party BJP and, according to some in the media, had become a “dog whistle” for nationalists.

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The edit war spilled over to other articles on Wikipedia, including one about the 2020 Delhi riots. There, the claim that the “war cry” was part of “a rising trend of beating up Muslims and forcing them to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ by violent Hindu mobs in India”, was also noted. The edit to the original page also claimed this trend became more prominent “after the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi was re-elected as Prime Minister of India”.
In fact, it was only when Modi’s nationalist BJP party was reelected, that Manisha, a student from Mumbai who edits Wikipedia under the username Papayadaily, started to notice what she calls widespread “anti-Hindu bias” on Wikipedia.
“Every article on Wikipedia is against the ruling party, and whitewashes the Indian National Congress,” she says, referencing the former ruling party which, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, led the country to independence in 1947. “There are even conspiracy theories that there is involvement by members of the Congress, as every article is in their favour,” she says.
Another editor, Raj Aryan, who edits under the username Factual Indian Hindu, says that “the page for Modi is full of criticism, while that for Rahul Gandhi is full of praise.”

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“I don’t side with any party,” says Minisha, who identifies as anti-left. “This is not a liberal versus conservative debate. It’s about hatred and lies and propaganda,” she says. “Sometimes articles I follow will be changed within minutes. It makes me think this editing is funded effort by either communists or religious minorities.” The latter is a thinly-veiled euphemism for the country’s Muslim community, which makes about 15 per cent of the population and is being increasingly targeted by Modi’s right-wing government. The claims against Wikipedia show how facts are being weaponised as part of India’s political struggle.
Aryan runs FactualHindu, an Instagram account that flags examples of Wikipedia’s purported bias on social media. It’s not just articles about Modi and the BJP that editors like these see as skewed: recently, Aryan lambasted Wikipedia over an article about an early Indian nationalist leader, Subhas Chandra Bose, which the encyclopaedia had labeled a “radical”.
Such perceived slights seem to strike a chord with some Indian editors, who have now made it their mission to seek out instances of the alleged prejudice across Wikipedia. “Wikipedia pages are defaming the Indian culture and its roots,” Aryan says, claiming the Wikipedia page for Christianity and Islam were positive, while that for Hinduism was negative and stressed issues like casteism instead of the more progressives sides of the faith.
Allegations of political biases on the part of volunteer-run Wikipedia are common. The open encyclopaedia, now entering its twentieth year, has been accused of partiality by figures on both the left and the right of the political spectrum across the world with regularity.

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This trend is worrying to another Indian editor called Subhashish who sees these campaigns as an attempt to tarnish Wikipedia. “The fact is that Wikipedia is not a singular body, but a collective and therefore has many many biases.” For him, the goal should be to fix these biases, rather than criticising the whole project. Instead, he says, “we are seeing political leaders accusing Wikipedia of spreading false information”.
Some BJP officials have been vocally opposed to the free encyclopaedia. In August 2020, when Wikipedia began its annual fundraising drive, Nupur Sharma, the BJP’s national spokesperson, tweeted the site was “no longer neutral” and “known to carry fake info”. She also suggested Wikipedia had been “completely taken over by a certain cabal”. Others on social media claimed Wikipedia has an “anti-Hindu” and even “anti-India bias”, in what local media called a “campaign” against the open encyclopaedia.
Wikipedia has long been popular in India. In 2011, Hindi Wikipedia, written in the local Devanagari script, became the first non-English Wikipedia to pass 100,000 articles and as of this year received more than 47 million page views. However, English is the main language in which readers in India access and edit Wikipedia. Today, traffic from the subcontinent accounts for roughly five per cent of all the traffic to English Wikipedia. So far this year India is the fourth country by traffic to English Wikipedia – compared to seventh in 2017, and tenth in 2012.
Three local editors say that in recent months, there has been “a push by the right wing to prove Wikipedia has a particular bias”, as Subhashish puts it. Wikipedia articles on everything from Brahmanism and Islamophobia in India, to Jai Shri Ram and the 2020 Delhi riots have been beset by massive edit wars.
Even the article for a local Hindu guru deemed not notable enough for a Wikipedia page – a common occurrence – caused a stir when deleted, as the guru’s followers took to social media to cry foul.
Wikipedia articles on Indian culture, history, and entertainment have also been pulled into the fray. In recent weeks, the most viewed celebrity death on English Wikipedia has been not of RBG, but rather SSR – or Sushant Singh Rajput, a Bollywood star whose suicide has inspired massive public attention in India. In a weird turn of events, SSR’s suicide also spawned political conspiracy theories on social media, which are spreading like a wildfire in India’s increasingly polarised and politicised society – and inevitably spilled to Wikipedia, too.
When Covid-19 hit India, these tensions reached boiling point. It was an article about the origin of the virus’s spread in the country that finally thrust Wikipedia into the centre of India’s culture wars. The article is about what is now termed the “Tablighi Jamaat coronavirus hotspot in Delhi”. It was first created in April, and focuses on a mosque that hosted an event at the beginning of March for the local Muslim community. The mosque later became the focal point of religious and social tensions in India, with many accusing the event of being the actual origin of the virus’s spread in the country.
As the highly contested article now carefully states, the religious congregation of the Sunni sect of Tablighi Jamaat in the Delhi was “a coronavirus super-spreader event, with more than 4,000 confirmed cases and at least 27 deaths linked to the event reported across the country”.
The event’s Wikipedia page became a perfect storm of religious acrimony, political hate-mongering and Covid-19 misinformation. Claims by Hindu politicians that the local Muslim community was to blame for the virus’s spread in India, or that Islamic leadership was not doing enough to stop it, grew rampant – both on the Wikipedia article and offline. Questionable reports that claimed Muslims had “refused to let cops and health officials enter the building to conduct medical examination” were noted in the article and stoked tensions around a possibly true statement that the mosque had failed to properly follow social distancing procedures.
Conversely, claims that Muslims were now being targeted in vengeance for the mosque super-spreader event also started to appear in the article. “The government hospital in Rajasthan’s Bharatpur refused to admit to pregnant Muslim woman citing her religion,” one edit claimed, showing the tit-for-tat dynamic such articles can take even when their tone is neutral.
Alongside factual information added by regular editors, more politically driven users dragged the article into racist infighting. One deleted version briefly claimed that Muslims arriving at a local medical centre, “created a ruckus […] claiming that the government wants to kill them”. Citing unsubstantiated reports by right-wing media, this version claimed that in the hospital, members of the community were seen “molesting nurses and spitting on hospital staff… [and even] reportedly found defecating in the hospital corridor”.
With editing reaching fever pitch, it became clear no compromise or consensus could be reached, and it was decided to put the article’s very existence to a vote. The article was deleted in a highly controversial move that further highlighted how toxic the discourse had become.
“There is a lot of reliable coverage of this Islamic religious gathering contributing to the spread of Covid-19 in India,” the final decision said, noting that there was a factual basis to the article’s existence. “At the same time, there are a lot of tensions between Hindus and Muslims in India, and there is also increasing state-sanctioned Islamophobia and persecution of Muslims in India.” The issue of Covid-19, was “highly volatile and rife with misinformation” and keeping the article, it was feared, could have “a disruptive impact on the real world.”
Contributing to the storm around the article was the fact that its first version was written by an undisclosed paid editor (for-profit editing is only allowed if disclosed in the edit) who has since been banned from the project. To make matters worse, the deletion was reversed in a subsequent vote on April 10, sparking another edit war.
The page spun so out of control that Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s co-founder, waded into the controversy after being called out about the article on Twitter. Wales was accused of taking bribes from Muslims to have the article deleted, and spent some time explaining on Twitter how Wikipedia works to an army of critics. After he called the article “poorly written” and with “zero sources”, he pleaded, “this isn’t about religious sentiments, it’s about not putting junk into Wikipedia”. (Wales’s press office did not respond to a request for comment about the controversy by the time of publication.)
The ability to maintain what Wikipedians call “good faith” was gone. After Wales’s comments – and what seemed to be his “foreign interference” on an Indian issue on behalf of a minority – the article began making headlines in India. The Times of India, India’s paper of record and most reliable news source, reported on Wikipedia’s battle against “communalism” – editing that promoted tribalism over facticity just when reliable information regarding Covid-19 was needed most.
One outlet stood out: OpIndia, a conservative news site that hosts opinion pieces, launched a de facto campaign against Wikipedia and has even interviewed Wikipedia’s other co-founder-cum-critic Larry Sanger, about Wikipedia’s left-wing bias. “The tensions relating to religious, geopolitical and social views is an ongoing occurrence and such tussles are going to stay no matter what the current issue is. What is really unfortunate is that we have an immoral political environment here in India,” says Subhashish, who believes it is a lack of understanding of Wikipedia – either due to ignorance or intentional – that is the cause of the problem. He blames the media environment and politicians that he says are threatening to ban Wikipedia “like they did in China”.
Claims that Wikipedia has a liberal bias have long gone hand-in-hand with campaigns by media outlets displeased with the encyclopaedia. Conservapedia was set up in 2009 to provide a more evangelical-friendly version of the encyclopaedia for Americans reluctant to accept what mainstream sources say about climate change and evolution. After The Daily Mail was deprecated as a source on Wikipedia, it too joined a growing chorus of right-wing criticism of Wikipedia. In recent years, Breitbart has also focused on the issue.
Now OpIndia seems to have picked up the mantle, reporting to its readers about a recent decision to downgrade the status of Fox News as a source on Wikipedia. “Wikipedia is clearly being politicised by a particular group of people who identify themselves as “left-liberal,” an OpIndia spokesperson says. They add that the Wikipedia’s bias “can manifest as ‘anti-Hindu’ on a few occasions, but the bias is not anti-Hindu primarily”.
Even Manisha, the editor worried about Wikipedia’s anti-Hindu bias, agrees the situation has gone too far. She says that the pro-BJP media outlets like OpIndia, that initially helped her call attention to anti-Hindu biases on Wikipedia, are now part of the problem. “Initially, people weren’t aware of how many articles Wikipedia has against a single community in India,” she says, referencing the Hindu community. “In wake of their work, people started to read and fact check Wikipedia, which is good. But nowadays they sometimes exaggerate,” she says.
“They report about issues that are not really issues and then people come to edit articles and make them worse. So there’s this polarisation and the grey area gets left behind,” Manisha says. “Everything is now polarised, everything is left or right and there is no common ground.”
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