About an hour after the first terrorist attack in Paris on November 13, Gareth Kegg, who has created hundreds of articles on Wikipedia, wrote a modest draft. An hour later, the article had ten referenced sources and hundreds of edits. Around the world, Wikipedians were collaborating to help make sense of the confusion and pain engulfing the world.
“Doing what we can over at the Norwegian (bokmål&riksmål) Wikipedia,” an editor tweeted in reply to a Twitter message about Wikipedians updating the article.
The article now has more than 250 sources and 4,500 edits. It has been translated into more than 80 languages, and has been read by millions of people.
The last two weeks have seen a number of atrocities committed around the world by various terrorist organisations. Wikipedians are changing how breaking news is gathered and reported by curating news from around the world to produce a constantly updated, crowdsourced view.
While Paris received the most mainstream media attention, other attacks shook different parts of the world, and Wikipedians responded to those as well. Unlike legacy news outlets, Wikipedians are not guided by centralized dictates; the community pitches in and determines coverage.
On November 12, two suicide bombers attacked the Lebanese capital of Beirut, killing a reported 43 people. They detonated explosives in a commercial district of Bourj el-Barajneh, a southern suburb with a high number of Shia Muslims. The blasts injured hundreds of others.
Wikipedia’s volunteer editors responded as news of the horror began to unfold by drafting the initial article based on reports available at the time. The initial draft contained five sources, including the New York Times, BBC News Online, Al Jazeera and the Daily Star of Lebanon.
The article quickly grew to include international reaction to the tragedy, with further sources emerging from Israel, Qatar, and Kuwait.
As of publishing time, the article is the product of 66 authors and provides a solid overview of the incidents in Beirut. It is written in 24 languages—including Arabic, the primary language spoken in Lebanon—and covers the tragedy itself as well as the investigation into the attack and background on the situation in the country, which neighbours war-torn Syria.
Only a day after the bombings in Beirut, the terror attacks hit Paris, resulting in the deaths of 130 people—including 89 during a hostage situation at a sold-out music venue.
As media coverage of Paris increased, the Wikipedia article grew. Unlike the news articles, which provide only the voice of the outlet or the journalist, Wikipedia’s editors synthesised from a number of sources, triangulating information to identify truths, and combining the facts into a historical account of the night’s events. Journalists and media experts cited the article as a resource. “Astonishing how thorough @Wikipedia entry on Nov 15 #ParisAttacks already is,” tweeted a journalist in Scotland.
The article was the second-most visited on the encyclopedia for the week ending November 14. The majority of the 4,500 edits to the article came within days of the event.
Even this week, the article was the third most-edited on the English Wikipedia, and the second most-active discussion. It was by far the most-edited article on the French Wikipedia, where the article leads with a image of the Eiffel Tower lit up in the French tricolour as so many building around the world were.
The lasting impact of the brutalities in both Paris and Beirut remains to be seen, but Wikipedians around the world have played their part in informing and updating a global audience that can do more than wait for news reports. Editors and readers are, as the Wikipedian in Norway said on Twitter, “doing what we can” to make sense of difficult events as they unfold.