Isolated vs overlapping narratives: the story of an AFD

Editor’s Note: This month’s Stories to Action edition starts off with Heather Ford’s @hfordsa’s story on her experience of watching a story unfold on Wikipedia and in person. While working as an ethnographer at Ushahidi, Heather was in Nairobi, Kenya when she heard news of Kenya’s army invading Somolia. She found out that the article about this story was being nominated for deletion on Wikipedia because it didn’t meet the encyclopedia’s “notability” criteria. This local story became a way for Heather to understand why there was a disconnect between what Wikipedia editors and Kenyans recognised as “notable”. She argues that, although Wikipedia frowns on using social media as sources, the “word on the street” can be an important way for editors to find out what is really happening and how important the story is when it first comes out. She also talks about how her ethnographic work helped her develop insights for a report that Ushahidi would use in their plans to develop new tools for rapid real-time events. 

Heather shared this story at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium organized by Lily Cheng at NYU’s ITP. Watch the video of her talk, in which she refers to changing her mind on an article she wrote a few years ago, The Missing Wikipedians.


A few of us were on a panel at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium led by the inimitable Tricia Wang. In an effort to reach across academic (and maybe culture) divides, Tricia urged us to spend five minutes telling a single story and what that experience made us realize about the project we were working on. It was a wonderful way of highlighting the ethnographic principle of reflexivity where the ethnographer reflects on their attitudes/thoughts/reactions in response to the experiences that they have in the field. I told this story about the misunderstandings faced by editors across geographical and cultural divides, and how I’ve come to understand Articles for Deletions (AFDs) on Wikipedia that are related to Kenya. I’ve also added thoughts that I had after the talk/conference based on what I learned here.   

In November, 2011, I arrived in Nairobi for a visit to the HQ of Ushahidi and to conduct interviews about a project I was involved with to understand how Wikipedians managed sources during rapidly evolving news events. We were trying to figure out how to build tools to help people who collaboratively curate stories about such events – especially when they are physically distant from one another. When I arrived in Nairobi, I went straight to the local supermarket and bought copies of every local newspaper. It was a big news day in the country because of reports that the Kenyan army had invaded Southern Somalia to try and root out the militant Al Shabaab terrorist group. The newspapers all showed Kenyan military tanks and other scenes from the offensive, matched by the kind of bold headlines that characterize national war coverage the world over.

A quick search on Wikipedia, and I noticed that a page had been created but that it had been nominated for deletion on the grounds that did not meet Wikipedia’s notability criteria. The nominator noted that the event was not being reported as an “invasion” but rather an “incursion” and that it was “routine” for troops from neighboring countries to cross the border for military operations.

In the next few days in Nairobi, I became steeped in the narratives around this event – on television, in newspapers, in the bars, on Twitter, and FB. I learned that the story was not actually a story about the invasion of one country by another, and that there were more salient stories that only people living in Kenya were aware of:

  1. This was a story about Kenyan military trying to prove itself: it was the first time since independence that the military had been involved in an active campaign and the country was watching to see whether they would be able to succeed.
  2. The move had been preceded by a series of harrowing stories the kidnapping of foreign aid workers and tourists on the border with southern Somalia – one of Kenya’s major tourist destinations – and the subsequent move by the British government to advise against Britons traveling to coastal areas near the Somali border. [Another narrative that Mark Kaigwa pointed out was that some Kenyans believed that this was a move by the government to prevent spending cuts to the military, and that, as an election year in Kenya, they wanted to prove themselves]
  3. There were threats of retaliation by al Shabaab – many sympathizers of whom were living inside Kenya. I remember sitting in a bar with friends and remarking how quiet it was. My friends answered that everyone had been urged not to go out – and especially not to bars because of the threat of attacks at which point I wondered aloud why we were there. Al Shabaab acted on those threats at a bar in the city center only a few miles away from us that night.

I used to think that these kind of deletions were just an example of ignorance, of cultural imperialism and even of racism. Although some of the responses could definitely be viewed that way, the editor who nominated the article for deletion, Middayexpress, was engaged in the AfD (Articles for Deletion) discussion, and has contributed the highest number of edits. His/her actions could not be explained by ignorance and bad faith alone.

What I realized when I was interviewing Wikipedians about these and other articles that were threatened with deletion for so-called “lack of notability” was that editors in countries outside of Kenya didn’t have access to these narratives that would make it obvious that this event was notable enough to deserve its own page. People outside of Kenya would have seen the single narrative about the incursion/invasion without any of these supporting narratives that made this stand out in Kenya as obviously important in the history of the country.

The Facebook page for Operation Linda Nchi has 1,825 Likes and contains news with a significant nationalistic bent about the campaign
The Facebook page for Operation Linda Nchi has 1,825 Likes and contains news with a significant nationalistic bent about the campaign

These narratives don’t travel well for three reasons:

a) The volume of international news being covered by traditional media in the West is declining. The story that Western editors were getting was a single story about a military offensive, one they thought must fit within a broader narrative about the Somali war;

b) Much of the local media that people in Kenya were exposed to (and certainly not buzz in the streets and in bars or the threat of bodily harm by terrorists) did not go online in traditional formats but was available on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and

c) Even where it did, front pages of news websites are especially ineffective at showing readers when there is a single story that is really important. In newspapers, we fill up the entire front page with the story, make the headline shorter, run it along the entire page, and run a massive photograph when there is a war or a huge story. The front page of the Kenyan Daily Nation is always going to be busy, with a lot of competing stories, making it really difficult just by looking at the site whether a story was relatively more important than others.

This story made me realize how important it is for Wikipedians to expose themselves to social media sources so that they can get access to some of these supporting narratives that you just don’t get by looking online, and that despite Wikipedia’s general aversion to social media, this kind of contextual understanding is essential to gaining a more nuanced understanding of local notability. This finding influenced the eventual report for Ushahidi on how Wikipedians manage and debate sources and citations, and lent legitimacy to Ushahidi’s plans to develop news filtering tools for use during rapidly evolving news events such as disasters, elections and political violence.

Featured pic by NS Newsflash (CC-BY) on Flickr

3 thoughts on “Isolated vs overlapping narratives: the story of an AFD

  1. This is a wonderful and valuable analysis, but I’m not so sure about the conclusions. I’m not sure Wikipedia articles would be better if the editors used social networks as a regular source. I think the main task is to reach out to Kenyans and encourage them to edit Wikipedia, or, even better in my opinion, to convince them to open new Kenyan free-content projects that would serve as sources for Wikipedia.
    Regarding notability – It is extremely difficult to judge the notability of an event when it is ongoing. It is even more difficult to see whether it stands alone or become part of another bigger event, unless enough time has elapsed. Wikipedia, which defines itself as an encyclopaedia, has too many articles that fit a news magazine rather than an encyclopaedia. The reason is the drive to be ultra-updated and in some cases there are also political reasons – an attempt to portray an event as important or historical through embedding it in Wikipedia. Sometimes there are also attempt to create a “family” of articles about a certain subject in order to make this subject look more important. This is done by creating an article about every single sub-event, rather than capture the whole event to which they belong in one article. I’m not sure Kenya, or any other country or community, would benefit from adopting this unfavourable editing norms. I think it would be better for Wikpedia to be more conservative about creating new articles also when it comes to Europe, America and the Middle East.

  2. Thanks for your note, Dror! I think the problem is that some Wikipedians do use social media as a source in some articles, but decry its use in others. Same is true of breaking news articles: some articles are ok as breaking news, others are deleted because they’re breaking news. Often these are used an excuse to delete something when the real reason is because of deep-seated bias. You’re right that WP probably shouldn’t do breaking news, but like it or not, news on Wikipedia is probably here to stay, so I’d vote for at least leveling the playing field a bit. (That’s really interesting about creating a “family” of articles! Do you have an example of that?)

  3. I agree that “breaking news articles” are here to stay, even though I don’t like it (I guess it’s hardly breaking news that there are one or two things I don’t like about the current trends in WP). I also agree that if this is the situation then an event in Kenya is equally important as an event in Germany (for example), but as long as there are many editors from Germany and only few from Kenya, I don’t see how such equality can be achieved. To be honest, I value a testimony of a devoted Wikipedian more than I value a quote from a social network. For example, if a Kenyan Wikipedian said on the talkpage, I introduced new information based on what I see and hear in my country, I personally would assume more credibility to this report of his than a quote from a FaceBook group. It’s just my intuition, I can’t be sure this is the right approach.

    As for “family of articles”, I encountered this phenomenon with regard to the Palestinian issue on the English Wikipedia. While the question of whether the Palestinian Territories constitute a state was heatedly debated on the English WP, I saw more and more articles about “telephone numbers in Palestine”, “birds of Palestine” etc. I remember I said these articles should say “Palestinian Territories” and in some cases my opinion was accepted. But in any event, it was clear (at least to me) that some editors tried to push the agenda of “Palestine is a state” by creating many articles about Palestine that resembled articles about countries. In practice, it is often unclear whether a special “Palestinian” article should exist. For example, the telecommunication system in the Palestinian Territories is basically the Israeli system with a few unique feature, so you could argue that there should be an article about the Israeli telecommunication with a paragraph about the Palestinian Territories. Another such “family” is a huge set of articles about Arab-Palestinian villages that were depopulated during the 1948 war. Some of these articles are valuable, some could have been consolidated into a single article and some are redundant (WP doesn’t wish to have an article about every community that ever existed). In some cases, articles about former Arab-Palestinian communities could have been consolidated with articles about the Jewish-Israeli communities that exist there today. So, overall, I’m quite sure there was an agenda here to create a “family of articles” that would make the Palestinian Exodus subject more prominent.

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