Wikipedia Thinks it is Neutral. But is it, Really?

Wikipedia likes to think that it is a neutral source of information, and that its only function is to provide information about the world as it exists to whoever needs that information. It even has extensive policies like Verifiability and NPOV (Neutral Point of View) to ensure neutrality.

But is it really that neutral?

While Wikipedia has taken active steps to be neutral, I believe that Wikipedia’s neutrality is severely hampered by its most controversial policy, the Notability policy. On Wikipedia, for a subject to have an article, it must fulfil the Notability Criteria. Even if an article is otherwise well-written and informative, and fulfils the Verifiability and NPOV criteria, it will still be deleted if it does not establish Notability of the subject, as per the policy. To establish Notability, a subject must have been featured in-depth multiple times in sources considered to be reliable, which for most subjects would mean established media sources.

The Notability criteria thus serves to exclude and further marginalize voices that are ignored by the media establishment. Writers published by major publishers and given a publicity blitz in the media are notable; self-published writers are usually not. Musicians signed to major labels and given exposure on established music magazines as a result are notable; independent musicians who are featured only in smaller publications are usually not. Organizations serving mainstream interests and therefore receiving large amounts of donor funding and media interests are often notable; smaller organizations serving women and minorities are usually not. Finally, authors and commentators echoing mainstream, establishment viewpoints and therefore popular with establishment media can become notable through their repeated reference in mainstream media, while those espousing a different viewpoint and hence ignored by mainstream media essentially cannot become notable.

This means Wikipedia really is not neutral in two important ways. Firstly, a neutral point of view can only be achieved by including all important points of view. If the information and viewpoints it contains is biased to those only included in mainstream media, it can hardly be called neutral. In fact, this is analogous to ‘publication bias’ in research. No wonder universities don’t generally consider Wikipedia a reliable reference. Moreover, Wikipedia also has lists of Notable Xs and Notable Ys. Such lists are in effect a biased, distorted representation of the world because inclusion is already based on a biased criteria, and those relying on these lists to gain a complete view of a subject will not be getting all important points of view. Secondly, Wikipedia is not just any web-based encyclopedia, but the biggest and most important one. Therefore, it does not just reflect back the outside world’s current bias, but rather amplifies it. Wikipedia’s Notability Criteria may not be responsible for creating existing structural inequality, but it is definitely complicit in upholding this injustice.

From an intersectional feminist point of view, this is especially problematic. While Wikipedia’s Notability criteria does not directly discriminate based on gender or minority characteristics, its application nevertheless represents a clear case of indirect discrimination. Women and minorities are clearly less likely to be able to fulfil the Notability criteria. Therefore, it is no accident that Wikipedia’s content has a substantial white, cis-male bias. Furthermore, there really is an inevitable level of subjectivity in applying the Notability criteria, as evidence by looking at ‘Articles for Deletion’ (AfD) discussions. There has been a feeling among many feminist Wikipedians that the criteria are more strictly applied to women and minorities. Furthermore, not too long ago quite a number of Wikipedians thought that it would be okay to disrespect Chelsea Manning’s gender identity. Would you trust these people to be good gatekeepers, who would adequately include female and minority points of view? I personally wouldn’t. Indirect discrimination is a way to look neutral while in effect perpetuating discriminatory practices. It is not true neutrality.

For all the aforementioned reasons, we believe that Wikipedia’s neutrality can be vastly improved if the Notability criteria is abolished. This is also very doable and it wouldn’t affect the quality of the encyclopedia at all. While opponents of reform keep making straw-man arguments like how their dog will now have an entry on Wikipedia too (kind of reminds me of how people say that, with marriage equality, a man will soon be able to marry his dog), we need to persist with raising awareness of this important issue. The Cultural Contribution criteria and various other policies that we have designed clearly solve the problems our opponents keep mentioning, and they should be introduced into the conversation whenever needed. While it appears that our opponents will resort to straw-man arguments to defend their increasingly indefensible status quo, we need to keep working hard to let more people know that we have a viable, a much fairer, alternative.

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