Can Wikipedia Be Trusted? - Deepstash
Can Wikipedia Be Trusted?

Can Wikipedia Be Trusted?

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Crowdsourcing has become a household word, with crowdfunded products, businesses, art projects, nonprofits, and even new journalism models. Citizen scientists band together virtually to find new galaxies, count birds, and monitor water quality.

But the granddaddy of crowdsourced information sites is Wikipedia, which—somewhat ironically—can tell you that the Encyclopaedia Britannica, its predecessor and former go-to source for information, published its last print edition in 2012.


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The Popularity Of Wikipedia

Wikipedia’s popularity as an information source with everyone from grade-schoolers to those in their golden years, led Shane Greenstein, a professor of strategy at the Kellogg School, to investigate how faithfully Wikipedia adheres to a “neutral point of view.”

Newer articles, he has found, are less biased than ones crafted earlier in the site’s existence. But how does Wikipedia stack up against encyclopedias? Is the wisdom of the crowd more biased than the wisdom of experts?


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Bias, Tone and Slant

As sources that aspire to provide comprehensive information, Britannica and Wikipedia face similar conflicts over the length, tone, and factual basis of controversial, unverifiable, and subjective content.

Understandably, these conflicts are “pervasive” when it comes to current events and other politically charged topics.


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The Resulting Conflicts

Britannica and Wikipedia address this problem in distinct ways. The encyclopedia uses a small group of experts and editors who engage in a back-and-forth dialogue before settling on what to publish for a given entry.

Wikipedia goes much larger scale, depending on the virtual crowd—tens of millions of people—to generate entry information. And compared to its traditional counterpart, Wikipedia has a dramatically decentralized process for dealing with editing and conflicts. Does this allow more bias to creep into its entries?


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More Eyeballs, Less Bias

Wikipedia’s political articles are more likely to lean “mildly” Democratic—or to slant left—than Britannica’s. The extent of the bias in Wikipedia entries is greater.

Wikipedia articles with more revision in them had less bias and were less likely to lean Democratic. The largest biases and slants arise on Wikipedia articles with fewer contributions.

This is largely consistent with Linus’s Law, a principle applied to software development that claims that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow."


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The Text Is Not Alright

Longer articles were more likely to be biased than shorter ones. And Wikipedia’s articles tend to be longer than Britannica’s—partly for the obvious reason that online content faces none of the financial constraints print media does in regard to length.

The greater availability of space enables Wikipedia’s writers to add material at will. And that means more opportunity to hear from all of the biased points of view.


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Information Context

It is important to remember that Wikipedia positions itself as a jumping-off point rather than a definitive source. Britannica, on the other hand, presented itself as the ultimate authority.

But many people do take Wikipedia as definitive. And that is why it is important to tease out its problems, including bias, without detracting from its “marvelous achievement.”


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