Wikipedia paves the way for an agreement in a divided world


In a deeply divided world, Wikipedia allows people around the world looking for information on almost any subject to find a single page of agreed facts, complete with citations.

Yes, but: For this to happen, an often fierce debate takes place on the talk pages behind each encyclopedia entry, where people argue over how the subject should be approached.

why is it important: Wikipedia has long established itself as one of the most accessible, widely read and trusted sources of information on topics ranging from the most mundane to the most controversial. The more partisan divisions grow in the world, the more valuable it becomes.

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

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

How it works: For each page offering factual information on a topic, a one-click publicly accessible “discussion” page allows visitors to suggest everything from word changes to additional information to include, and to debate the accuracy and content fairness.

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

Wikipedia also provides additional levels of care to particularly sensitive subjects.

  • 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. A semi-protected article, for example, cannot be edited by unregistered accounts.

The big picture: Wikipedia has become a model of how participatory knowledge can work even in a divided and polarized world. harvard business review used as a case study for an article from 2016.

Between the lines: Harvard Business School professor Shane Greenstein, co-author of the 2016 article and who has studied Wikipedia extensively, says the way entries and edits are handled tends to ward off those who seek to present only only one point of view on an issue.

  • “There are still many fights on Wikipedia,” Greenstein told Axios. But these fights don’t naturally lead to a victory for a point of view.
  • Instead, the conflicting parties reach a point where all agree that their point of view has been accurately captured.
  • The result, he says, is often not so much a shared truth as a neutral point of view presenting multiple perspectives.

Dip: It’s worth looking at how Wikipedia has navigated some of the trickiest topics around.

Abortion: Wikipedia doesn’t specifically offer medical advice, so it doesn’t go into details, for example, of how to perform an abortion, an area that could become even more difficult as some seek to criminalize the provision of such information.

  • What Wikipedia does, via the main abortion page, as well as many related pagesis to provide details on abortion methods, frequency of procedure and other topics.

  • It should be noted how many of the frequently cited “facts” are debunked as myths, including claims made by both sides regarding the safety of legal and illegal abortion.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine: The Wikipedia article (at least the English 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 lately has focused on finer points, such as how often maps should be updated and how to characterize an invasion that has now turned into a protracted war.

Yes, but: Wikipedia is not invulnerable to manipulation, but it happens more often on less controversial topics.

  • This week, for example, Vice shared the story of a Chinese housewife who single-handedly created hundreds of interconnected Wikipedia pages containing false information about Russian history.

Wikipedia has also long been criticized for the fact that contributions are mostly paid by men.

  • To the site’s credit, he even has a page covering this topicin addition to having undertaken several initiatives aimed at increasing the participation of women.

And after: At a time when misinformation has become the weapon of authoritarian governments, Wikipedia has become a target.


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