Wikipedia:Systemic bias

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The Wikipedia project strives for a neutral point of view in its coverage of subjects, both in terms of the articles that are created and the content, perspective and sources within these articles. However, this goal is inhibited by systemic bias created by the shared social and cultural characteristics of most editors, and it results in an imbalanced coverage of subjects and perspectives on the encyclopedia.

As a result of this systematic bias, some cultures, topics and perspectives tend to be underrepresented on Wikipedia. Some of the types of systematic bias that exist on Wikipedia include gender bias, racial bias, social class bias, the tendency to under-represent the perspectives of people without access to the Internet or who do not have free time to edit the encyclopedia, the systematic under-representation of topics for which Reliable Sources are not easily available (e.g., online) or available in English, and a tendency to show an American or European perspective on issues due to the dominance of English-speaking editors from Anglophone countries.

This essay addresses issues of systemic bias for the most part specific to English Wikipedia and does not provide extensive commentary regarding systemic bias as seen in Wikipedia in other languages (the various non-English Wikipedias). The topic of systemic bias in other-language Wikipedias is briefly mentioned in the closing sections of this essay.

The "average Wikipedian"

Internet usage by percentage of each country's population (2012)[1]

The common characteristics of average Wikipedians inevitably color the content of Wikipedia. The average Wikipedian on the English Wikipedia is (1) male, (2) technically inclined, (3) formally educated, (4) an English speaker (native or non-native), (5) aged 15–49, (6) from a majority-Christian country, (7) from a developed nation, (8) from the Northern Hemisphere, and (9) likely employed as a white-collar worker or enrolled as a student rather than being employed as a blue-collar worker.[2]

List of Internet users by country

Rank Country or area Internet
1  China 721,434,547[5] 52.2%
2  India 462,124,989[6][7] 34.8%
3  United States 286,942,362 88.5%
4  Brazil 139,111,118 66.4%
5  Japan 115,111,595 89.80%
6  Russia 103,147,691[8] 70.5%
7  Nigeria 86,219,965[9] 46.1%
8  Germany 71,016,244 88%
10  Bangladesh 63,354,000[10][11] 39.20%

Women are underrepresented

Women are underrepresented on Wikipedia, making up less than 15% of active contributors.[12] A 2011 Wikimedia Foundation survey found that 8.5% of editors are women.[13] The gender gap has not been closing over time and, on average, female editors leave Wikipedia earlier than male editors.[14] Research suggests that the gender gap has a detrimental effect on content coverage: articles with particular interest to women tend to be shorter, even when controlling for variables that affect article length.[14] Women typically perceive Wikipedia to be of lower quality than men do.[15] The low representation of women among Wikipedia editors may have an impact on the coverage of women-oriented topics and perspectives, both in terms of the articles that are created and the content within articles. Regarding articles, for example, Wikipedia has articles that would appear to reflect male interests, such as Pinup girl (since 2003), Hot rod (since 2004) and Babysitter pornography (since 2010). Although there are articles on Women in engineering (since 2007), History of ballet (since 2009), Women in law (since 2015), and Women in classical music (since 2016), there are no articles on Pregnancy in art and many other topics related to women.

Those without Internet are underrepresented

Access to an Internet-connected computer is required to contribute to Wikipedia. Groups who statistically have less access to the Internet, including people in developing nations, the poor in industrialized nations, the disabled, and the elderly, are underrepresented on Wikipedia. "Eighty percent of our page views are from the Global North, and 83 percent of our edits."[16] In most countries, minority demographic groups have disproportionately less access to information technology, schooling, and education than majority groups. This includes African Americans and Latinos in the U.S., the Aboriginal peoples in Canada, the Aborigines of Australia, and the poorer populations of India, among others.[17][18][19][20] Even among the general demographic class of Internet users, Wikipedians are likely to be more technically inclined than average. There is a technical barrier represented by the software interface and the Wiki markup language that many readers either (a) do not recognize, (b) cannot understand, (c) or choose not to use. Although the Wikimedia Foundation implemented VisualEditor, which uses a WYSIWYG interface, to many of its projects, including the English Wikipedia, it has many major bugs that can break the formatting of articles edited using it, as well as it having a generally longer load time than the source wiki markup text.

People with little free time are underrepresented

Wikipedians are people with enough free time to participate in the project. The points of view of editors focused on other activities, such as earning a living or caring for others, are underrepresented. This puts subjects of interest to the working poor and minority groups at a distinct disadvantage, since they are less likely to have the time to devote to Wikipedia than more affluent people with time on their hands. Combined with the fact that computers often come with large budgets that many of the poorer inhabitants of countries cannot afford, making this group one of the most underrepresented group in the project. Topics related to Finance are relatively underdeveloped on Wikipedia, possibly relating to this reason.

Availability of sources may cause bias

Availability of sources is not uniform. This manifests both from the language a source is written in and the ease with which it can be accessed. Because reliable sources are required by Wikipedia policy, topics are limited in their contents by the sources available to editors. This is a particularly acute problem for biographies of living persons. Sources published in a medium that is both widely available and familiar to editors, such as a news website, are more likely to be used than those from esoteric or foreign-language publications regardless of their reliability. For example, a 2007 story on the BBC News website is more likely to be cited than a 1967 edition of the Thai Post or Večernje novosti. Similarly, the cost of access to a source can be a barrier; for example, most research in astronomy is freely available to the public via arXiv or NASA ADS, while many law journals are available only through costly subscription services.[citation needed]

English-speaking editors from Anglophone countries dominate

Despite the many contributions of Wikipedians writing in English as a non-native language, the English Wikipedia is dominated by native English-speaking editors from Anglophone countries (particularly the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia). Anglophone countries are mostly in the in the global North, thereby accentuating the encyclopedia's bias to contributions from First World countries. Countries and regions where either English is an official language (e.g. Hong Kong, India, Pakistan and other former colonies of the British Empire) and other countries where English-language schooling is common (e.g. Germany, the Netherlands, and some other European countries) participate more than countries without broad teaching of English. Hence, the latter remain underrepresented. The majority of the world's population lives in the Northern Hemisphere, which contributes toward a selection bias to a Northern Hemisphere perspective. This selection bias interacts with the other causes of systemic bias discussed above, which slants the selection to a pro-Northern Hemisphere perspective.[21] Wikipedia is blocked in some countries due to government censorship. The most common method of circumventing such censorship, editing through an open proxy, may not work as Wikipedia may block the proxy in an effort to prevent it from being abused by certain users, such as vandals.

An American or European perspective may exist

Most English-speaking (native or non-native) contributors to Wikipedia are American or European, which can lead to an American or European perspective. In addition, Anglophone contributors from outside of the United States and countries in Europe are likely to be more familiar with those countries than other parts of the world. This leads to, for example, a 2015 version of "Demonym" (an article that ostensibly is on all demonyms for all peoples across the globe) listing six different demonyms in the article lede, with five of them being western or central European nationalities, and the other being Canadian. While a 2015 version of the article "Harbor" listed three examples in the article lede all from the United States.

Nature of Wikipedia's bias

Worldwide density of geotagged Wikipedia entries
Worldwide density of GeoNames entries
The 2.9M geolocated images in Wikimedia Commons

The systemic bias of Wikipedians manifests itself as a portrayal of the world through the filter of the experiences and views of the average Wikipedian. Bias is manifested in both additions and deletions to articles.

Once identified, the bias is noticeable throughout Wikipedia. It takes two major forms:

  1. a dearth of articles on neglected topics; and
  2. perspective bias in articles on many subjects
  • Since Wikipedia editors are self-selecting[clarification needed] for social class (only a relatively small proportion of the world's population has the necessary access to computers, the Internet, and enough leisure time to edit Wikipedia articles), articles about or involving issues of interest to other social classes are unlikely to be created or, if created, are unlikely to survive a deletion review on grounds of notability.
  • As of 2006, of the top 20 news sites used as references on Wikipedia, 18 were owned by large for-profit news corporations, while only two of the sites were non-profit news organizations.[22]
  • Perspective bias is internal to articles that are universal in aspect. It is not at all apparent from lunch (see tiffin) or the linguistic term continuous aspect that they exist outside of the industrialized world.[clarification needed]
  • A lack of articles on particular topics is the most common cultural bias. Separately, both China and India have populations greater than all native English speakers combined, or greater than all of Europe combined; by this measure, information on Chinese and Indian topics should, at least, equal Anglophone or European topics. However, Anglophone topics dominate the content of Wikipedia. While the conscious efforts of WikiProject participants have vastly expanded the available information on topics such as the Second Congo War, coverage of comparable Western wars remains much more detailed.
  • Popular culture topics, especially television and video games, are often covered as if only the US, the UK, and Japan exist (depending on the origin of the Wikipedian).
  • Notability is more difficult to establish in non-Anglophone topics because of a lack of English sources and little incentive among anglophone participants to find sources in the native language of the topic. A lack of native language editors of the topic only compounds the problems. Publication bias and full-text-on-the-net bias also make more likely that editors will find reliable coverage for topics with easily available sources than articles dependent on off-line or difficult to find sources. The lack of sources and therefore notability causes articles to go through the deletion process of Wikipedia.
  • Deaths of those in developed countries are seen as far more significant. The Al-Qaeda attacks on the US, UK and Spain, causing the deaths of 3,000 people, are seen as having enormous significance. The Darfur conflict in Sudan, in which 400,000 civilians have so far been killed, receives less attention.
  • The historical perspective of the Allies of World War II, particularly the US and the United Kingdom, prevails. As of March 22, 2012, 11 Featured Pictures on World War I were of Allied origin and none from the Central Powers.
  • Articles containing a "Religious views" section frequently include Christianity, Islam, and Judaism while neglecting the views of other religions. Ideally, an article describing religious views on a topic should incorporate Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist views, at a minimum, though the exact choice of religious opinions will depend upon the topic's scope (e.g., a Chinese topic might not necessitate a Christian view, but it might necessitate a Taoist view). Views of more prominent religions should be given more space in accordance with the policy on neutral point of view.
  • Controversial fringe subjects tend to receive more attention than non-controversial WP:VITAL articles.
  • Wikipedia content is skewed by widespread editing by persons with conflicts of interest, including corporations who deploy staffers, and pay outside consultants, to create articles about themselves. This skews Wikipedia content toward persons and corporations that want to make Wikipedia part of their marketing effort.
  • The size of articles is often based on the interest that English-speaking Wikipedians have in the subject (which to some extent is based on the involvement of their nations). For example, the article on the Second Congo War, the deadliest conflict in the past 60 years, is shorter than that on the Falklands War, with a death toll of under a thousand. Additionally, the amount of information available to researchers is disproportionately biased towards events involving more economically developed countries.
  • Articles where the article name can mean several different things tend to default to subject matter more familiar to the average Wikipedian.
  • Recentism: Current events—especially those occurring in developed, English-speaking nations—often attract attention from Wikipedians, and articles discussing particular current events are edited out of proportion with their significance. Jennifer Wilbanks, an American woman who attracted media attention when she was presumed kidnapped but actually ran away to avoid marrying her fiancé, has a significantly longer article than Bernard Makuza, who was Prime Minister of Rwanda from 2000 to 2011. Additionally, because of recentism bias, the "In the news" section on Wikipedia's front page is limited by an unequal proportion of significant news from English-speaking nations compared to news from others.
    • Our tendency towards recentism is enhanced by difficulties of sourcing topics from the pre-Internet era largely caused by the fact that many major journals, magazines, and news sources of that era are not online or not searchable, and major institutions (professional organizations, museums, political parties, schools and clubs of all kinds) have ceased to exist, making some WP:RS of the type that validate articles on contemporary topics unavailable.
  • Articles frequently take the perspective of a resident of the Northern Hemisphere and ignore the Southern Hemisphere perspective. For example, some articles on astronomy discuss the night sky as seen from the Northern Hemisphere without covering the Southern Hemisphere to a similar extent, and sometimes "not visible from the Northern Hemisphere" is used as a synonym of "not visible at all". Northern Hemisphere astronomical topics generally are covered in greater depth than Southern Hemisphere astronomical topics. Obscure constellations in the Northern sky such as Scutum and Camelopardalis are covered in more depth than prominent Southern constellations such as Grus and Carina.[contradictory]
  • Articles often use Northern Hemisphere temperate zone seasons as time references to describe time periods that are longer than a month and shorter than a year. Such usage can be confusing and misleading for people who live in the Southern Hemisphere and people in tropical areas that do not experience temperate-zone seasons.
  • Due to severe restrictions on the use of images that are not free content, certain groups of articles are more likely to be illustrated by associated images than others. For example, articles on American politicians often have images while articles on Nepalese politicians usually do not.

There is further information on biases in Geography, in Politics, in History, and in Logic. See also Countering systemic bias: Project details for an older introduction.

Why it matters

Many editors contribute to Wikipedia because they see Wikipedia as progressing to (though perhaps never reaching) the ideal of a repository of human knowledge. More idealistic editors may see Wikipedia as a vast discussion on what is true and what is not from a "neutral point of view" or "God's Eye View". Thus, the idea of systemic bias is more troubling than intentional vandalism; vandalism is readily identified and corrected, often with automated software. The existence of systemic bias means that not only are large segments of the world not participating in the discussion at hand but that there is a deep-rooted problem in the relationship of Wikipedia and its contributors with the world at large.

The systemic bias of the English Wikipedia is very likely permanent. As long as the demographic of English speaking Wikipedians is not identical to the world's demographic composition, the version of the world presented in the English Wikipedia will always be the Anglophone Wikipedian's version of the world. Thus, the only way systemic bias would disappear entirely is if all of the world's population spoke English with the same fluency and had equal access and inclination to edit the English Wikipedia. However, the effects of systemic bias can be mitigated with conscious effort. This is the goal of the Countering Systemic Bias Project.

As Michael Snow and Jimmy Wales have said in an open letter:[23]

How can we build on our success to overcome the challenges that lie ahead? Less than a fifth of the world's population has access to the Internet. While hundreds of thousands of volunteers have contributed to Wikimedia projects today, they are not fully representative of the diversity of the world. Many choices lie ahead as we work to build a world wide movement to create and share free knowledge.

What you can do

Read about the perspectives and issues of concern to others. Attempt to represent these in your editing. Invite others to edit. Be respectful of others. Work to understand your own biases and avoid reflecting them in your editing. Avoid topics or discussions where you expect that you are biased or where you don't wish to make the effort to overcome those biases. This is a large project, so work where you can best serve the central content and behavioral expectations, particularly those related to Wikipedia's policy relating to neutral point of view.

Read newspapers, magazines, reliable Web sites, and other versions of Wikipedia in whatever non-English language or languages you know. If you know only English, read articles from other countries where English is an official or primary language, like India, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Kenya. Also, some countries (such as Israel or Brazil) in which English is not an official or primary language have important English-language press.

Learning another language to the point of being able to read a newspaper fluently is not a trivial undertaking, and the process is much facilitated if you are able to spend time, and take classes, in a country where the language is spoken. However, there is no better way to escape the blinders created by any country's own media establishment and politics. Automated translation is a poor substitute.

See also


  1. ^ a b "Percentage of Individuals using the Internet 2000-2012", International Telecommunications Union (Geneva), June 2013, retrieved 22 June 2013
  2. ^ See Wikipedia:User survey and Wikipedia:University of Würzburg survey, 2005
  3. ^ Calculated using percentagerate per 2013 International Telecommunication Union (ITU) estimates and population data from "Countries and Areas Ranked by Population: 2013", Population data, International Programs, U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved 7 June 2015.
  4. ^ "Percentage of Individuals using the Internet 2000-2013", International Telecommunications Union (Geneva). Retrieved 7 June 2015.
  5. ^ "我国网民数量达6.68亿 _滚动新闻_新浪财经_新浪网". 2015-07-27. Retrieved 2016-01-06. 
  6. ^ "India Internet Users". 2015-11-17. Retrieved 2016-01-06. 
  7. ^ "India to Have 402 Million Internet Users by December-End: IAMAI". 2015-11-17. Retrieved 2016-01-06. 
  8. ^ "Europe Internet Stats and 2015 Population Statistics". Retrieved 2016-03-04. 
  9. ^ "Asia Internet Stats and 2015 Population Statistics". Retrieved 2016-01-06. 
  10. ^ "Internet Subscribers in Bangladesh February, 2016". Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission. Retrieved 20 March 2016. 
  11. ^ "Internet users now 50m.". 2015-09-02. Retrieved 2016-01-25. 
  12. ^ Cohen, Noam (January 30, 2011). "Define Gender Gap? Look Up Wikipedia’s Contributor List". The New York Times. Retrieved January 7, 2012.
  13. ^ "Editor Survey Report – April 2011". Wikimedia Foundation. Retrieved January 7, 2011.
  14. ^ a b Lam, Shyong (Tony) K.; Uduwage, Anuradha; Dong, Zhenhua; Sen, Shilad; Musicant, David R.; Terveen, Loren; Riedl, John (October 3–5, 2011). "WP:Clubhouse? An Exploration of Wikipedia’s Gender Imbalance". WikiSym’11.
  15. ^ S. Lim and N. Kwon (2010). "Gender differences in information behavior concerning Wikipedia, an unorthodox information source?" Library & Information Science Research, 32 (3): 212–220. DOI: 10.1016/j.lisr.2010.01.003
  16. ^ Nelson, Anne. "Wikipedia Taps College 'Ambassadors' to Broaden Editor Base". Retrieved 4 September 2014. 
  17. ^ Mossberger, Karen (2009). "Toward digital citizenship: addressing inequality in the information age". In Chadwick, Andrew. Routledge handbook of Internet politics. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 9780415429146. 
  18. ^ Cavanagh, Allison (2007). Sociology in the age of the Internet. McGraw-Hill International. p. 65. ISBN 9780335217250. 
  19. ^ Chen, Wenhong & Wellman, Barry (2005). "Minding the Cyber-Gap: the Internet and Social Inequality". In Romero, Mary & Margolis, Eric. The Blackwell companion to social inequalities. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 9780631231547. 
  20. ^ Norris, Pippa (2001). "Social inequality". Digital divide: civic engagement, information poverty, and the Internet worldwide. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521002233. 
  21. ^ See Mark Graham. "Wikipedia's known unknowns". The Retrieved 9 December 2009. 
  22. ^ Top 500 websites (domains) by number of links from Wikipedia.
  23. ^ "Letter from Michael Snow and Jimmy Wales.". 

External links

  • Wikipediocracy blog entry on systemic bias
  • Under Reported Stories by Thomson Reuters Foundation
  • Under-Told Stories
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