Wikipedia and Turkey

Wikipedia and Turkey

The first time Wikipedia made the news in Turkey was when its founder Jimmy Wales came to Turkey for a keynote speech back in 2008. He was invited by the company Altivi. Almost all media outlets covered his speech because Wikipedia symbolized the start of a new age where information would never again be centralized. 2008 was also the year when there were more entries in Wikipedia than Encyclopedia Britannica, while sales of encyclopedias fell sharply. 

Wales spoke about how he founded Wikipedia. He said the key notion that lies at the heart of Wikipedia was trust, noting that he generally trusted people and voicing his belief that the good in people will always beat the evil. That’s why he said he would never directly dictate what is written in Wikipedia. 

Indeed, the way Wikipedia is designed depends on the collective consciousness of its writers and editors. Anyone can edit any article as long as his/her peers also agree on the changes. Wales said the articles that are changed constantly are the ones about political disputes, giving the example of the article about the American Civil War which has been changed hundreds of times. 

Because some people will always be subjective to certain facts, Wales said he gave editors the authority to lock some articles or ban some writers if they are fixated on changing historical facts. For example, you cannot permanently write that Hitler was the best thing that ever happened to Jews. You may be able to change the Hitler article once or twice, but someone in the community will be onto you soon. Through these types of pulls and pushes, articles usually settle at some point, which Wales said is usually the most objective point that could be reached if historians have a panel on the subject. That is why he believes in people. 

However, the Wikipedia founder’s relationship with Turkey has not been a very happy one. Altivi was closed down and the owners were jailed after they were caught conning people. This was one of the biggest ironies of 2008: The founders of a company that sponsored Jimmy Wales, who spoke about how trust is the most important thing, ended up in jail for cheating people.  

Anyway, Wales was due to give his second speech in Turkey as a guest of the Istanbul Municipality for a conference later this month. However, Wikipedia was blocked in Turkey just a couple of weeks before his scheduled appearance. After Wikimedia decided to appeal against the ban instead of agreeing to change the article as the Turkish government demanded, the Istanbul Municipality declared that Jimmy Wales were no longer invited to the conference.

On the one hand the foundation principle and the way that Wikipedia works is crystal clear; on the other hand the Turkish government does not want to see anything that incriminates it. 

The main article that the Turkish government wants to be changed was the article about “self-coups.” This article defines the military uprising of July 15, 2016 as a “self-coup” carried out by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. That is why the Ankara government accuses Wikipedia of being involved in a smear campaign in cooperation with outside powers that are trying to destabilize the country. Wales and Wikimedia counter by saying they founded Wikipedia for a free exchange of information and facts, so they do not have direct power over what editors write. 

Personally I have no doubts that July 15 was a real military uprising against the government and a real coup attempt. I believe the Turkish government is right in its appeal to change the entry but the means it has resorted to are wrong. Wikipedia is a resource that millions of Turkish people use daily. Instead of banning the whole website, government officials could have tried to change the article, or discussed the issue with the editors of Wikipedia and tried to make them understand that it was not a “self-coup.” If they had asked, even I could have done that for the government. 

Measures like banning websites only make Turkey seem like it has something to hide. If the issue could have been resolved in the normal way that Wikipedia works, it would not have made it to international news reports and the matter would have been solved much more easily. But now the issue is in the international news and questions are once again raised about whether the coup attempt was actually a “self-coup.” 

This is a PR disaster for the government. A real coup attempt is being questioned because the government banned Wikipedia. I hope the authorities that triggered this ban have made a note of how quickly this has escalated and will think more carefully in the future before resorting to ban whole websites.