Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks — and as many people reflect on the milestone, some will turn to Wikipedia to read about this moment in history and the widespread impacts of it. The attacks occurred in Wikipedia’s first year of existence, and played an important role in shaping the culture of the nascent encyclopedia project. A recent article in Slate by Stephen Harrison provides a nice overview of Wikipedia’s coverage and explores how Wikipedia and the War on Terror “grew up together”. But as the 20th anniversary approaches, Wikipedia’s articles related to the attacks and their aftermath don’t get the sort of editing attention they once did, and it shows. The Guantanamo military commission article, for example, had a banner informing readers that its “factual accuracy may be compromised due to out-of-date information” — a banner that someone added to the page in November 2010.
For the last two months, Wiki Education, in collaboration with our partners at ReThink Media, has been addressing content gaps within Wikipedia’s articles related to September 11, the War on Terror, and related topics. We’ve been leading a ReThink Media Wiki Scholars course, where we brought together a group of peace and security studies experts to identify content gaps in Wikipedia’s coverage. We taught them to edit Wikipedia and navigate policy, something that’s especially important when working in an area where strong feelings persist.
One of Wikipedia’s most active WikiProjects, or collectives of editors tackling a particular topic area, is WikiProject Military History. Articles related to the military often have extensive coverage of the specifics of war — but this approach has led to gaps in the context of humanitarian implications. During the course, we had several conversations about whether Wikipedia articles should include this kind of information, or whether the goal was to primarily provide accounts of campaigns and operations. We came to the consensus that Wikipedia’s goal is to provide an overview of all relevant information, which necessarily includes the humanitarian impacts of war. As a result of this, the participants updated information in the article on the War on terror, including adding a previously absent section on civilian casualties in various countries and war zones.
Other articles improved by the group include the September 11 attacks article, in which a contributor added subsections to the “domestic response” section about discrimination and racial profiling of Arab Americans and interfaith efforts to educate people about the Muslim faith. Another tackled the Post-9/11 article, adding a section about discriminatory backlash. And the Islamophobia in the United States article now has a section on Islamophobia in places of worship, thanks to a participant in the course.
A previously short article about Holy Shrine Defenders got an overhaul from another participant, resulting in a significant expansion. And information related to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, and the United States v. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed case also saw significant edits from course participants. One Wiki Scholar updated and rewrote the Guantanamo military commission article, finally allowing the removal of that 11-year-old warning banner.
But sometimes smaller changes can have a big impact. In the lead section of the September 11 attacks article, al Qaeda is described as “Wahhabi”. One participant removed that term because it was inaccurate. Their edit was reverted by a Wikipedian because the statement was sourced, and the discussion on the article’s talk page didn’t come to a resolution. In our class session, the Wiki Scholar asked how best to proceed. Looking at the sources, it was fairly obvious that two were weak, but one came from an academic source, which meant it wasn’t the sort of thing that could be dismissed out of hand. But then a course participant who had the book on their own bookshelf referenced the cited page and found the relevant quote: Because Osama bin Laden and most of the hijackers are Saudi nationals, it was assumed that al-Qaeda is an expression of Wahhabism. That is not the case. Once the precise quote was supplied, the editors engaging on the talk page were able to reach consensus quickly.
Real world events overtook our course as people had to miss sessions to do press interviews after the Fall of Kabul, and many of them were personally impacted as they worried about the safety of colleagues and friends who were trying to escape Afghanistan. But despite that, they continued to work to improve Wikipedia, understanding that improvements like these were critical in the weeks leading up to the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, when readership of these articles is skyrocketing. In a few short weeks, the articles our subject-matter experts improved have received more than 1.4 million page views – and we expect that number to rise even more tomorrow and in the coming weeks. That means millions of people searching for neutral, fact-based information around this anniversary now get a more nuanced picture of the impacts the attacks have had over the past 20 years.
For as Slate’s Stephen Harrison writes, “As we approach the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, Facebook users are likely to see 9/11 tributes selected by an algorithmic assessment of that user’s content preferences, part of the personalized, polarized social media experience. On the other hand, every English Wikipedia user who visits the current page for the September 11 attacks this week will see the same article regardless of their demographic profile.”