Two weeks before Donald Trump's presidency ended, one of its defining moments appeared in near real time on the pages of Wikipedia. Our article on the 2021 storming of the United States Capitol was created as rioters were overwhelming Capitol security, shots were reported on Wikipedia 30 minutes after they were fired, and the inevitable conclusion, the affirmation of Joe Biden's election as president of the United States, was recorded on our pages an hour after it was recorded in Congress.
At 1:10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on January 6, Donald Trump ended his speech in which he repeated the false claims that he had won the presidential election, and instructed his supporters to march to the Capitol. "After this, we’re going to walk down and I’ll be there with you," he promised, although he never would join them. Among the protesters were people who took to heart Trump's statement that "If you don't fight ... you're not going to have a country anymore". At 1:26 p.m., Capitol police ordered the evacuation of two buildings in the Capitol complex as the gathering crowd continued to swell, and rioters began to overwhelm those guarding the plaza.
Meanwhile, Another Believer looked on. He'd worked on several similar articles, both pro- and anti-Trump marches, including March 4 Trump, Mother of All Rallies, LGBT protests against Donald Trump, Women's March on Portland and Not My Presidents Day. This day he watched as Trump gave his speech on the Ellipse, instructing his supporters to converge on the Capitol. It was when Another Believer heard that evacuations had been ordered in the Capitol complex that he became confident that this was not just another unbelievable but ultimately non-notable event in a presidency full of unprecedented chaos. At 1:34 p.m. he hit publish on the first draft of what would later be titled 2021 storming of the United States Capitol. It began as a one-sentence stub: "On January 6, 2021, thousands of Donald Trump supporters gathered in Washington, D.C. to reject results of the November 2020 presidential election."
By 2:30 p.m., when I became the second editor of the article, it was three sentences long, with three references, and three "see also" entries. The last two sentences were "At least 10 people have been arrested. Select buildings in the Capitol Hill complex were evacuated."
When I joined Another Believer editing the page, neither of us knew that about fifteen minutes earlier, rioters had broken windows in the Capitol building, climbed through, and unlocked doors to allow a surge of people to breach the Capitol. The first editor to report this did so at 2:33 p.m., and as rioters began to flood into the Capitol, edits began to flood in to the article as Wikipedians attempted to document the breaking news event in close to real time. Before too long, a new edit to the page was being saved every ten seconds. At 2:49 p.m., a Wikidata item was created to record structured data about the event, and by 3 p.m. editors on the Arabic and Basque Wikipedias had created pages of their own.
Shortly before 3 p.m., reports began to trickle in that shots had been fired inside the Capitol building. The first reports came from unreliable sources: Twitter posts, many of which also showed photographs of Capitol police gathered with guns drawn at the doors to the U.S. House of Representatives. By 3 p.m., ABC News confirmed, and it was added to the article less than fifteen minutes later. The first page move happened around the same time, when an editor observed that the page title, "January 2021 Donald Trump rally", did not disambiguate the event from other Donald Trump rallies that month. The page remained at its new title, "January 2021 United States Capitol protests", until a requested move discussion with more than 200 participants over 12 hours closed in the early hours of January 7 with consensus to move the page to "2021 storming of the United States Capitol".
The page continued to change at breakneck speed throughout the afternoon. By 4 p.m. a total of 257 edits had been made, 206 in the previous hour. Discussions unfurled on the talk page as hundreds of editors worked to craft the page. Should "parties to the civil conflict" be represented in the infobox, or was that too militaristic? Should various leaders' comments tweets about the event be included in a "reactions" section on the page, and if so should flag icons be used to denote their nationality? Should the people at the Capitol be called a mob, rioters, protesters, insurrectionists, or something else, and should that name differ based on whether they entered the building or stayed outside it?
At around 5:40 p.m., law enforcement announced they had cleared the Senate building. By this time, the page was 1,800 words long. People had begun looking for freely licensed images and videos with which to illustrate the page, and the first image appeared in the article at 6:36 p.m. By the end of the day, over 1,000 edits had been made to create a page that was more than 4,000 words long.
As of January 31, 1,084 editors have collaborated to create a page that has been viewed over 2.7 million times. The article is more than 12,000 words long and cites 475 unique references. The talk page is up to twelve pages of archived discussion, and a new move discussion continues as editors deliberate over whether the page ought to be retitled "Insurrection at the United States Capitol". Articles about auxiliary topics too long to fit in the main page have been created to describe the timeline, domestic and international reactions, and aftermath of the event. The article exists on 55 language versions of Wikipedia, and there are entries about the topic at French and Russian Wikinews and English and Italian Wikiquote. Hundreds of images and videos have been uploaded to Category:2021 storming of the United States Capitol and its subcategories on Wikimedia Commons.
Breaking news editing on Wikipedia often reminds me of the myth about bumblebees, which holds that bumblebees are able to fly despite being scientifically unable to do so. That thousands of editors can work together, communicating only through edit summaries and talk page messages, to accurately and comprehensively document breaking news as it unfolds seems to be something that could never work in theory. But in practice, it is nothing short of remarkable that we are able to sift through inaccurate and sometimes contradictory news reports to separate the facts from the inevitable inaccuracies and hyperbole of breaking news, make our best guesses at what will have lasting notability, and, eventually, revisit the articles once time has passed to ensure they are complete and balanced.