Responding to recent news about vandalism to Wikipedia

The Wikipedia globe being cradled by two hands

This post was written by Stevie Benton, Wikimedia UK’s Head of External Relations

Last week a story broke in the Liverpool Echo about vandalism to Wikipedia from the government’s computer network. In particular, the story examined edits to the article about the Hillsborough disaster.

I don’t want to focus on the story itself here. Instead, I’ll be looking at how we dealt with it from a communications perspective.

Within hours of being reported in Liverpool, the story was being picked up by media outlets on a national scale, especially by the BBC, and requests for comment and interviews began to pour in.

The first thing we needed to do was look at exactly what was being reported. Reading the coverage from the Liverpool Echo, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph, it became clear that the focus was on two points:

  • Vandalism of the Wikipedia article about the Hillsborough disaster
  • The vandalism came from computers connected to the government network.

The most important aspect of the story from a Wikimedia UK perspective was the first of the two and this was where we focused our response. Many thanks to Doug Taylor who uncovered the facts about these edits in record time.

There were three key messages we wanted to convey in our response:

  • That the vandalism to the articles was horrible but was limited to a few edits a long time ago
  • That the vandalism was removed very quickly by volunteers
  • That we show appreciation to the thousands of Wikipedians who work to create and curate Wikipedia.

With those messages clear, we could begin responding to the requests for comments while giving brief holding responses to requests for interviews, giving us time to find volunteers willing to speak on the radio. Step forward David Gerard and Joseph Seddon, who managed the possibly unique feat of speaking at the same time on two different BBC radio stations about two different topics.

We were also fielding requests from journalists about how easy it would be to find other edits from the same IP addresses, so an explanation of how Wikipedia works was offered, along with invitations to visit the Wikimedia UK offices. In particular, David’s excellent summary on Radio FiveLive explained to hundreds of thousands of people the basics of editing, some of whom may be intrigued enough to give it a try.

As the story continues to develop and more journalists explore the wonders of edit histories, more coverage of the topic is emerging. However, by engaging with the media effectively and openly, our key messages are continuing to be shared. If there is some good to come from this story, I hope it is a wider understanding of how Wikipedia works and especially that it’s written, edited and organised by a diverse and wonderful group of volunteers.