How neutral is Wikipedia?

The first Wikipedia went online on 15 January 2001. Today, Wikipedia is available in 314 languages and is one of the most used websites in the world. In April 2022 alone, recorded around 5.1 billion visitors (1). Worldwide, there are around 56.6 million articles online. Today, there are hardly any internet users who do not know Wikipedia or do not use it occasionally. Anyone who needs information quickly in their everyday life will find it on Wikipedia. Anyone who wants to find out about historical events will find information on Wikipedia. If you search for a person on Google, you will find information from Wikipedia in the search results on the right-hand side. So what’s the problem?

The online encyclopaedia became so successful because of its wealth of contributions, which Wikipedia owes to its open-source concept. Any interested person can create an account and write or modify content as an author. Authors can also rate each other and receive awards for well-researched articles. Furthermore, it is possible for all visitors to further use the knowledge of the online encyclopaedia. Because of these factors, Wikipedia has managed to become the #1 online encyclopaedia. With the vision:

,,Imagine a world where all of humanity’s knowledge is freely available to all. That is our goal. » – Jimmy Wales (Founder Wikipedia)

The power of authors

The fact that anyone can write and change Wikipedia articles has advantages and disadvantages. It may be that not everything written on Wikipedia is also true. To combat digital vandalism, Wikipedia has introduced a hierarchy among authors. Authors who have been registered on Wikipedia for a longer period of time and/or are active more often are placed higher up in the hierarchy. They have more rights and can intervene in the work of subordinate authors. In this way, fake news are successfully prevented on Wikipedia. But where is the boundary between fake news and subjective opinion? To what extent is it ensured that certain articles do not simply reflect the political opinion of higher-ranked authors? These are questions to which Wikipedia has not yet provided convincing answers. Those who are able to write and publish many articles (which at the same time somehow match which the worldview of the persons of the higher hierarchical levels) rise in the hierarchy. The following diagram shows the steep hierarchy of Wikipedia:

Image source: (3)

In particular, the transition from the hierarchy level « Sichter » to the hierarchy level of an (also anonymous (!)) « Administratoren » is to be criticised. These have extensive rights, for example, administrators may delete articles or even block users. To become an administrator, one must be elected by a two-thirds majority of the voting authors. All authors who have made more than 200 edits to articles (which are approved) are eligible to vote (2). According to which criteria will my editing of a Wikipedia article be approved by an administrator?

Focus on politics

In this context, reports also became public that numerous German politicians actively embellished their Wikipedia articles before the 2021 federal elections (4). This led to so-called « edit wars » between politicians and opponents until one side gave up for resource reasons or a higher-ranking administrator intervened. This mechanism could therefore tempt politicians to pay people to actively participate as authors in these « edit wars » in order to positively influence the content of the corresponding Wikipedia page. 

Focus on gender issues

Another problematic aspect is the lack of diversity in Wikipedia. According to a 2018 survey, around 90% of Wikipedia authors are male (5). This glaring inequality means that Wikipedia is clearly male-dominated in terms of content and, due to its mechanisms, will unfortunately remain so for the foreseeable future. For example, women account for only 17% of the biographies (5). Or the list of « female science fiction authors » was initially blocked for months because administrators considered it « unnecessary ». At the same time, lists such as « List of ships named Amazone » were online because they were not considered « unnecessary » by the administrators (6). This is problematic because it is known from gender studies how important female role models are for young women (7). This is where Wikipedia misses out on its social responsibility.

More information about the gender gap on Wikipedia:

Finally, it can be concluded that Wikipedia, despite its clear market leadership position, has much room for improvement regarding neutrality. Unless Wikipedia itself undergoes thorough reforms, it is the responsibility of parents and schools to comprehensively educate the future voting population about Wikipedia. With the necessary awareness of the background and major shortcomings of Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia can nevertheless continue to be a helpful tool in everyday life.

Image source: (8)