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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