Politics

Fighting for History on the Wikipedia Battlefield

Martial Law-era history is being (re)written before our eyes.
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Earlier this month, international news outlet The Guardian released a story about volunteer Wikipedia editors who stand guard at the pages of particularly sensitive topics in Philippine history.

Specifically, The Guardian’s story discussed the back-and-forth of conflicting revisions made on Wikipedia pages about the Martial Law era and former president Ferdinand Marcos, which have intensified over the past year as the Marcos family continues to orchestrate their political reemergence. Many Marcos supporters have brought their beliefs to new media platforms including Wikipedia, where they continue to insist upon their version of the truth.

The rally of revisions can be viewed in the Edit History pages of the entries for Ferdinand Marcos and for Martial Law in the Philippines. The passions run high behind the scenes: See, for example, this edit where an anonymous and exasperated editor writes, "Citation needed pala ha? Citation needed ng ina mo.”

Among the contested (and thankfully, as of this writing, successfully overridden) revisions was the removal of the word “kleptocrat” in the opening description of the Ferdinand Marcos page. Many items in the Edit History of this page are skewed towards Marcos, and seem to be part of an effort to whitewash the tyrant or to poison the well in his favor, omiting words and rephrasing facts under the guise of being “concise” and of promoting a “neutral point of view.”

For example, one such revision on the Ferdinand Marcos page, made by a particularly staunch Wikipedian named thetruth16, reads: “Added Imelda's claim in the interview that Ferdinand's wealth came from gold acquired before he became president. Added for NPOV - balancing aspects. need to hear the accused POV.” It must be noted that this user does not have a Wikipedia profile, but has been present in the revision logs of many Martial Law- and Marcos-related pages since September 2016.

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The same user also justified another one of his revisions as: “Consequences / effects of martial law are secondary; context for declaring is more important in the lead.”

And another still as: “Marcos didn't say that he's returning "stolen" wealth, so I removed "stolen " from the last paragraph. Better to leave this up to the readers to judge based on facts presented.

Meanwhile, only a handful of volunteer Wikipedia editors are left to hold these revisionists accountable for biased claims and lack of proper citation. These Wikipedians have taken up the Sisyphean task of flagging, arguing against, and overwriting the ostensibly pro-Marcos revisions over and over again. They must also deal with “vandalisms,” which are the more blatantly false or belligerent edits, such as when citations are deleted.

Among the effects of this Wiki-war, as of this writing, are over 1500 edits on the Ferdinand Marcos page from 2016 to 2017, compared to less than 500 edits on the same page between 2012 and 2014. And of those 1500+ edits, more than 1000 have been made between September 2016 and August 2017—the months leading up to and following Marcos’ burial at the Libingan ng Mga Bayani.

Also, as of this writing, the Wikipedia page of Proclamation No. 1081 (Marcos’ proclamation of Martial Law in 1972), has not even the slightest mention of the subsequent human rights abuses or plunder. Instead, the information on the page is heavily skewed to emphasize the threat of communist insurgencies at the time, even including Marcos’ efforts to establish diplomatic relations with communist China.

So as our political rifts grow, so do the different versions of truth that we put on the record using the internet.

"Considering that private parties with vested interests could easily hire people to revise and protect their pages, would the side of truth be able to keep up by doing the same?"

It's as important as ever to fight revisionism on this platform, if only because of the undeniable infuence and reach of Wikipedia. It may not be an acceptable source for official information, but on a practical, real-world level, Wikipedia provides many people with accessible, up-to-date, and free information. Wikipedia will remain a first-to-mind reference that has effective authority, and its truth cannot be compromised.

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Carlos Nazareno, a computer programmer and one of the Wiki-warriors who was contacted by The Guardian for its article, continues to beat back against the online revisionists because he knows how important Wikipedia is as a source of information for everyone. “Wikipedia is the fifth-most visited website in the world, and the tenth in the Philippines,” he tells us. “When [you Google] any subject on the internet, the number one search result is almost always the Wikipedia entry on the subject. It is at the very top of SEO (search engine optimization) results. Because of this, when people search for information on the internet, often their first point of contact will be the Wikipedia article.” He adds that the median age of all Filipinos is now very young: 23.4 years old; and that more than half of all Filipinos are online: 54 million—which means we are especially beholden to the truths of the internet.

The challenge, of course, is that this aspect of the war on historical revisionism is waged on a much deeper level. It’s the same sides, with the same beliefs, but fighting on a plane that requires people to spot when a well is being poisoned, or when facts are being manipulated, or when something important is being omitted. This revision war is often fought in tiny details, and so the Wikipedians who fight in it have to be able to discern what a “neutral point of view” really is, and argue their definitions of it with other Wikipedians. It’s a more nuanced war, in which only vigilant, well-informed people can participate.

"More and more people now have the power to contest truth and insist upon a different version of it."

So who, then, should fight in this war? Is it incumbent upon the academe, especially historians, to protect relevant Wikipedia pages from historical revisionists? Or is it the responsibility of the government? Considering that private parties with vested interests could easily hire people to revise and protect their pages, would the side of truth be able to keep up by doing the same?

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“Wikipedia has its pros and cons,” says Dr. Ambeth Ocampo, Associate Professor of History at Ateneo de Manila University, former Chairman of the National Historical Commission of The Philippines, and one of the most prominent historians of our time. “It is online and easily accessible, but its accuracy is an issue, and this is where the reader needs to be critical [...] It is important that you scroll through all the search results and find what you think is best. Not many know, for example, that there is a thing called Google Scholar, [which] only sources from academic works and is more reliable than regular Google.”

Dr. Ocampo believes that because Wikipedia is a public information platform, the task of policing its historical veracity is public as well. “The responsibility is for everyone to check and not just edit out what is wrong, but to alert Wikipedia to false information.” And while he also acknowledges that academia can play an important role in enforcing the truth on Wikipedia, their immediate mandate is much more crucial to the protection of historical truth. “Checking Wikipedia is not [academia’s] primary aim. Academia produces reliable, peer-reviewed content, and trains people in research and critical thinking.” And these skills, he believes, are still the best deterrent to historical revisionism. “Do your own research, verify information, and be critical of what you read online.”

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Likewise, Carlos Nazareno feels that the responsibility to protect Wikipedia’s truth falls on the public at large, but adds that educators have a bigger part to play. “Aside from concerned netizens, I believe that this should be the realm of journalists, scholars, researchers and historians, especially those in the academe,” he says. “Wikipedia is here to stay and educators cannot afford to ignore it. Their students will end up visiting Wikipedia at some point, and [it] will probably affect their students' worldviews. As such, there is a need for educators and educational institutions to ‘police’ Philippine Wikipedia articles and try to make sure that [they] are kept accurate and in line with facts they teach in the classroom.”

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Nazareno calls upon more people to take up the fight against historical revisionism. “Our best deterrent is vigilance and numbers in disseminating the truth. We need more Filipino volunteers to contribute edits to Wikipedia articles and police them.”

It can also been argued that the government should have a hand in this, through the National Historical Commission of The Philippines—the primary government agency responsible for Philippine History. Among its mandates is to: “Resolve historical controversies or issues,” so it’s reasonable to believe that historical revisionism in a wide-reaching platform like Wikipedia should fall within its purview. Esquire also reached out to the National Historical Commission of The Philippines via email for their input on the matter, but we have yet to receive a reply.

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The post-truth era is precisely so because of this sort of phenomenon. More and more people now have the power to contest truth and insist upon a different version of it. And that becomes even more dangerous when it concerns an information platform that's as influential as Wikipedia, so the importance of policing it cannot be understated. And while this responsibility weighs heaviest on those who have the credibility to protect the truth, in this new age, it doesn't take quite so much to make a difference.

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Miguel Escobar
Assistant Features Editor for Esquire Philippines
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