The Debate About American 'Concentration Camps' Is Unfolding on Wikipedia

History’s being documented in real-time, by volunteer editors.
June 19, 2018, 4:49pm
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Along the US-Mexico border, the US Department of Homeland Security is holding thousands of children in wire cages—ripped from their asylum-seeking parents and detained with no end in sight.

The cruelty of the Trump administration’s more than 100 detention camps is now listed among other human rights atrocities in a Wikipedia page of past and current international concentration and internment camps.

The camps are now included as a subsection of the United States’ camps on the sprawling “List of concentration and internment camps,Gizmodo reported Tuesday morning. They follow the rest of the US history of keeping people in camps, starting with the camps along the Trail of Tears and moving through the US’s Japanese internment camps during World War II, up to the Baghdad Central Prison established during the occupation of Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.

Under the subheading “Forced separation of immigrant children” in the US section, the new entry currently reads:

As part of the 2018 Trump administration family separation policy, nearly 2,000 immigrant children have been taken taken from their parents and placed in "detention centers."[186] These centers have been described by those in opposition to the policy as "concentration camps".[187] The centers had previously been cited by Texas officials for more than 150 health violations.[188]

As Gizmodo noted, this is newsworthy because our history is being written and recorded in real-time. That’s true, but it’s also a question of who’s doing the writing. There’s no such thing as “Wikipedia wrote” this-or-that in an article. There is no monolithic Wikipedia editor. It’s all done by thousands of volunteers all around the world, with extensive editing and sometimes heated debates around what is and isn’t Wikipedia-worthy.

The article’s Talk page—a section of Wikipedia articles where editors discuss changes and new entries—illuminates some of the decision-making process between editors on what constitutes an internment or concentration camp. It’s also illustrative of the quibbling going on between pundits, politicians, and opponents of the camps: When is a cage a cage?

“The administration is saying several things at once, all while using these people as political pawns. But this not a concentration camp and should not be in this list,” user ‘heat fan 1’ wrote. “The existing article on Trump administration family separation policy sufficient covers this situation without further politicizing it by associating them with Nazism.”

“No comparison with extermination camps or the Holocaust is being made here,” user ‘The Anome’ said. “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 list isn’t strictly of “concentration camps,” but includes several types of forced detention of groups, including the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and Australia’s current system of offshore asylums.

I asked longtime Wikipedia editor and community member Liam Wyatt over Gchat what he made of this change. “These kinds of list articles also tend towards unevenness—especially focusing on the countries that speak the same language as the Wikipedia edition,” he said. In this case, that includes Canada, the UK, and the US, which have more detailed article sections compared to entries in the article for other countries. If you look at this list of concentration and internment camps, the formatting and content is all over the place: Some of it is bulleted, some is formatted into tables, some include populations or photographs. It’s all reflective of who’s doing the writing, and what they know.

These lists also tend to include more recent events, that are sometimes difficult to put into historical context.

What makes something worthy of a Wikipedia article, Wyatt told me, is often dictated by what’s sticking in the news. Wikipedians try to abide by a “depth, duration, and diversity of sources” rhetoric for what gets a standalone article. For example, the Trump administration’s family separation policy got its own full article in June, after the news broke that children were being taken from their parents at the US-Mexico border and placed in camps. But something like Trump’s “covfefe” tweet, although it garnered plenty of press and Twitter comedy fodder, is included in a huge, updating article about the president’s social media use, instead of having its own dedicated page.

In 2018, the normal Wikipedia rules are difficult to apply. The Trump administration churns out constant confusion and controversies—not all of which are worth entering into Wikipedia. Not everything that comes out of Trump’s mouth, or even everything he does, deserves an encyclopedic entry.

But the family separation policy passed the Wikipedia test, no matter how much the administration wants to deny that a policy even exists.