The Citizens Handbook
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Lay out the facts
Charles Dobson

We are living in a world where actual facts have become smothered by social media rambling, “alternative” facts, and outright lies — made all the more alarming by declining numbers of professional journalists writing for responsible news organizations.

But don't despair. There is a credible source of facts available to everyone: Wikipedia. Academics often decry Wikipedia, but numerous studies have shown that its content is surprisingly accurate and reliable. For instance, a 2005 study in Nature found that a selection of Wikipedia articles on scientific subjects was comparable to a professionally edited encyclopedia, suggesting a community of volunteers can generate and sustain surprisingly accurate content. The English language version of Wikipedia contains over 5.7 million articles as of 2018, and all languages contain over 40 million articles, making Wikipedia the largest collection of knowledge ever assembled and certainly the most widely accessible.


Change the world in your spare time 

By contributing to or “editing” Wikipedia, you can become an important source of facts. The literature on problem-solving and conflict resolution emphasizes that the process should begin with all parties agreeing on the facts. The quickest, easiest way to create a credible, neutral, and accessible source of facts is by editing Wikipedia. It also the quickest and easiest way to ensure that actual facts guide public discourse. Everybody uses Wikipedia – including most of mainstream media which has steadily reduced the time it spends on research.

The problem with Wikipedia is not that it is inaccurate, but that it has many holes. In 2015 and 2016, I asked several classes of university students to research and put up Wikipedia articles on how to address climate change. It soon became apparent they would be able to make substantial contributions by filling in gaps on Wikipedia. For instance, there was very little available on ways to address deforestation, a primary contributor to climate change. And there was no separate article on deforestation in the Amazon in the Portuguese version of Wikipedia.


How to edit Wikipedia 

1. Register an account
Most people try to edit Wikipedia anonymously. It is much better to create an account and edit under a pseudonym. This provides anonymity and security, as well as access to enhanced editing features including a “watchlist” for monitoring articles you have edited previously. A pseudonym and a number of successful edits will improve your credibility making it easier to collaborate with others, and provide access to pages that are partially locked because of their contentious content.

2. Use Wikipedia's visual editor
Some people are put off by the coding needed to display articles on the web. The visual editor eliminates the need for coding.

3. Cite your sources
Wikipedia is not a place for original research or opinion. It is a place to summarize what is known about a subject. Wikipedia requires verifiability; all content must cite a credible published source. Most pages that contain content of any consequence are watched by other editors. Content that goes up that contains errors or lacks citation will be challenged by these editors. Without a citation or an explanation from its author, it will be deleted. Links can be used to add citations. Wikipedia has an easy way to link to other content in Wikipedia, and to online open-sources articles. It also has an easy way to locate and include bibliographic references to printed books and articles.

4. Explain why you've made an edit
Adding a note helps to begin a conversation with other editors watching the page.

5. Write neutrally
Wikipedia requires neutral language. In other words, it prohibits language that is laudatory or critical. Do not offer opinions; instead, try to use language that simply presents the facts. When covering complex issues, try to cover all significant viewpoints, and give each it's due weight. If you are not familiar with editing Wikipedia, avoid contentious issues.

6. Write simply
Much of Wikipedia may be written by experts, but it's intended for a general audience. If you wish to make facts in your subject area accessible, they need to be presented simply and without jargon.

7. Put up images
If you have the ability to create images, particularly information graphics, these are particularly effective on Wikipedia. Avoid copyright infringement, but consider putting up (and citing) images from credible sources of public, freely available information.

8. Ask for help
Wikipedia can be confusing for the inexperienced editor. Thankfully, the Wikipedia community puts great stock in welcoming new editors. Guidance is available through a number of avenues including help desks and an Adopt-a-User mentorship program. You can even summon up help by using a special template – {{helpme}}, and, as if by some by magic, a friendly Wikipedian will appear to offer one-on-one assistance.

The end to throw-away assignments

If you are a university professor, consider requiring students to edit Wikipedia as a part of assignments. As I mentioned earlier, I tried this at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design with a project that focused on ways of addressing climate change. I was astonished at how much work students were willing to do when they knew their efforts would count for more than just a mark. Everyone showed up for class on time, something I had never experienced before. And a number students did far more work than I required of them. For instance, one woman edited an important book on global governance. Very few people would have read the original published book, which was long and academic. She summarized the entire book, then broke it down broke into a collection of hyperlinked chunks, giving each a simple title that would help anybody access its content.

While students put more into the Wikipedia project than any other project I had assigned in 25 years of teaching, they still waited until the deadline to upload the results to Wikipedia. On the day the project was due, students complained that they couldn't put up their work. Wikipedia had blocked Emily Carr's IP address, believing it was under attack, because so many students were trying to upload articles. In the end, a single class of students provided over 2000 edits on a subject of global importance. Imagine how teachers and students could affect the world beyond the classroom by requiring submissions to Wikipedia as a part of assignments.

See also 10 Rules for Editing Wikipedia (pdf).

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The Troublemaker's Teaparty is an updated and expanded print version of The Citizen's Handbook. It contains all of the handbook plus additional material on preventing grassroots wilt, strategic action, direct action and media advocacy. You can get a copy of The Teaparty from Amazon or from New Society Publishers.