It has been over a year since Turkey banned the online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia. This decision was part of an effort to clamp down on a supposed smear campaign aimed at President Erdogan. The opposition argue, by contrast, that this is a concentrated effort to snuff out free speech within the country.
Turkey’s ban points to the importance that Wikipedia has in contemporary public discourse. Erdogan himself has made some outlandish historical claims. Sites such as Wikipedia present a threat to the narratives the Erdogan regime creates.
Even though historians have been discussing the rise of Wikipedia for over a decade now, this is still something that hasn’t been fully appreciated. Having spent time on the platform recently, I have come away with some interesting insights and questions historians should take seriously.
Firstly, historians must deal with the downsides of Wikipedia. Yes, it is an open platform meaning that anyone can edit historical pages at will. This is both a blessing and a curse. The curse is that those without prerequisite knowledge of a certain time period or access to relevant literature can make uninformed and biased edits. For example, a section I edited on Louis the Pious’s page had been using academic work over sixty-years old and had been hopelessly biased against Louis as a ruler. This page was unfortunately outdated and out of touch.
This sort of bias raises a second issue with Wikipedia: its NPoV, or ‘Neutral Point of View’ rule. This rule requires editors to make edits which eschew arguments, inflammatory language and opinion. Simply put, you cannot amend a page and fill it with just your own research or arguments you agree with. The job of the page is to relay information to the visitor, not convince the visitor of the soundness of a given historical argument.
Since anyone can access the site and make an edit to it, this has led to the creation of ‘gatekeepers’. Gatekeepers are those who monitor pages they have heavily invested time in and remove any edits anyone else might make. They essentially guard the page against any unwanted interventions.
These three issues have dissuaded historians, researchers and enthusiasts from engaging with the platform. However, this is a mistake. If more editors came from accredited backgrounds, quality control would increase. The result would be pages that are better researched and more informative.
Furthermore, it sharpens the editor’s skills. If you engage with the platform on a regular basis you become acutely aware of your own language use and how you structure your own work. In short, you embark on a process of editorial self-betterment. This can only lead to better edited work within the academic realm. Here lies a win-win situation for those using the platform.
Finally, it makes sense for academics to engage with the wider public via Wikipedia. The site is the largest online repository of history ever written and it seems puzzling that there is a dearth of historians engaging with the site.
In summary, more historians on Wikipedia means more pages with better research, a higher level of quality on the site, and historians with a sharpened editorial eye.
What about Turkey and free speech I hear you say? Well that’s simple too. If Erdogan’s regime is culpable of the machinations it is accused of, is it not the historian’s job to ensure such misgivings are saved for posterity? Wikipedia presents one crucial opportunity for the historian to record these events and a to lay the record bare for interpretation and discussion.
Furthermore, Erdogan’s administration is reflective of other authoritarian regimes both past and present. They silence platforms that threaten the narratives they create. Domains such as Wikipedia are antithetical to establishments which seek to control or rewrite the historical record. The actions of the Turkish government are just another example in a long line of authoritarian regimes fearing that which they cannot control.
Finally, online forums such as Wikipedia give historians the chance to fight misinformation and stop the spread of fake history espoused by establishments, media groups and political parties at home and abroad.
Wikipedia offers historians a golden opportunity to participate in public history in a new, engaging manner. The platform should not be ignored, lest we are forgotten about in this digital age.
Jon-Jo Armstrong is a MA Student at the University of Sheffield. His interests lie in the Early Medieval period, especially 9th century Carolingian Francia. Jon-Jo’s current work is focused on Regino of Prum’s Chronicle, looking at memory within texts.