The Signpost

Special report

Wiki reporting on the United States insurrection

Contribute  —  
Share this
By GorillaWarfare
U.S. Capitol at 2:22 p.m., 6 January 2021 according to the photo's metadata

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?

The first image to be added to the article

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.

In this issue
+ Add a comment

Discuss this story

The very nature of a "breaking news" cycle makes it nearly impossible for anyone to provide "accurate and comprehensive" information, after all. (I'm reminded of CNN and their "#FIRST!" claims, which always seem sort of ironic when the reporting done under that banner turns out to have inconsistencies and flat-out errors. Which it not-infrequently does, to greater or lesser degrees. Oh, sure, they go back and correct the errors later, they're not not journalists. But I often wonder whether they might take a few extra minutes to not be #FIRST!, and instead have a better claim to being "CNN: #CORRECT!".) I'm sure there were plenty of times the insurrection article had The Wrong Version live, and there are likely plenty of minor errors still to be corrected or details to be fleshed out in the current version. As I said, it's the nature of the beast, and doesn't make it or the process by which it was created any less impressive. -- FeRDNYC (talk) 12:34, 1 February 2021 (UTC)[reply]
I appreciate that "breaking news" is never "accurate and comprehensive" except in a relative sense, but would say that's built in to the last part "breaking news as it unfolds". Relative to other reports we're accurate and comprehensive, due to the combination and vetting of multiple reports. Another caveat should be mentioned, even though we all know it: we're *never* the first to report something. Some journalist has to report it first. So it looks to me like much of the time Wikipedia was 15 minutes behind the first reports. That by itself is simply amazing. Smallbones(smalltalk) 17:35, 1 February 2021 (UTC)[reply]
  • "Any national media outlet is not-very-subtlety hammering away giving the audience their POV presented as newscasts. Switch channels, and you get the opposite POV." - this strikes me as a bit dishonest. Yes, the mainstream media in the US does have a serious agenda-driven POV-pushing problem, but this comes entirely from conservative media outlets such as Fox, OAN, the Daily Caller and their sort. Simply disregard those and you will get accurate, unbiased, non-partisan coverage of events. Mistakes happen, but always due to lack of information rather than malicious distortion of facts, and you can expect a correction before the story even cycles out. With right wing media, that is not the case. (talk) 16:58, 7 February 2021 (UTC)[reply]
  • There's no such thing as "unbiased, non-partisan coverage" because someone has to decide what topics to cover and in how much detail—and that decision is political. For instance, the conservative channel CNN (regarded within the country as somehow "left-wing") broadcasted many Trump speeches prior to his election uncritically and without commentary, in full, because that's what sold. Now they cover every sentence that Trump says critically and with commentary, because that's what sells now. But covering Trump in so much detail is still a political decision. It still plays to this underlying notion of populism—that a political party is defined by its leader's personality rather than its legislation passed and day-to-day activities. This is not to say, of course, that there is no difference between telling lies and truth, or that there is no correlation between political point of view and rate of inaccuracy in coverage.
    This is why I think the terms "NPOV" and "neutrality" as used on Wikipedia are somewhat misnomers. Wikipedia's political perspective is grounded in choices we make like adopting verifiability as policy, never engaging in original research and deciding what level of fact-checking is sufficient for reliability (of a source in a context). These are political choices I (usually) agree with, but they give us systemic biases in coverage of cultures which rely on oral tradition, coverage of (fact-based) ideas which are excluded or marginalized within academia or journalism etc. (That's not even to say that these biases are bad—they could simply be pragmatic given our limited resources and editor numbers—just that they exist.) On the flip side, I love the focus we have on due weight because it implicitly acknowledges that the choices of what or whether to write about a topic is related to provenance, rather than anything being fair game if it's true and "neutrally" written. — Bilorv (talk) 18:43, 7 February 2021 (UTC)[reply]
  • It's hard to cover anything related to the GOP in any other way. The party has completely foregone all notion of policy in favor of right wing populism (which is just a euphemism for fascism, really). The Democratic party is being torn between mainline, right wing neocon/neolib corporatism and actual liberalism, policy wise. Meanwhile, the GOP has got nothing besides trumpism. Therefore that is what CNN covered, because there was nothing else about the trump administration to cover. And it's something that needed to be criticised. I'd say I'm relieved that America finally woke up and voted him out, but then I look at how many people voted FOR him in November and I'm terrified. (talk) 01:38, 8 February 2021 (UTC)[reply]
  • I think you're misunderstanding my point. In a country where most citizens wrongly think that crime is increasing, wrongly think that refugee admittance is not at an all-time low, don't understand the current admission process for immigrants, don't understand the current laws about sex work, can't name the countries in which the U.S. military is taking action etc., why is it that CNN is choosing to "educate" people about Trump saying "our military is great, our country is great" on a podium for the 600th day in a row rather than educating people about the actual functioning and current practices of your government (which is just as much "news" if not moreso)? Well, because they're making the political decision to do that, and there's a few factors I would argue are behind that decision, but I'm sure you can think of plenty yourself as well. — Bilorv (talk) 14:14, 8 February 2021 (UTC)[reply]
  • You mean Fox. Literally every other media outlet have been consistently and reliably fact-checking trump's lies since the day he entered office. (talk) 06:18, 9 February 2021 (UTC)[reply]


The Signpost · written by many · served by Sinepost V0.9 · 🄯 CC-BY-SA 4.0