Defend Truth


Conversational landmines: The Edit Wars on SA Wikipedia that could save you from ostracism


Fuaad Coovadia is an economist by training who uses data to solve problems, create stories and occasionally tell jokes.

The relaxation of our rules of social engagement has made some of us anxious as we relearn how to navigate small talk. Wikipedia may offer some help in how to avoid some subjects.

As pandemic restrictions loosen and gatherings resume, you may find yourself asking: How did I ever make conversation with strangers without looking like an absolute Eurasian Blue Tit?” 

Whether you’re meeting new colleagues, classmates or parents of your partner, preparing the appropriate small talk is a must. Although, in a country like ours — where tensions run hotter than a congregation of Comrades runners in clown costumes — the problem is that there are many hot-button issues that may ruin the interaction. 

Any seasoned socialite knows to steer clear of these  —  moving swiftly from an approaching debate about “vaccine policies at workplaces” to a conversation about “load shedding”,  where the nationwide agreement over Eskom’s incompetence makes their coal-fired plants an icebreaker in more ways than one. 

However, calling the politicians and businesspeople who led to Eskom’s demise “a congregation of clowns in Comrades costumes” may still raise eyebrows at the birthday party of your ex-McKinsey cousin. One needs to tread lightly in a country as captured, contorted and co-opted as ours; it is not always easy to know what might be an issue upon which South Africans are split. 

One way to fathom which topics might be controversial is to use data from Wikipedia on which articles have been edited the most. The nerds who care about Wikipedia’s bold, brave and inevitably imperfect task of curating a single view of the world’s knowledge pay a great deal of attention to “Edit Wars”. 

An Edit War is the term given to the back and forth editing of a single article or fact on Wikipedia by multiple editors who try to establish their version of the truth (for an academic treatment of the subject see Sumi et al 2012). While edits can happen for several reasons, such as correcting spelling mistakes or adding new facts, a superfluity of edit activity on a page can also be used as a proxy for controversy. 

For example, the Wikipedia page on writer JK Rowling was the site of an Edit War over the pronunciation of her name and whether it should rhyme with “rolling” or “howling”. 

Another Edit War was fought on the Wikipedia page of the economist Guy Standing, about whether or not to mention that he is in fact sitting in his featured picture  — a proposed caption being “Guy Standing, sitting”. Eventually, his legs were cropped out of the picture to end the war. 

A third example comes from 10 Downing Street, where the scandal surrounding Boris Johnson’s Christmas party during lockdown has led to its Partygate article being edited 862 times during January 2022.

Closer to home, there are various controversies playing out in corners of the South African knowledge landscape. Armed with data I have gathered from the Wikipedia API*, we can chart a course away from topics unsuitable for chit-chat in polite company. 

Before we understand which topics are controversial, we need to narrow down our scope from “all possible articles on Wikipedia” to just those articles which could be good candidates for conversation among South Africans. 

For this, I gathered all of the Wikipedia articles mentioned on the South Africa Wikipedia page (ie all the articles with links from within the body of text on the South Africa page). These 1,544 articles will be used here as the set of “South Africa-adjacent pieces of knowledge”. The chart below shows these articles, scaled by the number of views they received globally in 2021.



Which chit-chat choices are contested?

When including data about how many times each of the above articles was edited during 2021, we see the scatter plot below.



The chart shows that the pages of Asia’s leaders are heavily contested, so perhaps hold back your dinner party quip about Modi, Putin and Xi Jinping walking into a bar. The climate change page is also a hot topic, so definitely hold back on your other quip which includes that in the mix (Knock knock, Who’s there?, Xi, Xi who?, Xi-levels that have risen rapidly due to melting ice caps and are now at your door!)

A safer topic seems to be Nelson Mandela who, despite garnering a lot of views (4.4 million), seems to be far less contested than other leaders, with only 141 edits to the article in 2021. In contrast, FW de Klerk gathered 359 edits in 2021 (the year of his death) and Jacob Zuma gathered 340 edits in 2021 (the year of his arrest and of the resistance to that arrest which may have irreversibly changed a nation’s association with the term Durban July from a horse race to a dogfight).

Islam seems to be a controversial topic (702 edits), but less so than Formula One (757 edits). I have never heard Boris Johnson say that race car drivers look like “postboxes” due to their extensive headcover, but perhaps this sort of controversy is playing out online. 

Given the volume of data on the above chart, what stands out most are the big issues  — but these aren’t always what the everyday South African wants to chat about. So let’s zoom in on that big cluster of dots on the bottom right of the chart – the articles which received less than a million views last year – in an attempt to understand what sort of edit wars may be happening amid South Africa’s more niche topics. 



Articles with fewer views

Port Elizabeth is surprisingly spicy. At 369 edits, it has spurred the same level of excitement as “punk rock”. The city’s name change to Gqeberha has caused an Edit War, with factions adding or removing the mention of Gqeberha on the page. I’m glad I saw this before I voiced my opinions publicly (which, between us, is that the name change didn’t go far enough and that we should also rename PE, the school subject, Gqeberha). 

An example of the edit history page on the Port Elizabeth Wikipedia page.

Where to from here?

It seems there are few places one can venture in conversation without mistakenly stepping into one of these controversial topics. Socialising isn’t easy, and the well-worn advice given to nervous speakers to “picture your audience naked” is much more appropriate when addressing a crowd, and much less appropriate when in a one-on-one small talk scenario. If anything, your heavy breathing and light sweating may make the encounter more awkward. 

One sure-fire solution, given the evidence we’ve considered, is to talk about the 2010 Fifa World Cup. At 1.9 million views in 2021, and only 59 edits, it is one of the most viewed but least edited pieces of South Africa-adjacent knowledge out there. It exists in our national consciousness as a life-raft to a simpler reality, one pickled in our nostalgia. A reality where engaging with strangers was as easy as asking “who are you supporting?” and the expected answer wasn’t about your favourite pick for Chief Justice. A world where even the scandals  — Paul the Octopus, who correctly predicted 12 out of 14 winning teams, was called a “symbol of Western decadence and decayby the then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seem silly in comparison to today’s challenges.

It is a world where the blaring of a thousand vuvuzelas guaranteed that the content of your small talk didn’t matter, and where you didn’t even need to picture anyone naked to make it through a conversation. DM

Technical note: Data was gathered through the publicly available MediaWiki API, through the links, views and edits endpoints. Data was gathered and cleaned using Python and charts produced using Flourish. For coherence with the aims of the project to find and analyse topics related to South Africa, the following types of Wikipedia articles linked from the South Africa page were filtered out of the analysis: pages linking to other country’s Wikipedia pages and pages containing lists of countries ranked by GDP or other national statistics.


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