Media@Sydney: Wikipedia and the Travel of Facts in the Digital Age
This talk examines power struggles on Wikipedia, and who has the power to write dominant histories on such a well-visited website.
Wikipedia bills itself as an encyclopedia built on neutrality, authority, and crowd-sourced consensus. Platforms like Google and digital assistants like Siri distribute Wikipedia’s facts widely, further burnishing its veneer of impartiality. But a close analysis of how the story of the 2011 Egyptian revolution was written as events unfolded in Egypt demonstrates how the facts that appear on Wikipedia are often the result of protracted power struggles over the representation of the event and the identities of its actors. Less than a year later and another revolution had occurred: converting Wikipedia facts into semantic data and search engines and virtual assistants building pipelines to ship that factual data into prime positions in their large factbases.
In this talk, I discuss these two power struggles over the course of a decade of a single article’s history: struggles over the representation of events in Egypt on English Wikipedia and battles across the chains of circulation in which Wikipedia’s facts started to travel shortly after. This is a story about who has the power to write dominant histories and which knowledges are actively rejected; and whether history is now written by algorithms and a new class of data wranglers who have recognised the dominance of Wikipedia as a key source of power/knowledge.
Heather Ford is an Associate Professor and Head of Discipline in Digital and Social Media in the School of Communications at UTS. She has a background working for global technology corporations and non-profits in the US, UK, South Africa and Kenya. Her research focuses on the social implications of media technologies and the ways in which they might be better designed to prevent misinformation, social exclusion, and algorithmic bias. Ford’s first book, “Writing the Revolution: Wikipedia and the Travel of Facts in the Digital Age” is published by MIT Press. She is a founder editor of ethnographymatters.net and reviews articles for a number of journals and conferences in the fields of science and technology studies, media and communication and media ethics.