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PROFILE: WIKIPEDIA’S PAKISTANI BOY WONDER

February 25, 2018

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Illustration by Syed Asif Ali
Illustration by Syed Asif Ali

In July last year, #fontgate went viral on social media when Maryam Nawaz Sharif tweeted ‘proof’ that she was only a trustee of her offshore property. The documents were printed in Calibri font and dated February 2006 — a typeface that had not been introduced to the public by Microsoft until 2007.

“[Amidst this] uproar in the country, people flocked to Wikipedia to edit the entry on typeface in an unconstructive manner,” recalls 27-year-old Saqib Qayyum, a member of the Wikipedia help desk. The Wikipedia page for the Calibri font was edited several times by anonymous users from within Pakistan, prompting the site to ‘lock’ the page. 

Most of these edits changed the font’s date of release from 2007 to 2004.

Most people do not know Saqib Qayyum. But as the most prolific Pakistani editor of Wikipedia pages, many are likely to have read information he has curated on the global site

According to Qayyum, the page did not see a single edit on July 9 or 10, but was edited 36 times (including seven clean-up edits by him) on July 11. “The page became a virtual battleground,” he tells Eos, “so I suggested that it be locked down to prevent further ‘editing wars’. [News about] it came on TV. It made the headlines. The Guardian noted Wikipedia threatening the Pakistani PM. It surprised me to see my contributions made a difference.”

Qayyum works on a voluntary basis for the popular online encyclopaedia. Noticing that politicians were not adequately represented on the fifth-most popular website worldwide, he has contributed tirelessly and promptly to update and create new Wikipedia profiles for them. When Shahid Khaqan Abbasi succeeded Nawaz Sharif as the prime minister in August last year, Qayyum was online revising both their respective Wikipedia pages. After Ayesha Gulalai announced her exit from the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, he was there to ensure any vandalism was dealt with on the spot. 

As it has become a vital source of information across the globe, generally Wikipedia shows up at the top of search results bar. 

Raised in Japan, Qayyum works for a state-owned enterprise in Russia that has oil interests. But because of his commitment to his voluntary work, he is highly regarded amongst the Wikipedia community and regularly invited to attend the annual Wikipedia conference. Several leading foreign dailies such as Haaretz and Gulf News refer to him as a “prominent Wikipedia editor from Pakistan.” 


Although anyone can edit the crowdsourced encyclopaedia, few Pakistanis choose to do it as regularly as Qayyum who has extensively covered Pakistani personalities on Wikipedia. 

Qayyum’s behind-the-scenes work still brings its own rewards. According to revision history statistics, his updated biography of the incumbent Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has placed him as the top editor of the page. He has logged nearly 1,000 edits, with the runner-up editor having made only 70 edits.

Primarily focussing on Pakistani members of parlaiment’s (MPs) biographies on Wikipedia, something that received only patchy coverage prior to his involvement, Qayyum explains: “I’ve improved more than 1,000 existing biographies on Pakistani MPs, and created over 1,000 new ones over the last few years based on the goal that Wikipedia was founded on ... to create a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.” 

Wikipedia comprises more than 40 million articles in 299 different language editions and gets about 500 million individual visitors each month. The English Wikipedia is the biggest vault of free information, with nearly 5.5 million articles receiving four billion views each month. The English-language edition of Wikipedia currently has 135,000 active editors.

According to Qayyum, the English language edition is more popular among Pakistanis compared to Urdu. “Nearly 99 percent of internet users in the country access the English Wikipedia. For the same reason, the Urdu Wikipedia is regressing in quality, with only around 125,000 articles [as of October 2017].”

His main task is to update and expand profiles about every single Pakistani MP, whether an MPA, an MNA or a Senator. For this purpose, he has created Google alerts for many prominent politicians so the moment news about them hits the newspapers, he receives an email notification. “If there is something of significance, I update the corresponding pages immediately,” he says.

His pursuit has led to some unexpected discoveries. Qayyum claims he has caught a number of editors who have allegedly been paid to edit entries about politicians painting them in a good light. He says this is alarming because “it compromises the neutrality of the pages and, ultimately, Wikipedia.”

According to Qayyum, profiles on prominent Pakistani MPs such as cabinet members receive an enormous amount of traffic but, despite this, people generally do not edit them. And when they do, it’s usually problematic, not helpful. “Because anyone with internet access can add, delete or modify anything on Wikipedia, mischievous people will just vandalise the articles, with many adding slanderous and obscene comments,” says the gatekeeper of information. 

He says it’s common for a page to be heavily tinkered with by trolls when a politician becomes embroiled in some controversy. Often, some profiles have become virtual battlegrounds, with users making unfounded claims. People often manipulate the pages for political purposes. Qayyum has created a watchlist to catch changes made on the thousands of pages that he has created, or is otherwise involved in.

And this is a tough part of his job. “Many people want to use Wikipedia as a political engine.” He admits editing can be particularly difficult for pages on prominent MPs, where either politically motivated opponents attempt to control the pages or the politician’s close aides do not like the version of the article he is curating. In many cases, he says, people who he does not want to name approached him and offered him some hard cash, but he declined. “Paid editing is not forbidden but it raises serious concerns about objectivity and compromises the neutrality of the project. For this reason, the practice is generally discouraged and frowned upon by the community and this is why I also very strongly disapprove it. I’ve made it a point to never try to solicit anyone to give me money. In fact, I often hunt down paid editors who contribute in a biased way and report them.” 

His trick to make use of such revisions by invested groups is to fact-check first and then neutralise the content. “If someone adds something genuine but controversial about a politician, I would try to make that piece of information as comprehensive as possible, because then you can include everything: both the good and the bad,” he says. “This way, anyone who reads the profiles will be able to get a comprehensive view of the politician in question.” 


The time-consuming contributions that Qayyum makes are unseen by most readers, but they are logged on the online encyclopaedia. Qayyum says he doesn’t want recognition for his work. “I prefer to keep a low profile. It’s not about me. It’s about Wikipedia, and the opportunities it provides to hundreds and thousands of people around the world. It’s an opportunity to educate people. I write for the love of it and for the love of my people.”

But his behind-the-scenes work still brings its own rewards. According to revision history statistics, his updated biography of the incumbent Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has placed him as the top editor of the page. He has logged nearly 1,000 edits, with the runner-up editor having made only 70 edits. 

As part of a larger effort to tackle the gender gap, at least on the Wikipedia platform, Qayyum’s New Year’s resolution is to create new biography pages of Pakistani women politicians each day, throughout 2018. Women are woefully under-represented on Wikipedia with only 17 percent of notable profiles on Wikipedia. “It is often said that women are under-represented in Pakistani politics. Regrettably, they are also under-represented in the world’s largest encyclopaedia,” he notes.

Qayyum relies heavily on facts attributed to concrete sources, such as newspapers. “I generally rely on English-language newspapers to cite the information because I deem them as trustworthy sources of information, and if a politician doesn’t have much coverage in the newspapers, I or anyone cannot add unsourced information.” Therein lies the problem in elaborating the brief profiles for lesser-known lawmakers: unless a politician is famous or prominent, newspapers do not write much about them and an online search wont yield verified information regarding them either.

Aside from verifying facts, are there other challenges the he faces? “I’ve been struggling to acquire photographs of current MPs to upload on their corresponding Wikipedia profiles for a long time, but unfortunately couldn’t obtain photographs for most of them. I want our assemblies and Information Ministry to help me and provide photographs of MPs.”


In response to what motivates him to contribute to Wikipedia, Qayyum says he is driven by two reasons. “I am trying to provide information to the public about the lawmakers they elect to our legislatures.” On the other hand, he simply enjoys it. “I love that I am sharing that information in a constructive manner with the public, through one of the most accessed websites in the world. It just pleases me, and I feel my efforts are for the greater good. There is a sense of shared responsibility to maintain this vast resource, and I think I am playing my little part.” 

When asked how working for Wikipedia has changed his life, he claims that it has made him a friendly, more positive and forward-thinking person. “I am open to different viewpoints and perspectives and love to have long conversations about things ... Wikipedia is not an ordinary website, it’s more like a school that is free from hidden agendas and propaganda, which is something every living person should experience. The project stands for truth, reliability, and is a result of positive cooperation between millions of human beings, who work without craving for anything like power, wealth and fame.” 

“Many people want to use Wikipedia as a political engine,” says Qayyum. He admits editing can be particularly difficult for pages on prominent MPs, where either politically motivated opponents attempt to control the pages or the politician’s close aides do not like the version of the article he is curating. In many cases, he says, people who he does not want to name approached him and offered him some hard cash, but he declined.

Qayyum calls himself a “Wikipedian for life,” saying, “It’s something I used to do when I had free time. But now it has become part of my life. I don’t have any plans to quit anytime soon.” 

As a trusted Wikipedia volunteer, he also oversees the Wikipedia’s online customer service desk, and responds to confidential email queries directed to Wikipedia. He also oversees and organises Wikipedia outreach programmes in Pakistan. 

In 2014, the US-based Wikimedia Foundation, which owns Wikipedia, asked Qayyum to help coordinate a survey to investigate why such few people from Pakistan edit the pages. “There are significant content gaps on the site. There are fewer articles about topics on Pakistan than there are about India, and those that do exist tend to be shorter, and poor in quality.” Since then, the diligent editor has been trying to recruit more volunteers to Wikipedia in order to combat systemic bias on Wikipedia, by adding more content about Pakistan.

For instance, he has single-handedly organised the Wiki Loves Monuments Pakistan since 2014, and Wiki Loves Earth Pakistan since 2015, in the hope that by engaging people to donate photographs to Wikipedia, their interest in editing will grow as well. About 1,600 Pakistanis submitted over 26,000 photographs highlighting Pakistan’s cultural heritage for Wiki Loves Monuments from 2014 to 2017. About 3,900 participants submitted over 26,000 photographs of the country’s natural heritage for Wiki Loves Earth from 2015 to 2017. 

“If time allows me, I plan to host some Wikipedia workshops in collaboration with the local universities and colleges to encourage people to contribute,” says Qayyum. Next on his agenda: the upcoming 2018 general elections.

The writer can be contacted at asmach8249@yahoo.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 25th, 2018