Using Wikipedia to explore issues of systemic bias and symbolic annihilation in information sources
Wikipedia is one of the most high profile and heavily used sources of information used by students today. The English language version contains over 5.8 million articles, growing at a rate of some 500+ new articles every day . It receives roughly 15 billion page views per month, making it the fifth most used website in the world . It is one of the first places students to go to find information.
However, Wikipedia itself is very far from a truly global source of information. As an information source, it betrays the biases of its contributors. The majority of Wikipedia editors are young, white, college-educated males, technically-inclined, living in majority-Christian, Western Hemisphere countries - a group that has been described as "a bunch of male geeks who are wealthy enough to afford a $2,000 laptop and a broadband connection" . Recent surveys have estimated that only 8.5% - 16% of Wikipedia users are female – even fewer are people of colour .
As a result, Wikipedia coverage in many areas suffer from this lack of representation. Articles about notable women are under-represented ; coverage relating to Africa, Latin American and the Middle East is rated by Wikipedia itself as poor to mediocre , and those that do exist are often written from a European or North American perspective ; articles on ‘universal’ topics often fail to include examples from these regions – do people in Africa not eat lunch, for example?
If the world increasingly uses a single information source, what happens when that information source is incomplete, biased or misleading, not because of any inaccuracies but because of issues of perspective, notability and bias? Absence can signify ‘symbolic annihilation’ – if people do not see faces like their own in the media and information they consume, the message that sends is that they are less important.
Focusing on Wikipedia’s shortcomings in these areas provides an opportunity to explore wider issues of systemic bias and representation with students, using a resource they are all familiar with but few truly understand. It enhances students’ evaluation and critical analysis skills and provides a new perspective on how information is researched, created and consumed – all vital skills in today’s ‘post-truth’ era when scarcely a day goes by without some ‘fake news’ story raising headlines and students’ digital literacy is increasingly under scrutiny.
Activities to teach systemic bias in Wikipedia can include: a representation hunt through traditional print media sources; a ‘wikihopping’ activity generating random articles and keeping a log of how many articles about men vs women, western country vs Africa, universal articles that omit certain countries or geographic regions; textual analysis of articles for perspective bias in language used, examples included or not, sources of referenced information used.
|Keywords||wikipedia; systemic bias; symbolic annihilation; information sources; information literacy|
|Web address (URL)||http://hdl.handle.net/10545/626071|
File Access Level
File Access Level
|Publication dates||01 Nov 2021|
|Publication process dates|
|Deposited||29 Oct 2021, 08:08|
|Accepted||15 Aug 2019|
|Contributors||University of Derby|
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