In a 24-hours news cycle that permeates and permutates with social media, having access to the facts is vital. Fighting “fake news,” and, equally importantly, fighting allegations of being “fake news,” is only possible with high-quality, objective research that is made accessible to the masses. Accessibility is absolutely crucial, which is why Wikipedia—the fifth most popular site on the web, with 1.4 billion unique devices visiting it in a month— is the front to which it’s vital researchers bring the resistance to post-truth politics.
Wikipedia So White (And Male)
The unavoidable truth is that Wikipedia is extremely biased against populations that are most at-risk in such an anti-fact paradigm. Wikipedia self-reported that, in November 2014, only 15 percent of biographical entries on English Wikipedia were about women. Today, that number has improved, but women still only represent 17.67 percent of all biographies.
Getting onto Wikipedia is still only half the battle—women’s stories are still systematically erased. Marie Curie originally wasn’t deemed notable enough to garner her own page, and was mentioned only on her husband’s biography. American inventor Margaret E. Knight, contemporary to Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, was given a biography of only 500 words, compared to Edison’s 8,500. Just as often, women’s stories are erased by making them more difficult to access. In 2013, many women were erased from the “American Novelists” Wikipedia category and relegated to “American Women Novelists,” while no such gendered category existed for American Men Novelists.
People of color don’t fare any better. Maira Liriano of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture argues, “There is a gap that exists when it comes to people of color on Wikipedia, both as subjects of articles and as contributors,” an omission which Liriano says makes it seem like black people and black culture aren’t important. According to Liriano,
Wikipedia is the go-to place for information, especially for young people who were born in the digital age. It’s what they seek out. So even if they do a Google search and there is information about somebody or something online, they look for Wikipedia. The existence of an entry on Wikipedia gives it weight. It’s kind of like ‘Oh, it’s on Wikipedia? Then it’s important.’
In April 2015, HuffPost reported, “‘Notability’ is a troubling problem for those fighting for more content about women and minorities”:
Not everyone gets a Wikipedia page, after all. Editors have to prove the subject’s worth — maybe she’s had national news articles written about her, or perhaps his art is held in a museum’s collection. But there’s simply less documentation on many accomplished women and minorities throughout history — they were often ignored, after all, or forced to make their contributions as someone else’s assistant. That makes demonstrating why they deserve a mention on the Internet’s ‘sum of all human knowledge’ more difficult.
These gatekeepers of “knowledge,” those who decide what is “notable” or worth knowing— both on Wikipedia and in journalism, politics, and the academy more generally— has historically been cis white men. A 2011 survey by Wikimedia found that 91 percent of Wikipedia’s editors are male, and “are disproportionately from countries in the Global North,” though the racial or ethnic demographics of editors were not studied. Not only does this result in an imbalance in the content on Wikipedia, but it also serves to push minority communities out of the editing space, allowing the racial and gender imbalance to flourish. Women editors have cited criticism based on gender stereotypes and a “fighty culture” as possible barriers to encouraging more women to edit Wikipedia, while others say the overall atmosphere in editing is misogynistic. In 2011, Sue Gardner, then-executive director of Wikimedia, noted that editors found that rape scenes in movies were described on Wikipedia as “sex scenes,” despite editors who tried to change the language and were overruled on the basis of “neutrality.”
As Katherine Maher, executive director of Wikipedia’s parent organization, the Wikimedia Foundation, wrote in October 2018,
To fix Wikipedia’s gender imbalance, we need our contributors and editors to pay more attention to the accomplishments of women. This is true across all under-represented groups: people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, indigenous communities. Although we don’t believe that only women editors should write pages about other women, or writers of color about people of color, we do think that a broader base of contributors and editors — one that included more women and people of color, among others — would naturally help broaden our content.
Knowledge v Fascism
A broad content, and thus broad representation of minority people and cultures, is vital in the fight against rising fascism in America and globally. The simple truth is that knowledge is power, and whoever controls knowledge has the power—thus President Trump’s ongoing attacks of the news media and incitements to violence against them in order to control his own narrative. We cannot let fascists have the power to control or erase the stories of those who aren’t cis white men, for that knowledge erasure has long-term impacts.
In 1933, Nazis raided the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, and “more than 20,000 books were taken from shelves and burned days later in the streets by Nazi youth groups.” Destroying “medical records, which contained detailed notes about the nuances of the complicated procedures, alongside untold volumes of thoughts, stories, and studies on LGBTQ people” allowed the Third Reich to persecute the LGBTQ community, and allows the current presidential administration to do the same.
The Internet as a tool allows us to preserve knowledge better than ever before, so long as people who want to make knowledge accessible are in control. Unfortunately, we can’t trust our government to preserve truth, as the administration takes notes from Nazi Germany and scrubs federal websites of information on climate change, women’s health, and protection against sex discrimination, including on the basis of gender identity. We must take matters into our own hands, and actively work to preserve the histories of people and cultures that continue to be othered by heteronormative patriarchal white supremacy.
A Challenge to Oppo Researchers
Who better to find difficult-to-find information for stories previously untold (or undertold, as the case may be) than oppo researchers? Who better to objectively find and report facts than people who do so as their day job? In this lull between election cycles, I challenge my fellow oppo researchers to use their skills where need is greatest: bringing facts about women and people of color to the public via Wikipedia.
Wikipedia has a series of guides for beginners to get you started on the technical side of things, so all that’s left is finding your research subjects. An easy way to contribute to dismantling Wikipedia’s gender and racial imbalances is via an edit-a-thon, which Art + Feminism Director McKensie Mack describes as “a mix between a pizza party and finals period in the library.” Edit-a-thons are happening all the time, all over the world, so there’s certain to be one on a topic near and dear to you.
Feeling inspired but can’t wait for an edit-a-thon? Explore the database of requested articles, or topic-specific resources from previous edit-a-thons with ideas for Wikipedia articles that need creation or improvement:
- Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture Black Lives Matter Edit-a-thon
- Wikimedia Foundation AfroCrowd Initiative
- Art + Feminism University of San Francisco Edit-a-thon
- University of North Carolina at Charlotte Women in the Arts and Humanities Edit-a-thon
- WikiProject Women in Red
- Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center Wikipedia APA Edit-a-thon
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill American Indians in NC Edit-a-thon
- San Francisco Public Library LGBTQIA Edit-a-thon