Vandalism and the ‘piranha effect’: How Elizabeth II’s death shakes up Wikipedia

Vandalism and the 'piranha effect': How Elizabeth II's death shakes up Wikipedia

In 2009, the death of the king of pop strikes the spirits and Wikipedia. The encyclopedia finds itself taken over by a horde of curious people seeking to learn more about the life of Michael Jackson. At the same time, more or less well-meaning Internet users are trying to modify the article in all directions. With each death of a famous personality, the same pattern is reproduced tirelessly to effectively expand the articles, and sometimes, vandalize them. This is what Wikipedians call in jargon the “piranha effect”, an epiphenomenon to which the Wikipedia community has even devoted a page.

Elizabeth II did not escape this habit. Internet users even sold the skin of the queen before her death. As worrying as the state of the sovereign was on Thursday, September 8, the official death was not made by the royal family until 7:30 p.m. The contributor “Vicnent” writes however at 4:42 p.m. that the queen is “passed away on Thursday September 8, 2022 in Balmoral“. The modification is canceled within one minute by another user. But a little less than an hour later, “ChefKawasaki” completes the introduction of the article Elizabeth II born April 21, 1926 in London» by and died on September 8, 2022 in the same city». Rebelote, the addition is deleted within a minute, since the queen has still not been announced dead.

At 6:13 p.m., an administrator – an elected Wikipedian with additional tools – chose to take action to curb the vandalism attempts. From his intervention, modifications can only be made by “autopatrolled” users, a term which includes accounts created for at least three months and having made at least five hundred modifications. Maxfr03 is one of them, he will be the first of the French encyclopedia to publish the death of the queen, two minutes after theofficial announcement from the royal family.

“Big” contributions for a farandole of small modifications

The formalization of the death of the head of state sounds the beginning of hostilities for the update of the Wikipedia article of the sovereign. Maxfr03 adds details in the minutes that follow, such as the place of death, Balmoral in Scotland. At the same time, the desire to be the first to announce the death of Elizabeth II makes Nicolas22g, another user, write that she is “dead”, and not “dead”, which is quickly corrected by the community. Once again, Wikipedians are in a bit of a hurry and choose to nickname the Queen’s successor “Charles III”, even though his reign name is not yet official. And again, the error is quickly corrected.

On television screens, the disappearances of famous personalities are more or less summed up in guests on the set, archive images and comments from correspondents. On Wikipedia it looks more like a bunch of additions, clarifications, but also a lot of simplifications and backtracking. Despite the hundred changes made in the evening, the weight of the article will only increase from 201,044 to 202,349 bytes, because a large part of them have been corrected.

“Like many things on Wikipedia, it’s often better to wait to see what the media will use and to make an accurate representation of it.”


A contributor

Many users are not always familiar with the practices and codes of the platform. Dozens of Wikipedians have thus tried to introduce the past to describe the sovereign, ignoring the rule in use on the encyclopedia. At 10:48 p.m., a man named “Alexandrehuat” came to stop these multiple additions/deletions by specifying: “The present can be used for a deceased person in the context of a story where the person is alive at the time of the story. But when the person is dead and we report on his status during his lifetime (Queen of England), we are not in the story. So the past tense is the proper tense, “was”. The status does not persist upon death.Unfortunately for this surfer, this is a mistake and the usage of the past is revoked. The tag still present on the queen’s page reminds us of the rule: “Biographies are usually written in the present of narration, please do not put in the past verbs that are currently in the present.”

The word “death” is precisely the other object of the many additions and cancellations of the evening. While several users try to use “death”, the community ensures the correct usage defines in the recommendations from Wikipedia: “In encyclopedic writing, it is better to speak of someone’s ‘death’ than of their ‘death’.” The reason? The latter term is an understatement, and in the literature it is less commonly used. If all these small modifications are legion, some users come to make bigger contributions. The death of Elizabeth II is an opportunity to add some details about her passion for automobiles. More obviously, a subsection “Legacy, posterity and tributes” enriches the page. And a full article dedicated to the death of Elizabeth II was even created… even if its interest is a little debated.

Probably the most viewed article of the year

What photo of the deceased to leave for posterity on the encyclopedia? The question is taken particularly seriously and discussed among Wikipedians. Should we opt for an official photo, one of Elizabeth in these young years or closer to the end of her life? There are plenty of options: one user offers a majestic photo of the queen in 1959, another a recent image “royal portrait” style, a third changes it directly… without prior dialogue with the community. On Wikipedia, the discussion is open, but does not change the photo who wants. To do this, consensus must be respected.

Queen Elizabeth II in 1959, one of the portraits denied by Wikipedia contributors. | Library and Archives Canada via Wikimedia Commons

A Wikipedian temporizes the opinions of each other in the “discussion” space and recalls the operation: The general consensus at the moment is that it’s always a little too early/complicated to decide on a change and that the current image remains the best option. […] Like many things on Wikipedia it’s often better to wait and see what the media will use and to make it a faithful representation. The image representing Elizabeth II will therefore remain as it is: a 2015 photo of the sovereignall smiles, flowers in hand.

While Wikipedians are busy editing the article or discussing the photo, the page explodes its view counter. The French-language article on Elizabeth II exceeded 1.1 million views on the day of her death, while it was only 6,652 the day before. It drops to “only” 600,000 views on September 9. On Twitter, Pierre-Yves Beaudouin, Wikipedian, recalls that even if this craze is incredible, a personality has exceeded the queen in the past: Johnny Hallyday, with a peak of 1.3 million views the day of his death.

In 2021, the Wikipedia article dedicated to the queen was also doubled for the title of the very popular “most read French-language article of the year”. Accumulating four and a half million views, his Wikipedia page was second, behind a certain Éric Zemmour, exceeding five million. This year, with the influx caused by her death, the throne could return to Elizabeth II.

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