Jul 15, 2022 - Technology
Column / Signal Boost

Wikipedia blazes a trail to agreement in a divided world

Illustration of a compass with a blinking cursor in place of the arrow
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

In a deeply divided world, Wikipedia allows people everywhere seeking information on nearly any topic to find a single page of agreed-upon facts — complete with citations.

Yes, but: For that to happen, an often-fierce debate takes place on the talk pages behind every encyclopedia entry, where people argue over just how the topic should be addressed.

Why it matters: Wikipedia has long established itself as one of the most accessible, widely read and trusted sources for information on subjects ranging from the mundane to the highly controversial. The sharper partisan rifts around the world grow, the more valuable that becomes.

Between the lines: Somewhat counterintuitively, the more people who disagree about a topic, the more neutral Wikipedia's entry on the topic tends to be, says Maryana Iskander, who took over as head of the Wikimedia Foundation (Wikipedia's parent organization) in January.

  • "It’s in the debate that more neutral perspectives emerge," Iskander told Axios in an interview at the foundation's offices in San Francisco.

How it works: For every page offering factual information on a topic, a publicly available "talk" page one click away allows visitors to suggest everything from word changes to additional information that should be included, and to debate the accuracy and fairness of the content.

  • Those seeking changes are pressed to provide evidence to back up their suggestions. On controversial topics, the debate can be intense.

Wikipedia also brings extra levels of care to especially sensitive topics.

  • Various levels of protection, often temporary, can be applied to an article to limit public editing of a sensitive topic until consensus can be reached. An article that is semi-protected, for example, cannot be edited by unregistered accounts.

The big picture: Wikipedia has become a model for how crowdsourced knowledge can function even in a divided and polarized world. Harvard Business Review used it as a case study for a 2016 article.

Between the lines: Shane Greenstein, a Harvard Business School professor who co-authored the 2016 article and has studied Wikipedia extensively, says that the way entries and changes are handled tends to drive away those who are looking to present only one viewpoint on an issue.

  • "There are still many fights on Wikipedia," Greenstein told Axios. But those fights don't naturally move toward a victory for one viewpoint.
  • Instead, disputants reach a point where all agree that their perspective has been accurately captured.
  • The result, he says, is often not so much shared truth but a neutral point of view presenting multiple perspectives.

Dive in: It's worth looking at how Wikipedia has navigated some of the thorniest topics of the moment.

Abortion: Wikipedia specifically doesn't offer medical advice, so it doesn't get into the specifics of, say, how to perform an abortion, an area that could become even more fraught as some seek to criminalize providing such information.

  • What Wikipedia does, via the main abortion page, as well as many related pages, is provide details on the methods of abortion, how often the procedure takes place and other topics.
  • Of note are how many frequently cited "facts" are debunked as myths, including claims made by both sides related to the safety of both legal and illegal abortion.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine: The Wikipedia article (at least the English language one) includes some of Russia's most outlandish claims — such as the idea that the Ukrainian government included Nazis — but authoritatively debunks them as false.

  • Much of the debate of late has been around finer points, such as how often to update maps and how to characterize an invasion that has now turned into a protracted war.

Yes, but: Wikipedia isn't invulnerable to manipulation, but that happens more often on less controversial topics.

  • This week, for example, Vice shared the story of a Chinese housewife who singlehandedly created hundreds of interconnected Wikipedia pages with fake information about Russian history.

Wikipedia has also long been criticized for the fact that contributions are made overwhelmingly by men.

  • To the site's credit, it even has a page covering that topic, in addition to having undertaken several initiatives aimed at increasing women's participation.

What's next: In an era where misinformation has become a weapon of authoritarian governments, Wikipedia has become a target.

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