As China and Japan jockey for influence in the Pacific, an unlikely diplomatic fault line has emerged: an archipelago of uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea. Known as the Senkakus in Japan, which controls them, the islands are also claimed by China and Taiwan -- and both are struggling to reassert sovereignty. Tremors have increased in recent months with confrontations between the Japanese and Taiwanese coast guards and rabble-rousing from Chinese media outlets. Statesman have shuffled back and forth between Beijing, Tokyo, and Washington to cool the crisis, but neither Xi Jinping, the new head of the Chinese Communist Party, nor Shinzo Abe, Japan's new prime minister, show any sign of backing down. On the contrary, China raised the stakes on Jan. 30, when one of its military frigates aimed weapons-targeting radar at a Japanese warship, prompting Japan to lodge a formal complaint with the Chinese government.
But if the physical posturing has been vigorously covered in the news media, the digital posturing has not. In recent years, partisans have taken the fight to Wikipedia, where articles about the islands have been subject to weekly "edit wars" between contributors. The content on these pages might seem to be of only marginal importance compared to more significant coverage in other outlets. But the "Senkaku Islands" and "Senkaku Islands dispute" Wikipedia articles are the two most prominent English-language sources of information about the islands on the Internet, with the top search result ranking on Google and thousands of page views every month. The Japanese and Chinese language editions of Wikipedia have their own article pages for the islands as well -- each offering different chronologies of ownership. These sites, however, receive far less traffic and the content debates are far more diplomatic.
For many Web users, Wikipedia remains a reliable first stop for facts, and the site's crowd-sourced quality control has always been more effective than critics give it credit for. But entries about contentious subjects -- from Kosovo's independence to Kim Kardashian's pregnancy -- are difficult to monitor around the clock, and remain susceptible to vandalism, questionable sources, and editorial disagreement. Charges of censorship and bias are rampant on the Senkaku Islands entries' talk pages, where the process of article creation is negotiated. Many of the combatants are veteran editors with established user handles and years of experience who would never admit to any sort of partisanship. Nonetheless, strongly entrenched opinions are evident, with each side claiming adherence to Wikipedia's editing guidelines -- much like respective Japanese and Chinese officials continue to ground their claims in international law.
Like the real world debate, the Wikipedia dispute is a fairly recent development. The original Senkaku Islands article, created in 2003, was relatively short at just over 300 words. This version actually listed the traditional Chinese name, "Diaoyutai," first in the opening paragraph. By January 2010, the article had swelled to well over 4,000 words, and included 43 different footnotes. Although the article emphasized that ownership of the islands was disputed, "Senkaku" was now used on first reference, and many of the geographic citations were Japanese maps. That year, the article was subject to more than 800 separate edits. And when a Chinese fishing trawler collided with two Japanese fishing boats near the islands in September, the article's talk page exploded with activity.
As the article attracted more attention, three issues emerged as key points of contention between editors. First and foremost: the name. China refers to the chain as the Diaoyu Islands, Taiwan as the Diaoyutai Islands. Wikipedia searches for those entries have always redirected readers to the main "Senkaku Islands" page. But in 2009, an editor renamed the page "Diaoyutai Islands" and moved that name ahead of the Japanese translation in the opening paragraph. Although that change was quickly reversed by another editor, it launched a talk page dispute that raged through 2010. Some editors supported changing the article's name to "Pinnacle Islands" -- the English-language name for the island chain used in the 19th century -- to mitigate concerns about article bias. This attempt at a compromise was quickly shot down, even as the talk page rhetoric heated up. "These pro-Japanese editors just a bunch of bully boys and hooligans!" an editor named STSC vented.