Liberal Bias at Wikipedia?

April 23rd, 2006 4:43 PM

Does Wikipedia, the online community encyclopedia that anyone can edit, have a liberal political bias? Over at PBS's MediaShift blog, Mark Glaser hosts a fascinating debate on the subject between Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Olbermann Watch blogger Robert Cox.

The discussion revolves around Cox's attempts to edit Wikipedia's entry on MSNBC host Keith Olbermann to make it more politically neutral (a stated goal of the site) and to include facts that were left out. Cox contends that his changes were continually discarded by fans of Olbermann who monitor the article, seeking to ensure that it reflects their liberal views, something he believes has happened to Wikipedia articles about partial-birth abortion, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.

After going back and forth in an editing war, Cox was ultimately banned from changing the Olberman entry for 24 hours. Wales claims Cox was not treated unfairly and pointed out that he once again has the ability to edit the page. He next goes on to explain some of the safeguards that Wikipedia places on articles on controversial subjects. Cox, in turn, wonders about how practical the community encyclopedia can be as a reference, especially since Wales and others freely admit that Wikipedia's English membership is "slightly more liberal than the U.S. population on average" given that many people in countries politically further to the left of this one also speak English.

Unresolved in the debate: Can objectivity or neutrality even be possible in a world where political differences can be enormous? Is there more than one standard for objectivity? Can articles that any person is able to edit be reliable?

Unasked questions: If political neutrality is impossible, wouldn't it be better for aggrieved people (for any reason) to start up their own community encyclopedias? How can Wikipedia stop a group of determined individuals who monitor an article with the intent of skewing it to fit their opinions?

Some excerpts:
MARK GLASER: This is a question for both of you. How would you characterize the political leanings of the Wikipedia community — both the existing one and the earlier, smaller community? Is there any data or surveys to back that?

JIMMY WALES: The Wikipedia community is very diverse, from liberal to conservative to libertarian and beyond. If averages mattered, and due to the nature of the wiki software (no voting) they almost certainly don't, I would say that the Wikipedia community is slightly more liberal than the U.S. population on average, because we are global and the international community of English speakers is slightly more liberal than the U.S. population.

There are no data or surveys to back that.

GLASER: So you feel that Wikipedia having a "slightly more liberal" slant than the U.S. is OK? How does it affect the goal of neutral point of view and should you do something to counteract it in some way?

WALES: I do not think it affects the goal at all. The question totally misapprehends the process. The idea that neutrality can only be achieved if we have some exact demographic matchup to United States of America is preposterous, as I am sure you will agree.

ROBERT COX: If there is any data out there I assume Jimmy would know about it so I believe that all these [come from] anecdotal evidence on this question.

They may out there but I do not recall ever seeing an entry that was non-NPOV on the "conservative" side but I have read many entries that are non-NPOV on the "liberal" side.

Wikipedia says this: "Earlier on, we had a systemic bias toward liberal issues. However, as Wikipedia has grown, and become more mainstream, the liberal contingent has declined as a proportion of Wikipedia in general. Perhaps our other biases will be partially neutralised in the same way."

This suggests to me that the Wikipedia community was early on biased "liberal." That they say bias might now me "partially neutralised" suggests that it has not been "fully neutralised." That the proportion has declined means the issue has not gone away. So, I would say that Wikipedia itself sees this as an ongoing issue.

I have had my own direct experience with editors of the Keith Olbermann page which suggests this is the case. I edit a blog called Olbermann Watch. Not that it was ever my goal in life but I am now the leading blog critic of Keith Olbermann and a recognized authority on Keith Olbermann (citation: quoted in Washington Post, New York Observer, Hartford Courant, Online Journalism Review, etc.).

Not only do I know a great deal about Keith Olbermann, I also have a good deal of familiarity with some of the Wikipedia editors who have watch-listed his entry — liberal fans of Keith Olbermann. Some of these fan/editors have declared online that the Keith Olbermann page is their "pet project" and, not surprisingly, the entry reads more like a "fan site" than an encyclopedia entry. Some of these editors have openly sought to use that page to market their own fan sites and forums. Not surprisingly, the Keith Olbermann entry is massively non-NPOV.

From time to time, I have attempted to correction misinformation or edit a section to make it NPOV. Those edits are typically "reverted" within the hour without explanation or discussion. Over the past month, I signed up for an account with my name in the User ID; many of the editors know who I am and are openly hostile to my editing the site. These editors aggressively revert any edits I make to the entry. When I attempt to discuss my recommended edits they ignore me. When I make the edits they criticize me for not discussing them. If I continue to make edits they complain to the "Wikipedia cops." Even after posting a detailed exposition on why the page is massively NPOV they have ignored the substance of my post and instead attacked the messenger.

It's a neat trick — they demand that I propose changes on the discussion page, ignore me, then when I go ahead and make those changes they revert them, all the while complaining to an admin that I should be banned from editing because I won't "discuss" changes. The real issues is that these people WANT the page to be massively non-NPOV and resent any efforts to alter their "pet project." [...]

GLASER: How about the George W. Bush entry? How and why did you decide to lock up the entry? You talk about Wikipedia being very transparent, so explain in detail what has happened with that entry and who decided to change the editing status of it.

WALES: This is a question like "do you still beat your wife?" in the sense that the question contains a false premise. The false premise is that the George W. Bush entry is "locked up." It is not. Any fully registered user of the site can edit the entry right now. Robert Cox can edit the entry right now. If you have a user account which is more than 4 days old, you can edit the entry right now.

The entry is edited all the time, hundreds and hundreds of edits can be seen simply by clicking on "history." The question seems to imply that there is some mysterious and possibly non-transparent process by which some entries get locked from further editing, quite possibly for political reasons. It's a daft question, though, because there is no such process, no articles are locked for political reasons, and you can easily and quickly confirm this for yourself. [...]

GLASER: You said, "The Wikipedia community is slightly more liberal than the U.S. population on average." Is it possible that a "slightly more liberal" community can write from an NPOV? Can anyone write from an NPOV? Doesn't everyone have inherent biases? How does the community as a whole enforce NPOV?

I agree that I too have been amazed by the quality of most Wikipedia articles, and I think Bob would concur in his experience. But then, upon digging deeper, we find errors and bias in some politically sensitive entries. It's easy to say "go fix it!" to any problem I bring up, but the reality is that anyone can revert what I do and it's a more complicated problem than that…The community rules in an ad hoc manner which newbies have no power to deal with.

WALES: Of course, any sincere person can write in a solidly neutral manner, and this is enhanced when one has good faith assistance and help from others who may not agree in every respect. There is no magic here, of course. Neutrality is a goal, and NPOV is a process.

As I often say, I am not the next Aristotle. I have discovered no new solutions to the age old problems of good solid expository writing. But I think we are onto a technique that does a great job.

It is somewhat silly and U.S.-centric in a rather frightening way to imagine that "slightly more liberal than the U.S. population on average" is an impediment to neutrality. Is there an inherent assumption that somehow, the U.S. popluation on average is exactly the right balance of people to do intellectual work?

Read the whole thing. Full disclosure: Bob Cox is a friend of mine.

UPDATE 04-28 14:28. The AP has a report up on how Wikipedia can be used for political tricksterism.