Wikipedia Talk Page Paper
Published 25 March 2018 in media
This was a paper I did for my Structure of Information course in which I analyze the talk page of a specific Wikipedia article. For this paper I chose the article for the 1993 Waco siege.
An Evaluation of the Waco Siege Wikipedia Article: A Report on Crowdsourced Encyclopedia Article Creation
This report looks at the effectiveness of online crowdsourced article creation by evaluating the article and talk page of the Wikipedia.org entry for the infamous and controversial Waco siege. The article covers the incidents surrounding and including the entire standoff that occurred in 1993 between a group of Branch Davidians and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) at the Mount Carmel Center near Waco, Texas. The article is structured so that at the top of the page there is a written summary of the incident and an image and table of fast facts and stats along the right side of the article. Below the summary, there is a table of contents with links that one can click to jump to different sections of the article. Following the body of the article, there is a ‘See also’ section that lists other Wikipedia articles of similar topics or topics related to the Waco siege. Underneath that section there is a numbered ‘References’ section with links to the places in the article that have been cited. Finally, there is a ‘Bibliography’ section with links to official public documents about the incident. The article makes frequent use of embedded links to guide readers to further information and in-text citations to show where the editor got his or her information.
Evaluation of Article Coverage
To summarize the events that took place, the article explains how the Branch Davidians that took part in the siege were an apocalyptic religious group led by alleged child abuser and appointed “Prophet” David Koresh and headquartered at the Mount Carmel Center ranch in Axtell, Texas, where the ATF suspected them of stockpiling illegal firearms. After obtaining a search warrant for the compound and arrest warrants for some of the group members, the ATF attempted to raid the ranch but were unsuccessful. The initial gun battle on February 28th cost the lives of four government agents and six Branch Davidians and was followed by a 51-day siege ending on April 19th with a fire that engulfed and destroyed the compound, costing the lives of 76 more people including unarmed women and children. The article does not fail to mention speculation about what really happened in that span of time as well as what caused the fire nor the fact that this tragedy and a similar siege at Ruby Ridge were listed as the primary motivations behind the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the worst act of domestic terrorism in the United States to date.
As is known about The Free Encyclopedia, the article is very detailed and includes copious amounts of information from every perspective provided the information is strongly related to the incident and there is documentation backing it up. The body of the article explains the events chronologically, beginning with the background and prelude that started it all, then the failed raid, the siege, the final assault on the compound, and finally the aftermath, including the controversies and lasting impact of the tragedy.
Encyclopedia Article Comparison
To evaluate the information explained by the article, Tony Murphy’s entry on the Waco siege from The Social History of Crime and Punishment in America: An Encyclopedia from the SAGE Knowledge database was used as a point of comparison. Murphy’s article reads like a very condensed and more emotional version of the Wikipedia article that puts more focus on Koresh’s involvement. Murphy’s article lacks specificity that the Wikipedia article does not such as mentioning the names of everyone involved in the trial, the total number of victims or survivors, and other important figures on the FBI side that the Wikipedia article does mention such as Jeff Jamar and Richard Rogers. Despite these missing details, however, the overarching narrative in both articles remains very similar, with the exception of Koresh’s fate. Murphy writes that his death was most likely a suicide while Wikipedia mentions that “according to the FBI, Steve Schneider—Koresh's top aide—shot and killed Koresh and then killed himself with the same gun” (Washington Post, 1993). But, the short article does also mention some specific details that remain consistent in the Wikipedia article such as how news of the raid reached Koresh in advance, the comparison of the sect to Jonestown, the release of some of the Branch Davidian children during the siege, and some information on the origins of the sect. I think that finer details like these are omitted from printed encyclopedias because of the inability to make corrections once the print is released without releasing an entirely new edition. Wikipedia benefits from the fact that is entirely online and is revised organically by multiple contributors, meaning that there is no limit to the amount of information that can be included and revised.
Wikipedia’s “Five Pillars”
Furthermore, the article must be held up to Wikipedia’s “five pillars” or fundamental principles behind editing content to fully evaluate the construction of knowledge of the Waco siege. The first pillar states that “Wikipedia is an Encyclopedia” and nothing else. The amount of information, the structure of the content, and the lengthy list of sources cited indicate that the article has been well-maintained for the purpose of education, following the first pillar.
The second pillar states that “Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view”, however, because of the tragic and controversial nature of the topic and the fact that articles rely on multiple editors to be completed, the difficulty of keeping the perspective of the article neutral has shown. The most glaring evidence of this are two template messages that were put on two sections of the article: one that warns that the neutrality of the section ‘Role of anti-cult activists’ is disputed and another that warns that the section ‘Civil suits’ does not cite any sources.
The third pillar states that “Wikipedia is free content that anyone can use, edit, and distribute” and that copyright laws must be respected, plagiarism is banned, and nobody can claim ownership of an article. Looking at the revision history on the article, one can see that there have been over 500 revisions over its life ranging from the addition of new content, grammar and spelling fixes, citation addition, and several reverting “possible vandalisms”, demonstrating the care that editors have for maintaining a presentable page with the most accurate information possible. Even the template messages warning about the neutrality of one section and the legitimacy of another are an example of the site being transparent with its readers and calling for contributors to improve or delete the sections.
The fourth pillar states that “Wikipedia's editors should treat each other with respect and civility,” and I think that the platform definitely allows for this because of the way Talk page threads are structured and the fact that a version of the page is stored after an edit is published. Sometimes there can be small arguments, such as on the ‘sources for fire from helicopters’ thread in the Talk page, where users question the validity of new sources and the reason for the removal of the old sources. One user, Carolmooredc, calls out another user Dworjan. for making “personal attacks,” so this shows how contributors “check” fellow contributors.
The fifth and final pillar states that “Wikipedia has no firm rules,” meaning that the site’s policies and guidelines aren’t written in stone, so that they can be improved. The only way this pillar applies to the article is in the way that the two sections with the warning template messages have not yet been removed. A subthread called “Request for comment: Inclusion of relevant anti-cult movement material” on the Talk page is from the user Zambelo, who is responsible for creating the section that other contributors have marked as “biased.” There the user attempts to have a discussion about why his or her content was mostly deleted, since it was originally pages longer. Of course, the simple answer provided by other users in the thread is that it was simply too long and not relevant enough to the Waco siege to warrant taking up so much space on the article. Finally, clicking on the user’s name reveals that the account is a sock puppet of another user, and both accounts have been “blocked indefinitely”. Leaving the thread as an example to others and the warning notice would help other contributors learn from others’ mistakes, so I believe this is a glimpse of the fifth pillar in action since otherwise biased content would be removed since it goes against the second pillar.
Evaluation of References
One of the features that makes evaluating information on Wikipedia so easy is the referencing system that allows users to hyperlink sentences to the corresponding source or sources in the ‘References’ section. Simply clicking on the little superscript number in square brackets takes you to the source being cited, and simply clicking on the little letter or upwards arrow next to the reference in the list takes you to the places in the article that this source backs up. When looking through this list, however, I come upon a few problems. The first problem is the accessibility of these sources to confirm the information presented in the article. When the sources are websites, there are links in the citations that makes it easier to verify if the source is relevant and accurate, but when the sources are physical books, it would take some searching in a library or online for a pdf version of the book to confirm that the book is actually relevant or saying what is being said in the article.
First examining the books in the list, I noticed that references 5 and 7 covered only common knowledge about the event and were supplemented with reference 6 which contained a link to an article that could be viewed. Reference 6 is a page about Elk, Texas on the website for the Texas State Historical Association, but the only relevant information I can find to the article is that it mentions “Axtell, Texas” which is where the Wikipedia article says the Mount Carmel Center belonging to the Branch Davidians was situated because it was in McLennan County, Texas. Strangely, I couldn’t find any other source online to back this claim up. The next set of book sources, references 8 and 9, are used to cite the number of fatalities on the day of the fire that took place on April 19. These references include a link to the page in digital copies of the book, so those are verifiable. The next unlinked material, reference 11, is cited four times in the article for the number of children who were released from the compound during the siege and how many people remained inside (Perry & Szalavitz, 2007). Doing a quick Google search, I found the page where the excerpt was found, and it turns out it’s from a magazine called Psychotherapy Networker. Regardless, it’s puzzling why this wasn’t included.
Besides the instances where references provide no links to the source material as described above, most of the 138 references can be found online or are linked to news articles from reputable stations like CNN, USA Today, Newsweek, PBS.org and so on. Some of the references point to official government pages such as the website for the Texas Department of Public Safety, and others to video documentaries and their sites (references 22, 90, 127, and 132), PDF documents (references 1, 30, 33, 59, and more in the Bibliography), and archives on the Wayback Machine (references 96, 101, 104, 105, and 117). All of the sources that must stand on their own to support a piece of the article are definitely relevant to the Waco siege. All of the linked references, except perhaps some of the documentaries, are non-biased, and the sources that are directly from authorities are definitely authoritative. It is not easy to piece together an event that is “incomplete” because of what was lost or never recorded, but the contributors who put it together with what they could find definitely respected this by using sources that have merit and avoiding sources that are biased.
Analysis of Editor Discussions
The format of the discussions on the Talk page is interesting because it is unlike the systems I have seen on other websites. Instead of using a commenting system, the Talk page uses “threads” with a title and users editing the thread to include their input under others’ input marked with their username (or IP address if the user has no account) and the date and time of the addition. I think that this format (as well as the learning curve for editing discussions) discourages behaviors that are common on other websites that allow user discussion such as emojis and memes, discussions that are off-topic, and generally inappropriate behavior since the Talk pages are public, heavily moderated, and do not allow anonymity. At the end of the Talk page, there is even a ‘References’ section much like on the Article page, emphasizing this need for transparency and evidence when dealing with information that can be seen by everyone around the world. Of the topics often discussed, keeping the article neutral and factually accurate by using nonbiased sources seem to be at the top of the list.
In one discussion about keeping the article’s neutrality, “’Waco massacre’, as alternate title”, the user Woodshed explains that he or she removed an alternate title that another user added to the page because it seemed too “POV” or too biased to a certain point of view, especially since the numbers from a previous discussion that used Google search to determine how many page results came up with different names did not support that “Waco massacre” was a very common name for the incident at all. The user then adds that it’s important to use scholarly search engines as well because people have innate biases which account for the unreliable sources that also appear in common search engines like Google. Using Google Books and Google Scholar to search six different proposed names for the event, Woodshed found that “Waco siege” still came in first place and that “Waco massacre” still didn’t even make second. User Carolmooredc then responds that the name definitely influences the point of view of the article, since calling the incident a “massacre” would sympathize too much with the Branch Davidian victims by demonizing law enforcement. Discussions about seemingly innocuous details like this demonstrate that Wikipedia contributors are mindful of how the smallest detail could unbalance the neutrality of an article and care enough to do something about it and discuss it.
In another discussion, “sources for fire from helicopters”, users argue about the legitimacy of some sources and the grounds for their inclusion. User Eric Naval starts off the discussion by asking why official reports were removed in favor of two pages – one by a publisher of road guides and the other (now deleted) formerly sponsored by clearly biased organizations and authored by a writer who endorsed conspiracy theories, including a debunked theory stating that the tanks used in the Waco siege had flamethrowers. The fringe sources are no longer listed on the Wikipedia article, demonstrating that these discussions do work for keeping the article factual.
The few changes that I would make to the page as it is now would be to continue fixing some of the sentence structures, adding links to the sources in the references list that do not have links, and doing something about the two sections with warning labels. One sentence that I would change is in the summary section of the article and goes as follows: “The Branch Davidians, was led by David Koresh and was headquartered at Mount Carmel Center ranch in the community of Axtell, Texas, 13 miles (21 kilometers) east-northeast of Waco.” I would edit the verbs in the first clause of the sentence to match the plurality of the subject like so: “The Branch Davidians were led by David Koresh and were headquartered at Mount Carmel Center ranch…” Otherwise, I could edit it to add that the Branch Davidians were a religious sect.
The sources I would edit to include links to a copy that could be viewed by anyone online would be references 5, 7, 11, 12, 14, 15, 17—20, 23—25, 28, 36, 38, 44, 52, 54, 56, 60, 63, 65, 70, 72, 75, 76, 80, 82, 85, 95, 102, 107, 110, 116, 119, 125, and 126. Some of these references are books, and although most of them include the ISBN number which can be used to find a digital copy through a trusted search engine like Google Books, most users will find a paywall when trying to view the pages cited. Additionally, linking some videos may be against copyright law. In cases like these, it would be understandable why it should be left up to the user to find the book themselves. Reference 126 also seems to have a problem with the date, as it is marked in red, and reference 130 also needs to be removed because it leads to a page that no longer exists. Because of this, the information that it supports must be removed or supported with something else.
Finally, I would try to fix up the sections that have template warning messages. In “Civil suits”, I would try to cite sources where contributors have asked to see them. The excerpt “The court found that, on February 28, 1993, the Branch Davidians initiated a gun battle when they fired at federal officers who were attempting to serve lawful warrants.” is marked with a  link, indicating that there needs to be proof to back that claim. This mark is also found in two other places in the article, though they are small enough to not warrant a template message in their sections. Afterwards, in “Role of anti-cult activists,” which I already mentioned in a previous section of this report, I would look at what makes this section not neutral in the eyes of the contributors – whether it’s the sources used, the language, or the very nature of the content written. The fact that this section talks about how Branch Davidian defectors “played important roles in popularizing a harshly negative image of Koresh as a dangerous cult leader” without considering the evidence that justified a negative image of Koresh definitely shows a bias towards Koresh’s brand of belief (Report to the Deputy…, 2013). To remove suspicion of bias, the section would have to be highly revised and re-cited with sources that can be accessed by the public easier. In the worst-case scenario, the section would have to be entirely removed unless there is further discussion on the Talk page to keep what is currently there.
In conclusion, Wikipedia.org’s system for crowdsourced article creation is highly effective but not without its flaws. In analyzing the article for the Waco siege, there is no doubt that some issues remain when it comes to keeping the article as neutral as possible because of the sensitive nature of the topic. The Talk page, however, demonstrates an earnest effort by the Wikipedia community to keep the information on the article non-biased and factual using the most relevant sources available and by cutting down on unnecessary additions. In comparison to scholarly encyclopedia entries like that of Murphy’s in The social history of crime and punishment in America: An encyclopedia, it is shown that the information presented by a multiple collaborators on this free and open platform can be just as accurate because it all depends on what sources are used to back the information up. Wikipedia’s system has so far been a success by allowing the real-time revision and maintenance of articles without having to waste money or resources like paper and ink and insuring that anybody with a passion for the information they share can make a lasting contribution for all to learn more.
- Murphy, T. (2012). Waco siege. In W. R. Miller (Ed.), The social history of crime and punishment in America: An encyclopedia (Vol. 1, pp. 1979-1900). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Ltd. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org.proxy.libraries.rutgers.edu/10.4135/9781452218427.n715
- Perry, B., & Szalavitz, M. (2007, March/April). Stairway to heaven: Treating children in the crosshairs of trauma. Psychotherapy Networker. Retrieved from https://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/magazine/article/667/stairway-to-heaven
- Report to the Deputy Attorney General on the Events at Waco, Texas/Child Abuse. (2013, May 9). In Wikisource. Retrieved from https://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=Report_to_the_Deputy_Attorney_General_on_the_Events_at_Waco,_Texas/Child_Abuse&oldid=4427301
- Washington Post. (1993, September 5). Koresh’s top aide killed cult leader, FBI official says. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1993/09/05/koreshs-top-aide-killed-cult-leader-fbi-official-says/0a8bedd4-460d-4061-96eb-d527d2832c1b/?utm_term=.8c0ae3239130
- Wikipedia contributors. (2017, December 13). Five pillars. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Five_pillars
- Wikipedia contributors. (2018, March 23). Waco siege. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Waco_siege&oldid=832099596