Friday essay: shaping history – why I spent ten years studying one Wikipedia article

An Egyptian woman takes part in a demonstration in Cairo, 25 January, 2011. Amel Pain/EPA
An Egyptian woman takes part in a demonstration in Cairo, 25 January, 2011. Amel Pain/EPA

In mid-July 2008, I arrived in hot and sticky Alexandria. I had travelled to Egypt to attend Wikimania. As the name suggests, Wikimania is an event for those who share an all-consuming passion for the wiki. But not just any wiki … the most important wiki of all: Wikipedia – the online encyclopedia.

This annual conference for Wikipedians (Wikipedia’s volunteer editors) is a chance to celebrate the project, discuss important issues, and geek out on wiki lore.

I was one of 650 attendees from 45 countries that year. But the conference (held in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, an attempt to revive the Great Library of Alexandria) had been mired in controversy. There were calls to boycott the event because of Egypt’s censorship and imprisonment of bloggers. In his opening speech, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales highlighted the case of Abdel Kareem Nabil, a former university student sentenced to four years in prison on charges of insulting Islam and Egypt’s then President Hosni Mubarak, and inciting sectarian strife.

Although some governments tried to impede free speech, Wales said, this was pointless in the age of the internet, where people could share ideas on platforms like Wikipedia.

“Kareem Amer has become a cause around the world,” he said, showing Nabil’s English Wikipedia page on the screen. “Not the best strategy for keeping his ideas out of the public eye.”

Two and a half years on, in late January 2011, Egyptians took to the streets to demand the end of authoritarian rule. Less than two weeks after protests erupted, Egypt’s autocrat president Mubarak resigned. Some were calling this “the Facebook revolution,” others a “Twitter revolution”.

Sadly it was to be short-lived. In 2013 Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took over in a coup. He still rules today and has imprisoned an estimated 60,000 political prisoners, including those advocating democracy and free speech.

But at the end of January 2011, as Mubarak still clung to power, the Israeli Wikipedian Dror Kamir wrote a startling message to a mailing list about Wikipedia’s role in the Egyptian protests.

Kamir pointed out that the first draft of the article about the Egyptian revolution on English Wikipedia had been published at 3:26pm local time, just hours after the first protests began. An Egyptian democracy activist and Wikipedian with the username The Egyptian Liberal had published this article, apparently to influence public opinion. “It almost seems as if the article preceded the actual events,” he wrote.

To Kamir, this demonstrated that Wikipedia “was losing its encyclopedic characteristics”. Wikipedians pride themselves on neutrality. Neutral point of view (or NPOV), is a core content policy. Editors are called to merely summarise reliable sources rather than offering their own original analysis. Policy determines that Wikipedians should follow public opinion rather than lead it.

In a later blog post, Kamir argued Wikipedia had clearly played a significant role in the events of January 2011, but “who is going to remember…?”

Read more: COP27 shines light on civil liberties in Egypt, but it'll take work to achieve real freedom

Remembering the history-makers

In the coming months and years, I tried to do just that: documenting how Wikipedians wrote the story of the Egyptian revolution and whether, in doing so, they influenced the revolution itself.

It has been over a decade since I started studying this single article on English Wikipedia about the 2011 revolution. At the time of writing, it runs to almost 13,000 words and more than 400 citations.

Catalytic events have always been influenced by their mediation. But few had tried to understand Wikipedia’s role in history-making. When they did, they tended to present Wikipedia as hallowed ground where consensus is reached among a myriad alternative views.

The most important thing I have learned over this time is the truly subversive role of Wikipedia. Though the Egyptian revolution sputtered out, what I have gleaned from this example has a bearing on other history-making events playing out on Wikipedia now – from the war in Ukraine to the independence movement of Taiwan.

Wales was right when he gave that prescient speech. Wikipedia tends to be ignored because it is supposedly “neutral”. One of the world’s most popular platforms, maintained by a nonprofit organisation, its mirage of neutrality is sustained by the idea that individuals may be biased but all crowds are wise.

Wikipedia supposedly reflects “common knowledge” and “collective memory”. But there are many different ways of seeing the world. There will always be an inevitable conflict between those tasked with its representation, especially when the risks and rewards are so great. How, then, did editors of the Egyptian article resolve these differences? What kind of history is the result?

Wikipedia supposedly reflects ‘common knowledge’ and ‘collective memory’. Shutterstock
Wikipedia supposedly reflects ‘common knowledge’ and ‘collective memory’. Shutterstock

A typical Wikipedia article is put together by Wikipedians – the volunteer editors who are committed to Wikipedia’s long-term maintenance. Anyone can be a Wikipedian, as long as you abide by the rules of the project (many have a long history with the site). Wikipedians tend to use pseudonyms rather than their real names – there has been no policy requiring them to identify themselves.

As well as Wikipedians, entries are generally open to anyone else to edit. Many Wikipedians volunteer to watch over articles, receiving an alert when changes have been made to assess them.

A key Wikipedia rule is that Wikipedia is not “a crystal ball”. The rule stipulates that Wikipedians should not write about events until their significance is generally known or before the event has concluded.

Soon after the revolution in 2011, I began analysing countless “talk page” discussions where Wikipedia editors discussed the reliability of sources, how to source free images and how to best summarise these events. (These discussions take place in a tab next to the article labelled “talk”.)

Over the next decade, I reviewed hundreds of edits, and interviewed leading editors. These included The Egyptian Liberal, a university student in his twenties, and Ocaasi, a US-based college graduate in his late twenties. Ocaasi, who suffered from anxiety and agoraphobia, told me he was editing Wikipedia obsessively at the time of the protests while sitting in his bathtub in a Philadelphia attic.

Ocaasi (Jake Orlowitz). Author provided
Ocaasi (Jake Orlowitz). Author provided

Rather than rational negotiation and broad consensus, I learned that Wikipedia articles about historic events are often the result of passionate struggle over representing what happened to whom and its consequences.

I learned about the importance of Wikipedians themselves in shaping the narrative into which individual facts were made to fit. Wikipedians shaped the representation of the event not by inserting falsities but rather by framing and selecting facts that supported certain narratives rather than others.

The Wikipedians moved quickly to create a new article on English Wikipedia when crowds first swarmed into Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011, defending it from possible attack from sceptics arguing it was too soon to be covering events. They bolstered the article’s authority by quickly adding citations to source the evidence for the unfolding protests.

This first move was successful in determining that the protests were important enough to warrant their own article early on.

Read more: Mubarak: a man who built on his talent for self-promotion while stifling opposition

Writing the revolution into being

After the first 24 hours in the life of the article, it had been edited 130 times. Forty two editors had joined The Egyptian Liberal including two longtime Wikipedians, Dragons flight, a physicist educated at UC Berkeley now living in Switzerland and Heroeswithmetaphors, who has made over 18,000 contributions to articles on multiple topics.

Editors settled into a routine – with American editors handing over to those in Egypt and elsewhere when they went to sleep. For Ocaasi, it was a galvanizing moment. “Everything before that on Wikipedia was just playing around and this was not,” he told me.

It was also when my innocence about Wikipedia ended. It wasn’t just a hobby or escape […] There were hundreds of thousands of people reading the article and I knew that. There was a profound sense of responsibility […] I thought the world mattered so much those days and I thought I could play a part – not in an activist sense but by documenting what was happening.

As the violent protests continued, experienced editors resisted attempts by newcomers to continuously change the article’s title from “protests” to “revolution”. A move of this significance requires consensus from editors on the talk page.

A tank stands amid crowds as protesters gather on Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, 1 February 2011. Hannibal Hanschke/EPA
A tank stands amid crowds as protesters gather on Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, 1 February 2011. Hannibal Hanschke/EPA

But within minutes of Mubarak’s resignation at 4pm on February 11, a large crowd of Wikipedia editors again tried to change key facts to reclassify the article to “revolution.” In the hour after Mubarak resigned, the number of readers accessing the page tripled from about 4,000 to 12,500. It was being edited every two minutes in the following hours, as three experienced Wikipedians struggled to hold back the flood of editors attempting to make significant changes before consensus had been reached about the title.

While this was happening, a discussion began on the talk page, with editors asked to weigh in on whether the title of the article should be changed. But an editor, Tariqabjotu, made the change just two hours after Mubarak’s resignation – long before the discussion had run its course.

At this time also, the article on the Tunisian protests, which had unseated long-time President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali the month before, was still merely named as an uprising. Six hours after Mubarek’s resignation, another editor, Knowledgekid87, moved from editing the Egyptian article to the Tunisian one, changing its name to “Tunisian revolution”. This reinforced the Egyptian title change.

On February 11 alone, 125,000 readers accessed the Egyptian article. The number of editors working on it more than tripled from 25 to 84. Many were new editors from the United States, UK, Canada, the Netherlands, Portugal and Singapore, overwhelming those who had been editing it consistently from the beginning.

Other editors in the crowd repeatedly changed the date of the events in the infobox (the small fact box on the right hand side of a Wikipedia article) from “25 January – ongoing” to “25 January – 11 February”. They did this to cement the idea that the protests were over and revolution had been achieved.

In my interviews with Ocaasi, he reflected on how editors surrendered to the momentousness of the occasion. Any effort to resist changes to the article’s title would have been swimming against a tide of editors, one of whom declared that Wikipedia shouldn’t “deny history.”

Tens of thousands of Egyptians pray and celebrate the fall of the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak on February 18 2011. Ben Curtis/AP
Tens of thousands of Egyptians pray and celebrate the fall of the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak on February 18 2011. Ben Curtis/AP

The crowd centred their activity on the infobox and the page name. These elements are the most important parts of a Wikipedia article because they present summarised facts that appear authoritative and stable. These facts have always been prioritised by Google and other search engines’ algorithms, which often place Wikipedia at the top of search results. But the infobox came to matter even more the year after the Egyptian revolution.

In 2012, Google announced a major new project that would build a massive database of facts built from “public” information sources such as Wikipedia and the CIA World Factbook.

Google’s algorithms selectively extract facts from Wikipedia’s infoboxes, divorcing them from the context in which they originated. Sources and citations are often removed. The facts appear more stable than they are on Wikipedia, where they are flanked by breaking news warnings and “citation needed” tags. Wikipedians have no control over Google’s process.

Over a decade after the 2011 Egyptian revolution, Wikipedia is still the authority for facts about the event. If you ask Google, Bing or Yahoo what happened in Egypt in 2011, they will present facts extracted from the English Wikipedia article.

But Google and other platforms extract them automatically and without understanding or debate. The result is a representation of capitalist logic embedded in the machines that have been programmed not to serve public meaning-making but rather to feed revenue sources.

For the past few years, Google’s knowledge panel about the revolution has contained the words, “Deaths section below” after facts about numbers killed during the revolution. This is material lifted from Wikipedia but not linked to further information – so it becomes a meaningless phrase. It shows how Wikipedians have lost control over some of the information they carefully provide. Yet many more people will view this material now in a search engine rather than on Wikipedia.

Read more: Egypt: hopes for democratic future die as al-Sisi marches country towards dictatorship – with parliament's blessing

A struggle for power

Popular accounts like The Wisdom of Crowds and the End of Theory present both crowds and algorithms as sources of truth and neutrality. By such accounts, crowds supposedly smooth out one anothers’ biases or ignorance and Big Data enables accuracy because of our access to huge datasets.

But I discovered a passion and feverish anticipation of revolution in Egypt from the very first entry on it, just hours after the protests began on January 25. Rather than rational consensus among dispassionate observers, Wikipedia mirrored the passion, emotion and violence of Tahrir Square.

Did Wikipedia shape the political events at the time, as suggested by Kamir? Ultimately, the story of this Wikipedia entry reiterates how young people (the leading Wikipedia editors) were able to win the information war in Egypt but not transform the government. Most of the article’s editors were people in favour of the revolution.

Nevertheless, Wikipedia articles about political events are important battlegrounds for interest groups vying for control over the historical record. Their impact lives on, courtesy of search engines’ algorithms and the global reach of the site itself. And such struggles for power are no doubt happening, elsewhere, in other Wikipedia articles today.

Writing the Revolution: Wikipedia and the Survival of Facts in the Digital Age is published by MIT Press.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Heather Ford, University of Technology Sydney.

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Heather Ford receives funding from the Australian Research Council.