Edit wars: the biggest fights on Wikipedia

by Toby Manhire / 25 July, 2013
A new study identifies the most controversial subjects.
Battlegrounds are everywhere on the internet, but some of the most heated and important conflicts happen in the Wikipedia undergrowth.

More than 75,000 people worldwide contribute to writing and editing the massive online encylopedia, which contains more than 22 million articles in 285 languages – and so it’s hardly surprising that parts of that vast territory “edit wars” are under way.

What is an “edit war”? Seems appropriate to ask Wikipedia:

An edit war occurs when editors who disagree about the content of a page repeatedly override each other's contributions, rather than trying to resolve the disagreement by discussion. Edit warring is unconstructive and creates animosity between editors, making it harder to reach a consensus. Users who engage in edit wars risk being blocked or even banned. Note that an editor who repeatedly restores his or her preferred version is edit warring, whether or not the edits were justifiable: it is no defense to say "but my edits were right, so it wasn't edit warring".

Now a team of researchers have identified the most active “edit wars”, in a paper called “The most controversial topics in Wikipedia: A multilingual and geographical analysis” (PDF here).

Their chief criterion in the study, which focuses on 2010 activity and is intended to continue to monitor changes, is “mutual reverts” – “in which one editor reverts another’s work and vice versa, so both editors are undoing each other’s changes”, explains the MIT Technology Review.

The most controversial pages across languages deal with subjects such as Israel, Adolf Hitler, the Holocaust, global warming and God.

Less predictably, among the 10 most contentious pages in the English-language version of Wikipedia is “list of World Wrestling Entertainment Inc employees”.

In France, the former first lady Segolene Royal is the most fought over page. And in Romania, the most heavily debated page concerns the Universit-atea Craiova football team.

The ten most controversial articles in English:

1. George W Bush
2. Anarchism
3. Muhammad
4. List of World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. employees
5. Global Warming
6. Circumcision
7. United States
8. Jesus
9. Race and intelligence
10. Christianity


One of the most heated Wikipedia edit wars today is at the page detailing the recent removal of President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt.

On both the English and Arab language sites, the debate centres on the entry name used above the description of the Muslim Brotherhood backed leader’s ejection.

Writes Marya Hannun for Foreign Policy:

In arguing for a title change, some Wikipedians have asserted that it's hypocritical to call Egypt's first popular uprising in 2011 a ‘revolution’ and the second in 2013 a ‘coup’, given that both required military intervention to realise popular demands for a change in political leadership.

The distinction is not trivial. The discussion sections of the pages heave with debate because the word used in the Wikipedia entry has the power to define the debate.

As Hannun puts it, “history is written by the victorious Wikipedia editors”.

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