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Keeping Wikipedia clean is hard work

The community of volunteers that runs Wikipedia is not only concerned with writing its entries and constantly updating them: much of the work involves editing entries, redirecting them (whereby an entry is deleted and redirected to another similar entry. , to avoid duplication), the union of two or more entries and, above all, their cancellation. These changes serve to ensure the reliability and organization of the information contained in the encyclopedia and follow very complex procedures, often accompanied by long and heated discussions between users during which historical, political or cultural divergences are mixed with different interpretations of the principles. which define the nature and purpose of Wikipedia.

As the Input site recently wrote, the discussions on what to write, what to remove and what to keep on Wikipedia (and in some cases even how to write it) are numerous, can be very long and even involve hundreds of volunteers. On many occasions, the most popular debates concern the deletion of entries, as evidenced by the data collected by the JPxG user and published at the end of last year on The Signpost, the Wikipedia online newspaper. In the English edition of Wikipedia alone, from 2005 to 2020 there were on average 28,000 such discussions per year and nearly 22,000 in 2021.

More than half of these items are actually deleted, while about a quarter are kept (including items that the volunteers could not agree on). The rest of the entries have instead been moved or merged with other already existing pages, transferred to the drafts section of the encyclopedia or redirected to other pages.

Despite the large number of discussions that are created every year, deleting an entry from Wikipedia is not always an easy task. To avoid abuses, safeguard mechanisms and systems have been created, the fundamental principle of which is that of consent: every decision must be shared.

For starters, only entries that don't meet one or more of Wikipedia's five pillars are considered for deletion. The five pillars are the principles that define the fundamental characteristics of Wikipedia and are the basis of all the guidelines that define the management of content on the site and the Wikipedian community. The pillars are, summarizing: Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, not a newspaper or a place of promotion; has a neutral point of view; it is free, in the sense that its content can be modified by anyone; has a code of conduct to respect; it has no fixed rules apart from those listed above.

Many of the items that are reported do not clearly comply with some of these criteria and are deleted immediately: this is the case of those that contain false news, offensive or derogatory phrases, badly translated information or promotional messages and therefore explicitly violate the first pillar, “Wikipedia is an encyclopedia”.

In many other cases, however, users have different interpretations of compliance with the five pillars: for this reason, each registered user who possesses the voting requirements established by the community can report an entry and start a debate within the special discussion page linked to each entry in the encyclopedia.

The goal of these discussions – and in general of all discussions on Wikipedia – is to reach consensus, which is one of the main points of the internal rules referred to in the fourth pillar of the encyclopedia, “Wikipedia has a code of conduct “. According to these rules, in order to arrive at a shared solution on Wikipedia, not only the opinion of the majority of users participating in the discussion must be considered, but also the objections of the minority. During the debates, moreover, “it is necessary to respect each Wikipedian even when one does not agree with him”, behaving civilly and “avoiding conflicts of interest, personal attacks or easy generalizations”.

The discussions concerning the deletion of the pages must also respect precise time limits: if one week from the beginning of the discussion the participants have reached the consent autonomously, any user can propose the closure of the discussion and declare the outcome. Otherwise, the intervention of an administrator who has not participated in the discussion or changed the entry is required. The administrators are the Wikipedians who deal with resolving technical and operational issues: at this stage of the discussion, their task is to decide whether to extend the debate for another seven days or propose a vote.

As stated in the cancellation rules, if after two weeks of discussion the administrator does not feel able to make a decision on the future of the page, the only solution is to go to the vote. However, according to the fifth pillar (“Wikipedia has no fixed rules”), both the decisions taken by the directors considering the opinions of all the participants in the discussion and those reached through a vote can be re-discussed and modified further. It is for this reason that many debates on Wikipedia, especially the most heated and participatory ones, tend to reopen over time.

A clear example of this trend is the discussion – on Wikipedia in English – around the item “Massacres that occurred during the communist regimes”, an item that in 2021 was reported to administrators for the fourth time since its creation. The debate was reopened at the end of November by a user who criticized the wording of the title (which for a certain period was also “communist genocide”) and then extended, with the arrival of other Wikipedians, to the entire content of the page, which describes the deportations, imprisonments, famines and executions which took place mainly in the Soviet Union, China and Cambodia. Its talk page, which has become the longest in Wikipedia's history, has received a lot of attention from some conservative media outlets like the Telegraph and Fox News.

Finally, the entry was maintained, albeit with many precautions, including a warning that the neutrality of the voice is criticized by some users of the encyclopedia.

In general, the principle of neutrality is a source of much discussion, since it not only requires that the information contained in the encyclopedia be presented impartially, but also that it is selected on the basis of its relevance. In jargon, relevance must have been achieved by a particular person (or by a certain topic or phenomenon) within their scope before becoming an encyclopedia entry and must always be backed up by reliable and independent sources.

This principle was central in 2021 during the discussion on the page dedicated to Jacob Chansley, known as Jake Angeli, one of the leaders of the attack on the United States Congress. The day after the attack, a user had in fact created a stub – a very short article, often just a sentence long, to be expanded at a later time – which had been contested by another user according to which “being a QAnon supporter and member of the group that entered the Congress is not a guarantee of relevance ”. In the absence of consensus among the participants, the discussion ended with a vote in which more than two hundred people took part: in the end, the page was kept and subsequently expanded with new information.