In an ideal world, Wikipedia would be bias-free. Instead, we live in this world.
Bias is a systematic deviation from objectivity, fairness, or impartiality, often resulting from personal opinions, beliefs, or preferences. Bias tends to favor one perspective, group, or outcome over others. This can lead to a distortion of the information found on Wikipedia. Bias can manifest in various contexts, such as an individual's thought process, media coverage, research, or data collection–all of which can eventually find their way to a Wikipedia article.
Wikipedia editors are (at least today) human, and as such, they may bring various biases to the editing process. While Wikipedia has policies in place to intended to ensure neutrality and objectivity, biases still emerge.
Some common types of biases that may affect Wikipedia articles include:
Editors may favor information confirming their preexisting beliefs or ideas, leading them to give more weight to sources supporting their views and ignore or downplay conflicting evidence.
Wikipedia editors may preferentially select sources or topics that interest them or that they find more familiar, potentially leading to an overrepresentation of certain subjects or viewpoints.
Editors from different cultural backgrounds may have varying perspectives on what is important or notable information, potentially resulting in an imbalance in the representation of different cultures, regions, and traditions.
Negativity bias is seen when people tend to give more weight, attention, or importance to negative experiences, emotions, or information over positive ones. This cognitive bias leads individuals to focus more on negative aspects, such as failures, threats, or criticism, even when positive experiences or information may be equally or more prevalent.
According to BigThink, "Headlines denoting anger have increased 104% since the year 2000. Headlines featuring fear (+150%), disgust (29%), and sadness (+54%) have also soared."
Wikipedia sources are often news sources. If news sources are becoming more negative, it could be that Wikipedia itself is evolving in that direction as well, at least for some topics.
Wikipedia has a well-documented gender imbalance among its editors, with a higher proportion of male editors than female editors. This can lead to an underrepresentation of women's perspectives and skewed coverage of topics related to women's issues, history, and achievements. For example, only about 18% of biographies on Wikipedia are about women. The reasons for gender bias are not just with editors; it has to do with the media itself. Wikipedia guidelines state that a person must have significant coverage, but women tend to attract less coverage than men, even today. The lack of coverage can make a seemingly notable woman ineligible for a Wikipedia article.
Editors with strong political beliefs may be inclined to emphasize information that supports their political views or to downplay opposing viewpoints, potentially leading to biased coverage of political issues or figures. Political bias is a constant challenge for Wikipedia editors. For example, Donald Trumps Wikipedia page is "protected". Only editors who have made more than 500 edits on Wikipedia can edit his article. This protection was put in place due to vandalism. By limiting who can edit an article, Wikipedia hopes to stem the tide of political bias to some degree.
Editors may be more likely to include readily available or easy-to-find information, which can result in overrepresenting certain types of sources or excluding less accessible but potentially relevant information. An example of this might be out-of-print books. If content cannot be easily found online, it is seldom added and referenced on Wikipedia.
Recency bias leads people to give more importance, significance, or weight to recent events or experiences over those that occurred in the past. For example, events in the past that were not covered as thoroughly as they may be today could lead to the underrepresentation of older content on Wikipedia.
Recency bias can affect decision-making, memory, and perception, as individuals may overemphasize the relevance of recent information or experiences while underestimating or overlooking older, yet still valuable, information. This affects the way people contribute to Wikipedia.
Wikipedia is available in 331 languages as of March 2023. Most Wikipedia editors are proficient in English, which can lead to an overreliance on English-language sources and an under-representation of non-English perspectives. In fact, 76% of Wikipedia editors speak English.
Wikipedia's response to bias
Wikipedia is aware of these potential biases and has policies in place to mitigate them, such as the Neutral Point of View (NPOV) policy and the requirement to provide reliable sources. However, it is essential for editors and readers alike to be aware of these potential biases and to work together to address them to ensure the accuracy and neutrality of Wikipedia's content.
About the author
Kent Campbell is the chief strategist for Reputation X, an award-winning reputation management agency based in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. Kent has over 15 years of experience with Wikipedia editing, review management, and reputation strategy. Kent has helped celebrities, leaders, executives, and marketing professionals improve the way they are seen online. Kent writes about reputation, SEO, Wikipedia, and PR-related topics, and is an expert witness for reputation-related legal matters. You can find Kent's biography here.