Let’s Leave the Bias to the Mainstream Media: A Wikipedia Community Fighting for Information Neutrality

Randall M. Livingstone

Abstract


Although I'm a rich white guy, I'm also a feminist anti-racism activist who fights for the rights of the poor and oppressed. (Carl Kenner)
Systemic bias is a scourge to the pillar of neutrality. (Cerejota)
Count me in. Let's leave the bias to the mainstream media. (Orcar967)
Because this is so important. (CuttingEdge)

These are a handful of comments posted by online editors who have banded together in a virtual coalition to combat Western bias on the world’s largest digital encyclopedia, Wikipedia. This collective action by Wikipedians both acknowledges the inherent inequalities of a user-controlled information project like Wikpedia and highlights the potential for progressive change within that same project. These community members are taking the responsibility of social change into their own hands (or more aptly, their own keyboards).

In recent years much research has emerged on Wikipedia from varying fields, ranging from computer science, to business and information systems, to the social sciences. While critical at times of Wikipedia’s growth, governance, and influence, most of this work observes with optimism that barriers to improvement are not firmly structural, but rather they are socially constructed, leaving open the possibility of important and lasting change for the better.

WikiProject: Countering Systemic Bias (WP:CSB) considers one such collective effort. Close to 350 editors have signed on to the project, which began in 2004 and itself emerged from a similar project named CROSSBOW, or the “Committee Regarding Overcoming Serious Systemic Bias on Wikipedia.” As a WikiProject, the term used for a loose group of editors who collaborate around a particular topic, these editors work within the Wikipedia site and collectively create a social network that is unified around one central aim—representing the un- and underrepresented—and yet they are bound by no particular unified set of interests. The first stage of a multi-method study, this paper looks at a snapshot of WP:CSB’s activity from both content analysis and social network perspectives to discover “who” geographically this coalition of the unrepresented is inserting into the digital annals of Wikipedia.

Wikipedia and Wikipedians

Developed in 2001 by Internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales and academic Larry Sanger, Wikipedia is an online collaborative encyclopedia hosting articles in nearly 250 languages (Cohen). The English-language Wikipedia contains over 3.2 million articles, each of which is created, edited, and updated solely by users (Wikipedia “Welcome”). At the time of this study, Alexa, a website tracking organisation, ranked Wikipedia as the 6th most accessed site on the Internet. Unlike the five sites ahead of it though—Google, Facebook, Yahoo, YouTube (owned by Google), and live.com (owned by Microsoft)—all of which are multibillion-dollar businesses that deal more with information aggregation than information production, Wikipedia is a non-profit that operates on less than $500,000 a year and staffs only a dozen paid employees (Lih). Wikipedia is financed and supported by the WikiMedia Foundation, a charitable umbrella organisation with an annual budget of $4.6 million, mainly funded by donations (Middleton).

Wikipedia editors and contributors have the option of creating a user profile and participating via a username, or they may participate anonymously, with only an IP address representing their actions. Despite the option for total anonymity, many Wikipedians have chosen to visibly engage in this online community (Ayers, Matthews, and Yates; Bruns; Lih), and researchers across disciplines are studying the motivations of these new online collectives (Kane, Majchrzak, Johnson, and Chenisern; Oreg and Nov). The motivations of open source software contributors, such as UNIX programmers and programming groups, have been shown to be complex and tied to both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards, including online reputation, self-satisfaction and enjoyment, and obligation to a greater common good (Hertel, Niedner, and Herrmann; Osterloh and Rota). Investigation into why Wikipedians edit has indicated multiple motivations as well, with community engagement, task enjoyment, and information sharing among the most significant (Schroer and Hertel). Additionally, Wikipedians seem to be taking up the cause of generativity (a concern for the ongoing health and openness of the Internet’s infrastructures) that Jonathan Zittrain notably called for in The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It

Governance and Control

Although the technical infrastructure of Wikipedia is built to support and perhaps encourage an equal distribution of power on the site, Wikipedia is not a land of “anything goes.” The popular press has covered recent efforts by the site to reduce vandalism through a layer of editorial review (Cohen), a tightening of control cited as a possible reason for the recent dip in the number of active editors (Edwards). A number of regulations are already in place that prevent the open editing of certain articles and pages, such as the site’s disclaimers and pages that have suffered large amounts of vandalism. Editing wars can also cause temporary restrictions to editing, and Ayers, Matthews, and Yates point out that these wars can happen anywhere, even to Burt Reynold’s page.

Academic studies have begun to explore the governance and control that has developed in the Wikipedia community, generally highlighting how order is maintained not through particular actors, but through established procedures and norms. Konieczny tested whether Wikipedia’s evolution can be defined by Michels’ Iron Law of Oligopoly, which predicts that the everyday operations of any organisation cannot be run by a mass of members, and ultimately control falls into the hands of the few. Through exploring a particular WikiProject on information validation, he concludes:

There are few indicators of an oligarchy having power on Wikipedia, and few trends of a change in this situation. The high level of empowerment of individual Wikipedia editors with regard to policy making, the ease of communication, and the high dedication to ideals of contributors succeed in making Wikipedia an atypical organization, quite resilient to the Iron Law. (189)

Butler, Joyce, and Pike support this assertion, though they emphasise that instead of oligarchy, control becomes encapsulated in a wide variety of structures, policies, and procedures that guide involvement with the site. A virtual “bureaucracy” emerges, but one that should not be viewed with the negative connotation often associated with the term.

Other work considers control on Wikipedia through the framework of commons governance, where “peer production depends on individual action that is self-selected and decentralized rather than hierarchically assigned. Individuals make their own choices with regard to resources managed as a commons” (Viegas, Wattenberg and McKeon). The need for quality standards and quality control largely dictate this commons governance, though interviewing Wikipedians with various levels of responsibility revealed that policies and procedures are only as good as those who maintain them. Forte, Larco, and Bruckman argue “the Wikipedia community has remained healthy in large part due to the continued presence of ‘old-timers’ who carry a set of social norms and organizational ideals with them into every WikiProject, committee, and local process in which they take part” (71). Thus governance on Wikipedia is a strong representation of a democratic ideal, where actors and policies are closely tied in their evolution.

Transparency, Content, and Bias

The issue of transparency has proved to be a double-edged sword for Wikipedia and Wikipedians. The goal of a collective body of knowledge created by all—the “expert” and the “amateur”—can only be upheld if equal access to page creation and development is allotted to everyone, including those who prefer anonymity. And yet this very option for anonymity, or even worse, false identities, has been a sore subject for some in the Wikipedia community as well as a source of concern for some scholars (Santana and Wood). The case of a 24-year old college dropout who represented himself as a multiple Ph.D.-holding theology scholar and edited over 16,000 articles brought these issues into the public spotlight in 2007 (Doran; Elsworth). Wikipedia itself has set up standards for content that include expectations of a neutral point of view, verifiability of information, and the publishing of no original research, but Santana and Wood argue that self-policing of these policies is not adequate:

The principle of managerial discretion requires that every actor act from a sense of duty to exercise moral autonomy and choice in responsible ways.  When Wikipedia’s editors and administrators remain anonymous, this criterion is simply not met.  It is assumed that everyone is behaving responsibly within the Wikipedia system, but there are no monitoring or control mechanisms to make sure that this is so, and there is ample evidence that it is not so. (141)

At the theoretical level, some downplay these concerns of transparency and autonomy as logistical issues in lieu of the potential for information systems to support rational discourse and emancipatory forms of communication (Hansen, Berente, and Lyytinen), but others worry that the questionable “realities” created on Wikipedia will become truths once circulated to all areas of the Web (Langlois and Elmer). 

With the number of articles on the English-language version of Wikipedia reaching well into the millions, the task of mapping and assessing content has become a tremendous endeavour, one mostly taken on by information systems experts. Kittur, Chi, and Suh have used Wikipedia’s existing hierarchical categorisation structure to map change in the site’s content over the past few years. Their work revealed that in early 2008 “Culture and the arts” was the most dominant category of content on Wikipedia, representing nearly 30% of total content. People (15%) and geographical locations (14%) represent the next largest categories, while the natural and physical sciences showed the greatest increase in volume between 2006 and 2008 (+213%D, with “Culture and the arts” close behind at +210%D). This data may indicate that contributing to Wikipedia, and thus spreading knowledge, is growing amongst the academic community while maintaining its importance to the greater popular culture-minded community. Further work by Kittur and Kraut has explored the collaborative process of content creation, finding that too many editors on a particular page can reduce the quality of content, even when a project is well coordinated.

Bias in Wikipedia content is a generally acknowledged and somewhat conflicted subject (Giles; Johnson; McHenry). The Wikipedia community has created numerous articles and pages within the site to define and discuss the problem. Citing a survey conducted by the University of Würzburg, Germany, the “Wikipedia:Systemic bias” page describes the average Wikipedian as:

  • Male
  • Technically inclined
  • Formally educated
  • An English speaker
  • White
  • Aged 15-49
  • From a majority Christian country
  • From a developed nation
  • From the Northern Hemisphere
  • Likely a white-collar worker or student

Bias in content is thought to be perpetuated by this demographic of contributor, and the “founder effect,” a concept from genetics, linking the original contributors to this same demographic has been used to explain the origins of certain biases. Wikipedia’s “About” page discusses the issue as well, in the context of the open platform’s strengths and weaknesses:

in practice editing will be performed by a certain demographic (younger rather than older, male rather than female, rich enough to afford a computer rather than poor, etc.) and may, therefore, show some bias.  Some topics may not be covered well, while others may be covered in great depth.

No educated arguments against this inherent bias have been advanced.

Royal and Kapila’s study of Wikipedia content tested some of these assertions, finding identifiable bias in both their purposive and random sampling. They conclude that bias favoring larger countries is positively correlated with the size of the country’s Internet population, and corporations with larger revenues work in much the same way, garnering more coverage on the site. The researchers remind us that Wikipedia is “more a socially produced document than a value-free information source” (Royal & Kapila).

WikiProject: Countering Systemic Bias

As a coalition of current Wikipedia editors, the WikiProject: Countering Systemic Bias (WP:CSB) attempts to counter trends in content production and points of view deemed harmful to the democratic ideals of a valueless, open online encyclopedia. WP:CBS’s mission is not one of policing the site, but rather deepening it:

Generally, this project concentrates upon remedying omissions (entire topics, or particular sub-topics in extant articles) rather than on either (1) protesting inappropriate inclusions, or (2) trying to remedy issues of how material is presented. Thus, the first question is "What haven't we covered yet?", rather than "how should we change the existing coverage?" (Wikipedia, “Countering”)

The project lays out a number of content areas lacking adequate representation, geographically highlighting the dearth in coverage of Africa, Latin America, Asia, and parts of Eastern Europe. WP:CSB also includes a “members” page that editors can sign to show their support, along with space to voice their opinions on the problem of bias on Wikipedia (the quotations at the beginning of this paper are taken from this “members” page). At the time of this study, 329 editors had self-selected and self-identified as members of WP:CSB, and this group constitutes the population sample for the current study.

To explore the extent to which WP:CSB addressed these self-identified areas for improvement, each editor’s last 50 edits were coded for their primary geographical country of interest, as well as the conceptual category of the page itself (“P” for person/people, “L” for location, “I” for idea/concept, “T” for object/thing, or “NA” for indeterminate). For example, edits to the Wikipedia page for a single person like Tony Abbott (Australian federal opposition leader) were coded “Australia, P”, while an edit for a group of people like the Manchester United football team would be coded “England, P”. Coding was based on information obtained from the header paragraphs of each article’s Wikipedia page. After coding was completed, corresponding information on each country’s associated continent was added to the dataset, based on the United Nations Statistics Division listing.

A total of 15,616 edits were coded for the study. Nearly 32% (n = 4962) of these edits were on articles for persons or people (see Table 1 for complete coding results). From within this sub-sample of edits, a majority of the people (68.67%) represented are associated with North America and Europe (Figure A). If we break these statistics down further, nearly half of WP:CSB’s edits concerning people were associated with the United States (36.11%) and England (10.16%), with India (3.65%) and Australia (3.35%) following at a distance. These figures make sense for the English-language Wikipedia; over 95% of the population in the three Westernised countries speak English, and while India is still often regarded as a developing nation, its colonial British roots and the emergence of a market economy with large, technology-driven cities are logical explanations for its representation here (and some estimates make India the largest English-speaking nation by population on the globe today).

Table A

 

    
 Coding Results   
     
 Total Edits

 

15616

 

  
 (I) Ideas

 

2881

 

18.45%

 

 
 (L) Location

 

2240

 

14.34%

 

 
 NA

 

333

 

2.13%

 

 
 (T) Thing

 

5200

 

33.30%

 

 
 (P) People

 

4962

 

31.78%

 

 
 

 

People by Continent

   
 Africa

 

315

 

6.35%

 

 
 Asia

 

827

 

16.67%

 

 
 Australia

 

175

 

3.53%

 

 
 Europe

 

1411

 

28.44%

 

 
 NA

 

110

 

2.22%

 

 
 North America

 

1996

 

40.23%

 

 
 South America

 

128

 

2.58%

 

 

The areas of the globe of main concern to WP:CSB proved to be much less represented by the coalition itself. Asia, far and away the most populous continent with more than 60% of the globe’s people (GeoHive), was represented in only 16.67% of edits. Africa (6.35%) and South America (2.58%) were equally underrepresented compared to both their real-world populations (15% and 9% of the globe’s population respectively) and the aforementioned dominance of the advanced Westernised areas. However, while these percentages may seem low, in aggregate they do meet the quota set on the WP:CSB Project Page calling for one out of every twenty edits to be “a subject that is systematically biased against the pages of your natural interests.” By this standard, the coalition is indeed making headway in adding content that strategically counterbalances the natural biases of Wikipedia’s average editor.

Figure A

Image A

Social network analysis allows us to visualise multifaceted data in order to identify relationships between actors and content (Vego-Redondo; Watts). Similar to Davis’s well-known sociological study of Southern American socialites in the 1930s (Scott), our Wikipedia coalition can be conceptualised as individual actors united by common interests, and a network of relations can be constructed with software such as UCINET. A mapping algorithm that considers both the relationship between all sets of actors and each actor to the overall collective structure produces an image of our network. This initial network is bimodal, as both our Wikipedia editors and their edits (again, coded for country of interest) are displayed as nodes (Figure B). Edge-lines between nodes represents a relationship, and here that relationship is the act of editing a Wikipedia article. We see from our network that the “U.S.” and “England” hold central positions in the network, with a mass of editors crowding around them. A perimeter of nations is then held in place by their ties to editors through the U.S. and England, with a second layer of editors and poorly represented nations (Gabon, Laos, Uzbekistan, etc.) around the boundaries of the network.

Figure B

We are reminded from this visualisation both of the centrality of the two Western powers even among WP:CSB editoss, and of the peripheral nature of most other nations in the world. But we also learn which editors in the project are contributing most to underrepresented areas, and which are less “tied” to the Western core. Here we see “Wizzy” and “Warofdreams” among the second layer of editors who act as a bridge between the core and the periphery; these are editors with interests in both the Western and marginalised nations. Located along the outer edge, “Gallador” and “Gerrit” have no direct ties to the U.S. or England, concentrating all of their edits on less represented areas of the globe. Identifying editors at these key positions in the network will help with future research, informing interview questions that will investigate their interests further, but more significantly, probing motives for participation and action within the coalition.

Additionally, we can break the network down further to discover editors who appear to have similar interests in underrepresented areas. Figure C strips down the network to only editors and edits dealing with Africa and South America, the least represented continents. From this we can easily find three types of editors again: those who have singular interests in particular nations (the outermost layer of editors), those who have interests in a particular region (the second layer moving inward), and those who have interests in both of these underrepresented regions (the center layer in the figure). This last group of editors may prove to be the most crucial to understand, as they are carrying the full load of WP:CSB’s mission.

Figure C

Image C

The End of Geography, or the Reclamation?

In The Internet Galaxy, Manuel Castells writes that “the Internet Age has been hailed as the end of geography,” a bold suggestion, but one that has gained traction over the last 15 years as the excitement for the possibilities offered by information communication technologies has often overshadowed structural barriers to participation like the Digital Divide (207). Castells goes on to amend the “end of geography” thesis by showing how global information flows and regional Internet access rates, while creating a new “map” of the world in many ways, is still closely tied to power structures in the analog world. The Internet Age: “redefines distance but does not cancel geography” (207).   

The work of WikiProject: Countering Systemic Bias emphasises the importance of place and representation in the information environment that continues to be constructed in the online world. This study looked at only a small portion of this coalition’s efforts (~16,000 edits)—a snapshot of their labor frozen in time—which itself is only a minute portion of the information being dispatched through Wikipedia on a daily basis (~125,000 edits). Further analysis of WP:CSB’s work over time, as well as qualitative research into the identities, interests and motivations of this collective, is needed to understand more fully how information bias is understood and challenged in the Internet galaxy. The data here indicates this is a fight worth fighting for at least a growing few.

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Keywords


Wikipedia; bias; online; community; social network



Copyright (c) 2010 Randall M. Livingstone

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