For a few hours on January 24 the English-language Wikipedia page of the newly-elected Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš was incorrect on a key point: his nationality was listed as American. A Latvian-Russian politician and Member of the European Parliament (MEP) known for supporting Moscow’s views then used this fabrication to try to raise anti-American sentiment on social media.
The change was first reported by Ilmars Poikans, a Latvian Artificial Intelligence researcher at the Institute of Mathematics and Computer Science at the University of Latvia. Poikans found that a user named "Jon Deluxe" made the changes at 6:17 AM. When the page was created on May 17, 2007, the article stated that Kariņš "is a Latvian politician." But after “Jon Deluxe’s” alterations it read that Kariņš "is a [sic] American politician." Poikans pointed out that the phrase is grammatically incorrect and added that "the native language of the person who made the changes probably isn’t English."
About noon on the 24th someone returned the page to its original content. One hour after that correction , Andrey Mamikin, a Latvian-Russian politician and a Member of the European Parliament, shared a screenshot on his Facebook page of the Wikipedia page with "Jon Deluxe's" version. "The English version of Wikipedia is not hiding that Kariņš, the current Prime Minister of Latvia, is an AMERICAN politician. Bingo," Mamikin wrote on his Facebook page. At the time when Mamikin posted the screenshot on Facebook, the Wikipedia page had already been changed back to its original. Poikans suggests that "Jon Deluxe" might actually be Mamikin "obeying instructions of his Eastern director."
That same day, an interview on the Kremlin-friendly media outlet Sputnik was published where Mamikin mentioned Kariņš' "russophobic" plans: "The new Prime Minister of Latvia, Krisjanis Kariņš, openly promotes the idea of everyone in Latvia becoming ethnic Latvians.” In another interview, Mamikin stated that the newly-elected Prime Minister does not understand Latvia's domestic politics and citizens because, "he was born in America."
After the Latvian public broadcaster LSM reported on the case Mamikin denied any involvement "The user profile used to change the article in Wikipedia is not and has never been mine. I do not even have a profile on Wikipedia." He stated that he found out about the changes coincidentally and that when he shared the screenshot, the page said "a [sic] American politician."
Mamikin is known for regularly raising concerns about discrimination against ethnic Russians in Latvia at the European Parliament (EP), fueling national hatred, and working with pro-Russian radicals such as Alexandr Gaponenko who has been recognized by Latvia’s State Security Service (VDD) as a national security threat. The MEP also has a track record of voting at the EP against Latvia's mainstream politics: for example, in 2016 Mamikim visited Syria's authoritarian ruler Bashar al-Assad accompanied by Russian parliamentarians and was condemned by Latvian authorities for doing so.
Many of the biggest battles in the "edit wars" over Latvia on Wikipedia center around political, ethnic, and religious opinions. As researcher and CEPA StratCom contributor Mārtiņš Kaprāns writes: "Although formally, Wikipedia articles provide encyclopedic representations of history, these analytical texts retain narrative qualities, putting forward particular constellations of events, characters, and images." As there can be many collaborators to one article, different and sometimes questionable sources are used. However, as Kaprāns has argued, this practice is more common on Wikipedia in the Russian language than in the West: "English Wikipedia is rather a global platform which attracts diverse editors" and therefore tends to be more objective, whereas "the Russian Wikipedia has a more regional character." Nevertheless, as the Mamikin case showed, Wikipedia in English can be manipulated too.
There are several projects in Latvia aimed to debunk deception from Russian and local media, but as Andis Kudors from the Centre for East European Policy Studies concludes, "given the massive presence of Russian media, one could not say such projects are sufficient." This is a problem considering that the Russian speaking population largely receives messages in their native language from Kremlin-friendly media, where LKS and Mamikin, among others, are regular commentators. While they may claim to not be acting in cooperating with the Kremlin, their actions nonetheless align directly with Russia's foreign policy.
March 4, 2019
CEPA StratCom is an online journal covering crucial topics in strategic communications in the transatlantic community. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.