Wikipedia:Systemic bias

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Like these scales, some aspects of Wikipedia are unbalanced.

Wikipedia strives for a neutral point of view, both in terms of the articles that are created and the content, perspectives and sources within those articles. However, the encyclopedia fails in this goal because of systemic bias created by the editing community's narrow social and cultural demographic. Bias can be either implicit when articles or information are missing from the encyclopedia, or explicit when an article's content or sources are biased. This essay addresses issues of systemic bias specific to the English Wikipedia.

As a result of systemic bias, Wikipedia underrepresents the perspectives of people in the Global South, people who lack access to the internet, people who use mobile devices, and people who do not have free time to edit the encyclopedia. Topics for which reliable sources are not easily available online and in English are systematically underrepresented, and Wikipedia tends to show a White American[1] or White European perspective on issues due to the preponderance of English-speaking editors from Anglophone countries. The perspectives of women are also underrepresented.

While there are some external factors that contribute to systemic bias (such as availability of sources and disproportionate global media coverage of events in predominately white Anglophone countries), there is also a vast body of critical and decolonial scholarship that offers broader perspectives than those that are presently available on Wikipedia. These peer-reviewed studies provide reliable sources that are relatively easy to incorporate into the encyclopedia and have enormous potential for countering systemic bias.[2]

The "average Wikipedian"[edit]

Wikipedia's systemic bias portrays the world through the filter of the experiences and views of the "average Wikipedian". The common characteristics of average Wikipedians inevitably color the content of Wikipedia. The average Wikipedian on the English Wikipedia[a] is

  1. white
  2. male
  3. technically inclined
  4. formally educated
  5. an English speaker (native or non-native)
  6. aged 15–49
  7. from a majority-Christian country
  8. from a developed nation
  9. from the Northern Hemisphere
  10. likely employed as a white-collar worker or enrolled as a student rather than being employed as a blue-collar worker.

Women are underrepresented[edit]

Women are underrepresented on Wikipedia, making up only 8.5 - 15% of active contributors in 2011.[3][4] The gender gap has not been closing over time and, on average, female editors leave Wikipedia earlier than male editors.[5] 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.[5] Women typically perceive Wikipedia to be of lower quality than men do.[6] Wikipedia has articles that would appear to reflect male interests, such as Pinup girl (since 2003) and Hot rod (since 2004). Although there are articles on Women in engineering (since 2007), History of ballet (since 2009), Women in law (since 2015), Women in classical music (since 2016) and Pregnancy in art (since 2017), there is a shortage of many other topics related to women.

Those without Internet are underrepresented[edit]

Internet usage by percentage of each country's population (2016)[7]

Internet access is required to contribute to Wikipedia, so people who have less access to the internet, including people in developing nations, the poor, the disabled, and the elderly, are underrepresented on Wikipedia. The Wikimedia foundation estimates that "80% of our page views are from the Global North, and 83% of our edits."[8] Groups who lack access to information technology, schooling, and education include African Americans and Latinos in the U.S., Indigenous peoples in Canada, Aboriginal Australians, and poorer populations of India, among others.[9][10][11][12] Wikipedians are likely to be more technically inclined than the average internet user because of the technical barrier presented by the software interface and the Wiki markup language that discourage many potential editors. The VisualEditor offered by the Wikimedia Foundation for many of its projects (including the English Wikipedia), is buggy and increases load times.

Mobile device users are underrepresented[edit]

While most Internet traffic is generated by smartphones, the majority of Wikipedia edits are done on desktop and laptop computers. MediaWiki's functionality and Wikipedia's policies and guidelines were primarily designed for editors using desktop web browsers. Editors who access the Internet through a mobile device may encounter difficulties with editing on Wikipedia using the mobile website and apps. For example, editors using the Wikipedia apps are currently not notified when they are mentioned or when they receive a new message on their user talk page, which hinders their ability to communicate with other editors. Also, it is significantly more burdensome for mobile device users to participate in talk page discussions as the editing interface is less accessible on mobile devices.

People with little free time are underrepresented[edit]

Wikipedia editors are people with enough free time to participate in the project, such as the retired or unemployed. 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 employed segment of society at a disadvantage, since they are less likely to have time to devote to Wikipedia. Topics related to finance are relatively underdeveloped on Wikipedia, possibly because of this reason.

English-speaking editors from Anglophone countries dominate[edit]

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 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.[13] 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[edit]

Worldwide density of geotagged Wikipedia entries as of 2013
Worldwide density of GeoNames entries as of 2006
All geolocated images in Wikimedia Commons as of 2017

Maps of geotagged Wikipedia articles and geolocated images on Wikimedia Commons show notable gaps in comparison to the density of items in the GeoNames database.

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. Another example is that a 2015 version of the article "Harbor" listed three examples in the article lede all from California.

External factors[edit]

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. The extent to which Wikipedia editors can correct for external factors is a matter of debate — should Wikipedia reflect the world as it presents itself, or as Wikipedians would hope the world could be?

Availability of sources may cause bias[edit]

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. 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.

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 it 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.

Representation in sources may cause bias[edit]

Representation within sources is not uniform due to societal realities, and the external lack of coverage results in an internal lack of coverage. A 2015 survey[14] of material from 2000 U.S. newspapers and online news found that:[15]

  • Between 1983 and 2008 in 13 major U.S. newspapers, 40% of mentions went to 1% of names, and the people that received the most mentions were almost all male.
  • Male names in those 13 newspapers were mentioned four times as often as female names.
  • When the dataset was expanded to 2000 sources, the ratio went to nearly 5:1.
  • The authors proposed that "the persistent social realities of acute gender inequalities at the top in politics, the business world, and sports translate into highly imbalanced gender coverage patterns".

The Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) follows trends in newspaper, radio, television, internet news and news media tweets and, as of 2015, finds that women make up 24% of persons that are heard, seen, or read about. GMMP also noted imbalance in the subject matter of topics reported in the news overall: 27% social/legal, 24% government/politics, 14% economy, 13% crime/violence, 11% celebrity/arts/sports, and 8% science/health (and 2% other).[16]

Examples[edit]

  • Ethnocentric articles present a national situation as if it were global. In-depth coverage of national situations belongs in a national article.
  • Wikipedia editors belong to a social class that has internet access and enough leisure time to edit Wikipedia articles, so issues of interest to other social classes aren't well covered.
  • 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 these concepts exist outside of the industrialized world.
  • 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).
  • Deaths of those in developed countries are seen as far more significant.[by whom?] The Al-Qaeda attacks on the US, UK and Spain, causing the deaths of 3,000 people, are seen as having enormous significance.[by whom?] The Darfur conflict in Sudan, in which 400,000 civilians have so far been killed, receives less attention.[from whom?]
  • 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. One should be especially careful to not give more weight to Christian views on a non-Christian topic than to the views of religions more associated with that topic. For instance, as of 13 April 2022, the "Influence" section of the article on the Zohar, a foundational work in Jewish mysticism, devotes four times as much space to the document's influence on Christianity as it does to its influence on Judaism.
  • Wikipedia content is skewed by widespread editing by persons with conflicts of interest, including corporations who pay staffers and consultants to create articles about themselves. This skews Wikipedia content toward POVs belonging to persons and corporations who pay for marketing.
  • Articles where the article name can mean several different things tend to default to subject matter more familiar to the average Wikipedian.
  • Eurocentricism is particularly visibile in coverage of recent events. Such 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, the "In the news" section on Wikipedia's front page features a disproportionate amount of news from English-speaking nations.
  • Recentism is a bias toward coverage of recent events. It is caused by the difficulty of finding journals, magazines, and news sources from the pre-internet era.
  • Some astronomy articles discuss the night sky as seen from the Northern Hemisphere without adequate coverage of the view from the Southern Hemisphere. Sometimes "not visible from the Northern Hemisphere" is used as a synonym of "not visible at all". Some obscure constellations in the Northern sky are covered in more depth than more prominent Southern constellations.
  • Articles often use Northern Hemisphere temperate zone seasons 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 for 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 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[edit]

Systemic bias violates neutral point of view, which is one of Wikipedia's five pillars, so it shoud be fixed.

What you can do[edit]

Read about other people's perspectives, work to understand your own biases, and try to represent Wikipedia's NPOV policy in your editing. Invite others to edit, and be respectful of others' views. Avoid topics where you expect that you are biased or where you don't wish to make the effort to overcome those biases.

Read newspapers, magazines, reliable websites, and other versions of Wikipedia in languages other than English. If you know only English, read articles from other countries where English is a primary language, like Australia, Canada, India, Kenya, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, or Nigeria. Also, some countries where English is not an official language do have important English-language press (such as Brazil, Egypt, or Israel). Where such English-language press is not available, automated translation, though still very imperfect, can enable you access articles in many languages, and may be a reasonably adequate substitute. Consider learning another language.

There is a vast body of critical and decolonial scholarship that offers much broader perspectives than those that are presently available on Wikipedia. These peer-reviewed studies provide reliable sources that are relatively easy to incorporate into the encyclopedia and have enormous potential for countering systemic bias.[2]

Use judicious placement of the {{Globalize}}, {{Globalize section}}, and {{Globalize-inline}} templates in Wikipedia articles which you believe exhibit systemic bias, along with adding your reasoning and possible mitigations to the corresponding talk pages.

Barnstar[edit]

Systemic bias Barnstar.png The Systemic Bias Barnstar
This Barnstar may be awarded to Wikipedians who help reduce the encyclopedia's systemic bias.


See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2021-06-27/Recent research", Wikipedia, 2021-07-25, retrieved 2022-11-23
  2. ^ a b Bjork-James, Carwil (2021-07-03). "New maps for an inclusive Wikipedia: decolonial scholarship and strategies to counter systemic bias". New Review of Hypermedia and Multimedia. 27 (3): 207–228. doi:10.1080/13614568.2020.1865463. ISSN 1361-4568.
  3. ^ Cohen, Noam (January 30, 2011). "Define Gender Gap? Look Up Wikipedia’s Contributor List". The New York Times. Retrieved January 7, 2012.
  4. ^ "Editor Survey Report – April 2011". Wikimedia Foundation. Retrieved January 7, 2011.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ 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
  7. ^ a b http://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Documents/statistics/2013/Individuals_Internet_2000-2012.xls[bare URL]
  8. ^ Nelson, Anne. "Wikipedia Taps College 'Ambassadors' to Broaden Editor Base". www.pbs.org. Retrieved 4 September 2014.
  9. ^ Mossberger, Karen (2009). "Toward digital citizenship: addressing inequality in the information age". In Chadwick, Andrew (ed.). Routledge handbook of Internet politics. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 9780415429146.
  10. ^ Cavanagh, Allison (2007). Sociology in the age of the Internet. McGraw-Hill International. p. 65. ISBN 9780335217250.
  11. ^ Chen, Wenhong; Wellman, Barry (2005). "Minding the Cyber-Gap: the Internet and Social Inequality". In Romero, Mary; Margolis, Eric (eds.). The Blackwell companion to social inequalities. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 9780631231547.
  12. ^ Norris, Pippa (2001). "Social inequality". Digital divide: civic engagement, information poverty, and the Internet worldwide. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521002233.
  13. ^ See Mark Graham. "Wikipedia's known unknowns". The Guardian.co.uk. Retrieved 9 December 2009.
  14. ^ Shor, Eran; van de Rijt, Arnout; Miltsov, Alex; Kulkarni, Vivek; Skiena, Steven (30 September 2015). "A Paper Ceiling". American Sociological Review. American Sociological Association. 80 (5): 960–984. doi:10.1177/0003122415596999.
  15. ^ Ordway, Denise-Marie (January 4, 2016). "Are women underrepresented in news coverage?". Journalist's Resource. Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Retrieved May 18, 2019.
  16. ^ Global Media Monitoring Project. "GMMP 2015 Reports". Who Makes the News?. World Association for Christian Communication. Retrieved 18 May 2019.

External links[edit]