How Wikipedia covered Thatcher's death

Edit wars and Alex Salmond.

I heard about the news that Margaret Thatcher had died at 12:48 yesterday – on Twitter, naturally:



In a matter of seconds, four separate sources had tweeted the news, making it pretty unlikely to be a false alarm. And four minutes after that, the first Wikipedia editor went to work:

Revision as of 02:29, 4 April 2013
Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher, LG, OM, PC, FRS, née Roberts (born 13 October 1925), is a British politician…

Revision as of 11:52, 8 April 2013.
Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher, LG, OM, PC, FRS, née Roberts (born 13 October 1925), died April 8th, 2013, was a British politician…

Over the next hour, there were 76 separate edits, as users piled on to the breaking news. Unusually for Wikipedia, these came from across the site's userbase; there were a few hardcore editors jumping in to clean up the text, but as many of the changes were made by contributors with few edits to their name.

Revision as of 12:17, 8 April 2013
(removed "Oldest Living Former Prime Minister" honorific title)

But unlike the best of Wikipedia's responses to breaking news, Thatcher's page did not see an influx of first-time users. That's because it was "semi-protected", a limitation the site imposes on certain pages which are prone to vandalism. And the Margaret Thatcher page was certainly prone to vandalism.

Revision as of 00:42, 8 March 2008
(←Replaced page with 'SHE IS DEAD. DO WHAT YE WANT WITH YER SATAN.')

Semi-protection came in ten minutes after that edit, and has remained ever since. Which is probably for the best.

Revision as of 12:10, 8 April 2013
(→‎Honours: was, past tense)

The first hour of edits were largely clean-up. Tenses were changed, dates were added in, and a whole section on her death was introduced. But after that, the edit wars began.

A section headlined "Reactions to her death" was introduced at 12:22, but removed by 12:50, after an editor added the note "please do not add tributes from around the world. It is unnecessary and clutters the article."

Revision as of 12:50, 8 April 2013
(→‎Illness and death: we don't need a separate section for this, and we need to make sure this doesn't degenerate into a book of condolences)

That didn't stop people adding in the innumerable statements world leaders were making.

Revision as of 16:58, 8 April 2013 by Zcbeaton
(→‎Illness and death: Added response from Alex Salmond, statement from Glasgow City Council.)

Revision as of 17:00, 8 April 2013
(Undid revision by Zcbeaton: massively undue weight)

Particularly harsh was the removal of Bulgarian Premier Marin Raykov's statement, with the words "bullshit, poorly sourced, badly written"

In the end, Thatcher's death wasn't a time for Wikipedia to shine. The basic facts of the situation were established early on, and the only deeper piece of information – that she had died in bed in the Ritz hotel – had arrived within four hours (although it was shortly removed because it didn't have a source cited). The urge to grow the article didn't lead to a deeper haul of information, but just squabbling edit wars over which piece of irrelevant data to include next.

Revision as of 03:48, 9 April 2013
(→‎Political legacy: Added comments about the Scottish Parliament.)

But in its own quiet way, Wikipedia proved its worth yet again. Just a day after her death was announced, the article has a detailed section on her death and legacy; the edit wars are quieting down; and a new article, on the Death and funeral of Margaret Thatcher, has been created. What's left is left for the future.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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After the “Tatler Tory” bullying scandal, we must ask: what is the point of party youth wings?

A zealous desire for ideological purity, the influence of TV shows like House of Cards and a gossip mill ever-hungry for content means that the youth wings of political parties can be extremely toxic places.

If you wander around Westminster these days, it feels like you’re stepping into a particularly well-informed crèche. Everyone looks about 13; no one has ever had a job outside the party they are working for. Most of them are working for an absolute pittance, affordable only because Mummy and Daddy are happy to indulge junior’s political ambitions.

It’s this weird world of parliament being dominated by under 25s that means the Tory youth wing bullying scandal is more than just a tragic tale. If you haven’t followed it, it’s one of the most depressing stories I’ve ever read; a tale of thirty-something, emotionally-stunted nonentities throwing their weight around at kids – and a promising, bright young man has died as a result of it.

One of the most depressing things was that the stakes were so incredibly low. People inside RoadTrip 2015 (the campaigning organisation at the centre of the scandal) cultivated the idea that they were powerbrokers, that jumping on a RoadTrip bus was a vital precondition to getting a job at central office and eventually a safe seat, yet the truth was nothing of the sort.

While it’s an extreme example, I’m sure it happens in every political party all around the world – I’ve certainly seen similar spectacles in both the campus wings of the Democrats and Republicans in the US, and if Twitter is anything to go by, young Labour supporters are currently locked in a brutal battle over who is loyal to the party, and who is a crypto-Blairite who can “fuck off and join the Tories”. 

If you spend much time around these young politicians, you’ll often hear truly outrageous views, expressed with all the absolute certainty of someone who knows nothing and wants to show off how ideologically pure they are. This vein of idiocy is exactly where nightmarish incidents like the notorious “Hang Mandela” T-shirts of the 1980s come from.

When these views have the backing of an official party organisation, it becomes easy for them to become an embarrassment. Even though the shameful Mandela episode was 30 years ago and perpetrated by a tiny splinter group, it’s still waved as a bloody shirt at Tory candidates even now.

There’s also a level of weirdness and unreality around people who get obsessed with politics at about 16, where they start to view everything through an ideological lens. I remember going to a young LGBT Republican film screening of Billy Elliot, which began with an introduction about how the film was a tribute to Reagan and Thatcher’s economics, because without the mines closing, young gay men would never found themselves through dance. Well, I suppose it’s one interpretation, but it’s not what I took away from the film.

The inexperience of youth also leads to people in politics making decisions based on things they’ve watched on TV, rather than any life experience. Ask any young politician their favourite TV show, and I guarantee they’ll come back with House of Cards or The Thick of It. Like young traders who are obsessed with Wolf of Wall Street, they don’t see that all the characters in these shows are horrific grotesques, and the tactics of these shows get deployed in real life – especially when you stir in a healthy dose of immature high school social climbing.

In this democratised world of everyone having the ear of the political gossip sites that can make or break reputations, some get their taste for mudslinging early. I was shocked when a young Tory staffer told me “it’s always so upsetting when you find out it’s one of your friends who has briefed against you”. 

Anecdotes aside, the fact that the youth wings of our political parties are overrun with oddballs genuinely worries me. The RoadTrip scandal shows us where this brutal, bitchy cannibalistic atmosphere ends up.

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.