Dostor-Wiki – A very modest attempt to “wikify” the Egyptian revolution

1 July, 2011 at 09:53 | Posted in Arab spring, Collaborative work, Israeli-Arab conflict, Politics, Web 2.0, Wiki systems | 3 Comments
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The "Dahd" maze on the web

The "Dahd" maze on the web (the "Dahd" letter is a symbol of the Arabic language and its speakers; image via Wikipedia)

The Arabic-language Wikipedia has a mailing list, in which some very interesting information is occasionally exchanged. The mailing list is public, and yet Modern Standard Arabic, despite being the language of some 20 countries, an official UN language, and used by more than 250 million people (at least to some extent), is still considered a “secret language”, unintelligible by people who enjoy rain in August…

By the way, this is an opportunity to warn all of you who carry their umbrellas well into July, that Wikipedia has two Arabic versions – the bigger more established one is ar-wp, which is in Modern Standard Arabic (a.k.a Fuśħa “the purer language”), the other one, arz-wp is written in Egyptian Arabic (a.k.a. Maśri, which is in fact the dialect of Cairo, Alexandria and the surroundings). Egyptian Arabic is the language you would probably hear in dialogs of Arab films and plays, but its use as a written language is still controversial, so many Egyptian Wikipedians prefer to write on ar-wp rather than on arz-wp.

Egyptian Wikipedians to establish Wiki project for collaboratively writing new Egyptian constitution

In a recent thread on the Arabic-Wikipedia mailing list, one of the Wikipedians suggested opening a Wiki project for drafting the new Egyptian constitution. This project is not supposed to be related to Wikimedia, but he tried to recruit people to the mission through the Wikimedia mailing lists (after all, this is where you would find a large group of Wiki-system enthusiasts).

Hello people,

This message has been sent to two mailing lists, that of the working group of the Arab celebrations for Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary and that of the Arabic Wikipedia.

I came to know a person who encouraged me to undertake the idea of a Wiki for the Egyptian constitution, so that the Egyptians use the Web for writing a constitution collaboratively. We could bring forth a draft (or drafts) to the Egyptian constitution, as the Egyptians think it should be. I liked this idea a lot and became very enthusiastic about it. I was also encouraged by the fact that the brothers in Tunisia had already started such a Wiki for the Tunisian constitution, about three months ago, and it was very successful.

What do you think? Who should take part?

As this Wikipedian said, the idea is not new. In fact, he himself mentioned the Tunisian Wiki project – destour.org  – last March, which made me curious enough to look at it and report about it in the general mailing list of the Wikimedia Foundation.

The reactions to the idea were very welcoming, and a temporary website was soon set by another veteran Egyptian Wikipedians. A special domain name was later registered – dostorwiki.org – leading to the same temporary website. Dostor or Destour, by the way, is the Arabic word for “constitution”. There is not much to read on this website at this point, even if you can read Arabic (and by the way, it is Modern Standard Arabic, this is a political revolution, not a linguistic one…) And yet, as someone pointed out in a response to my report to the general mailing list, and another person, in a respond to the recent discussion on the Arabic mailing list, Google groups for the purpose of collaboratively drafting the new Egyptian constitution have already been established. These are the two mentioned in the aforementioned mailing-list messages:

http://www.google.com/moderator/?hl=ar#15/e=581e0&t=581e0.40&f=581e0.1501bd

https://groups.google.com/group/dostorna

Some of the debates on these groups seem quite naïve. For example, an article currently brought  to a virtual vote says “Limiting working hours to prevent abuse of workers. Setting a clear system for extra hours, and improving working conditions and salaries. Providing official bodies that would look into complaints within the shortest time”. There is also an invitation to a “real life” meeting about the status of women under the new regime and how it can be improved.

The “good guys” are always a step behind

So, do we witness a real Web 2.00-induced revolution in Egypt? I doubt it. Most of the Egyptians do not have access to this new medium, and it is well reflected in the relatively small number of participants, and the fact that almost all of them come from the same background more or less. And yet, even if the Internet became the new medium of communication of Egypt, and even if we adopt the assumption that Wiki systems and Google groups allow debates which are more democratic than those held in other media, at the end of the day, it is not the medium that makes the revolution. Iran uses the Internet as a main medium of communication, and yet the abundance of Iranian blogs, forums and FaceBook accounts did not make the recent protests there successful. The Iranian regime quickly learned how to control this new medium. Also, what we currently hear and read on Egyptian websites is a lot of antisemitic and anti-Israeli commentaries and conspiracy theories.

The Islamist movement of the Muslim Brothers has been using Media-Wiki systems to spread their propaganda for several years now. Here is one example called in Arabic “The Wikipedia of the Muslim Brothers” or “Ikhwan-Wiki” in English. Jihadist web-forums in Arabic teaching people how to carry out terrorist attacks are also hardly new. The “bad guys” are always one step ahead.

There is an Egyptian FaceBook group called “I am the first volunteer to the Egyptian Army in case of a declaration of war against Israel“. 141,950 people “liked” this group. Surely not all of them fully understand the idea behind this group, but still, comparing this number to the number of participants in those Wiki and Google projects is depressing. There is an Egyptian website which translates reports and articles from the Hebrew press into Arabic and adds harsh anti-Israeli propaganda to them, occasionally also hideous anti-Semitic essays. The talkbacks are always supportive. No criticism is heard below these writings.

So the future does not look too promising. The new medium is there, its use is often inspiring, but those who make positive use of it are still quite scarce. On the other hand, we should seize and encourage every sign of hope, shouldn’t we?

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“Manufacturing” or “engineering” of consents – A follow up on my previous post

30 June, 2011 at 08:18 | Posted in knowledge, Politics, Web 2.0, Wikipedia policy | 4 Comments
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This is a follow up on my previous post about the 25-January Revolution in Egypt and the way it was introduced into Wikipedia. First of all, I saw that post was cited by the Wiki-Watch blog in German. My German is very basic, so I had to consult some friends and machine translation tools in order to read it, and I might not have got all the content accurately. In any event, I appreciate this reference and the initiative to start a broad discussion about this issue. I also stand corrected, the term “manufacturing consents” was coined by Walter Lippmann, later to be used and redefined by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman.

I learned Chomsky’s theories from Tanya Reinhart at the Tel Aviv University. Perhaps, I should play fair and say in advance that I am rather reserved about many of Chomsky’s, as well as Reinhart’s, ideas, and yet I value some of their observations. I totally reject some of the moves Noam Chomsky took as an implementation of his theories, but then again there is a huge gap between any theory and its implementation, and it is important not to judge a political theory or an ideology only by the attempts to implement them, because other practical interpretations of the very theory might also be feasible.

Edward Bernays - "Engineering of consents"

Edward Bernays - "Engineering of consents" (Image via Wikipedia)

The lessons taught by Tanya Reinhart at the Tel Aviv University about Noam Chomsky’s political theory were recorded and printed after her death in a short book in Hebrew. The English title (every book published in Hebrew has an English title for the sake of foreign catalogs and libraries) is “Written in the Paper, Language Media and Ideology“. It was edited by Tanya Reinhart’s disciple Ran HaCohen. In this book (page 12) Reinhart mentions the term “Engineering of Consent” coined in 1947 by Edward Bernays. Apparently, he thought of this process, which might as well be called propaganda, as a positive, even vital, part of a democratic discourse. According to this book, Chomsky heavily criticized this approach, and claimed that the academy and institutions of scholars were used to preserve the mainstream political positions, hence limit the democratic liberal debate.

In my opinion, this is a terrible exaggeration. After all, Bernays wasn’t that wrong. “Engineering of consents” is legitimate and part of any democratic society, if (and only if) it is done in a fair manner, namely without brainwashing and without limiting the right and opportunity of others to make their own “engineering”. But, coming back to the issue of Wikipedia, the academy has lost much of the power Chomsky and others attributed to it during the 1950s and in the later decades of the 20th century. In the late 20th century (not so long ago, actually), television was considered the “devil” that can turn people’s opinions from one side to another, and many times this was the case indeed. The Web 2.00 “revolution”, brought a promise of decentralization that would render the “engineering of consents” a thing of the past, but that was too much to hope for. People with interests simply learned how to use this new medium in order introduce better “engineering” of this kind. Wikipedia, despite its initial attempt to be a scene of creating factual objective accounts through dialogs and negotiations among people who bring various pieces of knowledge, is gradually turning into a new, somewhat more sophisticated scene, for “manufacturing consents” or “engineering of consents”. The main problem is the fact that Wikipedia is left alone in this arena. It has some competitors, but for most of the world, especially the vast English-speaking world (including countries where English is spoken as the main foreign language), it is the main source of knowledge for the past five years or so.

True, Wikipedia offers the opportunity to use its texts as a basis for new texts. Namely, I can alternate and manipulate the texts of Wikipedia and create a new source that would better reflect my views, as long as I give reference to the original text. This is a great opportunity to create fruitful debate, and this is the essence of “free content” or “copyleft”, and yet no one seems to seize this opportunity. Instead, people with special interests do their best to penetrate into Wikipedia and manipulate it from within.

Parallel “online” and “real world” Egyptian revolutions, or Wikipedia’s Tahrir Square

25 June, 2011 at 15:36 | Posted in Arab spring, Politics, Web 2.0, Wikipedia policy | 7 Comments
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Illustration: PC-keyboard with arab letters, fotographed by ...

Keyboard revolutionists (Image via Wikipedia)

For the initial discussion of this subject see here.

The article about the Egyptian Revolution on 25 January 2011 is an example on how the editing of Wikipedia is sometimes used for sheer political interests. Of course, the events themselves are worthy of a Wikipedia article, no doubt about this, but the way the article was initiated and written demonstrates a serious problem in the editing policy, which allows users to promote events and opinions through Wikipedia rather than merely documenting and reporting about them, as the encyclopedic nature of the project requires.

The 25-January protests were planned at least a week in advance, mainly through FaceBook groups (see Is Egypt About to Have a Facebook Revolution?, by Abigail Hauslohner, reporting from Cairo for Time Magazine, 24 January, 2011), but these protests did not become a real actual event before around noon (Cairo time) on Tuesday, 25 January 2011 (see this news blog on the Guardian‘s website), when thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to demonstrate.

The first version of the Wikipedia article about the demonstrations was uploaded on 25 January 2011 at 13:26 UTC (i.e. 15:36 Cairo time), by an editor who calls himself “The Egyptian Liberal“. Hence, the protests were “perpetuated” as a Wikipedia article 3-4 hours after they had been launched, and only an hour or two after their real extent could have been realized. Interestingly enough, only the English Wikipedia had an article about the protests at this point in time. Other major Wikipedias followed suit only about 24 hours after the onset of the events, and when their magnitude was already realized. The first few sentences of the Arabic-language equivalent (on ar-wp) were recorded about seven hours after the demonstrations started, by the same user who initiated the English-language article, and the Egyptian-Arabic Wikipedia (arz-wp) started its own version only on 28 January.

In fact, “The Egyptian Liberal”, who also has an account on Wikimedia Commons (Wikimedia’s media file repository), prepared the ground for them in advance, when he uploaded on the 24th of January some political cartoons calling on Egyptians to overthrow Hosni Mubarak on the 25th of January (see here and here for examples; the caricatures also depict the face of Khaled Mohammed Saeed, an Egyptian youth who died in June 2010 following his arrest while surfing the Internet, and whose birthday was on the 27th of January). Unlike Wikipedia, the Wikimedia Commons website, which is supposed to serve other Wikimedia projects, allows the upload of purely political images providing they are free-licensed.

Going back to the article about the recent Egyptian unrest on the English Wikipedia, its first version is short, but includes relatively advanced Wiki syntax. It would be fair to assume that this stub was prepared in advance, because the upload process lasted only one minute. The second version, by the same user, brought the article to its full initial shape. A single Egyptian user (he voluntarily revealed his identity) expanded the article for about two and a half hours. Within this period of time he made 14 edits, i.e. an edit every 10 minutes, in average. From the third edit onwards he merely added updates and journalistic references. In fact, he acted as a journalist rather than writer of encyclopedic article.

The person behind these first versions of the article, namely “The Egyptian Liberal” is somewhat mysterious, despite waiving his “Wikipedian right” for privacy. He offers quite a lot of details about himself, according to which he is English-Arabic bilingual by birth, he lives in the center of Egypt and defines his political-ethnic-religious affiliation as Pan-Arabist, Muslim and liberal. He is quite veteran on the English language Wikipedia, having edited articles since September 2009. In one of the older versions of his userpage he mentions that he started editing Wikipedia much earlier, but under a different username. Following the link to the allegedly alternative userpage shows a statement that the user has an intermediate level of English, which is contrary to the newer allegation that this editor is bilingual.

Anyone can suggest any kind of lesson to draw out of this interesting, somewhat amusing, Wikipedia affair. Many newspapers prepare reports about upcoming events in advance, in order to publish them as soon as the event occurs. I know about one case where a duty editor was fired, having accidentally uploaded a ready-made report about the happy ending of an event, seconds before that event ended in a tragedy. The poor editor removed the wishful-thinking report immediately, but it was intercepted by one of the news website’s readers who decided to go public with his outrage…

But Wikipedia is not a newspaper and the motivation here is not time saving or improving business efficiency. In this case the motivation is political and ideological, and the idea is to use Wikipedia for influencing the public opinion. There is an assumption here about average reader of Wikipedia, as if s/he attaches special significance to events described by the online encyclopedia. Whether this assumption is true or not, I cannot tell, but I do feel that Wikipedia is the new scene of “manufacturing consents“. This political process, described by Noam Chomsky, basically aims at limiting the public debate by instilling the notion that certain views and positions are inevitable. In this case – the fall of Mubarak’s regime in Egypt is a fait accompli even before the actual protests started. It is not as if it should fall, it has already fallen, and we have Wikipedia to prove it.

It has indeed fallen eventually, but who is going to remember that Wikipedia played a role in this Egyptian revolution rather than describing it after its completion.

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