On Polarizing Issues, Wikipedia Strives for Balance
From January’s war in Gaza to Holocaust denial, the world’s largest collaborative encyclopedia has become a battlefield over history.
Yet Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales says the online, ever-evolving encyclopedia, which is authored by volunteer contributors around the world, ultimately is able to forge balanced entries even when it comes to even the most contentious issues.
“It’s a human process, a slow process,” Wales told JTA during an interview in Jerusalem last week. “Usually people are pretty good about it, and we find that most people are able to understand the idea of neutrality. They will have a few emotional incidents here and there, but it’s a community.
“Of course,” he acknowledged, “if someone keeps coming in and does obnoxious things over and over, then the community can decide to ban them. That happens on a fairly regular basis.”
One of the Internet’s most popular sites, Wikipedia has spurred an online revolution in information gathering. It has transformed the way students – often to the dismay of their instructors – and others track information, and it has become the most dominant online encyclopedia, far exceeding Encyclopedia Britannica in its voluminous pages of information.
But because any Internet user can edit its content, Wikipedia has drawn criticism for being inaccurate at times and subject to agenda-driven contributors.
A few entries considered especially prone to abusive tinkering can be accessed only by designated volunteer editors; all other entries may be edited freely by any registered user. When users are flagged as ongoing troublemakers, they can be banned from the site.
Wales, who was in Israel attending the 2009 Israeli Presidential Conference, defended the Wikipedia model, saying that most fallacious elements introduced to Wikipedia entries are quickly removed by others who amend and debunk such elements.
“If you want your writing to survive in Wikipedia, you cannot write a one-sided rant; it will just be removed very quickly,” he said. “If you really want to get your point across, you have to do in a way that people find acceptable. So that pushes people in the right direction.”
He added, “It’s not perfect, of course.”
Wales pointed to Wikipedia’s treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an example of how Wikipedia provides a public service – by informing about the conflict and why it’s so intractable. Where there is disagreement over facts, Wikipedia notes it.
“This is where people who don’t agree about the underlying issues will still point you to use,” he said. “Does that solve the problem? No. But at least we’ve written about what the problem is.”
About 200 Israelis are active Wikipedians – people who contribute and edit entries related to Israel several times a week.
Israel has the world’s highest per capita amount of Wikipedia users. Israelis use Wikipedia in English in large numbers, in addition to other languages like Russian and French. A growing number also are using and contributing to Wikipedia in Hebrew, which is approaching its 100,000th entry.
Itzik Edri is the spokesman for Wikimedia Israel, an Israeli nonprofit branch of the Wikimedia Foundation, which promotes free content and knowledge worldwide. Aside from promoting Wikipedia, the foundation works to put educational content, books, photographs and other resources for free, open use online. It also hosts conferences and promotes educational initiatives.
“Our goal is not hasbara,” Edri says, using the Israeli word for public relations that benefits the state. “We are about getting more information out there.”
As part of that goal, Wikimedia Israel members lobby the Israeli government for better access to its reports, records and photographs. For example, the group has been trying to convince the Israeli army spokesman’s office to release some of its footage of the war in Gaza last winter – without success. The group says it wants the photos to help balance the large number of photos of the fighting and its aftermath being posted by Palestinian groups on Wikipedia.
According to Edri, who is also among those who write and edit entries, problems in entries on the Israeli history or Holocaust-related subjects tend to be fixed as part of the Wikipedia process by the community of users.
“For example, on political issues or personalities, there will always be those writing with a more right-wing position and those with a left-wing perspective,” he said. “But eventually the entries balance themselves out.”
Even in Arabic-language Wikipedia entries on Israel-related topics, the entries are more balanced than one might expect, according to Edri.
On a lighter note, Wales also talked to JTA about Wikipedia in Yiddish, which he said was comprised of “a small but passionate group of people.”