Working behind Wikipedia, the information frontlines

While Wikipedia’s online library is extensive, traces of disinformation can still be seen; this is where Wikipedia volunteers step in to save the day.

There is no place like Wikipedia. From plants to animals, philosophy and religion, governments and politics, and figures and celebrities, there is bound to be an article on anything on the world’s largest online encyclopedia.

However, Wikipedia is not an indiscriminate collection of information. It strives not only to contain but to comprehensively explain a complete understanding of all human knowledge. But this would not be possible without its millions of volunteers around the world—Wikipedians, who contribute their time and unrelenting efforts to expand, to maintain, and even to protect the website.

“Some people just really like to share knowledge,” says Josh Lim—who goes by the username “Sky Harbor”—an administrator of the English Wikipedia with over 17 years of editing experience on the site. “They know a lot, but they have no outlet to share it with, so Wikipedia ends up becoming that outlet,” he explains. But being more than just a pastime, his involvement in the online encyclopedia is a testament to how he and many others must update and safeguard information at all times.

Behind the wiki pages

Many Wikipedians start out by editing articles they come across while browsing the web, filling in the gaps to the best of their knowledge. Lim shares that his first edit on Wikipedia was in 2004, when he expanded the sparsely written article on Lupang Hinirang, the national anthem of the Philippines. “I did some research, and I [placed] information there, and the rest is history,” he states.

However, long before Lim came to the scene, Eugene Alvin Villar—who goes by the username “Seav”—joined Wikipedia in 2002. Having grown up reading his family’s world encyclopedia, he recalls being so intrigued by the idea of Wikipedia. “I saw [it] as an opportunity to create articles and [to] share knowledge about the Philippines,” remarking how “traditional paper encyclopedias” simply couldn’t encompass all available information about the country.

But being a Wikipedian is not just about typing away, as one must follow the guiding principles of verifiability, reliability, and neutrality when contributing to the online encyclopedia. And while the open nature of Wikipedia often tags it as an unreliable source as anyone can edit pages, volunteers work vigorously and tediously to ensure all information published is factual and neutral. “The English Wikipedia alone is nearing six million articles—[and] the community itself, like the number of active users, make at least 10 edits a month [which] is about a hundred thousand-ish,” Lim shares.

But he also puts a disclaimer, “Any statement you make has to be backed up by a source,” likening the writing of a page for Wikipedia to composing a thesis paper, where “notability is something that can be easily established if you actually do your research.” 

However, Lim and Villar encourage using Wikipedia not as a primary source but as a “jumping point for research”, as the former puts it. “Wikipedia can be good enough if you want background information about a topic that you might not know about,” Villar says.

Both believe it allows people to look deeply into the data and resources they’ve gathered on the site, widening the scope of their study.

Holding the line

Across its multiple languages, Wikipedia has articles numbering in the millions, the English Wikipedia being the largest with over six million articles, and where at least 38,000 articles are related to the Philippines. However, those who maintain the latter—both Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike—only represent a small fraction of the millions of Wikipedians around the world.

“We punch above our weight,” Lim expresses, lamenting that he could count the number of active editors on his fingers. He stresses how there is a systemic bias against Philippine-related articles on Wikipedia because only a few volunteers are interested in Philippine content. “Obviously, I’m not going to expect someone in a country like the United States to write something as obscure as some random barangay in the Philippines,” Lim elaborates. “[It] only works when you have people in the system.” 

Additionally, he imparts that these active editors take up the extra mantle of editing around disinformation. As politically charged articles occasionally get revised by users with malicious intent, he and other Wikipedians find themselves short-staffed in the fight against disinformation and vandalism. “[Articles] will go through for long stints under [edit protection to] moderate the number of people who edit the article,” he furthers, noting how some users try to include their personal biases into articles or to vandalize article content to illustrate a point. To prevent this from continuing, administrators protect articles by temporarily locking the page from editing. 

But despite all shortcomings, Wikipedians press on. As Villar says, “Ensuring that Wikipedia articles are reliable helps promote a culture of countering disinformation and fact-checking.” Meanwhile, Lim emphasizes how their contributions make “reading and research become more palatable.”

A call to action 

At the end of the day, Lim reiterates how Wikipedia is a space for various discourses, no matter how mundane or unusual, as long as it embodies verifiable accuracy. “We are a country of heritage,” he reflects. “We have a lot of interesting things going on, and that’s why we write about these things.” Indeed, with the assortment of subjects he has written, from MRT and LRT stations and banks to the languages spoken by the presidents of the Philippines, he highlights that such capability allows them to tell people how much there really is to know about our nation.

Even when Wikipedia has contributed to the accessibility of data, Villar reiterates how “there’s always room for improvement.” To this, Lim advocates how more people are needed to sustain the Wikipedia community in the Philippines to improve the coverage of their articles. While Wikipedians aim for information to be right at our fingertips, pursuing such intentions is never easy for them. 

“Of course, nothing is set in stone because data, information, and knowledge is being created at an astounding pace everyday,” Villar prompts. In the end, for Wikipedia to become what he says is the “sum of all human knowledge”, more volunteers are needed to accommodate the endless influx of information found locally. With more Wikipedians, not only does it widen the scope of topics to cover, but it also helps in ensuring that Philippine-related information is readily available to all. 

“It is a very low effort, low barrier [way] of sharing, of giving back to your people, because you’re educating [the] Filipino people along the way,” Lim ends.

By Matthew Gan

By Danielle David Castillo

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