Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The UAE's Wikipedia Problem

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I don't quite remember why, but I looked up the place I live on Wikipedia a while ago. Al Heera is a suburb of Northern Sharjah, a sleepy wee harbour and an area of older mud brick houses that were until recently the homes of taxi drivers and labourers which has now been all but cleared. The 1970s era police station remains.

Wikipedia didn't have a page for Al Heera, but it did have one for Al Hayra. It contained nothing more than a line saying it was a suburb of Sharjah. But Al Heera has a lot more history than that (as I pointed out the other day in that ten things you didn't know about the UAE post). And it's spelled 'Al Heera' - that's what it says on the street signs and everything.

So I thought I'd change it. I haven't tried to edit Wikipedia for a while because anyone from the UAE fell foul of the way the UAE's IP addresses work. Wikipedia all too often locked you out because someone from your IP address had previously been blocked. I even took Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales to task on this when Jess and I interviewed him for our Dubai Eye radio show a few years back (His response was 'suck it up', basically). But something has changed when I wasn't looking and now you can freely edit Wikipedia from the UAE. So I rolled up my sleeves and set about trying to change Al Hayra to Al Heera and filling the entry out a bit.

Well, my dears, what followed was an education. 'You can't do that' said members of the "Wikipedia community" - it's called Al Hayra.'

It's not. I live there. It's called Al Heera.

'Just because you live somewhere doesn't mean you can change Wikipedia. Because you say so doesn't make a truth. There are more Google results for Al Hayra than Al Heera. So it stays that way.'

But those results are all websites that have derived their miss-spelling of the place from Wikipedia. You're the reason for those results. Just because you've made a mistake and it's been echoed all over the Web doesn't make your echoes justify the fact what you originally shouted was wrong. You can't define a virtual world that has no link to reality. What next? You going to rename London as Loondown?'

'Look, it just stays that way, right?'

So I changed it myself, following a Wikipedia mantra to 'be bold'. And I added a photograph of Al Heera police station, with its sign that clearly says 'Al Heera Police Station'. And it stayed that way. I also filled out the history of the place, which is all a little Quixotic and even charming. I didn't exactly change the world, but I recorded a wee bit of little known history that relates to the neighbourhood I live in and it felt good. I had a look around at other UAE pages. And oh, my word, what a mess did I find. The article on the UAE's Prime Minister was embarrassing to say the least. The article on Dubai charts every single bad thing that's ever happened in the city and all too few of the good ones. Ajman was almost non-existent apart from a load of bitterness from someone who had clearly got caught out by the real estate bust. I quickly found out that if it's something negative about the UAE, it gets added to the pile eagerly but if you contribute something positive it gets hung out to dry and flagged up as promotion or POV or any number of other perceived violations of Wikipedia policy. Even if it's true, cited fact.

To be fair to Wikipedia, it gets attacked constantly by vandalism, lunatics with an agenda and narcissists both personal and commercial. Companies can't understand why they're not allowed to write their own pages, self-interest constantly battles to get its version of 'the truth' out there and the UAE doesn't have a great reputation for creating sound, neutral-tone, articles among members of the Wikipedia community.

But all that notwithstanding, the UAE on Wikipedia is largely unloved and patchy and all too frequently articles are unbalanced, inaccurate and misleading. Many articles are badly weighted, with a marked tendency to put slagging the place and its people off before letting the facts get out there. And nobody clearly cares: many unjustified assertions and snide asides in articles have been up there and left unchallenged for years and there are many, many such errors.

As the long time reader of this marginal and dusty corner of the Internet will attest, I have often aired my own beefs about the place in which I live and have even been what you might call outspoken and critical. I'd argue that a friend who'll tell you the truth to your face is worth having, but I know there are those who would disagree. The UAE's not perfect, not by any means. But it's done for us very nicely these past 21 years and we remain safe, happy and comfortable in our overseas home. I can't imagine anywhere else that would have given us what we enjoy here. And so I actually found myself feeling a bit affronted by it all. Why should the first result on Google return a page packed with violations of human rights, charges of Islamic Injustice and lurid accounts of the 'bust' when we are all here - labourer and CEO alike - because we're better off here? How is it that the UK article, for instance, doesn't outline every nasty killing, injustice or act of corporate malfeasance that takes place there but the UAE and Dubai ones do?

The latest example came yesterday when I stumbled across the fact the UAE gave 1.25% of its GDP in overseas development aid (ODA) last year - over $5 billion. I thought that was a lot and nipped off to check it on, naturally, Wikipedia. I was amazed to find the UAE would be the world's largest contributor of aid by percentage of GDP and stands as the ninth largest contributor of aid outright. Not bad for the world's thirtieth largest economy. But when you get to Wikipedia's 'List of governments by development aid', the UAE doesn't even feature on the 28 country listing. How could that be? Because the list given is of OECD countries - the assumption clearly being that if you're not in the OECD, you don't matter.

One of the ways of getting change to happen in Wikipedia is, frustrating as it can be, arguing a case. And so I opened up a dialogue on the 'talk page' (the best way of starting the conversation). The UAE is now - as a result of that dialogue - at least mentioned, although the main list still excludes non-OECD countries. It's a small (and frustrating) example of what I've found on Wikipedia. There's nobody out there who cares and so the whole country is constantly misrepresented and mischaracterised. The UAE is neglected and because of that neglect its coming up badly time after time when the world searches for it precisely because Google consistently places Wikipedia content up on that number one pedestal that we all crave so much that we're willing to call our children Boondark Binkysnangle so that at least they'll be searchable when they grow up.

Like the UAE, Wikipedia isn't perfect but it's on a journey. It's a community, reflecting all the human folly, foibles and fabulousness that you'll find in any community. There are more than a few nerds and nutters in there. But I've found you can usually initiate a dialogue and change things - not always everything you want, but better than it was before. Sometimes the dialogue can be infuriating and I have been amazed at the negative sentiment and blind ignorance I have encountered. There appears to be a broad assumption that nothing good can come out of the Middle East and so every conversation seems to start from a low point and struggle to make its way upwards. But that's the only way you promote change, no?

Blind assertion and wilful vandalism are, rightly, punished - and it can be a tough playground. But the worst thing of all is simply letting things go unchallenged and the more strident voices be heard because we can't be arsed to get involved.

And that's the UAE's Wikipedia problem. Sheer neglect.

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