sk Google or Siri: “What is Taiwan?”
“A state”, they will answer, “in East Asia”.
But earlier in September, it would have been a “province in the People’s Republic of China”.
For questions of fact, many search engines, digital assistants and phones all point to one place: Wikipedia. And Wikipedia had suddenly changed.
The edit was reversed, but soon made again. And again. It became an editorial tug of war that – as far as the encyclopedia was concerned – caused the state of Taiwan to constantly blink in and out of existence over the course of a single day.
“This year is a very crazy year,” sighed Jamie Lin, a board member of Wikimedia Taiwan.
“A lot of Taiwanese Wikipedians have been attacked.”
Wikipedia is a movement as much as a website.
Anyone can write or edit entries on Wikipedia, and in almost every country on Earth, communities of “Wikipedians” exist to protect and contribute to it. The largest collection of human knowledge ever amassed, available to everyone online for free, it is arguably the greatest achievement of the digital age. But in the eyes of Lin and her colleagues, it is now under attack.
The edit war over Taiwan was only one of a number that had broken out across Wikipedia’s vast, multi-lingual expanse of entries. The Hong Kong protests page had seen 65 changes in the space of a day – largely over questions of language. Were they protesters? Or rioters?
The English entry for the Senkaku islands said they were “islands in East Asia”, but earlier this year the Mandarin equivalent had been changed to add “China’s inherent territory”.
The 1989 Tiananmen Square protests were changed in Mandarin to describe them as “the June 4th incident” to “quell the counter-revolutionary riots”. On the English version, the Dalai Lama is a Tibetan refugee. In Mandarin, he is a Chinese exile.
Angry differences of opinion happen all the time on Wikipedia. But to Ms Lin, this was different.
“It’s control by the [Chinese] Government” she continued. “That’s very terrible.”