The foundation that oversees Wikipedia has taken unprecedented action to ban seven mainland Chinese users from its websites globally and revoke administrator access and other privileges for 12 other users, following an HKFP report of alleged threats to Hong Kong users.

HKFP revealed in July that mainland Chinese Wikipedia editors allegedly threatened to report Hong Kong users for national security violations, posing a physical risk to them.

A Wikipedia article on the July 21, 2019 Yuen Long MTR attacks. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

HKFP also reported on fears among Hong Kong users over election canvassing within the online encyclopaedia as users from the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan angled for coveted administrator access. There were also “editing wars” over politically sensitive articles about current events in the city.

Wikipedia hosts elections for users wishing to become administrators, who enjoy more access to users and greater powers to edit articles. There were past reports that users of the Chinese edition engaged in election canvassing outside of Wikipedia to try to ensure the election of mainland administrators.

The Wikimedia Foundation investigated an “unrecognized group” of Wikipedia users from mainland China and identified “security risks” relating to “infiltration of Wikimedia systems, including positions with access to personally identifiable information and elected bodies of influence,” Maggie Dennis, the foundation’s vice president of community resilience & sustainability, said in an online statement on Tuesday.

A wikipedia article on the Yuen Long MTR mob attack in July 2019. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

She was referring to a group of almost 300 Wikipedia users known as Wikimedians of Mainland China (WMC), which, unlike the Hong Kong user group (WMHKG), is not recognised by the foundation.

The Chinese government in 2019 blocked its citizens from accessing Wikipedia, although some users have remained active in the community.

‘Physically harmed’

Some Wikipedia users were “physically harmed as a result of such infiltration,” Dennis said, without elaborating. “With this confirmed, we have no choice but to act swiftly and appropriately in response.”

However she said the foundation does not believe users’ personal information was exposed.

Dennis described the latest action by the foundation as “radical” and “unprecedented in scope and nature.” Seven users from the Chinese Wikipedia were permanently banned from the website and any subsidiary sites, while 12 others had their administrator access and privileges removed.

The foundation found “not only people deliberately seeking to ingratiate themselves with their communities in order to obtain access and advance an agenda contrary to open knowledge goals, but also individuals who have become vulnerable to exploitation and harm by external groups because they are already trusted insiders,” Dennis said.

Photo: Geralt via Pixabay.

The Wikipedia community is under danger of “attack through the extortion or potentially persecution of publicly identifiable people with access to personal information,” she said.

Wikipedia is overseen by the Wikimedia Foundation, a US-based non-profit. The crowd-sourced encyclopaedia emphasises community engagement. Most of its content and even its rules are written, decided on and enforced by its own users and the elected administrators. Actions to ban users or revoke access are relatively rare.

Behaviour such as significant and repeated harassment of users, making threats, or other long-term abuses may ultimately lead to a global ban by the foundation. Since 2012 it has imposed bans on a total of 93 users including the latest cases.

Extortion and election canvassing

Of the banned users, one using the handle “Techyan” is a founding member of Wikimedians of Mainland China (WMC), while another one known as “Alexander Misel” had top-level access to Wikipedia websites. A user named in HKFP’s July report, “Walter Grassroot”, was also banned.

A member of a WMC chat group, using the same handle, suggested reporting Hong Kong users to the city’s national security police hotline, although the original “Walter Grassroot” denied involvement.

Banned users will be blocked from using or creating alternative accounts. Attempts to secure anonymous access from known IP locations will also be blocked. In some cases, banned users can appeal to a case review committee.

Photo: HKFP Remix.

In addition to the outright bans and the forfeiture of administrator privileges, 12 users received warnings from the foundation about canvassing behaviour during elections.

The foundation will host a public session in the next few weeks to address these issues as well as to discuss how it can approach future elections to avoid “community ‘capture,'” Dennis said. “We need to make sure that the community can hold fair elections, without canvassing or fraud.”

A veteran member of the Hong Kong Wikipedia user group told HKFP the move came as “a total surprise” and its scope appeared extensive. The removal of a large number of active administrators from the website’s Chinese edition may cause a backlog in administrative duties, he said. The user spoke on conditions of anonymity, citing fears for his own safety.

‘Struggle until victory’

The China user group WMC criticised the foundation’s actions, saying the allegations against its users were “unnecessary” and not supported by evidence. They were not given a right of reply before being banned, the group said.

“The foundation did not consider whether those who made complaints or submitted evidence had conflicts of interests with WMC, and whether they identify politically with the radical [ideas of] ‘Hong Kong independence,’ ‘Taiwan independence’ or ‘anti-communist’,” the group said in a statement entitled “Let go of fantasies, prepare to struggle.”

The foundation’s claims of election canvassing were comparable to vote-rigging conspiracies during the last US presidential elections, the group said. “Those who called for democracy are the most anti-democratic. In their eyes, it’s only democratic when election results satisfy their wishes.”

WMC said the Wikimedia foundation had failed to support mainland Chinese users or WMC itself, which continued to contribute to the website despite it being blocked in China.

“Their true target is the entirety of the Chinese Wikipedia community, and not us at WMC,” the statement said. “The foundation has abandoned mainland China, they don’t care about our life or death… We do the most ‘dangerous’ work in China, but you have turned back to eliminate our community.”

However, the group was open to discussions with the foundation, it said.

It ended its statement with a call to fellow mainland Wikipedia users: “Use your actions to tell everyone the mainland user community is not made from clay. The more they suppress us, the more we will resist. Now is the time for you to stand up. Struggle, fail, struggle again and fail again, and struggle once more… until victory!”

HKFP has reached out to the Wikimedia Foundation, WMC and user “Walter Grassroot” for comment.

Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.