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It's time we look past Women in Red to counter systemic bias

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By Indy beetle

Indy beetle has been a Wikipedia contributor since 2016. His main focus is on content related to history, politics, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Map of the worldwide distribution of geotagged Wikipedia entries, circa 2006. Wikipedia is still lacking in proper coverage of many regions outside of the West.

Anyone who has been staying informed on the Wikipedia community's affairs by now surely heard of it: our problem of systemic bias. Special attention is often given to the gender gap in our content and the diverging proportion of female and male contributors. In fact, it would seem that is all the people hear about – or that the media cares about. Leafing through Google News results, one can find countless articles on our gender bias issues and the many, many edit-a-thons and other methods meant to alleviate them:

Most of these news articles open with the citation of the infamously unimpressive percentage of women contributors on the site or the proportions of women biography or women's issues articles to their counterparts. Recent Wikidata statistics suggest that the gender gap remains a wide gulf to cross. There is still work to be done in this area. Between Women in Red and the Art+Feminism campaign an impressive amount of energy and effort has been directed at the issue, and no doubt it would benefit the encyclopedia for the work to continue full steam ahead.

But what about our geographical biases? They aren't given anywhere near the same attention as the gender gap—and the effect they have on our image can be just as glaring. This leads to us to doing things as embarrassing as inventing a Congolese prime minister and forgetting about it while the falsehood circulates through other language Wikipedias ([1][2][3][4]). Note that there are articles on American municipal officials that are longer than those on 14-year Burkinabé presidents, and pieces on popular Western TV episodes that are more developed than a highly influential political ideology of the 1960s.

Many African WikiProjects have no Featured Articles and at most only a handful of Good Articles to their name:

The same problem exists for some of our Asian areas:

A few countries from Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean also suffer:

Many of these WikiProjects are all but abandoned. WikiProject Africa, which is responsible for managing all content related to a continent home to 1.2 billion people, nominally has 179 members. An appeal to discuss the project's direction in February garnered responses from only three users. Its "Open tasks" sections hasn't been updated in four years. This project and its contemporaries may be tagged "Relevant for Countering systemic bias", but – being reduced to little more than organizational tools – they seem mostly irrelevant for seriously combating gaps in coverage. The last major push to improve Africa content was the 2016 Destubathon, which successfully brought expansions to over 2,000 articles. These additions formed the basis for The 10,000 Challenge, "aiming to reach 10,000 article improvements for Africa long term from a series of regional contests and general independent article contribution." Improvements are still listed once or twice a week, but momentum has noticeably slowed and followup contests were never organized.

Covering all topics duly and comprehensively is key to maintaining the encyclopedia's academic integrity. But it is quite clear that a mere commitment to academic integrity will not energize enough people to fill these gaps. While Wikipedia isn't supposed to be the place to right great wrongs, it is undeniable that the popular appeal of Women in Red and the Art+Feminism edit-a-thons is derived from a sense of establishing social justice. Contributors, particularly our newest female members, are galvanized to create content not because of some lofty goal to bring open knowledge together under one umbrella project in an equally weighted manner across subject matter, but because they feel like they are lifting up a marginalized group onto one of the most popular modern platforms. Maybe it's sacrificing principle for expediency, but perhaps by linking our geographical biases to a greater social cause, more users can be encouraged to correct them.

A key component of that method is that most of the users who "advocate" do it for themselves. That is, women like writing about women. Men like writing about men and Americans, Canadians, Brits, and Australians like writing about America, Canada, Britain, and Australia; that's the most common hypothesis for how Wikipedia ended up with systemic bias in the first place. So, if increased recruitment of women editors is addressing the content gender gap, will getting more African, Asian, and Latin American members alleviate geographical bias? Put simply, yes. Wikipedia is already seeing a rise in articles on Indian, Nigerian, and Zambian topics from editors in those countries. It's a functional strategy, but it does mean that the community must – as it should always – be prepared to offer assistance and guidance to new members, including having the patience to negotiate language barriers and cultural divides.

But it is not enough to simply wait and hope that others will come to pick up the slack. There may be no deadline, but the longer the community waits the longer the gap areas will languish. All editors should try and go a little outside their comfort zone. Like politics? Try the history of labor unions in Burkina Faso's public affairs. Interested in music? Perhaps Congolese rumba will pique your interests. Fancy yourself a geographer? Check out the mountains and glaciers of Central Asia. A little broadening might just be enough to get people to put their feet in the door that opens into a great new realm of possibilities. Let's show the world that we are tackling our deficiencies on all fronts.

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@Chris troutman: "Wikipedia is a platform for self-indulgence, not knowledge". There's more truth to that statement than we would like to admit.
I don't intend to encourage editors to "write with a bias simply to balance out other bias" [emphasis added]. As one can see with the Art + Feminism editathons, many women and other participants participate with an inspiration of advocacy. This doesn't mean their end products are all full of promotionalism and pro-female/anti-male bias. WiR has produced many articles that meet NPOV, even the responsible editors felt they were enacting some form of social justice in the process. As this South African writes in his op-ed, Infiltrating Wikipedia, Black Panther Style, "At the end of the day, it’s partly our fault as Africans. Where we can have a voice, we aren’t taking our opportunity. I don’t mean to say we should flood Wikipedia with biased articles about how amazing and beautiful our country is. In fact, if we remain unbiased and factual, we will see a great deal more fruit." Clearly he's talking about a form of advocacy while still adhering to NPOV. So in summary I'm saying the advocacy mindset can still be used to encourage the creation of content while not further harming Wikipedia with prejudiced material.
Also, I can affirm that reliable sources absolutely do exist. Decolonization resulted in a wealth of material about newly independent states in English. Of course, much of that material was propagandist garbage and/or is currently out of print, but a significant portion of that literature, mostly what was published by university presses or research institutions, remains. I have six such books lying right next to me at this moment. The BBC World Service, Associated Press, and Reuters also regularly cover the affairs of the non-Western World. Jeune Afrique and the Agence France-Presse provide great material for Africa (in French, though). Things are well documented in the larger countries if one is simply willing to look. I've found plenty through Google books. Is it as comprehensive as coverage of Western topics? No, but we can still do a whole lot more with what we have. -Indy beetle (talk) 22:28, 30 April 2018 (UTC)[reply]
Earth's City Lights, 1994-1995
@Jim.henderson: I assume that has much to do with the penetration of the internet overall, or at least population concentration. -Indy beetle (talk) 22:28, 30 April 2018 (UTC)[reply]
Yes. Money makes political power and electric light. Money makes geography and other knowledge. Money makes Internet. Places without people, or people without money, are in the dark.
@Ser Amantio di Nicolao: Well, at least there's two of us. Frankly I haven't got many more ideas. Contests and award incentives, I suppose? I advocated for a restructuring of WikiProject Africa (the "appeal to discuss the project's direction in February" which "garnered responses from only three users") but it fell flat. I'm most certain that a highly organized working group would go far in making improvements, but that requires a bare minimum level of interest that I believe we haven't yet acquired. If you've got anything better I'm all ears. -Indy beetle (talk) 22:28, 30 April 2018 (UTC)[reply]
@Indy beetle: Contests will help, I think, if they're properly presented. I've also mulled over a couple of outreach ideas I'd like to see implemented, though they're currently in the embryonic stage. For one thing, I think we might be able to open discussions with embassies and embassy staff - I'm sure there are people there who would have access to sources and knowledge that many of us wouldn't be able to find. I also think it might be interesting to try and work with immigrant populations to develop editing practices. A lot of the libraries in my county in Virginia, for instance, list on their website the languages their volunteers speak. I'd love to see about developing some kind of editing workshop using that information, targeting local populations with classes on editing provided at the local library or community center. I don't know what kind of fruit it might bear, but it's worth trying.
I also think that bad publicity helps drive editing: Women in Red didn't really take off until the problem of Wikipedia's gender gap became fodder for the mainstream press. That ultimately inspired people to take a hard look at the issue and begin working to correct it. That might end up being the case here, as well.
What about building a library of free sources to work with? I know of a couple that could be useful for Central Asian topics, for instance. Bolivia, too - I think there's a greater dearth of representation of South American topics than people realize. --Ser Amantio di NicolaoChe dicono a Signa?Lo dicono a Signa. 05:26, 2 May 2018 (UTC)[reply]
@Hmlarson: Bullying based on gender is well documented on the internet and and there many anecdotes about it occurring on Wikipedia. I wonder if there's any reliable data on racist behavior or activity that otherwise targets non-native English speakers or persons of certain nationalities on the encyclopedia, and whether that forms part of a larger "culture". -Indy beetle (talk) 22:28, 30 April 2018 (UTC)[reply]
llwyrch@ You're not wrong...though I think the sourcing issue has improved considerably over the past couple of decades. (Years, even - I've found amazing, wonderful online sources in the past year that I'm convinced would have been inaccessible to me in years past.) Talking of outreach...I have some thoughts, actually (see my comments above) that might be worth pursuing. I live just outside of DC, which has the largest Ethiopian community in the US; I'm sure there are numerous community organizations here that would be interested in helping. Shoot me an e-mail sometime, and we can brainstorm. :-)
As for AFD, I take your point, but I think things are slowly moving in a more inclusive direction there. I wouldn't let fear of deletion hold you back - if you think the articles are worth creating, then by all means do so. I'll back you, and I'm sure there are others that will, too. :-) --Ser Amantio di NicolaoChe dicono a Signa?Lo dicono a Signa. 15:34, 3 May 2018 (UTC)[reply]
@Ser Amantio di Nicolao: Agreed. Sourcing has gotten quite a bit better, and online translators have made things much easier. Most countries have at least one online newsite or paper of reasonable quality that covers national topics (Digital Congo or Le Phare for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or for Burkina Faso, for example). Building a library or bibliography of these sources is a great idea and would be of great help to our users, the one for WikiProject Africa is not very useful in its current form. Perhaps we should discuss this further. -Indy beetle (talk) 22:54, 3 May 2018 (UTC)[reply]
@Indy beetle: I'm game. Shall we take it off-wiki, or at least off-comment-thread? --Ser Amantio di NicolaoChe dicono a Signa?Lo dicono a Signa. 02:52, 4 May 2018 (UTC)[reply]
If you're willing, I'd love a ping wherever you land, Ser Amantio di Nicolao; would be very interested in this project. (For my two cents, I would love for it to be on wiki in hopes we may organically gather momentum!) Innisfree987 (talk) 23:14, 4 May 2018 (UTC)[reply]
Thank you, @Ser Amantio di Nicolao:, for your kind offer. However, I moved away from working on Ethiopian topics several years ago, so if I were to return to writing & improving articles, it would take me close to 6 months to ramp up again. I mentioned Ethiopia as an example, not as what I'm working on right now. Although I did get a pleasantly surprised response not too long ago when I encountered two different women from Ethiopia, & proved to each that, yes, I had heard of the town they came from.

Think of the issue with sourcing this way: imagine a Wikipedian living in Kansas who wants to write articles on women artists of the 19th century. Said Wikipedia struggles with what resources they can find online (which is always hit-or-miss; as Indy beetle suggests, we need to create a shared collection of online resources so one Wikipedian isn't searching for resources another is familiar with), at the local public library (which may be out of date -- depressingly likely, if you know the situation with public services in that state), & from what books they can buy (I've found Amazon does not always have a given book, & if they do it may have a price tag well over $100). Then this Wikipedian discovers that there is a rich collection of the materials needed -- at a research library in Massachusetts. Or, even more frustrating but just as likely, in France. The Foundation currently offers no easy way for our imaginary Kansas Wikipedian to access that hypothetical collection. As I write this, it occurs to me that one important task the GLAM people could take on is to hold a series of workshops for Wikipedians explaining how to approach these research libraries & institutions & convince them to provide access. (Fun fact: in order to be able to use the collection at the British Library, one needs a letter of introduction from someone like a professor or a minister. I wonder how many Wikipedians would even be aware that many research libraries have requirements like that. And how many, when they learn of these requirements, might be discouraged because they don't know someone who would vouch for them.) -- llywrch (talk) 23:53, 3 May 2018 (UTC)[reply]

@Llywrch: I hear ya. Even this close to DC there are a lot of things I can't get easily in libraries. (On Ethiopia: I take your point. For myself, all I can say is that the hot dog vendor in front of my old office was Oromo, and I think I blew her away when I asked her to teach me "thank you" in Oromo. It remains one of two words I know in the language. :-) )
In addition to appealing to editors' geographic backgrounds (as a way to attract not only interest but additionally, I would add, expertise), I would like to appeal to the segment of the editoriat that sometimes says all the truly "encyclopedic" topics already have entries and all that's left is to improve them. The enormity of the geographic content gap offers a vertiginous number of opportunities for indisputably encyclopedic new entries. For instance, in trying to read about the recent events in Nicaragua, I was stunned to find how many of the country's basic government agencies and major, long-standing civic groups have no English Wikipedia entry. Not a poor entry: no entry. I am now the creator of a very wanting stub on Nicaragua's social security agency (please, please help me!); the United States' Social Security Administration has had a page since 2003. Even if one is strictly anglophone, many if not most public libraries and certainly every university library will have at least a couple English-language books called Modern History of [Country/Region Underdescribed on English Wikipedia] (pre-modern, I'll have to leave to someone else's expertise). Just getting a basic sketch of the significant bodies of governance in the world's 195 countries would be a huge improvement to the encyclopedia. Beginning entries, even if stubs, on clearly notable topics also allows subject-matter experts who may not be experienced Wikipedia contributors to come along and add details much more easily than if they had to learn how to create a new entry themselves. There is so much here for Wikipedians of a broad array of motivations for participation, language backgrounds and reference access to contribute. Innisfree987 (talk) 23:08, 4 May 2018 (UTC)[reply]
One likely cause of the low participation in editing by women and people from underrepresented parts of the world is that the Wikipedia subculture -- especially the conduct of some experienced editors -- can be intimidating. Not everyone is deterred -- some people have thick skins and enjoy the lively debates on talk pages (I do), even when some of the comments are condescending and arrogant. Most women I know would not enjoy this. They might decide, "Look, I often enough have to deal with jerk behavior by men in my daily life, I don't need to add to it." Or someone from Africa, Asia, or Latin America might decide, "Dealing with arrogant Americans who are ignorant of my part of the world is a stressful challenge, and I don't need more of that in my life." More generally, Wikipedia has a high attrition rate -- new editors who drop out, whose accounts becomes inactive. I should say that in my own experience, some veteran editors have been extremely helpful and supportive. But others, not so much -- they immediately revert an edit or dismiss without response some concern I expressed on a talk page, citing an alphabet-soup of WP acronyms which, if you go to those articles, seem to have little relevance. Shortly after I started editing, an administrator falsely informed me (citing WP:MEDRS) that I should not use sources that are more than 10 years old. When an editor does something like that and you go to his (my guess is that it's usually "his," not "her") user page, you find it festooned with barnstars and ribbons like a general's chest. In most cases that's probably not intended to intimidate the newcomer, but that's what it does.
There might be some simple measures that Wikipedia could take -- in addition to the numerous policies, guidelines, and admonitions to editors not to behave badly that already exist -- to reduce the attrition among newcomers and especially among women, underrepresented minorities, and people from underrepresented geographical regions. For example, whenever an experienced editor (more than 1000 edits) is responding to a newcomer (fewer than 100 edits) a template could come up reminding the experienced editor of the key points of such policies as WP:BITE and WP:BRD-NOT. It might also be possible to tag a new article about a person (or institution, place, etc.) from Asia/Africa/Latin America or about a woman (or women's group, women's rights campaign, etc.) and impose certain restrictions (similar to discretionary sanctions or to the restrictions on BLP-editing). Another possibility would be to empower newcomers to give opinions on the helpfulness or unhelpfulness of individual experienced editors (in the first week after opening my account I didn't even realize how easy it is to thank someone for their edit). This would require special effort, since most newcomers don't feel very empowered.NightHeron (talk) 20:22, 5 May 2018 (UTC)[reply]


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