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Wikipedia is broadly considered to be an incredibly useful tool, in part because of how expansive it is, how accurate it is (more likely to contain errors on an article-by-article basis than a typical encyclopedia like Britannica, but about the same level of accuracy as Britannica at the macro-level, with surprisingly few errors throughout), and how remarkably quickly it’s updated by its volunteer editors.
That collaborative, unpaid nature, though, also biases Wikipedia toward certain types of content.
As of early November 2023, the English-language version of Wikipedia had nearly 6,745,000 articles (far more than any other language), which is just shy of 11% of all articles across all Wikipedia versions.
It has also been criticized (with receipts) for gender and ideological biases, ostensibly because the majority of the editors who write and tweak the most articles (and who thus have outsized say in what should be published throughout the site) lean more heavily male, white, and liberal than the average English-speaking population.
Some research suggests that the network has rebalanced toward a more neutral stance in recent years—not because the bias has been somehow removed, but because more editors writing on a broader variety of topics who have their own, contrasting biases have entered the fray, which has pulled the average bias back toward what we might think of as the center—but other studies, like a recent one published in PLOS ONE, suggest that fresh distortions are being discovered, including a bias toward wealthier countries at the expense of poorer ones.
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This would seem to be a bias of exclusion rather than conscious diminishment: the researchers analyzed a slew of articles in four languages to figure out which countries (and localized events) were the most well-documented.
They found that a terror attack in Austria received substantially more coverage than a terror attack that occurred on the same day in Afghanistan, even though the latter attack led to seven times as many casualties.
They found this distinction to be consistent across the language-versions of Wikipedia that they assessed (and many different events and articles of interest), and the lower a country’s GDP, the fewer articles and edits they tended to receive—even regarding events of massive international significance.
Wikipedia has become a fundamental research tool for many people, often serving as a starting-point for investigations into just about any subject (sometimes even legal matters), so a bias of any shape or size can have an outsized impact, as what’s discoverable and not discoverable can shape the trajectory of what someone is directed toward next (and the size and popularity of the service means that trajectory-shaping impact is dramatically up-scaled).
It’s also worth noting, though, that people in different parts of the world will tend to think different sorts of things are worth documenting, that different data points are valuable, and that different perspectives are valid or invalid (in some cases that sense of validity backed by legal repercussions for a violation of government-enforced informational-sharing or -seeking norms).
Thus, some of these biases will be most strongly felt by overseas (or different-language-speaking) audiences rather than those in the poorer areas with less fleshed-out articles and tenacious edits. And some are shaped, in part at least, by biases that are distinct from those being directly tracked and tabulated in this growing body of research.