How Attempts to Rewrite History on Wikipedia Get Quashed

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History, they say, is written by the winners. Luckily for fans of former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, the same can’t be said about Wikipedia.

After famously mangling the story of Paul Revere when she visited Boston last week – instead of riding to warn the colonists that the British were coming, Palin said that he warned the British that “they weren’t gonna be taking away our arms” – fans of the politician-slash-Fox-News-pundit have tried to defend her by editing Wikipedia to back up her mistake.

The Little Green Footballs blog noticed that the Paul Revere page on Wikipedia has seen an increased amount of activity in the past couple of days, with Wikimedia spokesman Jay Walsh explaining that many have attempted changes reflecting Palin’s version of events.

For example, one edit read:

Revere did not shout the phrase later attributed to him (‘The British are coming!’), largely because the mission depended on secrecy and the countryside was filled with British army patrols; also, most colonial residents at the time considered themselves British as they were all legally British subjects.

The edit was removed for lack of historical sources.

The notes in the revision page hint at the tension going on around the rewriting of history. “Stop changing this. Take any changes to [the] Talk page. It is well sourced by both historical records, accounts by Revere and the cited Author,” says one.

And the page’s Talk section is equally lively:

“These people who support Palin are a right-wing group of extremist who will stop nothing short of altering history in order to vindicate her inane statements. Also if we are going on ‘what if’s about who altered the webpage than maybe your right about these ‘anti-Palin pranksters’ because the individual who realistically supports Palin is too inept to operate a computer let alone alter wiki.”

That was a reply (unedited) from “Reddevil1421” to the suggestion that perhaps it’s “anti-Palin pranksters” who are constantly rewriting the entry. The reply has since been removed.

Walsh feels that, eventually, the truth will win out and the revisionists will realize that it’s not worth the trouble:

“The reality is that Wikipedia isn’t a place for original research. It needs to be a proven piece of information before it can be added in Wikipedia… It’s a difficult medium to go in and say this is the truth when you have so many people watching the page making sure there’s no vandalism to it.”

Anatomy of a Wikipedia Edit

So how does Wikipedia get edited? It depends on the entry.

According to the site:

Wikipedia is a wiki, meaning that anyone can edit any unprotected page and improve articles immediately for all readers. You do not even need to register to do this. Anyone who has edited is known as a Wikipedia editor and, no matter how trivial the edit may seem, can be proud that he or she has helped make Wikipedia what it is. All those edits add up!

Some pages are however protected from editing. These pages have a View source tab instead of an Edit tab. You can still edit these pages indirectly, by submitting an “edit request” – an editor with the ability to edit the protected page will respond to your request.

You’ll notice that Wikipedia’s entry for Paul Revere, including a section on the famous “Midnight Ride,” is a protected entry. Therefore, any edits made need to be approved by editors with a bit more control than everyone else.

How do you become one of these super editors, which Wikipedia simply calls administrators? Per the site:

An ordinary editor can ask to become an administrator by submitting a request for adminship (RfA). The editor’s record and qualifications are discussed by other editors for a week, and the promotion is then decided by one of Wikipedia’s bureaucrats — a set of about 25 sysops at the top level of Wikipedia’s administration. The criteria that bureaucrats are supposed to look for include knowledge and respect for Wikipedia’s rules, steady and varied editing activity, etc.

So although Wikipedia is a site that “anyone” can edit, you can’t edit just anything—especially topics deemed important enough to be closed off to the general community by higher-level administrators.

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