Wikipedia striving for balance on divisive issues

Wikipedia striving for balance on divisive issues

JERUSALEM — From January’s war in Gaza to Holocaust denial, the world’s largest collaborative encyclopedia has become a battlefield over history. Yet Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales says the online, ever-evolving encyclopedia, which is authored by volunteer contributors around the world, ultimately is able to forge balanced entries even when it comes to the most contentious issues.
“It’s a human process, a slow process,” Wales told JTA during an interview in Jerusalem last week. “Usually people are pretty good about it, and we find that most people are able to understand the idea of neutrality. They will have a few emotional incidents here and there, but it’s a community.
“Of course,” he acknowledged, “if someone keeps coming in and does obnoxious things over and over, then the community can decide to ban them. That happens on a fairly regular basis.”
One of the Internet’s most popular sites, Wikipedia has spurred an online revolution in information gathering. It has transformed the way students — often to the dismay of their instructors — and others track information, and it has become the most dominant online encyclopedia, far exceeding Encyclopaedia Britannica in its voluminous pages of information.
But because any Internet user can edit its content, Wikipedia has drawn criticism for being inaccurate at times and subject to agenda-driven contributors.
About 200 Israelis are active Wikipedians — people who contribute and edit entries related to Israel several times a week.
Israel has the world’s highest per capita amount of Wikipedia users.
Wales, who was in Israel attending the 2009 Israeli Presidential Conference, defended the Wikipedia model, saying that most fallacious elements introduced to Wikipedia entries are quickly removed by others who amend and debunk such elements.
“If you want your writing to survive in Wikipedia, you cannot write a one-sided rant; it will just be removed very quickly,” he said. “If you really want to get your point across, you have to do so in a way that people find acceptable. So that pushes people in the right direction.”
He added, “It’s not perfect, of course.”
Wales pointed to Wikipedia’s treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an example of how Wikipedia provides a public service — by informing about the conflict and why it’s so intractable. Where there is disagreement over facts, Wikipedia notes it.
“This is where people who don’t agree about the underlying issues will still point you to use,” he said. “Does that solve the problem? No. But at least we’ve written about what the problem is.”