Critical Evaluation of Who Edits Wikipedia Entries, and Why

By Heather Ford

This article appeared in Agora vol. 59 no. 1 (2024). Agora is the triannual journal of the History Teachers Association of Victoria.

The evolution of a Wikipedia page about the Egyptian protests in 2011 provides a fascinating example of the need for critical thinking about knowledge produced in the digital age.

In an in-depth study of British children and computer usage, a group of researchers set out to investigate how young people interact with, make sense of and use computers in the home. Instead of digital natives who have sophisticated understandings of how computers have impacted social life, Facer et al. (2003) found that young people lacked both knowledge and interest about how information was produced for and within digital environments.

“Overall there was either a lack of interest in or lack of knowledge about how ‘information’ was produced for and within digital environments. These resources were often seen as originating not from people, organisations and businesses with particular cultural inclinations or objectives, but as a universal repository that simply existed ‘out there’. (Facer et al., 2003: 85-86)

Almost two decades have passed since this study was undertaken, but there is still a widespread lack of understanding about how knowledge and information are produced in digital contexts. History teachers are well placed to respond to this problem because of their expert knowledge of source analysis. In this short piece, I’m going to argue that Wikipedia is an excellent site for understanding how historical knowledge is produced in digital forums, especially when it is approached as a site of socio-technical relations, a place in which people with very different motivations from those captured by the social media phenomenon gathered to produce knowledge across difference, language and ideology. This is not to say that what Wikipedia represents is the global, consensus truth on every topic. Rather, Wikipedia is a place to witness and observe how our understandings about what happened and why it happened are the result of social and technical (socio-technical) relations unique to the Internet and digital media.

I argue this from the perspective of an ethnographer. I spent over a decade of my career watching the development of a single Wikipedia article of an event that became a symbol for the revolutionary power of digital technologies: the 2011 Egyptian revolution. During that time, I observed carefully as the article was born and initially nurtured by a small group of editors, and then as it took off during the first days of protests in Egypt, edited by hundreds of people and watched on by hundreds of thousands. I watched as the article then froze as the crowds dispersed after the revolution was announced two weeks later, and then how it experienced jolts of activity when the events were commemorated and when automated bots worked on it intermittently, fixing, extracting, enhancing and sometimes disrupting the original meanings embedded in it.

Wikipedia articles about historic events are symphonies of technologically enhanced human activity. But unlike symphonies, they have no end. They are living, breathing representations of human desires, ideologies, stories and relationships. All knowledge is produced as a result of socio-technological relations, where the social and the technical are so imbricated with one another that they cannot be separated. For instance, the availability of wiki technology enables anyone to edit a webpage for everyone else, but this technology only has an effect because of the social practice of collaboratively writing history-as-it-happens. Wikipedia provides a unique window into how knowledge is produced because its discussions (talk), past versions (edit histories) and authorship (user contributions) are transparent to any other user. Above all else, Wikipedia presents a significant opportunity to learn about how knowledge on the web is peopled. Wikipedia teaches us that knowledge is not a naturally occurring phenomenon that somehow neutrally reflects all human perspectives. Rather, it is the result of people, working for organisations, governments and institutions, reflecting ideologies about the world and the people in it. Wikipedia editors are motivated by very human desires for recognition, a sense of agency, and sometimes even by animosity of other editors or social groups, and using technologies that also shape the kinds of narratives that are ultimately represented there.

Facts that we eventually consume about the “history” of these catalytic events don’t travel on their own. They travel along with allies (the people and sources who introduce, support and maintain them), packaging (metadata that explains the contents of claims for other machines), and in an environment where rules regulate what is ultimately accepted. Articles about current, historic events like the protests that roused Egyptians in 2011 are a hotbed of desire for change and its opposite, stasis. A fact’s allies and opponents on Wikipedia are the editors who enter the article space to represent what is happening using Wikipedia’s “Neutral Point of View” approach. In my interviews for my book, I learned that the Wikipedia editor who wrote the first version of the article prepared the article the day before the protests were scheduled on the 25th of January 2011. His username was The Egyptian Liberal and he was a young Egyptian democracy activist who played an important role in writing the revolution into being on Wikipedia.

Protests had been planned by democracy activists in the weeks prior to January 25, but no one knew whether anyone would actually show up on the day. In fact, major news outlets like the BBC predicted that Egypt would not follow Tunisia in major protests. The Egyptian Liberal wrote the first version of the article using an AFP source that had been published the previous day about the planned events. Taken on its own, this edit is actually contrary to Wikipedia policy that forbids editors from creating articles about events before their historical importance is known or widely understood. But The Egyptian Liberal was soon joined by other editors who summarised the journalistic articles that started to proliferate soon after protests had begun. He gathered support for this process by asking other editors for their help in building the article. He edited the article and coordinated other allies on the talk page of the article (where editors discuss their changes). He did this obsessively right up to Mubarak’s resignation on February 11.

Wikipedia articles about catalytic events like the Egyptian revolution need allies to grow and develop. In my ethnographic study of Wikipedia over many years, I’ve also analysed articles that struggled to be born on English Wikipedia. These were articles by people written in my home continent of Africa about people, places, events and things that other editors challenged with deletion because they were determined not to be “notable” enough or important enough for their own article. We already know that Wikipedia is written by a majority of men (approximately 84% at last count – see Hill and Shaw, 2013). But what is less well known is how difficult it is for people of colour and people outside of North America and Western Europe to have their knowledge represented on English Wikipedia in particular.

The 2011 Egyptian protests were an anomaly in this respect. The event was the biggest news story in the US in 2011 where the majority of English Wikipedia editors are located. It captured the American imagination. It seemed to be a moment in the story of American democracy where online platforms like Facebook and Twitter enabled people to revolt against their dictators and embrace freedom. In those two weeks between January and February of 2011, the world was lit up by the excitement and fervour of what we thought was happening in Egypt. It represented an ancient tale of the people rising up against the tyrant and the dream of democracy spreading like a wave across the Middle East in the ultimate historic move towards progress.

All knowledge practice is governed by rules about how to discover and represent the truth. The practice of writing a Wikipedia article is no different. This practice is essentially about summarising and then citing facts from what Wikipedia considers “reliable sources”. Those facts accrete over time and are, in turn, re-summarised as events evolve. Sources like peer-reviewed books and scientific journals and newspaper articles are critical to Wikipedia because one of the foundational rules of Wikipedia is that there is not supposed to be any “original research” (Wikipedia:NOR). According to Wikipedia’s verifiability policy, everything on Wikipedia should be backed up by what Wikipedia call a “reliable source”. Wikipedians (people who regularly contribute to Wikipedia) generally prefer peer reviewed academic books and articles to journalistic articles, and some newspapers like the Daily Mail in the UK are deemed unreliable by Wikipedia. But in the case of breaking news events, Wikipedians rely heavily on journalistic articles and on sources that remain hidden from the article’s references after events have subsided. In these cases, Wikipedians need to weigh up the accuracy of articles by examining the evidence used, any counter claims from other sources and the reputation and funding of the source. Traces of these debates are still visible in the talk pages of the 2011 Egyptian revolution article, as editors discuss new claims, alternative perspectives and the general reliability of non-Arabic sources in relation to Egyptian affairs.

Sometimes the careful, rational work of encyclopedic editing is disrupted by crowds who move into an article to play a part in history-making. In addition to Wikipedians who are regularly updating the site and working intensively on articles, there are also newcomers who edit Wikipedia on waves of media attention. When a major event occurs, or an announcement is made (think royal wedding, birth, or election outcome), crowds of people from around the world move into the article to make history by making edits that reflect significant changes… to literally write history as it happens. In the case of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the article saw multiple waves of new editors coming into the article. When the announcement was finally made that Hosni Mubarak had resigned from office, the article saw its biggest crowds yet. 125,000 people visited the article on February 11. Wikipedians who had been studiously editing the article with new information over the previous 10 days were overwhelmed by some in this crowd who were determined to change the name of the article from “2011 Egyptian protests” to “2011 Egyptian revolution”. The crowd also tried repeatedly changing the date of the event to end on February 11. Some editors tried to revert the crowd’s edits because they wanted to be behind what secondary sources were saying rather than in front, but after only a few hours they gave up and the article’s revolutionary classification was able to stick. 

These are some of the stories of how Wikipedia’s histories and histories of Wikipedia come to be. Histories of Wikipedia are important because they tell stories about who has tried to shape the platform, a platform that plays a central role in our internet ecosystem. Wikipedia articles turn out to be really important not only as artefacts of historiography, but also because they are ingested by even more powerful platforms where they are represented often without context as consensus truth about what happened. In a recent Washington Post investigation (April 19, 2023, Schaul, Chen and Tiku), for example, Wikipedia was found to be the second most prevalent source behind ChatGPT answers (even though the source and citation is removed), and prior research has found that Wikipedia is dominant source of Google answers, even though it is also rarely cited (McMahon et al., 2017). The socio-technical contexts in which facts are produced on Wikipedia, in other words, are scrubbed away when presented in AI, search and virtual assistant answers.

Understanding how knowledge is produced on Wikipedia and then ingested by automated engines downstream is essential to critical evaluation of knowledge produced in the digital age. The best way to learn how to critically evaluate sources is to start editing Wikipedia yourself. The wiki education project is an excellent place to start, with lesson plans and support available to facilitate this in your classroom. Also important is learning how to evaluate sources as living documents curated by social groups using crafting tools. When visiting a Wikipedia article, go to the talk page and try to understand what Wikipedians are arguing about and agreeing to. Consider the subject matter and whether this might be representative of one of Wikipedia’s many “gaps” in coverage where there aren’t enough editors to ensure that it is adequately covered (or covered at all). When citing from Wikipedia, cite the “Permanent link” to indicate exactly which version you visited. Check for flags indicating volatility or uncertainty like “citation needed” tags, breaking news flags and locked pages, or check for indications of stability like “featured article” status in the figure below.

Figure 1. Students can use the ‘Permanent link’ and ‘Cite this page’ links in the ‘Tools’ panel to the right of the screen to correctly cite the particular revision of a Wikipedia page. They can click ‘Talk’ or ‘View History’ at the top of the screen to explore the page’s evolution. This page is a high-quality ‘featured article’, as indicated by the golden star in the top-right corner.

Visiting a Wikipedia page could be like entering a working laboratory or a live battlefield. Wikipedia is no dusty encyclopedia, a static source produced from mechanical summarising. “People are living there” as Athol Fugard (1970) wrote about a very different place and time. Visiting Wikipedia provides an excellent introduction to the ways in which information isn’t just something “out there”, existing as a neutral reproduction of what is written. It is the result of myriad choices made in the context of social practices determined by rules, norms, technology and ideologies as much as it is a mechanical process. It’s useful as a living laboratory of historical curation in the moment. It can teach us about how history is written, using which strategies and tools and to what effect. To learn this, we need to address Wikipedia not as a site, or a product, a book or even a community but as a place.

Featured image: Tahrir Square, 11 February 2011, Wikipedia, CC BY

Link to the issue


Facer, K., Furlong, J. Furlong, R. and Sutherland, R. (2003). Screenplay: Children and computing in the home. Psychology Press.

Ford, H. (2022). Writing the Revolution: Wikipedia and the Survival of Facts in the Digital Age. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Fugard, A. (1970) People are Living There: A Play in Two Acts. Oxford University Press.

Hill, B. M., & Shaw, A. (2013). The Wikipedia gender gap revisited: Characterizing survey response bias with propensity score estimation. PloS one, 8(6), e65782.

McMahon, C., Johnson, I., & Hecht, B. (2017). The Substantial Interdependence of Wikipedia and Google: A Case Study on the Relationship Between Peer Production Communities and Information Technologies. Proceedings of the International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media, 11(1), 142–151.

Schaul, K., Chen, S. Y. and Tiku, N. (April 19, 2023). Inside the secret list of websites that make AI like ChatGPT sound smart. The Washington Post.