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Wikipedia: Democracy at your fingertips?

Twenty years on is the platform democratic or elitist? Keystone / Sascha Steinbach

Wikipedia celebrates its 20th anniversary amid doubts whether it has helped spread democracy worldwide.  

This content was published on January 15, 2021 - 09:00

The website’s mission was to provide free access to knowledge for everyone, everywhere. This was a radical departure from previous encyclopaedias, which were more elitist endeavours. Wikipedia was a promise of free availability of information and limitless exchange across borders. Its founders believed that it was a matter of time before freedom would also spread. 

Twenty years down the line, its founding statement remains to be validated. The question of whether free access to knowledge promotes democracy today seems far from resolved.  

In its 20 years of existence Wikipedia has become a model of a collective, cross-linguistic, non-commercial, pluralistic project – and the only one of its size to date. It has indisputably democratised knowledge but in hindsight we can also observe that democratic freedoms did not trickle down as much as its founders had hoped.  

Wikipedia and Switzerland 

The case of Switzerland highlights Wikipedia’s strength in connecting entire language areas. The German, French and Italian versions are among the platform’s top ten by number of articles (German – 2.52 million, French – 2.29 million, Italian – 1.67 million). Some 3,700 articles are available to the 50,000 or so speakers of Romansh, Switzerland’s fourth national language. 

The Swiss thus have access to content that they would not have been able to produce on their own. 

Specific Swiss contributions do exist, however. The question of diversity on the platform has led to the Women for Wikipedia project in Switzerland, supported by the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, SWI swissinfo.ch’s parent company. The coordinated action aims to include more biographies about women on the platform, since equality begins with visibility, it says. Given the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage in Switzerland on February 7, this is topical. Wikipedia is therefore showing that even a democracy can always be more democratic. 

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‘Exaggerated hopes’ 

“People had exaggerated hopes and believed that technological progress would shift political power downwards more or less automatically,” according to Sarah Genner, a media expert who researches digitalisation. 

Genner, who previously taught at Zurich University of Applied Sciences, is convinced that there are many misunderstandings in the debate about digital democracy.  

“With the internet, publishing tools have been democratised. But it turns out that this doesn’t necessarily make the political debate more democratic and participatory,” she said. 

She adds that effects of democratisation are difficult to verify. 

Sarah Genner researches digitization and its social impact from Zurich. Sarah Genner

Levels of education 

In certain circumstances, the internet has certainly provided a boost. The digital mobilisation that took place during the Arab Spring (2010-2012), for example, was a key factor behind the upheavals in the Middle East. Although there was no broad wave of democratisation, the political balance of power was changed for years to come. 

It is in this area of the world that Wikipedia’s challenge becomes apparent. Although there are an estimated 313 million people with Arabic as their first language, plus another 424 million who speak it as a second or third language, the Arabic-language versions of Wikipedia combined have fewer than 2.5 million articles – about the same as the German-language version, which is aimed at three to four times fewer people.

What is Wikipedia? 

Wikipedia is a multilingual open-collaborative online encyclopaedia created and maintained by a community of volunteer editors using a wiki-based editing system.  

Featuring no advertisements, it is hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation, an American non-profit organisation funded primarily through donations. 

Wikipedia was launched on January 15, 2001, by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. Sanger coined its name as a portmanteau of “wiki” (a Hawaiian word meaning quick) and “encyclopedia”. It was initially an English-language encyclopaedia, but versions in other languages were quickly developed.  

With 6.2 million articles, the English Wikipedia is the largest of the more than 300 Wikipedia encyclopaedias. Overall, Wikipedia comprises more than 55 million articles, attracting 1.7 billion unique visitors per month. 

(Source: Wikipedia) 

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The platform is also a reflection of the level of education and access to the Web. Genner identifies a problem here that applies to the internet in general and to Wikipedia in particular: the accumulation of knowledge often happens in places that have already had a head start. The knowledge gap widens, and so does inequality.  

Though Genner thinks Wikipedia is perhaps the most democratic large-scale online project, it leaves out a large part of humanity. “Eighty percent of Wikipedia was written by 1% of its users, who are mostly educated white men”, she said.  

Censorship as a yardstick 

One way to measure Wikipedia’s democratic political influence is to examine the platform’s censorship in non-democratic countries. 

“Internet censorship correlates with authoritarian regimes,” Genner said. The uncontrolled dissemination of information that is potentially harmful in the eyes of dictatorial regimes carries the risk of incitement and sedition. That’s why anti-democratic regimes want to stop any contestation by blocking certain content from the internet, including Wikipedia. 

Indeed, blocking internet access has proven to be a popular tool during demonstrations or general turmoil. Information spreads quickly via social media. When in doubt, access is cut off. 

With Wikipedia, things are different. It’s not speed that characterises the encyclopaedia but truth and its interpretations – or even the sheer existence of a fact: what is not on Wikipedia does not exist. Conversely, this also means that what should not exist in the eyes of dictatorial regimes must disappear from Wikipedia. 

Thus, there are examples of censorship which have been directed specifically at Wikipedia. While in some European countries individual articles are targeted, elsewhere it is entire sections of the platform. For example, Iran – which is fighting Kurdish separatism at home – has in the past blocked access to the Kurdish-language Wikipedia. Turkey blocked all of Wikipedia for two-and-a-half years following a report that addressed alleged Turkish support for terrorist organisations in Syria. The block was lifted in early 2020 following a ruling by the constitutional court. In China Wikipedia has been completely censored since April 2019. 

Internally undemocratic? 

Recently the platform has also come under criticism itself. In terms of content, critics say Wikipedia is now dominated by exclusive, elitist male groups and diversity is under-developed (although this can vary significantly by language).  

The tech magazine Wired wrote in an article that Wikipedia was at a crossroads for this reason. “Changes proposed by the Wikimedia Foundation to diversify its community of editors raise existential questions,” Noam Cohen wrote in the magazine. 

More acute, however, seems to be the problem of the decreasing number of contributors: fewer and fewer people are willing to write or update articles on a voluntary basis. This leads to articles becoming outdated or being updated only slowly. 

Whether the end really is nigh remains to be seen – Wikipedia’s demise has been predicted often enough. After 20 years of existence the initial enthusiasm might have died down, but the structures within the platform have been repeatedly adapted. 

Despite all the criticism, compared with platforms with a similarly large reach, Wikipedia today has a mostly respectable image. The lengthy production process and the fact that the content is checked by several people are ultimately an expression of a democratic self-image. This compares for example, with social media, whose influence on politics has caused growing unease in recent years. 

This puts Wikipedia in a problematic position: the site has long overtaken the previous encyclopaedic offerings, which are professionally produced and charge a fee. Should the platform lose relevance – because, for example, the number of contributors continues to dwindle or the constant funding problems intensify – the competent dissemination of knowledge could face major problems. 

The question would then arise of what would fill the gap left by Wikipedia? Google, Apple, Facebook or Amazon? Candidates, yes. Heroes of democracy? Less so. 

(Translated from German by Thomas Stephens) 

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