A fierce battle is underway on Wikipedia after its “List of concentration and internment camps” article was updated to include the detention centers currently being used to house the children of undocumented immigrants arrested on the U.S. border.
Although the article has since been edited, the fight sheds light on the thin line between fact and opinion on the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. While many defended the comparison to the concentration camps as justified, critics have blasted it as a gross exaggeration and an attempt to exploit the Holocaust for political gain.
Ironically, Mike Godwin – the man behind the famous internet adage that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1” – tweeted in the past that there were cases that justified the comparison and even seemed to defend those invoking it in the context of the detention centers.
The first Wikipedia reference to the U.S. detention centers was made on June 16, with an anonymous user adding that “These centers have been described by those in opposition to the policy as ‘concentration camps.’” The text was added to an existing section already dedicated to camps in the United States, which included paragraphs about “Indigenous people,” “German-Americans during World War I” and “Japanese-, German-, Italian-Americans and Native Alaskans during World War II.”
Three days later, on June 19, a user deleted the section, calling it “false information.” This sparked an “edit war” between those supporting the comparison and those opposing it. The war also coincided with an uptick in traffic to the article, prompting Wikipedia editors to lock the page to public editing.
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In an example of the edit war, one editor changed a line saying that a court “ruled that child migrants who came to the border with parents and were held in custody must be released” to instead say that “child illegal aliens who illegally crossed to the U.S. border with adults claiming to be parents and were held in custody must be released” (our italics).
On the talk page – a forum-like arena where editors can discuss changes to the article at hand, and where disputes are supposed to be resolved in a civil manner – one user wrote: “No comparison with extermination camps or the Holocaust is being made here. But this is a list of concentration and internment camps, and these are very clearly internment camps. For children. In America. In 2018. For shame.”
The current version of the article strikes a more moderate tone. Though it cites the term “concentration camps” in regard to the detention centers, it only attributes it to an online “movement.”
This is not the first political battle to play out on the article. For example, an earlier version of the list (from the end of May) also included a section on Israel, which noted that Gaza is “often said to be ‘the world’s largest concentration camp.’” The text still exists, but is now marked as “Gaza Strip” and not Israel.
Meanwhile, another article called “List of detention sites in the United States” was changed to “A list of concentration camps in the United States” – though the edit did not last long before being changed back to the original text.
This article was updated after mistakenly claiming that Mike Godwin had tweeted about the detention centers. His comments referred to events in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017.